Thursday, April 21, 2011

Keeping Pesach Jewish

I’m not sure what to make of this. Christians are increasingly celebrating Pesach. That’s right. You read that correctly.

No less a person than the leader of the free world, a Christian, now has an annual Pesach Seder in the White House on the first night of Pesach. According to an article in Ha'aretz, he even used the Haggadah published by Maxwell House – which contains the full unmodified traditional text.

Although the food was not certified as Kosher L’Pesach and was probably not even Kosher, one cannot overlook the fact that the President of the United States felt the holiday of Pesach important enough to block out all else on his busy schedule and attend - with his family - the Seder on the first night of Pesach itself.

True - it is not much more than a symbolic gesture. But it is nonetheless a significant tribute to a portion of the electorate that comprises less than 2% of the population. Many will say he was pandering. I don’t see it that way. I really think he means it when he actually attends and participates at a Seder at this level. This goes beyond pandering and I think shows respect for Jewish tradition.

There has been an increase in both the awareness and participation among a great many of our fellow citizens who are Christian. An article I read recently tries to explain the phenomenon in part on the increase of intermarriage.

It seems that intermarried couples want to somehow retain the Jewish part of their identities and ironically increase their Jewish observances. Sometimes it is the Christian partner that pushes the Jewish spouse to do more. In fact a ‘Haggadah’ published recently by journalist and media personality Cokie Roberts, a Roman Catholic, and her husband Steven, a Jew, tells exactly that story. She is the one who researched Judaism and insisted they incorporate more of it – like a Pesach Seder - into their marriage!

But it isn’t only intermarriage. There seems to be a genuine fascination these days with all things Jewish. Many Christians seem to be having their own Seder on Pesach.

This is both flattering and troubling. On the one hand imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. How far we have come since the pre-Holocaust days where subtle forms of anti Semitic discrimination of Jews were commonplace in the upper echelons of society and in top universities. Harvard had quotas for the number of Jews they would allow.

But now having a Jewish President at Harvard is as ‘American’ as apple pie and Chevrolet! (Well… maybe now we should substitute Toyota for Chevrolet.) In short the embrace of the most Jewish of holidays by our Christian neighbors has turned anti Semitism on its head. This and many other such indicators – and there are many – make it almost a status symbol to be a Jew these days.

On the other hand it offends me that Pesach is treated by some Christians as a religious holiday of their own. Once Jesus enters the picture, the flattery ends. Instead of honoring their Jewish neighbors they end up insulting us, even if it is unintentional. And it is unintentional as Father Frank Pavone writes in an article in the Washington Post.

The fact that they realize this and do it anyway is wrong in my view. I do not accuse Father Pavone of anti Semitism. I think that quite the opposite is the case. Nor am I surprised by his fervent religious beliefs. He is after all a Catholic priest. But to turn Pesach into something Christian is insulting nonetheless.

I applaud his attitude of brotherhood and friendship. And I appreciate his sensitivity. From the Washington Post article:

First of all, I love my Jewish brothers and sisters, and cannot find words adequate to express my respect for them. If I, or any Christian, were ever a cause of insult or hurt to them collectively or individually, we should apologize and make reparation as quickly as possible.

But he is in my view very wrong in pushing Pesach among his own in Christian terms. It is an outrage to change the clear message of Pesach – rich with symbolism about about freedom from slavery in Egypt and thanksgiving to God into a message about Jesus using the very same symbols as references to him!

This goes beyond mere flattery. It is one thing when a prominent person like the President shows respect by having a Seder and using an actual Hagadah. It is quite another when the Seder becomes hijacked by a Catholic priest and put into a Christian context. Despite Father Pavone’s claims to the contrary - this is not about respecting Christianity’s Jewish roots. It is the opposite!

Like many other things in life the current public fascination with things Jewish is neither all good nor all bad. That things Jewish have become so ‘popular’ has many pluses even when the things emulated are not exact. As in the example of the President’s non Kosher L’Peasch - Peasch Seder. The more popular things Jewish become, the more attractive it becomes for Jews to be Jewish. Where many Jews in the past felt they had to hide their Judaism many now take pride in it.

But this new fascination with Judaism is an ironic double edged sword. That intermarriage is in part a cause of it is a serious drawback. The gain is outweighed by the loss. Intermarriage is forbidden by the Torah. The progeny of about 50% of intermarried couples (when the woman is the non Jewish spouse) are not even Jewish. And when Catholic priests start celebrating Pesach in the name of their god – that pretty much takes the cake! It is in fact the height of intolerance no matter how they slice it – intentional or not!