Friday, March 26, 2010

Matzah and the "N-word"

The Passover seder is post-modern avant garde performance art. We not only tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but each of is required to regard ourselves as if we went out of Egypt. So the performance is by us, for us, and about us. All lines between the subject of the story, the performers, and the audience are erased. The whole purpose of the story is to cause people to ask questions and engage with the story, not merely to entertain and amuse. And we have innovative and unconventional props used in innovative and unconventional ways. "You wanna know how bitter slavery was? Eat this!"

The central object of the seder is matzah. And the symbolism of matzah makes an odd transition during the seder, and one that, in a strange way, reminds me of a changing symbol of oppression for American blacks: the word "nigger".

At the beginning of the seder, after Yachatz (the breaking of the middle matzah), we point to the matzah and say "ha lachma anya - this is the bread of affliction or poverty." This is the symbolism of Matzah at the beginning of the seder.

But at the end of the Maggid (or storytelling) section, the matzah symbolism takes a turn. We say "This is the bread that our ancestors ate when they left Egypt in haste." It is now the bread of freedom, the bread we ate when we left Egypt. The symbolism of the matzah changed from oppression to freedom during the seder itself.

Why? The answer, I think, lies in what came between these two mentions of matzah: freedom.
One was before Maggid and the other after. And once we complete the Maggid section, we are free. Only a free people can change the meanings of their symbols—the signified of their signifiers—especially symbols of oppression. But we do.

Perhaps the closest analog is the use of the word "nigger" in American life. This was the worst term of oppression for American blacks during much of the 19th and 20th century. But towards the end of the 20th century, a strange thing happened. Some American blacks staring calling each other "nigger" in a lighthearted or joking or casual way. When I first heard this, I was startled and surprised. And that was exactly the point. They were reclaiming this word from their racist oppressors, in effect saying "I am free. I own this word, and I can use it anyway I want. I am not afraid of it, and you cannot use it to oppress me."

Yup. That sort of in-your-face up-yours attitude towards oppression is exactly what Passover is about.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Innovative Passover Seder Ideas

Do you have any innovative Passover seder ideas? If you have tried something interesting, please share it here.

Passover is a great holiday. But unfortunately too many people turn this into a boring ritual by simply take turns reading paragraphs in the haggadah. Fortunately, in recent years, numerous new haggadot have been published with all sorts of interesting commentary and ideas. Also, many books have been published on how to have interesting and meaningful seders. Hopefully, the era of the boring seder is drawing to a close.

Here are a few things that we have done in recent years.

1. Notice. I realized that one important part of having an interesting seder is to have it be more participatory, and this requires that people come to the seder with that expectation and perhaps with a little preparation. To help do this, I sent e-mails to the guests ahead of time explaining a little bit about the seder and asking them to bring something interesting to do or read or share. Many Jews who have been doing seders for years have only the most rudimentary understanding of the holiday and the seder. In some years, I assigned parts of the seder to different guests, and in other years I have left it more open-ended: come with something. And over the years, the guests have come with all sorts of interesting things (and some less interesting things).

2. Questions. I usually start the seder by explaining that in our house, we have a strict seder rule: no interesting questions are permitted. Anyone who violates this rule and asks an interesting question will be punished and have a candied nut (or raisin, or passover candy, or whatever other goody you have) thrown at them. This sets a fun tone for the evening, and usually produces some giggles. (And some good questions.)

3. Munchies. Most of the food in the first part of the seder comes right at the end: matzah, maror, Hillel sandwich. But the blessing over the karpas comes right at the beginning. At that point, it is open season on veggies. There's no need to be "symbolic" and limit yourself to a tiny bit of parsley. Eat! Prepare some veggie platters with (appropriate Pesach) dips and bring them out once you say the karpas blessing. Guests can eat carrots and celery and jicama and bell peppers and anything else covered by the blessing during the rest of the first part of the seder. This keeps people interested and comfortable.

4. Tell the story wrong. I would briefly tell the story of the exodus from Egypt during the maggid section, but first tell the kids that I was not too sure of all the details. Then I would tell the story with some clear errors. (E.g., "Abraham's mother put him in a basket.") They kids would yell "NO!!!" and correct me, and I would then act frustrated and throw a candied nut at them. This works great for smaller kids. Teenagers are less impressed.

5. Have the kids tell the story. My co-blogger Steve had a great idea that we implemented last year: let the kids the story. (The kids have to be old enough.) I explained that I was very frustrated with all my errors in telling the story in previous years and them correcting me all the time. So now they needed to tell the story. I gave them a short outline of the story, and the kids went into the other room to prepare a "play" about the exodus. The adults had 10 minutes of grown up talk, and the kids came back and put on their play. They had props, heavy melodrama, and it was really cute.

6. Props. Plastic frogs, pharaoh masks, etc. The best frogs are the ones with the bulgy eyes.

7. Serious discussion topics. Passover is about some really serious topics. Freedom can be understood politically and psychologically. There's a lot of serious ideas here, and plenty to talk about. Google around - it's amazing what is out there. The extent of this discussion depends on how many children are present and who the adults are. But I think there should be room for at least some serious adult discussion. Judaism is often presented as a religion for children, and I think it is good for children to see adults engaged in a serious adult religious discussion, even if they cannot follow all the details.

8. Good wine. One suggestion is to progress through the evening. Start with a light wine like a moscato, then try a chardonnay or a light red wine. Conclude with a heavier red wine and then a dessert wine. Or have the more serious wines before dinner, and end with something like the mosato or a port.

9. Performance art. The seder is essentially performance art. We not only tell the story, but we experience it. (They ate matzah. Here, have some. You wanna know how bitter slavery was? Eat this.) The goal of the seder is to re-create the exodus from Egypt. And each part of the seder (or broadly speaking, each glass of wine) is like a roadmap. The breakdown is kiddush (introduction / celebrating the holiday), maggid (telling the story), birkat (being thankful) and hallel (praise). So one aspect of the seder is to imaging all the feelings you would have leaving Egypt. The second half, with being thankful and praising God, is an important part of that.

* * *

A quick note on timing. To do some of these innovations lengthens the seder. This results in either a very long seder (my preference) or requires shortening other sections (the preference of everyone else). In modifying the seder in any way, keep in mind a few things.

First, a good haggadah with some commentary is a good guide. We used "A Different Night" and it identifies a "bare bones" seder with the critical parts as well as many suggestions for additional activities.

Second, keep in mind the mitzvot of the seder itself. There are five of them. Two from the Torah (eat matzah, tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) and three from the mishnah (eat bitter herbs, drink four glasses of wine, say hallel). Whatever else you do, don't eliminate any of these.

Third, think about the participants. We are doing three things when we are doing a seder: celebrating a Jewish holiday in a traditional manner, celebrating an ethnic and family-oriented Jewish holiday, and having a meaningful religious experience. These three goals are frequently in conflict with each other, and each of the participants may favor one over the other. So, for example, a common issue in some homes is whether to even do the second-half of the seder. (Its late, the kids are tired, we just had dessert. E
nough is enough.) The traditionalist perspective would favor doing the second half because it is the traditional thing to do (and part of the hallel is in the second half of the seder). The family / cultural perspective would not, since the important part of the seder is that the family is all together and we are "doing something" Jewish. The specifics here don't really matter. From a family and cultural perspective, Elijah's cup may be far less important then Aunt So-and-So's gefilte fish. And from the meaningfulness perspective, it is not clear which is more important. It depends on what happens during the second half. Striking the balance is very tricky. Do so carefully.

Have you tried anything novel that worked well (or that didn't)?

* * *

Update (2014): 

10  Read the comments.  Some really good suggestions there. 

11.  Find a bunch of quotes about freedom.  You can use the Torah, political sources, popular songs.  Anything that seems to suggest something about freedom.  Print them out, laminate them, and pass them out ahead of time.  At a few times during the seder, ask the guests to read the quote on their card.  Then ask everyone else what they think about that quote. 

This is a good way to prompt a discussion rather than having a lecture. 


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More on Miracles

My friend (and long-time reading group colleague) "LA Guy" over at PajamaGuy challenges my post on miracles and Purim. He and I agree on much, but end up in very different places. And I think a simple example -- colors -- will help illustrate where we disagree.

We both agree that modernity has been hard on more fundamentalist or literalist forms of religion. Empirical observation and science are the most important, and probably the only, way of knowing objective empirical information.

So far, so good. But when discussing miracles, I then shift the focus away from an objective description of reality to a more phenomenological description of how we experience things. LA Guy objects to this move: "I think the best you can say is science doesn't yet fully explain our subjective feelings. I'm not sure where this gets us. Does that mean we give up trying to understand them?"

No, not at all. I'm just asking a different question, and not a scientific question. Let me offer a simpler and (hopefully) less controversial example: colors.

Scientifically, we know what the color of an object is. It is simply light of different frequencies reflected from the physical object. But this objective account of light and color does not explain how we perceive color. We experience red as hot and exciting, and blue as cool and calming. Some colors or color combinations upset our sense of aesthetics (mud brown and lime green), while others (blue and yellow) are more esthetically pleasing. None of this is captured by an objective account of the physical properties of colors.

OK. Maybe we can help the scientific approach by shifting to an objective account of our brains and our eyes, rather than light and objects. That helps a bit. We might note that certain colors or color combinations trigger different neural paths and "light up" different regions of the brain. But it does not really solve the problem. Even this description does not capture our experience of perceiving color.

A better way of understanding this may be to turn to poetry. Homer's use of "rosy-fingered dawn" nicely captures the faint red before the sun rises. Or Robert Browning:

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low:
- "Meeting at Night"

Or perhaps turn to painters. Or even a book on how to paint. All of these things focus on our experience of color, not on the objective characteristics of color itself.

This is certainly not to deny the importance of a scientific understanding of color or even of our brains. But this scientific account simply does not capture everything.

LA Guy then argues that this is a "god of the gaps" sort of argument. That would be true if I were trying to rely on this experiential description or miracles as a substitute for scientific descriptions. I am emphatically not doing that. Objectively, the gaps in our empirical knowledge are simply gaps. They may get closed or they may not, and science is the proper way of doing that. Instead, I am simply asking a different question. In fact, extending LA Guy's argument slightly, I would argue that this "god of the gaps" does not really capture what God is. For example, a god of the gaps is simply a super-scientific principle. It explains some naturalistic phenomena, but -- like gravity and energy and matter -- it has no personality and is not deserving of being worshiped or even thought about all that much. We might occasionally note that gravity is a good thing, but that's about it for our "relationship" with gravity.

LA Guy then get to what I think is the key issue. We all have feelings, but why wouldn't we say "wow, it's amazing how the natural world supplies us with these awesome emotions"?

This is a causal statement. In response to an amazing feeling, LA Guy would identify the source of these feelings: nature. That's certainly one response, and a good one. But there are other responses as well. For example, how have other people experienced these feelings? How about my ancestors? Can I share these feelings with other people, either in some structured or unstructured way? Is there something I should focus on when experiencing these feelings? Are there other related feelings? These are all questions, but perhaps the deepest response to a feeling is not a question but the feeling itself. We should simply be mindful of the experiences of awe or amazement or gratitude when we have them.

And if one generalized from mere "feelings" to deeper questions about significance and our relationship with others, we are in a much deeper place.

My claim is that religion provides one good framework for experiencing all of these things. My example in my original post is that by giving charity on Purim, we help create a miracle as experienced by the recipient. Or to take a more significant upcoming example, the Passover story -- the narrative of freeing an oppressed people from a cruel and tyranical ruler -- is perhaps the paradigmatic example of life-altering goodness. In "Exodus and Revolution" political philosopher Michael Walzer traces how this story itself and many of its particular themes had been explicitly adopted in numerous liberation movements throughout western history. One can ask the scientific questions about this story: did it happen, was a supernatural God involved, etc. And science is the method we should use to answer these questions. But the significance of the story in our own personal lives and in the political sphere is not fundamentally a scientific question. It is an experiential one. The black American slaves singing about Moses and Pharaoh were not making historical claims, they were expressing hope and affirming the goodness of freedom.

LAGuy then argues that I have provided "a seriously watered down version of miracles." Yes, if the "real" question about miracles is their objective cause. But if the "real" question about miracles is how do we experience things that we perceive as miraculous, then a discussion about their stochastic or supernatural causes is watered-down. But of course, there is no "real" question about anything. We can ask whatever questions we want. My point is that the debate over the ultimate causes of things we perceive as miraculous is ultimately a futile debate (although sometimes fun). But the debate over how we react to spectacular things in life is not.

In a pre-scientific age, religion could make scientific claims. It was the best we had. But in a scientific age, religion cannot credibly make scientific claims, and in fact it gets into serious trouble when it does. But that does not mean that its account of things is not useful. To the contrary, Judaism has guided Jews for thousands of years and helped people live meaningful and sensitive lives.


Monday, March 1, 2010

What If Jewish Education Were Run Like the Boys Scouts?

Children commonly complain that they don't like religious school. But the boy scouts do something somewhat similar to religious school (teach particular ideas and skills, inculcate good character, have children help others) and they seem to have a good degree of success. Can the Jewish education establishment learn something from the boy scouts?

My knowledge of scouting is limited (I was a cub scout for one year, and my kids are not scouts). From what I understand, the basic approach of scouting is that there are lots of "merit badges" in numerous categories. They start out simple (like knot-tying) and then progress to things like camping, astronomy, first-aid, gardening, woodworking, reading, etc. (Google it for all the specifics.) To earn a particular merit badge, scouts need to be able both to explain a specified set of things and do a specified set of things. Scouts work together on these badges. And along the way, there are all sorts of character lessons.

I would imagine that some merit-badge categories are mandatory and others are optional. But the result is that all kids will have a common core set of knowledge and skills (they'll all know how to tie a square knot) but different kids will choose different paths beyond that.

The kids get an actual physical badge, and these get sewn on either a uniform or a sash that are worn on certain ceremonial occasions.

The structure of religious education is the same as scouting. A religious school teaches kids certain core ideas and values and practices, and then kids might explore others on their own. But the way this is taught is usually the traditional classroom approach.

Could a religious school or some umbrella organization implemented a system of Jewish merit badges? For example, one category might be prayer. Kids could get a merit badge for knowing (and demonstrating that they know) certain common prayers, along with their English meaning. Another category might be holidays. Kids could get a badge for knowing about the holidays and participating in them. (You do the 4 Purim mitzvot and explain what they are, and you get a Purim merit badge.) There could be merit badge in Torah, in social action, in Hebrew, etc.

Religious school, or at least part of it, could be run like scout meetings. It would be more fun, and kids would be working together to earn merit badges or demonstrating what they know.

I see at least three key advantages of this approach.

The first is that it would force religious schools to clearly identify what they would like the kids to learn and do, both in terms of knowledge and skills and actions. And this overall structure will help both kids and adults.

The second advantage is that it presumably would make continuing with Jewish education more attractive to kids after their bar- or bat-mitzvah celebration. Stick around and get the really advanced badges, like Maimonides and Gemara and Social Action III. In fact, the bar- or bat-mitzvah could be an opportunity to obtain a bunch of merit badges (reading from the Torah, etc.), and this would subordinate the ceremony to a child's Jewish education as a whole, rather than the other way around.

And the third advantage is that it would give the kids an incentive to work on Jewish education outside of religious school. If kids could earn a merit badge for (say) reading and understanding Genesis, at least some kids would be motivated to do so on their own. This sounds farfetched if Jewish education is seen as something boring and horrible imposed on children. But if Jewish education is something serious and interesting and fun, at least many kids will pursue it on their own. Decentralization seems to work in lots of spectacular ways, and education should not be any different.

I would appreciate any reader comments, especially from those who have direct experience with teaching religious school, with scouting, or with both.