Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Theory of religion

I had the great pleasure (and honor) of being invited to an orthodox family Passover Seder last night. Twenty-one people, ranging from two to well over eighty years of age, along a long narrow table which cut diagonally through an Upper West Side apartment. At one end was the family matriarch, with a sister at one side and her husband at the other. In the middle was the eldest son (a friend of a friend, who invited me), who was leading his first Seder. The true stars, however, were the girl and boy, perhaps eleven and ten respectively, sitting next to him, who did all the things studious children should do at a Seder - not just reading but commenting, asking questions, venturing answers, etc.

I was particularly struck by an exchange between the leader and his nephew about the essence of the Seder. Rabbi Gamaliel, we read, said that if one did not discuss the meaning of the elements - pesah (a lamb shank bone), matzoh and maror (bitter herbs) - it was not a true Seder. What did the children think, asked their uncle. The boy thought that the elements weren't that important - you could substitute something else for them, or even nothing, so long as the story of Passover was told. The uncle took the contrary position, perhaps tongue in cheek: the elements were the key. It didn't matter what story people told about it, so long as people gathered around them.

Theory of religion! I'd seen descriptions about the Haggadah, and its role as a teaching script for a tradition which actively encourages discussion, multiple interpretation and even challenge, but now my ears heard it. The boy will have his Bar Mitzvah within the year, but has already held his own with his elders on questions of great moment. (Both his and his sister's Torah portions came up.) And it wasn't all child's play. The children were asked what the difference between the four kinds of children might be, and a grown up even stood up for the "rebellious" child for developmental reasons. But they also participated in a spirited debate about the meaning of freedom. And they heard the adults in deadly earnest discuss if it was still appropriate to say "Next year in Jerusalem" in the context of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.

Imagine growing up in a tradition as splendidly alive, as vigilant of past and present, and as conspicuously dependent on the contributions of each succeeding generation, as this! What a joy to witness (I got to hold up the shank bone as its symbolic significance was being discussed).

No comments: