“Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we eat either leavened or unleavened bread. Why on this night, do we eat only unleavened bread?....”
For millions of Jews this coming weekend, this question will open their celebration of Passover. Whether they are carefully observant or largely secular, most Jews have some memories of celebrating the festival when they were children (asking the series of questions that begin proceedings is traditionally an honour given to the youngest person present) and continue to mark the occasion in some way or other as adults.
In many respects, the festival epitomises modern Jewish religious practice. On the one hand, the evening follows a familiar rhythm as the haggadah, the book that sets out the traditional order of the seder or ritual meal, is worked through. In different settings around the world, Jews re-live the experience of the biblical children of Israel, who were ‘passed over’ and spared the plague of the killing of the first-born, and then led in the exodus to freedom and the Promised Land.
On the other hand, no two sedarim are alike. Particularly amongst non-Orthodox Jews, practice constantly changes to reflect new understandings of the traditional Passover themes of bondage and liberation. In Israel, there are special haggadot for the armed forces. Jewish feminist celebrations give special emphasis to the history of women’s oppression and empowerment. And some people now broaden the meaning of Passover still further, by including readings, or inviting guests from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds.
Some years ago, I found myself at a seder in Ohio, with two atheists (one Jewish, the other not) a Christian and two Muslims! In recent times, campaigns have aimed to encourage Passover reflection on Darfur. This year, the spotlight is on the plight of Tibetans whose persecution and exile is felt by some to echo Jewish experiences in the past. Jews are being encouraged to place an unlit candle on their seder table, as a reminder of the 'light' that is being extinguished in Tibet, or to display an empty photo frame, in recognition of the Chinese government's attempts to ban images of the Dalai Lama.
Passover, then, is a dynamic blend of tradition and innovation. It collapses the distance between past and present, and for these reasons, it is likely to remain the most widely celebrated and well-loved of Jewish festivals.
Taking it further
Tibet takes its place at the Seder table from The Jewish Week
Judaism is one of the traditions covered in Open University course Introducing Religions