Saturday, March 1, 2014


I really want to see you
Really want to see you, Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord
                      — George Harrison 
With the holiday of Purim approaching, the countdown to Pesach (Passover), just one month later, has begun. Pesach begins with a ritual dinner, the Seder. There are as many types of Seder as there are Jewish families, but virtually all share a common theme: a sustained focus on the asking of questions. The questions aren't necessarily meant to be answered—as has often been noted, the Haggadah does not even provide a direct answer to the famous Four Questions.  At the Seder, it is the question—or, rather, the questioning—that is important.

Ironically, this subordination of answers may itself be the best response to the root concern of the Seder: why is this night different from all other nights? From our first breath through our last, we search relentlessly for the reasons behind the mysteries and obstacles life puts in our path. Tonight, though, we will expect no answers. We are reminded that the answers to most of life's questions will remain elusive; and that nonetheless, year after year, we must continue to ask.

Depiction of 19th century Seder in Ukraine
When it comes to Judaism, I'm rather partial to one particular question from the Seder: What do these symbols and rituals mean to you? A seemingly obvious inquiry, and yet it is the only one for which the Haggadah chides the questioner, calling him "evil" and explaining that by by saying you rather than us he sets himself apart, and should therefore be reprimanded.

Perhaps. But I'd prefer to believe that Jewish culture has progressed to the point at which we can be comfortable asking the hard questions. Why is this night—this Seder, this Shabbat, this Kol Nidre—different from all other nights? And surely this question is a proxy for the oldest and thorniest challenge of them all: why is this people different from all others? Are our values so different? Must we perpetually set ourselves apart from the rest of society? Would assimilation—even total assimilation, the complete loss of our distinct identity as a people—really be the tragedy that our parents believed it to be? If so—if the distinction is well worth preserving—then what role do God, religion, and ritual practice play in that preservation? Can our community continue to exist without them?

What do these symbols and rituals mean to you? And, by extension, what should they mean to me?

In a recent article in the online journal Tablet, author Jonathan Zimmerman identifies himself as an atheist who grew up in a Conservative synagogue. Reaching adulthood, he set out to find a new home within the greater Jewish world, one that supported his rationalist beliefs. He describes his growing distress as he discovered that any community that satisfied him intellectually seemed to fall short emotionally. The liturgy and praxis that had nurtured him to adulthood were poisonous to those who shared his worldview, while his rational rejection of Abraham's God and the divine origins of Torah made it difficult for him to participate in those rituals, to recite those words, he found most comforting.

Zimmerman offers no answers. As the Seder reminds us, perhaps there are none. But we keep asking, even as, day to day, we continue to do the things that make us whole, that bring us peace, whether we understand why or not.

I really want to see you, Lord. I know you're not there, but I seek you anyway, in myself, in my children, in the world around me. I will address you, though my supplications remain forever unheard. I will ask your forgiveness, and perhaps in doing so I will be reminded to forgive others. I will proclaim you the ruler of the universe, who brought forth bread from the ground, because like my primitive ancestors it comforts me to believe—or in my case, to pretend—that you are conducting the whole orchestra, that your eye is upon me and upon the sparrow. Yes, yes: I know better. I am resigned to the real world, the world in which the hawk takes the sparrow, swiftly, remorselessly. But I will gladly spend a few hours in that idealized place in which the sparrow sings on, its trills threaded within the chanting and laughter of my family's Seder table.


  1. "I will proclaim you the ruler of the universe, who brought forth bread from the ground, because like my primitive ancestors it comforts me to believe—or in my case, to pretend—that you are conducting the whole orchestra"

    There is still comfort in the notion that the universe operates under laws which allow us to predict outcomes. I find that idea more comfortable than the notion that occurrences are left to the whims of a God.

  2. Agreed. Although I'm pretty sure you'd agree that the aggregate laws of causality are sufficiently immense that prediction on a personal scale is a dicey proposition at best. And of course, it's the height of ugly narcissism to assume that God cares about you more than She does about people with cancer, or the Jews of Holocaust-era Europe. But, then, I suspect even Linus knows that his blanket doesn't really offer him any actual security.