The problem with adding new items to our Passover seder plates

Over the last two generations, many Jewish activists have been asking Jews to change the observance of Passover. Many want Passover to address secular political, social, and ethnic issues. Jews have told to make additions to the seder plate such as –

◦ sunflowers – to show solidarity with Ukrainians.

◦ cotton balls – to show that we are against the slavery that existed in America.

◦ tomatoes – to show that we stand with agricultural workers

◦ oranges – to show that we stand with LGBT Jews.

◦ Miriam’s cup – to show that we stand with women Jews.

◦ acorns – to show that we stand with Native Americans

◦ bananas – to support Hispanic refugees coming to America

Fair Trade chocolate – to show that we are against child labor on Africa’s Ivory Coast..

◦ olives – to show support for Palestinians, the PLO, and BDS ?!?!

artichokes – to support intermarriage between non-Jews and Jews

The implicit subtext is that Jews who run a traditional seder are not caring enough about any or all of all these other causes. Here is one example:

The oranges and Miriam’s cup may be considered problematic because they come from an incorrect narrative that Passover is only about the liberation of straight male Jews, and no others. This was never the case.

Especially today, in today’s non-Orthodox communities, and in our Open and Modern Orthodox communities, we all recognize that Pesach is for all Jews – male or female, gay or straight, more observant or less observant, married or unmarried.  That’s not just implicit, by the way – all of my Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbinical friends explicitly teach this.

As for requests that we change Passover to include Ukranians, Africans, Arabs, south Americans, farmers, etc., we end up turning our holiday into a Unitarian-Universalist hodgepodge of issues that dilutes the holiday’s meaning –

Passover is Z’man Heiruteinu, the season of our freedom. It recalls how our Israelite ancestors kept their language, names, and beliefs even under oppression, how they struggled through the Exodus, received the commandments, and eventually made it back to the land of Israel and Jerusalem. A story that repeats itself through history.

Even in the the twentieth century Jews lived under Islamic oppression in North Africa and the Middle East, under Communist oppression in the former Soviet Union, and under European Christian oppression in many European nations, where they were almost totally exterminated. Even today Jews are being rescued from Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia – and returning to the land of Zion.

This is Passover still happening in our own time.

There’s another consideration: Such requests are only aimed at Jews. No one is asking Christians to change their observance of Easter or the Eucharist, or asking Muslims to change their observance of Ramadan or Eid ul-Fitr, or asking Hindus to change their observance of Diwali or Holi.

When demands are of Jews alone, that’s a form of bigotry. We have to be aware of the universalist agendas which erode our connections to our people, land, and faith.

Yet another consideration now arises: Even if one wanted to add a new item to the seder plate, which specific one would you add? And which of the many others – a list which grows every year – would you leave out? So if adds one or two new items then what would that imply about all the others? Reform Rabbi Sari Laufer writes about this dilemma

One of the great tensions of Jewish life in the 21st century is between universalism — the central themes and ideas of Jewish wisdom that speak to all of the human experience — and particularism, the doctrines and injunctions meant to distinguish Jewish practice and ritual from that of the rest of the world. And of all of our stories, it is perhaps Passover that best embodies this tension….

The seder night is a night for telling stories, our own and the ones we think need to be told. But to my mind, we do not need more on our seder plate to make that happen. In fact, I worry that, in this case, more is less — in trying to include each particular story, we lose the universal truths….

Why do we need additional items, when these symbols allow us to tell the stories we want to tell? I worry that the more specific stories we attempt to include, the more we are excluding. What happens to people who do not see their specific story represented on a seder plate that is groaning with symbols of so many other stories?….

A sunflower for Ukraine? A tomato for farmworkers? Here’s why I’m sticking to the basics on my Passover seder plate. By Rabbi Sari Laufer, JTA, 4/8/2022

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One comment

  1. I agree with the idea of keeping the items on the seder plate the traditional way. The holiday is to teach each new generation about what God did for the Jewish people in escaping Egypt, making a covenant with them, and making the family of Jacob into the People Israel. If people want to add social commentary, do it apart from the seder.

    My one concession is for Miriam’s cup. It is not to say that only the men were saved. It is to show the role of the women, especially Miriam, in the exodus. While most of those who add Miriam’s cup have everyone at the table place water from their own cups into Miriam’s cup, I do it the other way around. I have the cup already filled with spring water, and everyone gets a sip. In the past, Miriam’s role was not taught. Who put Michah 6:4 together with Passover? “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” We were never taught that the Talmud states, “It was only due to the merit of righteous women that the children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt.” These things are taught now, but only because women pushed to have women’s roles in all parts of Jewish life described so that Jewish girls and boys would grow up realizing that life must be balanced.

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