Centering Liberation: a Guide for a Social Justice Seder

April 16, 2019 1 Comment

Each Passover Seder is a unique experience, weaving together generations of family traditions with new concepts and rituals. We curate the food we eat, the stories we tell, and the items on our Seder plate into an experience that reflects our present day selves. For this Passover season, Kolbo is excited to present a series of four themed Seder Guides to help you create a Seder with perhaps new, meaningful and interesting twists. We encourage you to use these guides to help make your own Seder reflective of that which is important to you and those around your table. This week, we are proud to present a Guide for a Social Justice Seder.

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exod. 23:9)

The phrase “social justice” tends to awaken strong feelings in people because it evokes core beliefs, values and experiences. Justice, and the search for it, has always been inherently political; it's a struggle between the “haves and the have-nots,” and a conversation about where power lies and why. The commitment to social justice has been and continues to be a foundation of Judaism through tikkun olam, repairing the world, and never is that commitment more prominent than during Passover, when we tell the story of our own liberation from the bonds of slavery.

The Passover Seder is an amazing opportunity to breathe fresh life into the teachings of the past, and to use them to become more present, engaged, and invested in the world around us. Here are some ways to help orient your Seder toward justice and growth:

  • Personalize the Seder plate. Bring your full self to the Seder by adding in new elements to your Seder plate. There are several modern inclusions to the Seder plate that bring in additional meaning and help situate the ritual in the present day:
    • Oranges — Conceived by Professor Susannah Heschel, the orange originally symbolized the sweetness that lesbian Jews bring to the community (Tamara Cohen)—participants were meant to eat and savor the pieces of the orange and spit out the seeds, symbolizing “spitting out” hate and homophobia in the community. The orange now has a myriad of different associations and origin stories, and has now come to symbolize the sweetness of women and the broader LGBTQ community.
    • Olives — These are added to the Seder plate as a prayer for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a nod to extending an olive branch, as well as acknowledging a major crop in Israel and Palestine.
    • Fair trade chocolate or cocoa beans — Fair trade chocolate and cocoa beans are created with standards that prohibit forced labor, which reminds us that though our slavery ended, there are those who suffer under forced labor today.
    • Tomatoes — The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is an organization of farm workers who are striving to end abusive conditions in Florida’s tomato fields, which have long-since been rife with human rights violations. Add tomatoes to your Seder plate to raise awareness for their Campaign for Fair Food, and to be mindful of where our food comes from.
    • There are many possible additions to the Seder plate, and there is no wrong way to do it. Whether you’re adding a photograph to remember a lost loved one, an interactive element like a new ritual food, or your favorite crystal, let these elements bring you into the Seder.
    • Share your stories of liberation. Our personal stories and experiences have as much to offer as traditional liturgy does. One great way to engage the participants of your Seder is to ask each person to bring an item that symbolizes the freedom or oppression they have felt since last Pesach. Egypt and Jerusalem are not merely physical places; they are states of mind that live within us, that we can and do embody. No one has lived without an “Egypt” of some kind, where a restriction felt so total that we were certain there was no escape. Many of us are still working to escape. Set aside a block of time in the Seder for each person to speak about their item, ask questions, and share other types of freedom we may not have previously considered.
      • Free your language. Creating an inclusive space so often relies on approaching language in a way that is open and adaptive. There are so many interpretations of the Exodus story, of freedom, of G-d, and those interpretations all deserve the space to be heard. For example, if the language of “G-d” doesn’t resonate with you or your participants, feel free to use language that does, such as the Divine, HaTzur, the Universe, or whatever it is that allows you to feel close and connected to the stories and representations of liberation. Language helps us build a bridge toward understanding the world around us, and that bridge is best built from a place of curiosity and self-expression.
      • Acknowledge the plagues of the present. We tell the story of Exodus year after year, generation after generation, so that we may never forget from where we came. But there is another reason: so that we may not become ignorant to, or complicit in, the oppression of others. In the present day, there is no shortage of injustices plaguing our societies. From refugee and immigrant crises, to the serious inequities of the criminal justice system; from lack of access to basic rights such as food and clean water, to the ongoing devaluation and destruction of native land—by telling the story of our freedom, we charge ourselves with remembering all  those who are still working to be free. During the reciting of the plagues of Egypt, be sure to discuss the plagues of the modern day, and to perhaps offer time to brainstorm any kind of action, big or small, that you can take toward counteracting them.

        Passover is a radical holiday by nature—we come together to center and celebrate liberation, and in doing so, we realize that liberation is not a static event. It is a continuous process that bends, shifts, and changes as the world around us does. The freedoms that we do, or do not, possess make up so much of who we are as human beings and our actions toward others, making it all the more important to pause and reflect on them. We are all responsible, and that needn’t feel like a chore. What a delight it is to live in a world so lovingly made for us, and to have the opportunity to return that love by fostering connection, understanding, respect, and freedom. It is on us to remember the radical roots of our histories, to work from and toward them, and to ask ourselves: if not now, when?

        Alec Reitz is Kolbo’s Book Buyer, Blog Coordinator, and resident crafting enthusiast. They spend most of their time investigating bouts of everyday magic and and studying Jewish mysticism. Their writing can be found on My Jewish Learning, and in Berkeley Fiction Review, The Grief Diaries, and Pithead Chapel.

        1 Response

        Terry Hansen
        Terry Hansen

        June 25, 2019

        It feels so lacking to write “wow, that piece says it all, that explains what I think and feel Judaism is about, what it is in 2019.” I started a very slow and deliberate journey last October moving slowly but surely towards conversion. Thinking about what you wrote – it says so simply yet so completely what being Jewish means to me. Thank you.

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