Closing or Opening the Door on Passover

By Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Erev Pesah, 2017/5771

Several years ago, one of my students for conversion to Judaism was invited with her Jewish boyfriend to a Seder in the local Orthodox community. A few days prior to the festival a guest who was coming to that Seder, upon hearing that a non-Jew was attending, reminded the host that it was forbidden to have a non-Jew attend the Seder.  The hosts consulted their rabbi, who informed them that his understanding of the law indicated that a non-Jew could not attend the Seder.  The hosts apologetically and awkwardly told my student that she could not attend.  She was surprised and hurt by the disinvitation, and ultimately decided against converting several months later.

The source for the practice of excluding the non-Jew at Passover is in Exodus.

“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, These are the regulations for the Passover: No foreigner is to eat of it. Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it. It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you”. Exodus 12, 43-49

Many modern authorities have ruled that this passage only applied when the Temple stood when we still performed the Paschal Sacrifice.  Some others have ruled that non-Jews are welcome to attend the Seder, but should not eat of the Afikomen, since it stands in for the Paschal Sacrifice in the post Temple era. Conservative, Reform, and other liberal authorities find the reasoning behind the rule of exclusion no longer applicable or relevant.  The welcoming of non-Jews to a Passover Seder in liberal Judaism is so widespread that many liberal Jews are surprised to hear that a rule excluding non-Jews from a Seder even exists.

Hospitality on Passover is something that liberal Jews and many modern Orthodox Jews have broadly accepted, not only because we have integrated into the American social landscape, but because we understand that the themes of liberation from slavery and freedom are themes that we share with other Americans regardless of faith. 

I teach that Passover should be a festival in which we embrace hospitality and invite our non-Jewish friends to partake with us.  In 2017 the practice of hospitality is even more important as the new president has dramatically increased deportations and attempts to slam to the door on refugees and potential immigrants. 

It is true that Passover historically can be called the Festival of Identity.  It is the festival that marks the birth of the Jewish people. Before Egypt, the Israelites were a small family grappling with the transmission of the covenant with God.  But the sojourn in Egypt is described in the Torah as the birth of a nation, even as it was forced into servitude.  In our liberation we were no longer were just a family, but the people of Israel.

The importance of identity in the festival is reflected in the our parental obligation to tell the story to our children.  Relying on our best pedagogy and storytelling we are supposed to convey to the next generation our people’s experience of slavery and liberation.

I have always embraced and celebrated Passover as a festival of Jewish identity, but I don’t see the need to exclude others as following from the retelling and reliving our story of origin.  I strongly object to that tradition of exclusion. 

But I also do not believe that watering down the Seder and removing the celebration of our identity out of concern for discomfort of our non-Jewish friends robs the festival of its great power and emotion.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks articulates how we can practice hospitality while celebrating our unique tradition in a pluralistic and diverse free society.  

“There is all the difference in the world between the attempt to impose your faith on others and the willingness to share it with others.  Our faiths are different. Judaism is not Christianity; Christianity is not Islam; the Abrahamic monotheisms are different from Eastern mysticisms on the one hand, scientific humanism on the other. Yet when we bring our respective heritages of wisdom to the public domain, we have no need to wish to convert others. Instead, we are tacitly saying: if this speaks to you, then please take it as our gift.  Indeed, it is yours already, for wisdom (unlike revelation) belongs to us all. The willingness non-coercively to share our several traditions of moral insight is, in a religiously plural culture, an essential part of the democratic conversation, indeed of societal beatitude.”  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World p. 126  

This teaching on hospitality is critical during these times when pluralism, diversity, and freedom is threatened by hatred, narrow-mindedness, and demagoguery.

Following Rabbi Sacks, it is possible to understand the sharing our Seders with our non-Jewish friends, with those who fear deportation, with those who are fleeing persecution is essential this year.  Let us be generous in our practice of this hospitality not only on Pesah, but throughout the coming turbulent years.    

Hag Same’ah, Happy Passover

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

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