So this morning I had a moment of stark realization. My son has never attended a real Passover seder.
We’ve given ourselves some passes on this; a seder is long and difficult for adults to sit through, let alone children, and a kid with autism and non-stop chattiness…well, a seder just didn’t seem like a great fit.
(I know, I know, I promised a series on a Pitch for Humanistic Judaism, and I’ll get back to that, though in a way this post will be a great pitch in itself.)
If you are familiar with the traditional seder–I don’t mean that you know the Haggadah–just that you know what usually happens at a seder when people are trying to do Passover “right” for themselves–you’re familiar with the idea that kids take a more prominent role than might be the norm in Jewish celebrations. Purim is, in its way, the ultimate kids’ Jewish holiday, but the rabbis of the Mishnah, Talmud, commentaries, etc., are really keyed into the idea that Passover needs to have elements that draw the questions of children.
For example, during the Passover seder, vegetables–once as vegetables, once as bitter herbs–are dipped. One of the famous Four Questions, after all, is “Why on all other nights do we not dip [vegetables] even once–but on this night, [we dip] twice?” In a debate about the necessity of intent in order to fulfill a mitzvah, a debate in the Talmud speculates, “Perhaps in fact mitzvot do not require intent; and when you said there are two dippings–why is this? It is so that there will be a distinction for the children,” that is, so children at the seder will see that the meal is progressing differently and begin to ask questions. b. Pesachim 114b. This rationale is discussed several times over the next daf or so of the text.
You can see how this gets built into the seder: the Four Questions, of course, are actually put into a child’s mouth so that s/he and, presumably, other children will key into what is to come. And there are other quirks–the hunt for the afikomen and the removal of the seder plate before the meal. But unfortunately the answer to the Four Questions is really the rest of the seder; that’s kind of a non-starter for many people, and definitely for The Boy ben Secular Jew in Indianapolis.
The sheer length of the traditional Haggadah, then, belies the educational purpose behind it. That’s particularly ironic because the word used for children in the Talmud’s discussion of intent and distinctions is tinokot–which generally indicates quite young children (in the Tanakh, it frequently indicates infants, that is, children not yet weaned). And that’s an interesting thing, because Passover is in many ways the most sensory-engaged holiday: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch are all brought into play.
But if you’re a Humanistic Jew not bound by the traditional approach, you don’t have to–actually, in many ways you shouldn’t–go through the traditional Haggadah. And so, there’s quite a bit of freedom to re-engineer the seder to suit the needs of the attendees–with education about Passover in mind to suit the audience.
This year, then, I hope to prevent us from being passed over. And that, for a family of a special needs child, would truly make that night different from the ones that came before.