Thursday, April 7, 2011

Seder Guests and the Dysfunctional Family: Hammerman on Ethics (Jewish Week)

Seder Guests and the Dysfunctional Family

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, April 7, 2011 - Special to the Jewish Week

Q - "I heard from an observant friend that it is inappropriate to invite non Jews to a Seder; but doesn't it also say in the Haggadah, "Let those who are hungry come and eat?" So am I supposed to invite only Jewish homeless and hungry people? Plus, given my strained family dynamics, I think it would be best not to invite any guests at all. What's the ethical thing to do?

A- So you have three questions here. Should you invite guests at all and if so, can you include non-Jews and does your guest list have to include people who have gone hungry? I'm going to answer this more as an ethicist than a halachist (subtle difference) and say, emphatically, Yes, Yes and Yes. If your nuclear family can handle it without detonating, you'll benefit greatly from inviting others to your table. So invite away: Jewish, non-Jewish, hungry, gluttonous, poor, rich, animal, vegetable or mineral. Let the world come to your table on Passover.

While there are some traditional restrictions on inviting non-Jews to a Seder (or, to be more specific, feeding them on a festival) these prohibitions are hard to justify in an open, mixed society such as ours. There is internal logic to it from a halachic standpoint, but it makes no sense in a world where a majority of American Jews have non-Jewish close relatives or friends and where this year's hot new Haggadah is the best selling "Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families," written by a Cokie and Steve Roberts.

Where there is a moral will, there is almost always a halachic way. Rabbinic authorities have long recognized the importance of having peaceful relations with Gentile neighbors and many have grappled mightily to find ways to be more inclusive on this issue. Sometimes those non-Jewish neighbors are prime ministers and presidents; Israeli embassies have found legal loopholes to overcome this obstacle in inviting non Jewish guests to their seders. If your Seder is in the White House, are you going to tell the President to eat in the kitchen? But for observant Jews, the problem remains.

I've often shared my Seder with non-Jews, including Christian clergy, and there is no better opportunity for the kind of powerful dialogue that invariably strengthens both the identity of the Jews sitting around the table and the perception of Judaism in the eyes of the others. It's also nice to invite Jews who have no other place to go, especially those who might be down on their luck. The Talmud recounts how Rav Huna would open his gate and say, before every meal (not just on Passover), "Whoever is in need, let them come and eat (Ta'anit 20b)." This holiday forces us to recall that we were strangers in Egypt, and the Torah commands us to love the stranger for that very reason. Contributing to a Passover food drive could substitute for an actual invitation.

In our day, with families so scattered, the Seder has become an opportunity for family members to come together to reaffirm their Jewish roots. Awkward dynamics can turn that into a toxic experience, which may make the Seder table a danger zone for guests. But sometimes the presence of a neutral party can keep ornery Uncle Joe, bigoted brother Bernie and flatulent Aunt Fannie on their best behavior (except for maybe Fannie). Only you know whether the toxicity is just too great to be overcome by the presence of an unwitting referee.

If that is the case, if your family implodes at the drop of a matzah ball, some intervention is in order. Or a trip to the Catskills - alone. Otherwise, open your doors wide. There's no better way to transform just another painful domestic dinner into a night different from all other nights.

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