Sorry if the question sounds tactless, and no I don’t in fact want to know the answer. I ask, instead, to point out the well intentioned but nevertheless inappropriate gesture of the President’s hosting the first ever Seder at the White House. The official photo shows him at the head of the table, where the leader of the Seder would normally sit.
I know, I know, it was meant as a friendly gesture. I’m not condemning him. However while Charlton Heston didn’t have to be Jewish to play Moses in the classic Ten Commandments movie that airs this time of year, a Seder is different.
A theme of this blog is Judaism’s universal significance, but that’s an idea which, while it receives short shrift today, can also be taken too far. The reason is instructive. The Torah very clearly specifies that when there was a Passover sacrifice at the center of the festival’s observances, males who ate of the offering had to be circumcised Jews in good standing:
“And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof” (Exodus 12:48).
The reason for this, at the simplest level, is that Judaism is a faith with a universal message but one that is deliberately framed in particularist terms. The message is given to a particular people to spread, and Obama doesn’t belong to that people.
God chose the Jews as a “people”: “And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7).
Passover, whose middle four days we are now traversing, is a time for Jews to reconnect with our mission as a people. Hence the requirement that participants in the meal that included the Passover sacrifice include no uncircumcised males. There’s no such offering today, of course, but aspects of Passover remain stubbornly particularist. For example the songs that come at the end of the Seder and that I’ve come to love — most familiarly, the enigmatic Aramaic folk song Chad Gadya.
We can discuss — and I invite you to do so with me — why God might have chosen to speak to the world through a particular people with its own unique character. But to overlook that fact in the name of generating warm feelings is to trivialize Passover.
Obama’s having done so on the first night of the festival stands, by the way, in contrast with the sensitivity of President George W. Bush. My friends Michael and Diane Medved attended a couple of White House Chanukah parties. Whereas President Clinton had assigned himself the task of saying the blessing at the lighting of the menorah, President Bush understood that this would be inappropriate.
Instead, he asked the son of a Jewish serviceman then in Iraq to recite the benediction and light the candles. Now that’s tact.