Monday, April 2, 2012

Ask Three Rabbis

For nearly two years now, I have been serving on the Jewish Values Online Panel of Scholars.  Here's how it works: you (or anyone with access to the site) submits a question. The question is assigned to three scholars, from three different streams of Jewish tradition (OrthodoxConservativeReformReconstructionist, etc.). Each panelist submits an answer. You've heard of two Jews, three opinions? It's kind of like that, only more so.

I posted my latest response today, to this question: Should we still be spending time and resources on prosecuting Nazi war criminals, many of whom are old and sick? 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

All Prisoners, All Free

#BlogExodus: Freedom

I originally wrote a version of this post for the April 2012 Hebrew Union Congregation Temple Topics, our monthly bulletin.
Image found at

I have never led a Passover Seder in a prison, but each spring, as we begin our extensive preparations for the holiday, I find myself wondering: what would that be like? I consider the question with an uncomfortable curiosity, a combination of longing and aversion.

Passover is our festival of freedom, our celebration of Israel’s storied redemption from slavery in Egypt. In every generation, we read in the Haggadah, our guide to the Seder, each of us must feel as if we, personally, had come out of Egypt. As if we ourselves tasted the sweetness of liberation after long oppression. In the traditional text we recite:
Therefore, let us rejoice
At the wonder of our deliverance
From bondage to freedom,
From agony to joy,
From mourning to festivity,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption.[1]

And yet, the Seder also reads: “Now we are all still in bonds. Next year may all be free.”[2] 

I wonder how the first passage might sound to a convict in prison, a homeless person, a political captive, anyone whose existence is dominated by oppression, loss, or suffering.

And I wonder how the second text is heard by those of us whose existence is dominated by blessing: physical comforts, political freedom, the love of family and friends.

My first thoughts always go to how painfully our traditional words of celebration and gratitude must prick those who find themselves in bitter circumstances, and to how unthinkingly the formulaic words of persistent bondage, of incomplete redemption, must roll off the tongues of those whose lives are sweet.

Yet I know it is not necessarily so. I know there are people in the most terrible of circumstances who, like Viktor Frankl in the Nazi concentration camps, still maintain the inviolability of ''the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.''[3] And I know there are those who, in the midst of personal well-being, maintain a consciousness of our broken world, an appreciation of the idea that none of us is redeemed, none of us truly, wholly free, until all are free.

Might we aspire simultaneously to both of these truths? That in the midst of oppression, we maintain a certain freedom, to transform the future and change our lives; and that in the midst of blessing, we maintain a sense of our responsibility for those less blessed? This year, when we conclude our Seder with the traditional cry, “Next year in Jerusalem!”—next year in the messianic age of peace and justice, next year may we be free, redeemed from every Egypt—might our words should truly reflect our intentions (if not our expectations), and guide our future actions? May it be so, at all of our Seders, wherever they may be.

Image from Teshuvafilm's Blog
In the mean time, I intend to find out whether any Mississippi prisoners are in need of an in-house Seder this year.  

This post is part of #BlogExodusa pre-Passover initiative started by rabbi, mom, & friend Imabima. To see more blog postings on Passover themes, follow #BlogExodus on Twitter.

[1] Translation from BaskinHaggadah, Revised Edition, CCAR 1994.
[2] Ibid.