Seder Night: The Emergence of Covenantal Man
Self-selecting systems, such as the manner in which manyAmericans choose a vocation, have a very particular strength. Giventhe fact that almost no one becomes, for example, a particle physicist,because they were forced to do so, one may reasonably assume thatparticle physicists truly enjoy what they do. This benefits not only thephysicists themselves, who will derive much pleasure and joy fromspending their time thinking, experimenting, and writing about a topicregarding which they are deeply passionate, but society as well. In alllikelihood, the collective performance of the deeply passionate andcommitted professionals will translate materially into performance.Coercive, hereditary systems, like most religious systems,including Judaism, are thus faced with a serious dilemma. Given thefact that, by definition, one’s belonging to the system is not volitional,it stands to reason that many people will not enjoy certain aspects of the system, especially the restrictive ones. Lack of choice may notonly result in the absence of passion, but, very often, activeresentment, ultimately translating, generously speaking, intomediocrity in observance.
While this problem is intrinsic to Judaism, it is exacerbated at thecurrent historical moment, given the fact that other major lifedecisions, such as the aforementioned vocational choice, marriagepartner, place of residence, are very often volitional indeed. For many,the absence of autonomy regarding the most fundamental choice of all, religious identity, in contrast with other areas, is simply too muchto bear. The current possibility of assimilation, a historical anomaly,and the empirical data on the American scene of its pervasiveness,attests amply to the phenomenon outlined above. One doubts that thepercentage of particle physicists who abandon their field of choiceremotely approaches Jewish attrition rates. And small wonder. The halakha was not unaware of the dilemma that it confronted,and in my opinion, confronts this issue directly in the form of theSeder. The mandate that we have to envision ourselves as if weliterally were taken from bondage into freedom
is a profound thoughtexperiment during which we are actually being asked to consider
The common Amish practice of
is obviously meant toinject an element of volition into a fundamentally hereditary structure,and highlights the universal dimension of the quandary.
Mishna, Pesachim, Chapter 10. Cf. Medrash Tana’im and RambamHilkhot Chametz U’Matzah Chapter 7 for their version, which divergesin three significant ways.
The Sages requirement that the Seder begin with questionsregarding the unique (I would say, transformative), and, in certaincircumstances, with one actually posing the questions to oneself,