The Radical Truth Behind Passover
Niles is the author or editor of nine books, including the award-winning Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Forward, and Moment. He has been featured and interviewed in Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, The New York Observer, New York Magazine, The Jewish Week, and Beliefnet, as well as on domestic and international television and radio.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: A quick summary of Passover for me would be, as I’ve been talking about with other rituals to go back to his radical core, to go back to its roots. So I could talk about the Seder and different ritual objects that are on the Seder plate. I could talk about the Haggadah; the book that we read that recounts the story of Exodus. I could talk about the matzoh that we eat for a week because by eating unleavened bread we remember the wandering of our ancestors in the wilderness. And that's all well and good, but for me the core, the real revolutionary idea of Passover is what I would rather talk about because I'm more excited about it and I talk about it at length in one of my more recent books which came out in paperback, “Gonzo Judaism.” So for me, it's about reclaiming in recapturing that gonzo attitude.
So look at the story for a second. Here you have a band of newly freed slaves. That's what this story is about. They are wandering through the desert with virtually nothing surrounded by three regional superpowers; to the south, the Egyptians that they just left, to the north the Assyrians, and to the northeast the Babylonians. Three regional superpowers who could probably defeat them in a heartbeat. And here is this brand of newly freed, this ragtag band of newly freed slaves has the audacity, the courage, the guts, to say to these three cultures, these three superpowers that you are wrong. That you are wrong to God down and treat as gods these statues made of stones and sticks; these idols. And to have that kind of courage and guts to be able to introduce monotheism to a world that was still practicing idolatry to meet is what Passover is ultimately all about. That is what makes it radical that is what makes it countercultural that is what makes the revolutionary. And to me one of the great misfortunes and mistakes that we've made in the last couple of generations of students is that when we go through the motions of a Passover Seder, and it can be really warm and wonderful and you know your family is there, we don't highlight that radical, revolutionary idea that is at the heart and soul of what this whole experience is about. And even today, I don't think people are talking about it, but I get very animated and excited when I really think about what Passover is about and how radical an audacious and that it really is. Because that's what Judaism is ultimately about. And I think it's many other examples of stories from the Bible where my ancestors acted in ways that were countercultural, revolutionary, and radical. And that's a message that is not being preached from our pulpits and is not being conveyed to our people. And unless it is, or unless it starts getting conveyed people are just going to not embrace Judaism in a way that I think they otherwise would.
Question: What does the New Shul do to celebrate Passover?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Passover is one of those holidays I don't really want to mess with that much to be honest. I think that Passover is and ought to be a real home-based kind of that. Now, do I think we need to reclaim and capture its revolutionary ideas; it's countercultural and radical notions? Absolutely. That's where I think we’ve fallen short. But I think that holiday, perhaps more than any other, is most effective and powerful when done in the home.
Now A lot of communities have a second Seder and invited people and a lot of people who are single and may not have homes to go to and so we do need to provide for them and we do always make sure that no one is left alone and that everybody has a place go to observe a Seder. But I have always felt over the years that of all the holidays to play with and have fun with and experiment with, Passover was the one that I was least excited about messing with because I thought its greatest power was exactly rooted in its appeal as a home-based holiday.
And I think too few people see the home as the seat of their religion. They see their religion as something out there. You know they drop their kids off at Hebrew school, or they show up a couple times a year to pray and when they go home with nothing. There's no Jewish art, there’s Jewish ritual, bears no Jewish talk at the dinner table. They might talk about politics or economics or literature. But how often we talk about religion? In most contemporary Jewish households I don't think very often. Passover gives us an opportunity. It may be ritualized discussion, but as many of us know, those discussions often digress into very interesting areas. So I would be a little reticent to take that away. I think it's really powerful.
Question: What’s your favorite way to eat matzo?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: My favorite way to eat matzoh is to eat it on the first night and then to avoid it in any way I possibly can. So I would say while the best way to eat matzoh for me is to eat it in all of its ritual places, but then during the week as little as possible because as I've learned more about Judaism over the years, I've essentially adopted this Sephardic approach to Passover mainly because of the experience I had over Passover in Istanbul when I spent Passover in Turkey. And I followed this Sephardic custom. And in the Sephardic tradition and eat rice and beans and it's not just because I'm looking for an easy way out it's because I think it makes a lot of sense to me and so it makes Passover more palatable, I guess, than the Eastern European custom, or the custom itself because it's not binding law in terms of tradition it's something that I just fine more resonant. For the same reason that while I don't go out of my way to mix milk with poultry, I, like some rabbis I know would not have a problem mixing milk with poultry because foul do not lactate, they do not produce milk. And the Bible never says that we are not allowed to mix milk with poultry. It says, "Thou shalt not see the calf in its mother's milk." That's where the prohibition against mixing milk with beef comes about or milk with lamb or goat or animals that actually can produce milk.
Now in the Orthodox world what I'm saying would be an affama. How can you possibly mix milk with poultry? But when I’ve talked to even traditionalists, even though they won't say publicly, privately they are in agreement with me and in fact in the Talmud itself, 1,500 years ago there is great debate on this very issue. The debate is not resolved, it's left open. So I bring this up only because the dietary laws are very important part of Jewish culture, of Jewish civilization and I think sometimes they need to be revisited and not just taken for granted. But for me, I consider myself someone who keeps kosher but I've been able to travel through Mongolia in the Amazon in the Arctic and I've never had a problem because I'm willing to, not bend the rules, but to think about the rules and more creative way.
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