Tradition, Change, and
by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
(This article is adapted from a column written for
the Congregation Bnai Israel newsletter, The Menorah.)
One of the mottos of the Conservative movement is “tradition and change.” Clearly, we need both. Without tradition, we would eventually become rootless. Without change, we would eventually become irrelevant.
The challenge of remaining loyal to the past and responsive to today can be traced throughout the Jewish world – across time and geography. Usually, this issue is portrayed in a negative way, in relation to conflict over controversial issues. But the commitment to (and even the tension between) tradition and change are also positive and fruitful in Jewish life. Passover is a prime example.
The Bible anticipates that future generations will not automatically understand what the Exodus was, and so we will need to explain it first to ourselves and then to our children. “For, in future days, your child will ask you, saying, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which Adonai, our God, has commanded you [about Passover]?” (Deuteronomy 6:20). This verse, together with other Biblical texts fertilized by the Rabbinic imagination, gives rise to the “four sons” of the Passover seder. In turn, these “four sons” have been read as four archetypes, four generations, four aspects of every person, and four ways of being Jewish. The Exodus experience becomes the tradition of talking about the Exodus experience, which takes a variety of forms and approaches.
The Exodus was a defining moment for our people, and so we are enjoined, each of us, to imagine ourselves as if we had personally been freed and redeemed. But even as we read ourselves back in time (tradition), we are also reading the text in new ways and applying it in new situations (change). For example, the Exodus condemns modern slavery and supports abolitionists; the Exodus is a paradigm for personal liberation and liberation theology; the values of the Exodus apply to the civil rights movement and women’s liberation.
We witness the interplay of tradition and change in our own personal Passover observances. Some families wouldn’t dare omit the chicken soup or the Shfoch Hamatcha prayer, or ask anyone but Cousin Sadie (now age 62) to recite the Ma Nishtana. On the other hand, it might be very welcome to learn some new melodies, trade assignments for food preparation or prayers, or bring a reading on freedom for Africa to the seder. Inevitably, the “traditional” person who leads the seder will ultimately have to “change.” For one family, that might moving the location of the seder from Grandma’s house to Mom’s; for another it will mean that Uncle Ricky takes over Zeydie’s role in the Passover play. As we pass on our Passover traditions, change comes with the territory.
I wish you a good, sweet, and kosher Passover. May you discover innovations this year worthy of becoming lasting traditions. And may you rediscover traditional practices and texts, so that you can appreciate them anew.