Passover is easily my favourite holiday. The delightfully familiar food, the sprawling celebration table and the telling of a story everybody knows, all work in concert to make for the best night of the year. There is no doubt as to why this night is different from all other nights.
Perhaps, perhaps, the only drawback, and this is to be expected given the heavy emphasis on ritual, is Passovers lack of surprise. That’s why I was happy to be taken aback when looking through Jonathan Safran Foer’s New Hagaddah. In the introduction, Foer writes that the Seder is a “radical act of empathy“.
Whoa. Radical Empathy? I had my Passover surprise.
Thinking of the seder as an act of empathy – let alone a radical one – stopped me cold. I’d never thought of the seder through an empathy lens before. But then, with just the tiniest bit of reflection, I started to see where Foer was coming from. The Haggadah implores the reader to put themselves in the footwear of their forebearers. The overriding message is that living well today means being in relationship with the actions and sacrifices of our ancestors.
This ritual connection is why we tell stories. It helps us build empathy and provides a pathway to understanding an experience different than our own. A good story lends itself to discovering shared values, dreams and humanity. The thing is, empathizing with a protagonist is easier to do when we see our own history in the story, and the me listening is part of the we of the story.
This is why I don’t believe that Passover is about radical empathy. Radical empathy would mean empathizing with the other, the foreign, even the vilified. Yes the Haggadah is about empathy, but it’s not radical, it’s traditional. I am being asked to empathize with my fellow Jews. There is very little empathy for the fallen enemy in the story of the Passover. What a wasted opportunity to broaden our horizons.
Imagine radical empathy for a moment. Maybe when asked to honour our heroes, we would also have the courage to create space to empathize with our supposed enemies? I’ve never tried it, but I suspect that it’s exceedingly difficult to congruently demonize and empathize.
Passover teaches empathy, but why should I have demonize in order to empathize. We can have one without the other. Is that really so radical?