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Server and Served at the Seder

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 3-25 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0049

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The tradition is clear: it was the servers who were liberated on Pesaḥ. Nevertheless, the seder has proven conducive, over time, to identification with both servers and those they serve. This incongruence is commonly associated with the seder’s commemoration of both slavery and liberation,1 but a closer look at several long-standing practices points to a deeper, persistent tension. Recent scholarship has begun to deal more forthrightly with this tension, but its structural characteristics remain to be identified and analyzed.

An Ethos of Server and Served

In the imperial societies of the ancient Mediterranean, virtually all females to some degree, and a sizable proportion of males, lived their lives as “ensouled devices,”2 producing for others, through servitude, the leisure that was a precondition of a fully realized life.3 In these societies, the economic dimension of slavery was bolstered by the assumption that the social power of free people was most fully manifested in their exercise of authority over others. Slavery existed, to a great extent, to provide opportunities to demonstrate this authority.4 Orlando Patterson has noted that “It may, indeed, be illogical and immoral to desire for oneself the absence of obstacles, only to be able to restrain others, but . . . it is a sociohistorical fact that human beings have always sought to do just that, and have frequently succeeded in doing so. What is more, they have, until quite recently, found no problem calling such constraint on others ‘freedom.’” Patterson calls this “experience of freedom as the exercise of power” sovereignal freedom.5

Biblical sources tend to stand at a critical distance from such behavior. A positive attitude toward work and workers was a logical extension of the biblical vision of a covenant that included the entire people of Israel: officers and elders, woodcutters and water-drawers, males and females. However, one also finds in the Tanakh an entwining of service to God with subordination of other human beings,6 and rabbinic sources, born in the shadow of successive imperial cultures, followed this precedent of legitimizing servitude alongside freedom. The resulting presence of slaves and servants in more prosperous Jewish households, along with servile roles for female family members, has left its contradictory mark on the seder. The stubborn truth is that in every generation there have been “ensouled devices” cutting and cleaning so that others might recline.7

The Pedagogical Problem

Exodus 12, the earliest biblical text to associate Passover with the exodus from Egypt, describes a spare occasion focused on eating the Pesaḥ sacrifice with matzah and bitter herbs (m’rorim), in haste, a vigil (leil shimmurim) fraught with expectation and danger. Elsewhere, the Tanakh describes Israelites eating formal meals seated around a shared table, but the Pesaḥ was to be eaten “belted, shoes on, and with your walking sticks in your hands.”8 Deuteronomy 16 adds that the sacrifice is to take place in the course of a pilgrimage.

Following the destruction of the Second Temple, sources repeatedly allude to the difficulty of making Passover engaging and accessible, absent the drama of pilgrimage and sacrifice. Thus, in a version of the midrash of the four children found in the Yerushalmi, the rasha (i.e., the offender) asks: “What does all this work mean to you—what is all this bother (toraḥ) you put us through year after year?!”9 The Yerushalmi’s rasha, far from removing himself from the community, claims to represent it. Here it is the seder leader rather than the rasha who appears to be out of touch. In this version the question isn’t focused on a self-excluding “mean to you?” but rather on the emptiness of the Passover service. Given the cogency of the rasha’s frustration, it is not surprising that various techniques, including novelties based on Persian and Greco-Roman models, would be enlisted to sustain interest.10 What perhaps is surprising is the degree to which the particular practices adopted would teach the experience of liberation via the trappings of social advantage—that is, surprising unless the celebration of advantage was implicit in the rabbinic understanding of how best to counter the rasha’s demand that the lessons of liberation be made immediate...


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