Friday, April 18, 2008

Private Religion, Public Religion, and the Passover Seder

I must admit that I think this derashah could have been much better. I had much more to say, and the ending needs work. This week has turned out to be unexpectedly jam-packed, and I never managed to devote the time I needed to improving it. Nonetheless, here it is; I still think it has something to offer:

The Compassion Forum held at Messiah College last week, in its attempt to reveal the private religious lives of the candidates, raised an important Pesach-related point regarding the value of public and private religion.

At the very beginning, Senator Clinton was asked to talk about specific times when she had experienced “the Spirit,” and similar questions continued for both candidates for the rest of the night.

Sitting there at the Forum, I was very uncomfortable - Personally, I am more at home with private religiosity than public declarations. And my discomfort fits with Jewish history; since the days of Korach we’ve been mis-led by so many false prophets and false messiahs and corrupt leaders, all of whom wore a public religious face while doing as they pleased behind the scenes.
But is my reaction a Jewish reaction? Does Judaism prefer public or private religion?

On one level, we prefer private religion for its personal character.

Private religion is Moshe on Har Sinai, Adam and Chavah and Gd in the Garden, a direct relationship that is neither open nor shared, intimate, monogamous, an immanent relationship that bonds each Jew uniquely to Gd. Gd knows me, and I know Gd through my experiences of a lifetime, and no one else on Earth can claim the Gd-experience that I have.

Michah ordered us, והצנע לכת עם אלקיך, walk in צניעות with HaShem. צניעות is not specifically about covering a part of the body, or being humble. צניעות means privacy. We are to walk privately with HaShem, and so experience a faith which is intense and personal.

Public declarations of faith, on the other hand, lack that immediacy, that personal intensity, that I-Thou, that Har Sinai and Gan Eden feeling of closeness. In the realm of communal, public religion, Gd is shared with others.

But, on an another level, public religion is stronger for its communal character and its communal reach.

• Public religion means standing with others, davening with others, learning from others, achieving greatness together, seeing ourselves not as individuals but as part of a beautiful nation. It may not be Moshe atop the mountain, but it is the Jewish people at the base of the mountain. It may not be Adam and Chavah in Gan Eden, but it is the Jewish people crossing the Yarden and entering Israel.

• Public religion is inherently more objective than personal religion, not subject to my personal tastes and emotions. If my religion is about my own experiences and feelings, where is the guarantee for its authenticity? A communal experience, with communal standards, lends an objectivity I cannot have on my own.

• And public religion involves Kiddush HaShem, broadcasting to the world that we believe. It is reinforcing, calling us to act in concert with our relatives, our neighbors, in service of HaShem and fulfillment of HaShem’s Torah. And it is ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים, it opens our beliefs and ideas to the world.

In fact, Judaism embraces both models, both the intensely personal and the gaudily communal, in many ways:

For example, look at prayer:

• Chanah, in her tefillah for a child, is our model of prayer, היא מדברת על לבה, רק שפתיה נעות וקולה לא ישמע, She spoke from her heart, and only her lips moved and her voice was not heard. We are taught to daven our Shemoneh Esreih in precisely that way. We recite Viduy on Yom Kippur loud enough only for ourselves to hear, not for others to hear.

• On the other hand, we recite Hallel to thank HaShem as a community; there is a halachic debate as to whether an individual is even permitted to say Hallel alone. ברב עם הדרת מלך, HaShem is glorified when we gather en masse to daven. We recite שמע ישראל ה' אלקינו ה' אחד aloud, for all to hear.

Look at Torah study:

• The gemara says that Shlomo haMelech in Shir haShirim compared Torah to a thigh, to teach us that just as we cover our thighs, so we should study Torah in private. Rabbi Akiva instructed his son R’ Yehoshua not to learn Torah בגובהה של עיר, out where everyone could see him.

• On the other hand, the gemara requires that we study Torah b’chavrusa, with others. We are taught to go to the Beis Medrash and study together. Rava marvels in the gemara about the impact of seeing Jews learning together en masse - he questions how any Jew could witness that public honor of the Torah and not be instantly convinced to embrace observance!

Look at our role models in Tanach:

• Yitzchak and Yaakov are private, they don’t go out of their way to spread Jewish ideas to those around them. And when Yosef’s brothers descend to Egypt, they don’t join everyone else; rather, they go live in Goshen, on Yosef’s own advice.

• But Avraham is public, telling everyone from his guests to the king of Sdom that all of his wealth comes from Gd. Yosef is public, he makes sure to inform everyone that he is an עברי, and that all of his gifts are Divine in origin.

Even our celebrations are split into those which are public and those which are private:

• Shabbos is private; the Torah doesn’t say to invite in the stranger and those at our gates, but just to celebrate with our families. Our sages taught that we should even minimize our conversation on Shabbos.

• But Yom Tov is very public; we bring in the לוי and the גר and the יתום ואלמנה, anyone we can find. We declared at the start of the Seder last night, כל דכפין ייתי וייכול, let everyone come in and have the Seder with us.

So in prayer and in learning Torah, in Tanach and in our Shabbos and Yom Tov experience, we have both the private and the public, the intimate and the advertised, the individual and the communal.

But there is one time when we are mandated to be public, when even the most private and personal Jew must embrace public Judaism - and that is with our children. Our mitzvah of chinuch requires that we share our own convictions and our own practices with our children, the better to help them in their growth.

Many people are reluctant to share with our kids the amounts we give to tzedakah, to tell them the number of hours we spend or have spent learning Torah, to discuss with them the doubts and crises and watershed moments of our spiritual lives. They’re our kids, not our peers, and these are real intimacies.

But when it comes to chinuch, to educating our children, we dare not hold back. Yes, children are perceptive and they pick up a lot on their own - but the continuity of the Jewish people is too great a thing to entrust to the hit-or-miss insights of youth. We are bound by the duty of Sinai to be proactive, to initiate these conversations with our children, in an age-appropriate way.

This applies particularly for the Seder, and Pesach in general, the time of והגדת לבנך. On Pesach we seek to guarantee the Torah’s transmission, our nation’s transmission, to the next generation, and so it is a time for us to be most public.

Aish haTorah put out a great animated short film this year, a Prequel to the Arba Banim, those four children about whom we read at the Seder. They asked a key question: “How did those four kids become the adults they are today?” And they answered by portraying four children asking their parents, “Why is the sky blue,” and receiving different parental responses.

• One child’s father says exasperatedly, “Questions, questions! Why are you asking me so many questions?!” And so his child grows up to not question at all.

• Another child’s parents say, “I don’t know, it just is” and leave it at that, and that child grows up to be the simple child.

• A third child is ridiculed and publicly humiliated by his father for asking a dumb question - and so he grows up to think that this is the way we treat other people.

• The fourth child’s mother says, “That’s a great question; let’s go look it up,” and so that child learns to honor questions and to investigate.

On Pesach, when we are instructed והגדת לבנך, to teach our children, we override any native inclination toward privacy and toward the quality of our intimate relationship with HaShem. For our children, for our grandchildren, for our nieces and nephews, for the children of our community as a whole, we celebrate our Seder and our Pesach in public, and open our intimacy for everyone around us.

At the event last Monday, Senator Clinton was asked about her favorite bible story, and she said it was the story of Esther. I turned to the person next to me and asked him whether he thought it was a sincere response, or just a crowd-pleaser. He pointed out to me that you don’t really come to Messiah College to pander to the Jewish vote.

Public displays of religion do often beg a skeptical reaction. Public displays can seem to be more about action than about that heart which HaShem so desires, more about being public than הצנע לכת עם אלקיך... but there is that other side, the positive side of public, communal religion, as highlighted on Pesach. All through this Yom Tov, may we follow the model of public davening, public learning, the model of Avraham and of Yosef and of Yom Tov’s communal celebration, doing our best to ensure that our children grow up as Chachamim, to inquire and to learn in complete sincerity.


  1. Very nice post, with one exception - I tend to think of anything that happens within the family as "private" and not public. It's not a public interaction, when a parent teaches a child, unless it happens in the presence of outsiders )who may or may not be part of the extended family, or just strangers on the street). But I may just not be a very private person.

    So I guess the public nature of Pesach depends on whom you are inviting to your seder.

  2. Thanks for commenting.

    I actually went back and forth on the role of family while I writing the speech. I can see it both ways.