Ask the Rabbis // Special Passover Edition
It is permitted, but they are not allowed to share in the sacrificial lamb ritual unless they surrender their foreskin. No exceptions. As for whether it’s a good idea—it’s a great idea. Let them sit there reading about blood, frogs and lice while getting buzzed on Manischewitz wine and chewing on salted parsley and matzoh while smelling the delicious aroma of the main dish emanating from the kitchen for hours on end—but never arriving at the Seder table because of endless discussions about Pharaohs, slavery, suffering and sea-splitting, accompanied by songs that smack of pirate ballads, after which they bite into the Jewish version of peyote, that white horseradish root. At this point, tears streaming down their face, they will cast off their paper yarmulke, tear off their bib and storm out of the house muttering “No wonder you people are a minority! You’re all stark-raving mad!”
Most of us Jews don’t understand what Passover is really about. So why do we presume we can let non-Jews in on something we ourselves can’t figure out? Is not our most classical of philosophical texts titled Guide for the Perplexed? Better to leave well enough alone.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
I am amazed by this question. Actually, that’s an understatement. I was stunned by its insensitivity. Sure, it is a tradition to ask lots of questions at the Seder, but this one crossed a line for me. Why is this question different than all other questions? Because it is exclusionary, clannish, alienating and insulting to all our families and friends whose non-Jewish members are not “good enough” to participate in our celebration with us.
I know what the Bible says, that “no foreigner could eat of it”—meaning the Passover sacrifice—nor could any uncircumcised male partake of the Paschal lamb. But that was then, when observing cultic practices was only for the initiated. Thankfully, we live in different times, when “breaking bread” with the stranger—especially the unleavened variety of bread—is a good thing because it tears down barriers and builds goodwill.
There is a famous story about Rabbi Hillel, who could not recall a particular practice relating to Passover. He resolved the matter by saying, “Go out and see what the people are doing.” For Hillel, and for us, folk wisdom and custom trump halakhic rulings, especially ones that are archaic. So come, look at my house, and you’ll see how we do it—with an array of participants. Jews, non-Jews, all are welcome here!
Rabbi Peter Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
Not only is it permitted; it is encouraged!
Passover is the time of year when we remember and retell the story that forms our master narrative. Over the course of the Seder meal, we remind ourselves of the experience of slavery and the liberation from bondage by eating symbolic foods, telling stories and singing songs. In that experience, we are also called to recommit ourselves to the Jewish obligation to end bondage and slavery elsewhere in the world. When we include non-Jews in our Seder rituals and experiences, we are able to share our master narrative with them. We give non-Jews a window into the core experience and identity of what it means to be Jewish. We also impress upon them our enduring commitment to civil rights and social justice. Sharing the Passover Seder with our non-Jewish friends, colleagues and neighbors builds bridges in our communities, helps develops shared understandings of one another and lays the foundation for partnerships that can work toward social change.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
I invite people to my Seder who I think would be interested in understanding the Seder rituals. It would never occur to me to invite only Jews. My Seder is an opportunity to share Jewish rituals, ideas and theology with people who are curious, who are interested in big religious ideas and who want to experience a Seder. As a rabbi, I have always invited non-Jewish clergy to my Seder as well. These men and women have felt honored to be invited, and I know they have shared the experience with their congregants. In our modern open society, most of us have classsmates, neighbors, colleagues, friends and often family who are not Jewish. It is important that we open our homes and explain our traditions to those who are not familiar with them.
The idea of excluding non-Jews from the Seder was intended to promote group solidarity and was reinforced during centuries of persecution. Today many non-Jews are interested in and respectful of Judaism. Hence, I believe it is a very good thing to expose these individuals to a Seder. This is a hospitable, welcoming way to build bridges.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
The little-known prohibition on inviting a non-Jew to participate in one’s Seder is in part a residue of the severe Biblical prohibition that an uncircumcised male (e.g. one who has not joined the Jewish covenant) may not partake of the Paschal lamb sacrifice. The national Passover ritual meal celebrated the core event of Jewish religion, the Exodus, which liberated the Israelites to join in the covenant of tikkun olam and set in motion their mission to lead the world toward redemption. Only full citizens—that is, full covenant partners—were permitted to eat this sacred food. (If a citizen did not participate, this was an equally grave sin.)
But the Temple was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago; the Paschal sacrifice is long gone. The rabbis created the Seder to fill the void of losing the sacrifice, but the sacramental and purity level of holiness of the Biblical Paschal feast was no longer maintained. Rather, the rabbinic prohibition of Gentile participation reflected the implacable hostility between non-Jews and Jews and the consequent policy to exclude Gentiles from significant social or religious contacts with Jews.
Today, in countries such as the United States, Jews are in positive, fully human contact with Gentiles. Jews are treated with full respect and equality before the law. In religious dialogue, Christians seriously uphold the validity and dignity of Jewish religion. Jews can influence, teach our values and advance the cause of tikkun olam by inviting non-Jews to our Seder.
Under these circumstances, the prohibition should have been repealed formally. Unfortunately, as in other important areas, haredi resistance has blocked needed official action. Individuals should feel free to act in accordance with their heart, their friendships, their respect for all people as images of God and invite non-Jews to their Seders. I am aware that there is a serious problem of close relationships with non-Jews leading to assimilation and intermarriage. But not inviting Gentiles to the Seder is not the right (or efficacious) way to deal with this challenge.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
I’ve always told students that any question about Judaism can be answered in two words but that those words vary with the audience. If the interlocutor is familiar with traditional scholarship, the answer is “machloket Rishonim” (it is disputed by the great medieval authorities). If he or she is not, the answer is “It’s complicated.”
Let’s try the second formula. Unlike with a Shabbat meal, there is a halakhic issue with inviting a non-Jew to any holiday meal, not just Pesach. (There are workarounds. Consult your local Orthodox rabbi.) Additionally, there are customs—albeit not laws—precluding non-Jewish participation at a Seder. In a very traditional Seder, where there are hours of discussion before the meal, some of the material can be intensely. . . Jewish, and not so appropriate for non-Jews. Nonetheless, we have had many Christians and Muslims at our Seders over the years (in a halakhically permitted manner), and they have always found the experience uplifting.
Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA