People surround a Seder plate at the Shabbat Tent at the Coachella music festival in Indio, California. (Photo/RNS via Instagram-@chrism_arts)
People surround a Seder plate at the Shabbat Tent at the Coachella music festival in Indio, California. (Photo/RNS via Instagram-@chrism_arts)

The popularity of Passover defies the odds

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Rituals play a very large role in all of our lives. We have a cup of coffee every morning. We read the newspaper. We stand for the national anthem and sing it aloud at sporting events. These rituals, and many others, are so commonplace that we are often not even conscious of them.

But the examples I’ve highlighted are secular rituals, ones that are practiced by people in our society regardless of their race, gender, culture or beliefs.

When it comes to Jewish ritual, however, many (if not most) of us struggle a great deal.

In a recent study by the Jewish Federations of North America, this reality was made abundantly clear. Outside of the Orthodox community, a very low percentage of American Jews practice, in any regular way, religious rituals such as Shabbat observance, eating kosher, and the like.

There was one notable exception: Passover.

While much less than 20% of non-Orthodox American Jews attend Shabbat services regularly, more than 80% observe Passover, usually with some form of a seder at home.

In an age when religious ritual is in sharp decline, especially among the younger generation, what explains the appeal and popularity of the rituals associated with Passover?

There are a few obvious explanations, as well as a deeper one. On the surface, Passover is so widely observed because of its social dimensions. The seder is a time when we gather with family and friends (and sometimes neighbors); it is a time when we eat great food and drink wine.

But Passover is also widely practiced because it is, in essence, ritual theater, a time when all those assembled around the seder table participate in an engaging and joyful drama that has been practiced for centuries.

All of the key elements of theater are present in the seder: There is a “stage” (the seder table); there is a script (the haggadah) that everyone follows; there are props (such as Elijah’s cup, the afikomen and the seder plate itself); and there are characters (including all who are present).

Who doesn’t like good dinner theater?

Yet the Passover seder is a special kind of dinner theater, and it is more accurate to think of it as a sacred drama. The seder was designed by the rabbis to transport us, socially and spiritually, to a place of enchantment, a realm where past and present dissolve and coalesce into one.

“We were slaves in the land of Egypt,” we say aloud during the seder. We don’t say that they were slaves, but that we were slaves. The story of the Exodus — the mythic, powerful and redemptive journey from bondage to liberation — is as much ours as it is that of our ancestors.

Actors often talk about “inhabiting” their characters. And that is exactly what each one of us does when we participate in the Passover seder. That is what can transport and transform us.

Scholars have pointed out that the seder was likely influenced by the Greek symposium, an “academic meal” that involved a combination of feasting and intellectual debate and discussion. Certainly, the seder includes intellectual as well as spiritual content. Think of the Four Questions.

All of this helps to explain the popularity and power of Passover, a series of rituals that engage our bodies, minds and souls.

As a rabbi, I think that is something to celebrate. And emulate.

So how do we make other Jewish rituals just as compelling? Is it even possible to restructure and revitalize other ancient rites, ceremonies, and practices and make them as attractive and popular as the Feast of Unleavened Bread?

As Theodor Herzl once said, if you will it, it is no dream. But that dream may have to wait for the next generation of Jews to step forward as activists, teachers and leaders to show us the way.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."