Why Do So Many Jews Attend a Seder?

A large majority of all Jews attend a Seder, though the precise percentages are a bit elusive. A somehwat vague post at YNet reported last week about the percent of Israeli Jews that will conduct a Seder. We assume that it means, attend a Seder:
According to a social survey, 82% of secular Israelis conduct the Seder, as do 93% of those who define themselves as "traditional but not so religious" and 98% of those who define themselves as "religious traditional."
The source of the survey and its accuracy are not provided by YNet. Other sources put the total percent of Israelis who attend a Seder at 85%; and it's only at 75% according to Haaretz.

Rabbi Marc Angel asserts in an op-ed that he expects a smaller number of Seder goers in Israel -- 66% -- along with some commentary about it:
The Jerusalem Post recently reported a survey indicating that about two thirds of Israeli Jews would participate in a Seder for Pessah this year; about 80% of new olim would do likewise. This means that one-third of Israeli Jews and 20 percent of new olim were not at a Seder. For this huge number of Jews, participation at a Seder means little or nothing. They do not feel a religious – or even a national or cultural – impulse to celebrate Pessah with a Seder. If this is so in Israel, it is all the more so in the Diaspora.
We differ right away with the Talmudic logic described by the phrase, "all the more so" employed by the rabbi. The actual statistics for the US Jews are also hard to pin down, but they are substantial, and by most estimates are more than 66%. In 2005, JTA reported that 77% of American Jews attend Seders. The number was 79% this year, according to Ed Rothstein of the Times.

We think, contrary to Rabbi Angel, that it is less likely to assume that Jews in Israel feel the need to attend a Seder and more logical that US Jews seek to affirm their Jewish identification via Seder attendance.

We base our supposition on the actual content of the Seder, the religious and cultural expressions that it articulates and reinforces.

Depending on who you ask, the Seder is a mode of expressing the redemption that leads to the formation and cohesion of one of the following
  • a Judaic covenant nation
  • a Jewish religious community
  • an Israelite tribal entity
  • an extended clan
  • a nuclear family
Any Israeli can simply take out his or her wallet and find an identity card that affirms his or her affiliation with the Jewish State. Hence it's way more meaningful and needed for a diaspora Jew to find an annual expression of such an identification.

And if the affirmation of the Seder penetrates down to the tribal level, that is not something that an informed Israeli will want to do. Israelis believe that Israel is a grand nation among the nations of the world, not a confederation of Jewish tribes.

By contrast, to be a Jew in America means two big distinct things. First, it means to be a member of a great religion -- an equal peer among the world's great religions. Synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah serve to express and solidify that identification for Jews.

Second, it means to be a member of the tribe of Jews, an ethnic and familial affiliation of great pride, albeit a numerical minority in the US. The Passover holiday, via the Seder at home, affirms and articulates that connection with the formative tribal stories and shared practices, going way back to the early progenitors of the group.

Here are the outlines of the story of the Seder. A small tribe of 70 goes to Egypt and is enslaved. A larger and more powerful tribe come out as free persons via the miracles of the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea.  And here are our shared tribal artifacts: flat bread, bitter herbs, special foods, shared stories and unique modes of telling them.

Though each holiday, Rosh Hashanah or Passover, has its core and major mode and message, neither of these distinctive celebrations is purely religious or tribal. The shofar and other aspects of Rosh Hashanah may be viewed in a tribal lens. And all elements of the Seder can be read as philosophical expressions of grand religious import.

And the bottom line is that a Seder is a lot of work. But it is worth the effort to conduct it and to attend it. Because at its essence we believe that a Jew who attends a Seder is saying, Hey watch out. We are members of an an ancient, special and powerful tribe.

All-in-all we speculate that it is the intrinsic, familial, personal and emotional message of the Seder that attracts a large percentage of Jews to show up in the first place, and to find the effort meaningful, whether in the USA or in Israel.

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