For some of us, the seder is a great coming together of family and friends. For others, it’s a struggle to get through the meal. For some people the seder feels like an endless ritual with one or two people droning on about esoteric matters. Others fear that guests will have a bitter argument, probably about current events or about Israel, that will turn ugly.
I have a different approach. I try to take matters into my own hands by helping to shape what we talk about – what we argue about, even. The theory, based on the work that Robbie Gringras and I have been doing through our book Stories for the Sake of Argument, is that the most interesting topics are specifically those that we can’t resist arguing over. That is, if you want to turn a humdrum gathering into something warm, engaging and interesting, some spice needs to be added to the order of events. At the same time, one needs to be careful not to get too hot and risk ‘burning up in flames,’ as Priya Parker puts it in her book “The Art of Gathering”.
Towards this end, I suggest creating your own healthy arguments. To be clear, when I suggest introducing arguments, I am not recommending creating, for example, a political fight at your seder table. I am, however, claiming that arguments are often a sign of active interest, and thus should be engaged. Too often, we avoid the interesting and important “stuff” because we are afraid of an argument. But by avoiding the juiciest topics, we miss the opportunity for a really interesting conversation to develop. As a result, we also miss a great opportunity to learn about ourselves and about our friends, about our beliefs and values.
At the seder, I suggest introducing arguments that come from the Passover story, but that also have broader modern-day implications. By doing this, you will help your guests add meaning to the Passover story and rituals, while simultaneously gaining insight into personal contemporary challenges and ideas. I also recommend providing a framework – choosing a topic and by acting as a facilitator – to help people feel the warmth of a healthy argument, without burning up into a screaming match.
With this in mind, below I suggest two topics for healthy arguments at your seder table. Start by asking people to take a stance, and if they all happen to agree, you can ask a few to take the other side of the argument, as a way of seeing different points of view. Or you can choose just two people, and give them each a different point of view to argue for. After a few minutes of arguing, ask others to take a stand and join the conversation. One additional note, it is often helpful to have a facilitator. That’s the person who can ask a question or reframe if the conversation stalls. Most important is to provide structure for your guests – choosing a topic and being clear about who is taking part – that will create the most effective healthy argument session.
Some guests argue for this point of view: It was wrong for Bnei Yisrael to dance after crossing the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army drowning behind them.
Other guests argue for this point of view: It is entirely appropriate for Bnei Yisrael to dance after crossing the Red Sea, with the enemy drowning behind them.
As facilitator, you can also bring this to a modern-day example. Ask guests whether their opinion changes or stays the same, and why, if the “enemy” or “Egyptian” is the class bully, for example, who trips down a flight of stairs and gets hurt, whether it’s ok to dance and celebrate? Does their opinion change if, for example, the “Egyptian” is a Russian soldier who gets killed. Then push your guests to refer back to the Passover story. How is it similar to these examples? How is it different?
Some guests argue for this point of view: Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God and therefore he can’t be held wholly responsible for his obstinacy.
Other guests argue for this point of view: Pharaoh is wholly responsible for his stubbornness because he had multiple opportunities to set the Israelites free.
As facilitator, try offering a contemporary example from your own life. While we don’t all necessarily feel or believe in the hand of God, we may have internal inclinations that we find impossible to overcome. As children, we may tease our siblings – even when we really don’t mean to. “But it wasn’t on purpose…” Are we still to blame? Or, when someone gets into a car accident, and it truly wasn’t on purpose, should s/he be to blame? How are these examples similar and different to Pharaoh?
If you do try these arguments, I recommend that you encourage folks to remain curious. Try to understand the opposing opinions. If you find yourself surprised that you’re taking a particular stance, because in so many other cases you would have taken an opposite view, say so aloud. Allow yourself to be inconsistent – and share your developing thinking with others.
Take your Passover seder as an opportunity not only to engage in an ancient ritual, or even just to learn about the history of the Jewish people. This is an opportunity to engage in some heated discussions that will enable you to explore your own ideas, and understand your friends’ and family’s beliefs and values as well. In turn, you will be thanked for kindling warmer relationships, deeper ideas, and a more fulfilling Passover experience.