For the past two Passovers, President Barack Obama has hosted Seders in the White House, becoming the first president in history to do so. The Seder is the latest in a series of escalating steps taken by presidents of both parties to appeal to religious constituencies. President Bush, for example, initiated the traditions of hosting both Hanukah parties and Iftaar dinners in the White House. On the whole, conservatives in general—and this magazine in particular—have been supportive of more open religious observance in the public square, but this latest move raises questions beyond the partisan character of the politicians in question of where the limits lie in the use of religious practice in the political sphere.
There have, apparently, been Seders held in the White House during previous administrations, but never before 2009 has a president attended a Seder in the White House. Given the prominence of the Seder in the pantheon of Jewish rituals, that absence may seem surprising. Still, Michael Tomasky, writing in the Guardian, was probably overstating matters to call the absence of a presidential Seder “shocking.” As none of our presidents have been Jewish, there is little reason to have expected a presidential Seder.
The White House Seder was reviewed, analyzed, and dissected, as most presidential events are. The commentary on the Seder, as with most things in our divided society, largely reflected partisan leanings on the issue: Those who liked the president were for it, and those who disliked him—this author included—came out against it.
The commentary from supporters was somewhat predictable, coming in the form of glowing quotes from members of the American Jewish establishment regarding the importance to the Jewish community of presidential participation at a Seder. The American Jewish Committee’s Jason Isaacson said that Obama’s attendance “certifies the resonance of this ancient narrative and its relevance to all of us,” while the United Jewish Communities’ William Daroff hailed the White House Seder as “a testament to how far we have come as a Jewish people in America.” These types of statements were likely the kind of press the administration sought, knowing that they would be repeated in dozens of Jewish papers across the country. Tomasky’s assessment in the Guardian was somewhat less predictable. Going beyond the political feel good nature of the Seder, he said that the White House Seder “ reminds us that Obama is our first cosmopolitan president in a long, long time or maybe ever.”
The problem with Tomasky’s observation, of course, is that it may be too accurate. Obama is “cosmopolitan” not only in the sense that Tomasky means, in that he lived in a major urban center and enjoys trendy restaurants and museums, but also in the sense that he may see himself as above religion. As many observers have noted, his selection of a church was based in many ways on the political consideration of joining a certain well-connected African-American community in Chicago rather than a deep theological affiliation. In addition, David Remnick’s new, largely positive biography reveals that Obama dropped Reverend Wright privately well before the Reverend’s opinions became a problem in the media. And of course, Obama’s comment during his campaign that when people “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion” fostered the idea that he lacks a deep understanding of the importance of religion in many people’s lives.
On the other side, the critics of the Seder, focused, unsurprisingly, on the jarring juxtaposition of Obama’s shabby treatment of Israel immediately preceding the Seder, and the Seder itself, which was intended to engender positive feelings for Obama within the American Jewish community. Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin felt that “hosting a Seder so soon after insulting and bullying Israel shows a shocking amount of chutzpah on Obama's part.” Another critic, the New Republic’s Marty Peretz, felt that Obama missed a “golden opportunity to tone down the cacophony of his nasty disagreement with Bibi Netanyahu by going to Jerusalem and celebrating the Seder there instead.” Recognizing that this was unlikely, Peretz criticized “Obama’s disdain for Jewish feeling,” saying that “Jerusalem is the living heart of the faith, and it is that loyalty he has chosen to assault.”
Despite these differing perspectives, all sides would agree that the Seder came at a convenient time for the Obama White House. On the heels of its rocky diplomatic patch with Israel, this feel-good story on the President’s relations with the Jewish community helped stop the press stories about the bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu, for a time. But in looking to find future ways to bond with the Jewish community, it is important that the president, as well as other political leaders, exercise care in the application of religious practice to political theater.
The Seder is one of the most recognized Jewish rituals, and one can hardly fault the White House for trying to promote better relations with the Jewish community by hosting a Seder. Yet there are a host of reasons why hosting a Seder is far more challenging than throwing a Hanukah party, which is basically a holiday party with an all-Jewish guest list and candle-lighting ceremony. (Even so, the White House Hanukah parties have held many challenges for both the Bush and Obama administrations regarding the provision of kosher food and intense lobbying regarding the number of attendees.) A Seder, in contrast, is an explicitly religious event, and therefore fraught with pitfalls and logistical challenges, which can diminish the goodwill these types of events are supposed to engender.
First of all, a Seder takes place on a holiday decreed in the Torah, a day known in Yiddish as yontef, or yom tov in Hebrew. Yontefs bring with them strict injunctions against work, basically applying the sabbatarian restrictions—no travel, no use of electricity, no spending money—to the first two days of Passover (in America, anyway; in Israel, it is a one day observance). This makes it difficult to host an event for observant Jews on Passover, which is one of the reasons the White House did not invite outsiders to its Seder. In fact, a report on matzav.com found that “the Seder comes with a bonus: Because it is clearly a private, personal affair with longtime staffers and their families, the Obama White House avoids having leaders of different U.S. Jewish groups feel slighted that they were not invited.” And when it comes to Jewish leaders, I can attest from my time at the White House that slighted is a mild depiction of the reactions they have when an expected or hoped for invitation is not forthcoming.
Passover is also unlike all other Jewish holidays in the restrictions it imposes on one’s eating habits. The kosher rules apply all year round, but Passover adds a new requirement, that of eating unleavened bread. The rabbis have interpreted this to mean one may not eat any form of chametz, or leavened bread, on Passover. This restriction goes beyond prohibiting Wonder Bread. All food that is not explicitly kosher for Passover or that has even touched non-Passover dishes is forbidden. And while most Jews do not keep kosher during the rest of the year, a far greater percentage of Jews do keep the Passover dietary restrictions to some degree. A recent survey of Israeli Jews found that 69 percent of Israelis do not eat chametz on Passover and an additional 19 percent said they only do so in the privacy of their own homes. This means that Passover has an 88 percent public observance rate, which would thrill the clergy in most religions, not just Judaism.
These Passover restrictions create some sensitivities that can get politicians into trouble, as Carly Fiorina discovered this year during her California Senate campaign. The campaign’s Passover message wished Jews a happy holiday, “as we break bread and spend time with our families and friends.” Bread, of course, is forbidden during the holiday, and this attempt by Fiorina to send an inspiring message ended up causing embarrassment when Politico and some other blogs reprinted the message and pointed out the faux pas.
The point, of course, is not that politicians should fail to acknowledge holidays or refrain from joining in certain celebrations. However, it is important to recognize that there is a line between festivities and sacred events. While Hanukah and Passover are two of the best-known Jewish holidays, they are religiously very different. Post-biblical holidays like Hanukah and Purim, which impose no work or dietary restrictions, are more conducive to parties and communal celebrations than biblically-mandated holidays like Passover or the less-well known but equal in stature Sukkoth (Huts) or Shavuoth (Pentecost).
The recent creation of these new White House traditions like the Hanukah party and the Seder raises the question of what future administrations might do in their efforts to court the Jewish community. White House Yom Kippur, with mandatory fasting and the strictures against leather shoes causing rampant violations of the buttoned-down White House dress code? Or a White House sukkah, with the traditional hut built on the South Lawn where Marine One is supposed to touch down? Or perhaps weekly Sabbath observances in which the president joins religious Jews in eschewing the use of his Blackberry?
These examples are obviously absurd (I hope), but a continued search by politicians for Jewish communal events to latch on to runs the risk of mixing that which is holy with that which is common. Now that we have had a White House Seder, we are unlikely to go back. Future Passovers without a White House Seder would raise questions of why this night is different from any other Passover night—despite the fact that the Jews have done just fine for over two hundred years in America without having our chief executive drink the required four cups of wine and consume the afikoman (obligatory dessert matzah). But going forward, when carving out the distinction between the sacred and the political, elected officials should always look to protect the sacred.
Tevi Troy is a former White House Jewish liaison and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.