Playing Jewish in a Major Key

In reflecting on our family’s Seder for the first night of Passover, I wonder about the reaction of special guests: an African-American minister friend and his family. Oh, I know the Hebrew didn’t throw them much; the minister has been studying Hebrew with me and learning Tanach at Jewish Theological Seminary. And the singing certainly wasn’t a new idea; I listen to his church choir practice next door as we study together in another room of the church.

What I was (and am) curious about is the sense of lightheartedness with which we retell the Passover story. Lightheartedness and humor are not new to the Jewish experience. I would even suggest that the entire book of Esther, for example, is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek telling of a story that entertains us even as we recognize the unlikelihood of the events having a basis in historical events. So when, in the past few decades, the very serious nature of biblical plagues came to be represented by our generation’s contributions to the Seder — wind up jumping frogs, ping pong balls as hail, toy rubber locusts, 10 plague finger puppets and such — the playfulness that was introduced was not totally foreign to our Jewish experience.

We take our Jewishness, Jewish values, Jewish aspirations, and Jewish texts seriously. And we take it with a healthy dose of play and playfulness. Play and playfulness are part of the Jewish experience of today and tomorrow. They were always part of our Jewish education, at least in early grades. We’ve now taken it up to all ages and moved them into some parts of our ritual life.

In a recent conversation with a synagogue’s leadership, I asked whether the congregation had a sense of joy and celebration in its services. We talked about how synagogue music had often been in minor keys, which, to the American ear, at least, sounds nostalgic or even mournful, rather than joyous. “What would it be like”, I asked, “if all synagogue tunes were in a major key?”, which, to our ears, sounds more celebratory. What if the tunes sounded playful, much like the tunes used to read the book of Esther on Purim or to sing Chad Gadya at the Seder?

I’ve challenged communities to reclaim Yom Kippur as a day of joy. That’s right, joy. The Talmud tells us that Yom Kippur was a solemn day (which is misinterpreted by many as a sad day). And it also teaches that it was one of the happiest days of the year, as people celebrated their sins being forgiven.

So, I’m a big fan of celebration and of lightening up the Passover story at the Seder, even if it may chop away some of the terror of the plagues. The joy and celebration of people coming together to renew a tradition that aspires to inspire a better world is far too important to not be taken seriously and expressed joyously. And I look forward to my next study session with the good reverend, where we can reflect on the experience and compare notes on how to use our faith and community traditions to fix our world joyously.

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