Can Judaism’s Master Story Survive the Age of Information?
Ten minutes into the seder, an iPhone beeps. I look up from the Haggadah and there’s Nicky, 15, sitting across from me, texting away. Her brother, to my right, is busy with his smartphone, and his wife of four months, new to the family and new to Judaism, whispers, a tad too loudly: “Stop tweeting.” Seder stops. Everyone’s yelling.
This (familiar?) snapshot describes a 2,000- year-old storytelling ritual and its contemporary woes. But it’s not just about Passover or the perils of technology. This snapshot reveals a crucial challenge facing each and every nation and culture today, just as it has challenged each and every previous generation: How do we make new meaning of our inherited past? Can humanity’s sacred stories survive the fast evolving modern marketplace of myths and ideas?
The seder, even though it is the most popular Jewish activity, according to the United Jewish Communities’ National Jewish Population Survey of 2000, is also an example of how the inherited past of rites, symbols, and narratives no longer feels personally relevant for more and more people like Nicky.
But, unknowingly, Nicky was perfectly playing her part in the seder story, embodying the fourth child of the Haggadah, the one who keeps silent, not knowing enough to ask a basic question. The original authors of the Haggadah didn’t have to deal with Twitter, but they did face the challenges of transmitting cultural values. The parable of the four children demonstrates an early pedagogy in which values are examined through the medium of storytelling. Each of the four children represents the various possible reactions within each one of us and among all of us as we struggle with the role of sacred stories in our lives. But the authors of this parable didn’t just capture the essence of this timeless challenge; they also came up with a smart solution, still viable and vital today, even if often overlooked. “At p’tach lo,” the Haggadah instructs: “It is your responsibly to open for them.” It is the duty of parents, teachers, and leaders to open the doors to curiosity, and to transmit our values by making the stories become alive, accessible, and meaningful to everyone sitting at our table.
How do we, today, provide access to the sacred story? Before tackling the “how” I’d like to suggest that we examine the “why.” What meaning can we make of this story today? Why should it matter at all?
“There are master stories that we tell ourselves and by which we interpret and respond to the events which impinge on our lives.” James Fowler, a professor of theology and human development writing about the life of faith, identified stories as a key ingredient in the development and shaping of our personalities and collective contracts. “Our master stories” he continues, “disclose the ultimate meaning of our lives.”
The story of the Exodus is clearly one of the Western world’s master stories, and is arguably the mega-master story of the Jewish people. Like many other grand stories, the biblical saga of how the Hebrews suffered as slaves and found their way to freedom presents their descendents with a link to the past and a message of hope for a better future. Like all great stories, the Exodus is framed in a basic grid: struggle and resolution. The stories of Cinderella, Hamlet, and even Avatar — currently the bestselling “story” — recall transformation, echoing struggle and the hope for resolution. We cherish these stories and pass them on because they mirror and mold what’s stored in our minds; they remind us of how we see the world —a story of struggle and survival.
For most Jews seated around seder tables today, the Exodus story is more about historical and national survival — an act of strengthening our collective identity by retelling the struggle that forged us as a people. In answer to the question “why tell the Exodus story?” most of us will reply, as the Haggadah instructs: “Remember where we Jews came from: We suffered and survived.”
But there’s another way to answer this question, and perhaps this other “why” can make this story and its radical message accessible and important to many more of us today. Jewish stories, according to mystical Jewish teachings, are not important just because they happened once, but because they keep happening. The stories, retold, enable us to eat the fruit, survive the flood, flee Egypt, and reactivate revelation. These master stories give voice to our most cherished notions, private and public, personal and collective — of what is sacred, what really matters, and what our role is in the world. As the People of the Book, connecting to our recycled stories reaffirms our identity. As human beings, these same stories are agents of transformation, resonating with our deeper selves. Stories are equipment for living. We read books and go to the movies because stories, more than anything else, teach us, move us, and help us grow. “Stories hide meanings as a bottle contains wine and as the body is filled with soul,” states the Zohar. The personal, often private meaning that each one of us makes of these stories is the real reason for the survival of our master stories. The Exodus story is the master story of our people; it is also the personal master story for each one of us. And, like every story, like all scriptures, the sacred story is but a gateway to an endless, timeless conversation that can inform our minds, touch our souls, mark our journeys, and bring us closer to ourselves and to each other.
This year, at the seder table, I will tell the story and invite all present to consider their personal narrative of struggle, transformation, and resolution. What is your personal “Egypt,” your “narrow place of difficulty” today? How are we free? And how are we not? What part of this story echoes our contemporary social struggles? I will probably only use highlights from the Haggadah, that ancient anthology that focuses on the collective story and leaves us so much room to make the story our own — new each time.
Will this version of the story get Nicky to stop texting and enter the story? Will it enrich her inner life and make her curious enough to ask a question and to ponder the significance of the Jewish legacy to her life? I hope so. The best I can do is open the door to the story and invite her in.
It is our duty to open the door to the deep meaning of our stories. And once we figure out the “why should this story matter” question, there’s still the “how” challenge. How does a 2,000-year-old technology of sacred storytelling adapt to the new forms by which we consume values? But that’s a whole other story….
1 Fowler, James, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, New York: HarperOne, 1981, pp. 82-84