Why must this year’s Yomtov be different from all other years?
PESACH IS late this year. It will still creep up on us, reducing us to panic-buying ground almonds and sleepless nights counting just how many hard-boiled eggs are needed for Seder, but it falls late in the calendar year, ending on the May Bank Holiday weekend.
Good news for keen matzah ramblers; less so for traditionally observant children attending non-Jewish schools — a declining number, perhaps, but still a sizeable group — for whom it’ll be matzah sandwiches in the classroom.
I can’t say I have fond memories of those years when Pesach failed to coincide with the Easter holidays; soggy ‘‘sandwiches’’, mini Babybels and Snowcrest crisps come to mind, plus days off school in that crucial period before exams. If only, I used to think, Pesach and Easter could always be at the same time.
So I was interested to hear of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ambition to secure consensus for a fixed date for Easter. Justin Welby revealed last week that he is in talks with the Pope and the Coptic and Orthodox Church leaders to set Easter Sunday as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April.
Wouldn’t it be great if our rabbis could do the same? Fix Rosh Hashanah and Succot as always falling ShabbatSunday, therefore alleviating the need for working adults to be out-of-office for most of September? Ensure Shavuot is in half-term, to avoid clashes between all-night learning of Torah and all-night cramming for GCSE Spanish? Set Chanucah as coinciding with Christmas, so that, come December 25, Jews also have a wintery celebration involving overconsumption of lardy goods?
It’s a stretch, I’ll admit. Christianity has the upper hand on this — Christmas always falls at the same time so fixing the date of Easter would be a less radical alteration. But if not that, what about the rabbis agreeing to standardise other capricious aspects of Jewish life?
The obvious choice would be twoday Yomtov. Aside from the rabbis, who have a clear vested interest in 48-hour chagim, who would miss that second day? To misquote Oscar Wilde, to observe one Seder may be regarded as a misfortune; to observe both looks like foolishness. Once upon a time a Judaism with regional variances made sense; it is nothing short of ludicrous in a globalised, interconnected world.
Or what about Shabbat? Much of what we are prohibited from doing is about the spirit of the law, since our biblical forefathers didn’t have cars, TVs, ovens or mobile phones. And yet we seem willing to compromise on aspects of this ‘‘spirit’’ — using hotplates and time-switches, say, or Shabbat lifts in Israeli hotels — yet obstinate about maintaining others. Why are we allowed some loopholes and not others?
Across Orthodox Jewish life, a bit of standardisation might not go amiss; the gap between milk and meat, for example, or whether wheelchairs are acceptable for use on Shabbat, or exactly what women are permitted to do in shul. The old joke about two Jews having three opinions applies, yet the layman has nothing on our rabbis.
If it sounds like I’m arguing myself into another branch of Judaism, I’m not. I’m arguing for a Burkean approach — change in order to conserve. Iron out the maddening, futile inconsistencies to reach a sensible consensus, without betraying what it’s all about. Just as Welby is trying to do.
His mission makes sense, not least in the context of record lows in church attendance in the UK. But Judaism is hardly immune to the same fate.
There may be a thousand halachic reasons, including logical ones, to maintain the status quo, and these issues clearly matter less to those who live their lives guided solely by the Hebrew calendar. But there’s one compelling reason to act, which is that Judaism around the world Cracked it: If Easter’s formalised, then why not our festivals, too?
is polarising between the strictly Orthodox and those who do nothing at all. The middle ground needs some help.
There is much about modern Orthodox Judaism that I love, but also much that I – and others — find difficult to reconcile with modern life. On their own, these inconsistencies might not matter, but being religious in the contemporary Western world is already a challenge, already something that makes us Other. And while not all of religious practice is meant to be easy, need it be so hard? Need we make it harder than it is?
I know it’s a pipe dream. Still, the church first sought standardisation of Easter in the tenth century; if they can achieve progress, why not us too?