Reclaiming Jewish identity from the shadow of antisemitism

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein’s Pesach message

The global surge in antisemitism in the aftermath of October 7 threatens not only the physical security of Jews – but our psychological and spiritual well-being too. It poses a danger to our very sense of Jewish identity. It can too easily lead us to define ourselves by the hatred we suffer at the hands of others. 

When we ask ourselves and our children what it means to be Jewish, there’s an answer that springs all too readily to mind: to be Jewish is to be a member of a persecuted minority who have endured 2 000 years of suffering and exile, culminating in the Holocaust, and continuing with the terror and fierce hatred we’ve faced in our own homeland. To be a Jew is to be hated by others.

 This unremittingly dark perspective on Jewish identity is not only depressing – it is guaranteed to drive away our children, and the next generation of Jews, from their Jewishness.

How do we reclaim our Jewish identity? How do we prevent Judaism being reduced to a perpetual state of victimhood? We can’t just deny the reality – the persecution we have suffered is part of our history and therefore part of our identity. But how do we integrate it into something larger and richer, something more inspiring and less damaging?

The answer lies in the Pesach seder. The seder deals with the painful subject of more than two centuries of slavery and hardship in Egypt. We acknowledge the pain. We eat the bitter herbs, discuss the suffering of slavery in painstaking detail. We face the pain head-on.

But we don’t end there. We go beyond the bitter herbs. We eat matzah – the bread of our freedom. We drink four cups of wine, each corresponding to an expression of redemption. We remember the miracles, recall the Divine blessings, recount the inspiring vision of what it means to be a Jew.

We begin the seder with the exalting words of kiddush, declaring our Jewish mission statement – our God-given calling to carry the light of truth and goodness in the world. And we end the seder with the soul-stirring words of Nishmat kol chai, a beautiful prayer evoking the ultimate redemption of all of humanity, a world incandescent with this light of truth and goodness. 

In between, we trace the narrative of Jewish history and Jewish destiny – a story of struggle and pain, but also of meaning and purpose, joy and inspiration. Seder night is rich and colourful, filling us up with our cherished values of faith, family, community and compassion; nurturing our connection to God, our loved ones, the Jewish people and humanity; seeding a deep, inspiring, enduring Jewish identity.

Ultimately, amidst a turbulent world, amidst the painful aftermath of October 7, gathering around our seder tables this year can be healing and uplifting – an uplifting experience restoring the excitement and celebration of being Jewish, and charging a new generation of Jews with the values and vision we hold dear.

• Published in the April 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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