For most Jewish families, the Passover Seder is a lively, raucous event. The frivolity easily extends to the recitation of the Ten Plagues, some of which to the modern ear — and certainly the adolescent ear — come off as, well, weird and funny. Lice? Frogs? Heck, a lot of kids think frogs are cool and love trying to catch them.
But then we get to the final plague — the slaying of the first-born sons. Suddenly, the Seder isn’t so amusing. If the tenth plague makes you feel uneasy, you’re not alone.
Shlomo Levin, past rabbi at Lake Park Synagogue, sees the story of Passover as an opportunity to discuss the issue of human rights. That inspired him to write “The Human Rights Haggadah.”
The plague of human rights abuses
“Were [the Ten Plagues] justified? Was it wrong to target innocent people?”, he asks. “Targeting innocent people in order to affect the political class, that could be an antecedent to terrorism.”
“The Human Rights Haggadah” isn’t designed to make Jews feel defensive or to bash the Passover story. Rather, Levin uses it as a vehicle to learn about human rights through Jewish teachings. He believes that questions to consider include:
- What human rights have roots In Jewish sources? Where are there conflicts?
- What rights can we agree are absolute and universal?
- Some human rights concern governmental policies and the military. But what of human rights and decisions we make daily?
An emotionally charged issue
“Usually when we hear about human rights it’s in the context of criticizing Israel or the U.S.,” said Levin, adding that human rights is often used as a political weapon.
“I don’t think we understand what the foundations of human rights are or what these ideas are. The way to discuss [human rights] is in a context that is less emotionally charged, because discussing Israel can be very emotional,” he said. “Passover is a much easier way to [discuss human rights].”
If it’s wrong, it’s wrong
Levin said the story of Passover is relevant to the most political and religious questions that we face today.
“All (sides) in the Passover story must be considered equally,” said Levin. “In the Passover story we can look at the human rights abuses by the Egyptians (through the lens) of reproductive rights, hard labor and throwing babies in the river. I can apply those stories to things going on today.”
Levin said that as horrible as the oppression of the Jews in Pharaoh’s Egypt may have been, it didn’t justify denying the human rights of all Egyptians.
“There are moral dilemmas in the fight for freedom,” he said. “Just because the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, does that make the Ten Plagues proportional?”
The most pressing issue of the day
“I think this Haggadah helps make the Seder extraordinarily relevant to the most pressing political and religious questions that we face today, which are questions of religious violence.”
Added Levin: “My opinion is that the philosophy of human rights is the best and maybe only way to have a peaceful world.”
* * *