Seder Table (Narrow Place)


One of the images that remained with me when I read Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff’s Mongrel or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff  was the image of a long Seder table in a narrow room.

Searching a month or so later for the precise passage, I realized that the image was a composite drawn from two related pieces, one an autobiographical snippet and the other from a story that both describe childhood memories of Passover in Egypt sometime in the 1930s or 1940s.

In “Passover in Egypt,” Kahanoff recalls, “It was beautiful in Uncle David’s house. The table was so long, passing through the French doors that separated the dining room from the living room in order to seat us, forty people in all. Everything shone: the crystal, the silver, the flowers, [etc.]” (17)

In “Such is Rachel,” there’s also a description of a large Seder table. Leaving no room to pass with the dishes, the chairs are almost up against the wall.  But here, there’s ambivalence. “Jack had made her see the narrow limits set by plain whitewashed walls where before she had only seen the mystical beauty of the table” (23).

At issue: Is the narrow space, in the end, just too narrow? Or does it have any elastic stretch to it? Can the narrow limit make space for everyone, like the Temple space as “remembered” by the rabbis, in which the masses inside were pressed to the limit, but found (miraculously!) space to prostrate themselves?

Franz Rosenzweig cites this aggadah in The Star of Redemption. He does so in the Christianity chapter, which almost no one ever reads. I’m conflicted about Rosenzweig’s use of the story of the Temple  and its elastic space. According to Rosenzweig, that the most intense particularism constitutes the condition for the greatest universalism.

I’m not sure I believe Rosenzweig’s miserable piece of apologetics. Intense “particularism” can generate many effects, but I don’t think “universalism” is one of them. What struck me as more persuasive is the image by Kahanoff in which it is actually the narrowing of space into a “site,” the figure of a colorful table compressed by a narrow, white-washed room that constitutes the “mystical beauty” of the Seder table in her memoir and story. I don’t think “universalism has anything to do with it. “The image” (all images?) is much too intimate for that.



About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Seder Table (Narrow Place)

  1. hayyim (kevin) says:

    “According to Rosenzweig, that the most intense particularism constitutes the condition for the greatest universalism.”

    this i am actually not bothered by in rosenzweig. what i find destestable about “universalism” is the tendency to erase difference, cultural difference particularly. universalism becomes commercialism, turns culture into cultural products and inserts them into a larger culture. a pure particularity, on the other hand, which recognizes only itself in its particularity will be unconcerned with other particularities…. that is, will not be interested in subordinating them to its own categories. thus the space is opened for actual plurality.

    i suppose the difficulty here is twofold though:

    1. this is a universal asserted negatively. it only emerges from the negative of the plurality of particulars.

    2. what about the possibility of meaningful cultural exchange that is not commodification?

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