Christmas has Santa, Easter has the Bunny, many households (even secular) have the Tooth Fairy, and Passover has Elijah. Yes, Elijah. In many Jewish homes during the Passover seder, a family member opens the door for Elijah. Treating Elijah even better, many Jews even leave a full cup of Manischewitz for the prophet on their seder table.
On the one hand, I'm glad we Jews have a mythical and mystical figure to call our own. Yet, as a rational Jew, I can't help but wonder why we give Elijah such a grand role. When stepping back and thinking about Elijah, we have an intellectual quandary to solve: is Elijah worthy of his place at our tables?
Perhaps we should symbolically welcome Elijah into our homes each year because of all of the great stories about him, written over centuries. In the Bible, Elijah first shows up in the book of I Kings, where he is said to be a prophet in Israel around the 9th century BCE. The biblical authors tell us Elijah warns King Ahab about an impending drought, travels in a chariot of fire led by horses of fire, resuscitates a child, and proves that the Israelite God is more worthy than the God of their neighbors, Baal. These are great legends written by my ancestors who sought to create a literature that would shape the Israelite community. But at the end of the day, they are just stories with little connection to what I know about my modern world. For modern Jews with a plethora of current and ancient texts available to us, there is nothing compellingly significant about the Elijah texts that translates into giving him such an important role at Passover.
Continuing the search for text, we can turn to rabbinic literature in which Elijah generally heralds the redemption of Israel. Sometimes Elijah appears as the precursor to the arrival of the Messiah, and at other times Elijah himself is an active partner of the Messiah. Elijah's role was often to put pressure on people to do what is right. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a), Elijah tells Rabbi Joshua ben Levi that the Messiah will be found among the beggars of Rome, but later adds that the redemption will only happen if the beggars repent and obey God. In folklore (and many Jewish children's books), Elijah often becomes the good character who arrives to fight against injustices in the world.
While these legends about Elijah may pull on our desire for a better world, the philosophical framework is not one that speaks to me, nor likely to most liberal Jews. Paramount to liberal Judaism is that we are not expecting a Messiah. To wait for a messianic figure smacks of inertia. And the components of Judaism that speak to contemporary Jews more than do messages of passivity are the actions, the deed over creed, and a sense of personal responsibility. We may long for a time when the world is a better place, but we want to do our small part to make it so. Passover is about humans fighting for their freedom, doing their part as a community to fight injustices. Passover is a holiday empowering us to create our own liberation. To make central the idea of expecting a Messiah to solve our problems flies in the face of what the rest of the Haggadah text is about.
With Jewish texts failing to make a solid case for Elijah's great role for the Jewish people, we can turn to the specific role of Elijah in Jewish ritual to see if we can find better justification there. Among Jews, if Elijah gets mentioned at all, it is generally in one of three settings: Passover seders, the end of Shabbat (Havdallah), and brisses (circumcision ceremonies). Elijah's connection to Passover is related to what scholars have seen as an association between Elijah and Moses. In the Bible, both Moses and Elijah encountered God at Mt. Sinai. Just as the biblical authors wrote that Moses freed the Israelites from Egypt, the expectation is that Elijah would bring redemption to the Israelites.
Looking more specifically at the seder ritual, we can turn to the traditional Haggadah text in which the following verse from Jeremiah (10:25a) appears after the instruction to open the door: "Pour out your wrath on the nations who have not heeded You, upon the clans that have not invoked Your name."
The Haggadah tells us Elijah is to be connected to unleashing of our anger against enemies. Not only does this suggest a lack of civility, but it also speaks of a time when nations were so desperate for survival that they had to implore God to punish their enemies. This is not a concept to which most 21st century Jews can relate.
Failing to find justification for the Elijah ritual in the Bible, rabbinic texts, and even the Haggadah itself, I broadened my search to find justification for Elijah's place at the seder tables of modern liberal Jews. I looked to the Santa rituals. I imagined what it must be like for my Christian friends who leave milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas. On first glance, leaving wine and opening the door for Elijah may seem less fulfilling since Elijah does not leave us any gifts in return. But Santa brings something more than gifts. When I think Santa, I think about generations of children who have the opportunity to live in a suspended reality -- a dream-world of toy factories and cute reindeer. It's simply fun.
And that is what Elijah should be -- fun. Sometimes religion becomes so serious and sometimes ritual feels like it must be laden with meaning. That framework is valuable, sometimes. Yet, there's also value in adding an intentional playfulness to religion.
There is definitely power in making rituals meaningful to us in ways that makes sense in 2012. We can boldly assert that though we do not see the world as our ancestors did, we can shape the way we interact with the world just as previous generations had the opportunity to do in their time. Our ancestors' view of Judaism is not the final articulation of what Judaism should be; we have a place as an active participant in the ongoing evolution of our religious identities. We can transition away from the prophet of the Bible into the fun and magical character at our seder tables.
In addition to the fun, there is a sense of connection. For many of us, the Elijah ritual connects us to our past, a lifetime of consistently opening the door for Elijah even as the actual characters at our seder table may have changed each year. The Elijah ritual also connects us to other Jews around the world each time we open our doors for him.
So this year, I'm celebrating Elijah in new ways. With the help of others, I've created ElijahTracker.com, a website which will allow people to follow Elijah on his journeys around the world throughout the week of Passover. Elijah will get tipsy as he has a few too many drinks, and he'll be all about the fun. If Santa gets cookies and a Santa Tracker, why shouldn't Elijah get wine and an Elijah Tracker?