Sunday, April 5, 2015

White House Seder

President Obama, with Eric Lesser (on left), now a Massachusetts state senator, held the 2011 Seder in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House.
On Friday, April 3rd President Obama and the White House will host its annual Seder. This is the traditional Jewish ritual feast that marks the beginning of Passover. This tradition originated in 2008 with one of Obama’s campaign aides Eric Lesser. Lesser, in an attempt to appeal the Jewish community for Obama’s presidential campaign, organized and hosted a Passover Seder in a hotel basement. This was a small feast with only kosher wine, matzo, and some other generic Seder supplies. They were unexpectedly joined by surprise guest Barack Obama himself. At the end of the 2008 Seder one of the guests toasted and said “next year in Jerusalem!” Obama then added, “Next year in the White House!” He held true to his word, ever since Obama’s election he has made a point to host a Passover Seder in the White House and also makes sure to include some of the original attendees like now Senator Eric Lesser.

The ceremony at the White House includes the traditional foods and practices of the Jewish Seder. For example, there is a tradition of opening the front door of the home at the end of the feast. The opening of the door is accompanied by a traditional song as well. This is a symbolic way of welcoming in the profit Elijah. In the Jewish tradition, Elijah precedes the coming of the Messiah so one would want to welcome him into the home. To adapt this tradition to the White House they simply opened the door to the hallway.  According to some of the original organizers of this feast Obama has always been curious of the significance of many of the practices and often inquired into what each signified.

The issue in this case is whether or not hosting a Seder and having President Obama be an active participant is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The main issue I would take with this practice is the fact that Seder is inherently only a Jewish tradition. It seems as though the White House, and in turn the state, is endorsing the Jewish faith.

However, the White House has been open to a multitude of ritualistic practices from multiple faiths. The First Family traditionally has hosted a Christmas celebration. They have also hosted the Iftar dinner at the White House. This is the traditional feast the marks the beginning of Ramadan for the Islamic faith. At this dinner there was even a copy of the Koran owned by Thomas Jefferson on display. In addition to the Seder dinner, the White House also invites individuals to a Hanukkah celebration at the White House.

In my opinion, as long as the White House is open to hosting celebrations from all faiths they are treating each the same and not endorsing one over another. The White House must also recognize secular celebrations as well as to not endorse religion over non-religion. These could be things like Valentine’s Day and (debatably) Thanksgiving. On condition that all religions are treated equally and non-religion is considered equal as well I take no issue with the President hosting these celebrations and do not believe it violates the Establishment Clause. As the Head of State, the President needs to maintain neutrality. I actually like the idea of the President hosting these dinners and celebrations. It allows him to understand a little about the each of the plurality of faiths in the country that he presides over.

Based on precedent, the US Supreme Court has taken a more accommodationist approach to establishment cases involving state officials. In Marsh v.Chambers the Court upheld that legislative prayer was in fact constitutional. They extended this ruling in Town ofGreece v. Galloway where they ruled that legislative prayer was also constitutional before local town legislatures start their sessions. They cited that these practices were vital to uphold tradition within government. Seder, Iftar, Christmas are all historic practices within the country and have played some role in shaping this country. In fact, Christmas is now a state holiday.

I am aware that these cases do not set a precise precedent for the actions of the President, but Presidential action has yet to be challenged in the Supreme Court. Previously, we have examined cases of religious language in Obama’s speech. The question raised there was when, if ever, is the President not representing the State? Regardless, in this case I believe it is Constitutional for the President to be representing the state during the Seder as long as he does the same for other religious ceremonies and does not privilege religion over non-religion.

What do you think? 


Will P. said...

I think the actions of the president Obama in participation in religious affairs can be seen as more diplomatic than establishment. Being the President of the United States, Obama must maintain international relations, which consist of many different cultures. If he participates in various religious activities from a multitude of cultures, I believe he is positively portraying the US as an inclusive country. This is a diplomatic tactic in my eyes to keep beneficial international relations, and not an establishment of religion. I see no constitutional issue with the Seder dinner held at the white house.

Morgan M said...

I agree with the author and also with Will that this is completely constitutional and that the president and the White House have every right to practice the religious ceremonies of their choosing. The president has been elected by the people based on his religion and other factors which have been deemed acceptable by the population. We must not forget that even while the President and his actions are reflective of the United States of America he is still a natural person and as such he is entitled to his own religious freedom. If he only wanted to practice Jewish religious traditions than that would be completely acceptable as well. Of course, it is wonderful that he is willing to host and participate in other religious ceremonies but he by no means has to, and is free to practice what he believes.