Tales of Freedom and Imagination

 

While a new all-star Haggadah plays it safe, others reinvent the Passover story as a call to action

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“The point of a seder is to engage people; it’s just a meaningless ritual if it doesn’t engage people. Part of engaging people is asking contemporary questions, speaking in a contemporary idiom…” So far, so un-controversial — though the very blandness of this prescription alludes to one of the core anxieties of Jewish modernity. What if Judaism — with its traditional rituals and liturgy, practices and beliefs — can no longer provide a sustaining framework of ‘meaning’ for the Jewish people?

The New American Haggadah is an elegant production. Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and featuring a new translation by fellow-novelist Nathan Englander, the text is supplemented by perpendicular themed commentaries: ‘Library’, ‘Nation’, ‘Playground’, ‘House of Study’. Each insert is a mini-essay, using the traditional text as its departure point, and many of them deserve quiet study. Designed by Oded Ezer, this haggadah pays visual homage to centuries of Hebraic manuscripts through an imaginative use of Hebrew lettering from Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Italian liturgical traditions. The visual reverence is reflected in Englander’s text and voiced in Safran Foer’s introduction: “how do you write something that will have meaning to con- temporary readers while maintaining the reverential tone of the book?”

Seder nights are psychodramas. They allow the community to re-tell its foundational myth — the Jewish journey from slavery to freedom — through an act of collective memory. The liturgical framework for that annual re-evocation and re-enactment took several centuries to evolve; but from the era of the first completed haggadah text — Saadia Gaon — in the 10th century until the 19th century, the text itself saw very few changes or additions. Illustrations might reflect a haggadah’s contemporary setting — with the ‘Four Sons’ often providing a backdrop of social commentary: the rasha (the ‘wicked’ child) might have been portrayed as a soldier in the Middle Ages and, later, as a gesticulating smoker leaning away from the table, or in stylish hunting gear complete with riding crop and monocle. And commentaries around the text would offer additional rabbinic insights into the set liturgy and rituals. The traditional haggadah text offered a yearly opportunity — no, obligation — to retell the story of the Jewish people and how it came to be fused with themes of oppression and liberation. Transmitting that message of timelessness to the next generation was also woven into the mythic narrative: “And you shall tell — v’higadata — your child on that day: ‘It is because of what the Eternal One did for me when I came out of Egypt…’” (Exodus 17:8). Over generations, an anthology of songs was added to the end of the service, but only one new liturgical text was grafted into haggadot. In response to anti-Jewish persecution following the Crusades and the spread of the blood libel throughout Europe in the 12th – 13th centuries, four verses from the sacred texts of Psalms and Lamentations were woven together into a hymn of defiance and hope and inserted into the existing haggadah text: ‘Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge You…Pursue them, and destroy them…’. This Biblically-sanctioned cry of pain and anger howled for divine intervention; as God had brought redemption in the past, the haggadah declared, so it would be in the future. The overturning of injustice was God’s work — and waiting for it was a Jewish spiritual discipline, fine- tuned over the many centuries when Jews had no power to influence their collective fortunes. They prayed for this, generation after generation, with whatever devotion they could muster, in spite of lurking internal scepticism. The rasha embodies the longstanding Jewish antagonism towards the obligations of faith, and the burden of being bound into the collective. Yet this dissenting figure also represents an often enriching Judaic rebelliousness against the status quo.

Sarajevo Haggadah 1

 

From the 19th century onwards, new civil freedoms for Jews prompted changes in the haggadah template: traditional references to the “return to Zion” or “rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city” were replaced with phrases such as “rejoicing in the hope for the coming of Your kingdom.” Mid-century Vilna, bastion of Orthodoxy, produced editions that omit the anguished “Pour out Your wrath” and change “this year we are slaves, next year we shall be free” to “this year we are slaves in many places, next year we shall be free as we are in this our land.” By the end of the century the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ was included within a new Reform haggadah and there was an anarchist haggadah in New York. As the 20th century began, Jewish preoccupations spilled out into the Passover text: “Mah Nishtanah, how are we worse off than Shmuel the manufacturer, from Meir the banker, from Zarah the moneylender, from Reb Turdus the Rabbi?” asks a Bundist haggadah from 1900. And Yiddish haggadot emerged, giving voice to causes like workers’ rights and reflecting an increasingly secular generation keen to throw off the old religion yet still committed to its essential message: “On this very night of freedom and pride/Sing of peace among nations, of faith deep inside/ In justice and love and courage we shine/ Lomir heyben dem bekher — raise up your cup of wine.” New York, so often the scene of a radical re-working of Jewish tradition, saw an annual Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) Third Seder that integrated music, dance and performance by Yiddish actors; in spite of material poverty, this was a celebration by immigrants of the freedoms of the New World.

Meanwhile in Palestine, ideologically moderate kibbutzim began producing their own haggadot, downplaying the text’s religious message — God is often conspicuously absent — and emphasising nationalist and seasonal elements (spring, the return to working the land, the ingathering of the Jewish people) and, as the decades went on, introducing modern Hebrew literature, poetry and secular texts. In Hashomer Hatzair’s leftist allegorised text, the traditional four cups of wine represented Jewish statehood; workers’ freedom; world peace; and blessing for the earth’s produce and the fruits of honest socialist toil. In the early years of the State (1955) the Fourth Son — the ‘child who does not know how to ask’— is portrayed as an eastern-European religious youth with kippah and peyot, the representative non-Zionist who knows nothing of the new Jewish life emerging in Eretz Yisrael.

By the second half of the 20th century Jews felt able to free the message of the haggadah from its particularistic Jewish context and make it universal: there is an eternal force in history — whether you picture it as ‘divine’, or as the divine potential within the human hand — that can move individuals, groups and peoples from states of oppression and injustice towards freedom. In 1969 the ‘Freedom Seder’ held in a black church in Washington DC on the third night of Passover (April 4th — the first anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King) used a haggadah assembled by Rabbi Arthur Waskow that interpolated texts by, amongst others, Ghandi, Thoreau, Eldridge Cleaver, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Emanuel Ringelblum of the Warsaw Ghetto, and King himself, alongside edited excerpts and adaptations of the traditional liturgy. Waskow took to heart the haggadah’s words: “All who expand upon — go beyond — telling about the departure from Egypt, they are worthy of praise”. Capturing the spirit of the times, he produced a document of immense religious courage and creativity — see it here — that went far beyond a re-telling of the traditional story. He juxtaposed Ringelblum’s 1942 words: “Most of the populace is set on resistance. It seems to me that people will no longer go to the slaughter like lambs. They want the enemy to pay dearly for their lives. They’ll fling themselves at them with knives, staves, coal gas. They’ll permit no more blockades. They’ll not allow themselves to be seized in the street…” — with those of King: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the principle of non-violent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence…Non- violence can reach men where the law cannot touch them. So we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.” Violence or non-violence? Which way was it to be, when the hour for the liberation of the oppressed was again at hand? “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God! who hast confronted us with the necessity of choice and of creating our own book of thy Law. How many and how hard are the choices and the tasks the Almighty has set before us!” The Freedom Haggadah went through several incarnations in the decades that followed as its new-old liturgy and radical rhetoric acted as a model for, and a stimulus to, an explosion of Jewish religious creativity in America.

‘Let my people go’ still rings with the hope that oppression can be overturned and that a transformative power will bring justice

Once Waskow had universalised the central text of the haggadah — “It therefore is incumbent on every person in every generation, not merely every Jew, but every man and woman, to look upon himself as if he had actually gone forth from Egypt…” — it became possible for Jews to use the haggadah and the seder rituals as a template for other causes (ethical, moral, political) where themes of slavery and freedom, oppression and liberation, were involved. Discarding the traditional Four Questions, the San Diego Women’s Haggadah (1979/1986) asks four new questions, the first of which reads: “Mother, we ask, why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we celebrate a women’s seder?” And the answer is: “We celebrate a women’s Seder tonight so that we are free to be ourselves, not afraid that our actions will be misjudged or misinterpreted, considered bold or unwomanly.” In the same spirit, The Women’s Haggadah (1993), replaces the traditional question about bitter herbs with “Why have our mothers on this night been bitter?” It is “because they did the preparation but not the ritual. They did the serving but not the conducting. They read of their fathers but not of their mothers.” The message that the personal is political had always been woven into the tapestry of the haggadah — but new times and new situations allowed that thread to stand out more clearly. After all, the five rabbis sitting in Bnei Brak discussing the exodus all night were, so the story goes, planning rebellion against Roman tyranny, “for when we are slaves, we must talk, but we must do more than talk” (The Rainbow Seder, 1984).

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The Amazon website now offers many, many hundreds of different haggadot. The majority contain the timeworn traditional text, but the range of ‘alternative’ haggadot available — most of them published in the US where religious creativity does not have to battle against establishment conservatism — suggests a widespread dissatisfaction with the formalised liturgy that took the Jewish people from the 10th century into modernity. As well as the original civil rights-themed Waskow ‘Freedom Haggadah’ — still one of the most exciting politically- focused social action haggadot around — you can buy a Survivors’ Haggadah, a Rebirth of Israel Haggadah, an Interfaith Family Haggadah, a Haggadah for Jews and Buddhists, a Holistic Haggadah, an Animated Haggadah, a Haggadah for the Non-Observant, a Fun Family Haggadah, a Haggadah for the Vegetarian Family, a Green Haggadah, anti-war haggadot — even, if you are so inclined, a Messianic Passover Haggadah and a Passover Haggadah for Christians. Or dip into the excellent Jewdas website for a compendious range of political activism and social justice haggadot that certainly can, in Safran Foer’s words, “engage people”by “asking contemporary questions”. In these more recent texts the emphasis is upon the human power to transform; the narration of our transformative journey becomes an implicit call to action.

The symbolism of breaking the middle matza can also resonate with wider concerns: “In the world today there are many who are so pressed-down that they have not even this bread of oppression to eat. We remember people in Iraq, in Palestine, at home and all over the world where the U.S. government, multinational corporations, the world bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have caused poverty and starvation. There are so many who are hungry that they cannot come and eat with us tonight. Therefore we say to them, we set aside this bread as a token that we owe you righteousness, tzedakah, and that we will fulfil it. (Set aside a piece of matzah).” (from Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah, 2003).

Many of these haggadot recognise that the Jewish story of liberation has the power to inspire; “Let my people go” still rings with the hope that oppression can be overturned and that a transformative power will bring justice. But ‘liberation’ is never genteel. Many of these newer texts have a wild, unruly, polemical edge — yet they all engage with the underlying ethos of Passover as the festival of freedom.

The core liturgical texts and rituals often remain — a testimony to the enduring potency of the slavery/ freedom archetype in the Jewish psyche and how it is rooted in the language of tradition. But the additions and substitutions priotise subjective concerns over reverence towards tradition. Whether this profusion of radical re- workings is symptomatic of a Judaic culture in disarray, or represents a post-Shoah renaissance of Jewish creativity akin to the Talmudic re-invention of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, remains to be seen.

What happens to Jewish identity if its traditional religious basis no longer speaks in a language we can accept?

 

What we can say is that the fissiparous nature of modern Jewish identity has led to this explosion of available Passover liturgies. They are a response to the questions behind the questions of the editors of The New American Haggadah: What happens to Jewish identity if its traditional religious basis no longer speaks in a language we can accept? What happens when people reject the idea of a divine Being that intervenes to save people from oppression? What happens when one recognises that the tradition has cast upon us the mantle of responsibility for bringing heavenly ideals of freedom and justice down to earth and into our own hands to enact?’

New rituals are constantly added to the Seder itself. In the early 1980s Professor Susannah Heschel placed an orange on the seder plate. It symbolised, she said, ‘the fruitfulness of all Jews when lesbian and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spat out — a gesture of…repudiating the homophobia of Judaism.’ In recent years some Jews have begun to put a bowl of olives on the seder plate to symbolise awareness that Palestinian olive-groves are being uprooted or occupied in our name: “In the lands of Israel and Palestine, olive groves provide…security. When olive groves are destroyed, the past and future is destroyed. Without economic security, a people can much more easily be conquered, or enslaved. And so this year, we eat an olive, to make real our understanding of what it means each time a bulldozer plows up a grove. Without the taste of olives, there will be no taste of freedom. Keep one olive on the Seder plate, and pass out olives.” (Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah).

But rituals old and new, and haggadot traditional or contemporary, are only a beginning. Beyond doorways into memory and the mythic underpinnings of Judaism and our sense of peoplehood, they are not only about a Jewish journey from ‘slavery’ to ‘freedom’. They are — as they always have been — an invitation to action: to take the words on the page, the motifs of the tradition, and translate them into a commitment to live out the blessings and radical vision of our heritage.

Is The New American Haggadah a spur to action? It is a decidedly literary creation. (Though what is it with the need to define a diaspora haggadah in relation to nationhood? Something called The New British Haggadah would never see the light of day.) No, this luxurious edition represents another stage in the symbiotic relationship between Jews and America. Two of America’s leading young Jewish novelists have combined to create a comforting text almost completely apolitical and unchallenging of the status quo. At the respective ages of Foer and Englander, two of their Jewish American predecessors were finishing Portnoy’s Complaint and publishing The Armies of the Night , the ‘history as a novel/ novel as history’ account of the October 1967 March on the Pentagon. Pity we never got to see a Roth/Mailer haggadah — but what makes me think that if we had, we might have found in it more than a single glancing reference to the greatest Jewish ethical challenge of our times, the plight of the Palestinians?

Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, the Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, and an author. His latest book is The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com.

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