Last week’s list of mitzvot includes (#115) the mitzvah to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt each year at the Pesach seder. There is no limit to how much we can expand on this story: the haggadah itself says “Ã¥Ã«Ã¬ Ã¤Ã®Ã¸Ã¡Ã¤ Ã¬Ã±Ã´Ã¸ Ã¡Ã©Ã¶Ã©Ã Ãº Ã®Ã¶Ã¸Ã©Ã, Ã¤Ã¸Ã© Ã¦Ã¤ Ã®Ã¹Ã¥Ã¡Ã§” – the more we tell about the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy. Developing new interpretations of the Exodus and applying the story to our own times (as Mishnah Pesachim 10:5 says, quoted in the haggadah, “Ã¡Ã«Ã¬ Ã£Ã¥Ã¸ Ã¥Ã£Ã¥Ã¸ Ã§Ã©Ã©Ã¡ Ã Ã£Ã Ã¬Ã¸Ã Ã¥Ãº Ã Ãº Ã²Ã¶Ã®Ã¥ Ã«Ã Ã©Ã¬Ã¥ Ã¤Ã¥Ã Ã©Ã¶Ã Ã®Ã®Ã¶Ã¸Ã©Ã” = “in every generation, a person should see him/herself as if s/he had gone out from Egypt) is not merely a peripheral activity that we do for kicks; it is fundamental to the essence of the seder.
The ways in which we tell the story differ not only in each generation, but also differ for each individual. The haggadah tells of four archetypal children, to emphasize that there isn’t one message or one teaching style that works for everyone; the message of the seder should be transmitted in a way that is appropriate for each learner. Each of us learns in different ways, and each of us connects to the narrative of the Exodus in different ways. Telling the story in original ways, year after year, is truly a fulfillment of the mitzvah “You shall tell your child on that day” — a telling that is appropriate for the individual and for the time.
Sadly, the haters at Slate seem to think otherwise.
Mark Oppenheimer writes disparagingly about the proliferation of haggadot, such as a new one edited by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, saying that “We couldn’t possibly need so many Haggadot.”
Diversity within a religious tradition can be a source of strength, but it can also be a weakness. One of the inarguably great aspects of religion is how it gives communities of people shared experiences: Jews the world over know about the Haggadah’s “four questions,” the singing of the rousing hymn “Dayeinu,” and the traditional foods on the Seder plate. Although traditions vary from region to region—and the Seder, conducted in the vernacular, thus comes in as many versions as there are languages Jews speak—there are certain common Passover rituals that most Jews will recognize.
The question, then, is how diversified and variegated a cultural tradition can get before it loses meaning to the people who invented it. It’s one thing to add an orange to the Seder plate, an innovation meant to honor Jewish women. But what if one family uses a Haggadah that focuses on vegetarianism, while another reads from one about Palestinian liberation? Both noble causes, to be sure—but are the families celebrating the same holiday?
Oppenheimer attempts to diagnose the roots of this “problem”:
The diversity of Haggadot is a symptom of the unease that many Jews feel about Judaism. For some, the unease is political: Passover is a holiday about liberation, so the Haggadah has special meaning to those who feel that Judaism today is insufficiently attentive to left-wing political causes. For others, the unease is just a species of what all secular Americans feel around religious tradition, and Jews like this are always looking for a Haggadah that is “contemporary” or “relevant” enough to produce religious sentiment with a minimum of embarrassment.
Then he provides a solution to this terrifying diversity:
The Haggadah I like best is the old Maxwell House Haggadah, filled with the “little kitschy scribbles” others find objectionable. According to Maxwell House, nearly 40 million of these handy little booklets have been distributed since 1934, when the coffee company first hit on an ingenious way to win Jewish customers’ loyalty. The 2007 edition is, like all its antecedents, apolitical and middlebrow, geared for mass appeal. But it’s clear and concise, and, most important, my parents and my in-laws all grew up on it. What it lacks in poetry, it makes up in ubiquity. It’s the Haggadah most evocative for my extended family, and there’s majesty in that simple claim, a claim that no better, smarter, more beautiful edition could ever make.
I think his diagnosis is completely backwards. Oppenheimer suggests that the diversity of creative haggadot can be attributed to the Jews who are primarily “secular Americans” and feel “unease” around Judaism, and that those who are more secure in their Jewish identies will opt instead for the unadorned Maxwell House. On the contrary: “Secular Americans” who have a minimal connection to Judaism but nonetheless attend a seder out of nostalgia or ethnic identification are more likely to, like Oppenheimer, read the Maxwell House from rote, while those who make Judaism more a part of their year-round lives are more likely to add layers of meaning on top of the traditional haggadah text, whether by using a creative haggadah or simply by making discussion an important part of their seder.
Oppenheimer praises Maxwell House for being “apolitical”, suggesting that Pesach is at its core about the maintenance of old traditions, and that any contemporary political content in the seder is grafted on inappropriately. I refer him to one of the oldest Jewish texts about the Exodus after the book of Exodus itself: Psalm 114, which concludes the “maggid” section of the haggadah. It begins “When Israel went out of Egypt…”, and then it does not say “The sea felt content about its mass appeal, the Jordan continued flowing exactly as it had flowed for thousands of years, the mountains stood still in their places, the hills did exactly what other hills were doing all over the world.” Rather, it says “The sea saw and fled, the Jordan ran backwards, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills skipped like sheep.” Pesach is about overturning the established order, and about turning rocks into lakes, not about keeping rocks as rocks.
If you don’t believe me, why not ask Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva, and/or Rabbi Tarfon? At their famous seder in Benei Berak, they spent all night discussing the Exodus from Egypt, until their students came in and said “Our teachers, the time has come to say the morning Shema!” Why did their students have to tell them this? Why didn’t they know that the sun had risen? Because they were in a cave! They were hiding from the Romans, and when they were “discussing the Exodus”, they weren’t simply telling a story, but were plotting redemption in their own time.
Closer to our own time, ask Natan Sharansky or the other Soviet refuseniks who secretly held Pesach seders in prison. These sedarim were anything but “apolitical and middlebrow”; the message of liberation was directly relevant to the refuseniks’ situation, and the existence of these sedarim was a fundamentally political act.
The best way that we can honor the traditions of Pesach is by continuing to innovate in our annual retellings of the Exodus story and by taking seriously the haggadah’s message of freedom as it applies to us in every generation.