Culture, Religion

Guide to the Progressive Haggadahs

womens haggadah2.jpgThere are so many wonderful socially responsible Haggadahs out there these days.  If you’re like me, you are probably having trouble deciding on just one or two, and with all the shopping, last minute plans, and of course, cleaning, the choice can seem overwhelming.   
These progressive Haggadahs excise those aspects of the traditional Haggadah that are reactionary and replace them with a more palatable focus.  They offer more acceptable language and prayers so we can all be more comfortable with Pesach on our own moral terms.
So which one(s)? Well, I instinctively prefer those new Haggadahs which parallel the ancient narrative with a modern one in order to illuminate the continued relevance of Passover, which I suppose is the goal of the Holocaust Haggadah (it just isn’t Yom Tov without the Holocaust) as well as the New American Haggadah (because Matzo is as American as apple pie).  The Kibbutz Haggadah is perfect for so many of us, because nothing screams “fresh” and “my generation” quite like the glorification of the Labor-Zionist kibbutz movement’s glory days.  But there is also the Feminist Haggadah, which offers additional rituals around Miriam’s Cup (because there isn’t ever enough weird shit cluttering the Seder table), an ancient tradition (estimated around 1976 A.C.E.) replete with preferred gender neutral blessings, perfect for the entitled American Jewess who can’t spell her own name in Hebrew but still knows everything gender sensitive person uncomfortable with the basic structure and laws of the Hebrew language. 
But there is a false assumption with such an expectation.  Pesach has never been about being comfortable, neither spiritually nor physically.  How many of us actually look forward to Pesach?  The preparation alone is a nightmare. We eat this unleavened “bread” which wreaks havoc on our digestive system.  There are frequently people at the table we would not usually elect to spend hours upon hours with.  The Haggadah and the Passover story itself are replete with stories of vengeance, destruction, and massive collateral damage inflicted by God himself.   Many Jews were killed during the plague of darkness for the sin of having their spirits broken by slavery, and so were the lower classes of Egyptians who had little say in the policies of a brutal despot.  But for some, what is more of a problem are the animal sacrifices, which the name of Pesach itself references.  How do we get around that one? It’s easy, at least for readers of the Walt Disney Vegetarian Haggadah which makes a big fat Tikkun Olam with the “liberated lamb.”   
Maybe I’m wrong to assume a continuum of the Jewish condition extends to this holiday, but I don’t believe Passover has ever been easy for the Jewish people.  I don’t think this started with progressive Jews of our generation, or even the generation before us.  And not just because of the dietary restrictions, which were once more limited in their scope (and still are for the bulk of the Sephardim), but still a significant hassle. 
What percentage of us outside of the Haredi world really believe (with perfect faith) that the Red Sea split?  Do we really take this literally?
I don’t know what to make of much of the narrative of Pesach.  For me, it isn’t about knowing.  But I know that it isn’t about me being comfortable.  It is not a holiday that is easy to digest on any level. 
For those of us who are less than sure, the parameters of the message of Pesach is certainly open to a wider interpretation than those who believe that indeed, the Red Sea split.  And finding ways to experience relevance is a good thing.  But it isn’t really a new thing.  Jews have always been troubled by aspects of the Pesach narrative.  The narrative itself allows that even many of the Jews in Egypt themselves had misgivings about it.  Wrestling with the Passover story is nothing new.  We have wrestled with Pesach since the beginning. It is integral to the holiday, and partially why Pesach is a signature holiday of the Jewish people.
What is new is the unbridled arrogance to change the text.  This is not adding to the relevance of the holiday.  Adding our own interpretation at the Seder and discussing those issues we find troubling would accomplish that just fine.  But to be arrogant to the point of eliminating and revising the Haggadah to suit our own morality is erasing our own history.  Are we so sure that we have received everything possible from the struck text? Are we so sure that our new improved text is truly superior or as valid?
We are a strange nation that moves to the beat of a different drummer.  Maybe it has something to do with the Passover story; maybe it didn’t even happen.  But I think most Jews believe something may have happened, and that surely has something to do with the fact that Jews the world over, frequently of imperfect faith, have gathered sometimes awkwardly and even resentfully around Seder tables annually and retold their ancient narrative about an almost broken people who were remembered and redeemed from their subjugation for a unique role and an existential mission, and they all told a similar story of hope, obligation, and gratitude, expounding upon (but not changing) the universal format of Pesach, Matzo, and Marror, no matter how wonderful or horrible things were, regardless of their legitimate doubts. 
I see no advantage in “updating” this ancient narrative.

12 thoughts on “Guide to the Progressive Haggadahs

  1. Its good to see that you can launch a cogent critique without resorting to sarcasm, good for you. : ) As for the substance, I’m not sure why you have a bone to pick with folks who are creating relevant ritual texts. If you want to us the traditional hagadah, if midrashim about how 10 plagues are really 500 plagues works for you, that’s great, but don’t begrudge others who are working hard to make pesach meaningful for them. Pesach is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays because its about family, and because its themes are applicable to modern Jews. In addition, please do not confuse the text of the hagadah with revelation at sinai. Do you think when they celebrated peseach mitrayim in parashat Bo they told the story of the rabbis of bene brak? Do you think when Jews were making alyah l’regel to bring their korban they were singing chad gad ya? The hagadah is one of the most adaptable books in the Jewish library. If some Jews are not only adding, but also subtracting archaic language and word-plays that don’t resonate with them, they should be complimented for working to make their texts, rituals, beliefs, and commitments line up.

  2. I prefer the “Maxwell House” Haggadah. It has kept me awake and regular through Pesach all these years. Honesly, how many of us have ever been exposed to the earliest Haggadot? I’ve only recently started learning them, and there’s enough differences between them are so wide you can drive a mitzvah tank between them.

  3. Chorus of Apes,
    You wrote,
    “If some Jews are not only adding, but also subtracting archaic language and word-plays that don’t resonate with them, they should be complimented for working to make their texts, rituals, beliefs, and commitments line up. ”
    Not really. It’s easy to just drop things that don’t “line-up.” What harder but more interesting is to wrestle with things that don’t. Those are the people who should be complimented.

  4. Sarah,
    On the Upper West Side, I can assure you that being “gender-sensitive” means being sensitive to one and only one gender only. And it ain’t mine.

  5. ëì äëáåã
    Of course, what I love most is the hypocricy when “Next Year in Jerusalem” either doesn’t mean it or it means “Next Year in Jerusalem at the Inbal or King David, riding taxis everywhere” OTOH, better than the liberal “haggadot” that completely eliminated it. Can’t you at least read it down into some Messianic thing?!??!?

  6. Wow, in case some people didn’t think SEXISM was still alive and well and an issue impacing Jewish communities, thanks for reaffirming this David!!!

  7. “perfect for the entitled American Jewess who can’t spell her own name in Hebrew but still knows everything gender sensitive person uncomfortable with the basic structure and laws of the Hebrew language. ”
    Stop talking sh*t about me f*ckwad
    It’s bad enough that the goyim all think we are whores. What’s your problem?

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