Review of “The New American Haggadah” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander: Where Law, Hermeneutics, and Literature Come Together

Judaism has always allowed for a multiplicity of voices in the interpretation of its laws and traditions. In the Yeshivas, or institutes of learning where Jewish students study sacred texts, energetic participation is encouraged for interpretation and analysis. Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive: one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement. As reinforcement for this idea, a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures must contain only consonants, forcing the reader into a creative process by having to determine contextual connections and inflections. Thus, Jewish law grows from the constant creation and interpretation of texts.

Plural understandings of Jewish law are legitimized formally in the important and widely cited Talmudic story of the conflict over the oppositional teachings of the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. In response to prayers for a judgment as to which School was “right,” a heavenly voice is said to have proclaimed, “[T]hese and these [both] are the words of the Living God.” [Somewhat amusingly, the Talmud holds that even God has no authority in the interpretation of the Scriptures, because in Exodus (supposedly the word of God) it is said “One must incline after the majority.” Moreover, the fact that He created a myriad of people with a myriad of opinions meant that all of these opinions were ipso facto words of God! And thus “truth” can reside in any person.]

This brings us to the Haggadah, read during the holiday of Passover. Passover is a Jewish holiday and festival that celebrates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. [Note that in the Jewish calendar, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day, so observing Jews will celebrate Passover on the sunset before most Christian calendars indicate that the holiday begins.] The Haggadah is a booklet that has been used for centuries by Jews to tell the story in their homes. It is traditionally read during the first night of Passover, at a Seder, which is a ritual meal to commemorate the occasion.

This text has been used for centuries by Jews, but there is no one definitive version. On the contrary, there are more than 3,000 versions of haggadahs in existence, from denominational variations to children’s editions to those with feminist, ecological, humanist, social, and/or political orientations. None are considered to be more or less right than any other, but rather, reflect the comfort level and interests of those who choose them. The proliferation of haggadahs expresses the welcome Judaism extends to diverse interpretations of texts.

The haggadah also is an embodiment of the nature of Judaism as a religion focused on community obligation. The booklet is read in fulfillment of the biblical injunction to “Remember this day that you came forth from Egypt” (Exodus 13:3) “[a]nd you shall tell thy son” (Exodus 13:8). (Judaism, per the scholar Robert Cover, is a religion of obligation rather than one of rights. See generally Robert M. Cover, Obligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence of the Social Order, 5 J. L. & Religion 65, 65-90 (1987).) Thus the Passover Seder tends to be a large gathering of family and friends, and the choice of a haggadah takes on the broader function of a social history serving to construct collective memory.

Collective memory refers to the social and political dimensions of commemoration, to the way that historical records are interpreted according to the shifting needs of current agendas. The Passover story, from the tricking of the Pharaoh by the Jews to the escape from slavery, is popular as a counter-model to the the tragic victimization of the Holocaust. The activist, survivalist message conveyed by Exodus contributes to a more positive sense of identity for Jews according to current sensibilities. Indeed, the Passover narrative reinforces the idea that unjust regimes should not receive blind obeisance; that resistance or revolution is an important part of the history of what it means to be a Jew.

Perhaps most importantly, the story, no matter in which of its 3,000 or so forms, conveys the message that social injustice is at least sometimes determined by structural inequalities rather than by questions of individual characteristics. Therefore Jews, by hearing this story over and over, are encouraged to question narratives that support prejudice or racism as a function of essentialism.

The New American Haggadah reflects these hermeneutic traditions in several ways. The most salient, perhaps, is the non-linearity of the text, echoing the layout of a Talmudic page. In the Talmud (or collection of ancient Rabbinic writings interpreting both ceremonial law and legend), annotations from scholars in different ages are arranged around the main text on the same page, symbolically representing a dialogue and encouraging readers to recognize the legitimacy of challenging authority. Unlike linearly-arranged texts, particularly those of historical or religious import, the open format denies a hegemonic interpretation of any one portion of the page, and this moreover encourages students to understand the role that media as well as message plays in presenting the “truth.”

Page of the Talmud

Similarly, the commentaries, or annotations, included in The New American Haggadah are all arrayed on the same page as the text they elucidate. This not only echoes the layout of the Talmud but further, like hypertext-linked pieces of information, it shows that the cascading rings of knowledge and interpretation for any one segment can be endless, restrained only by inclination. Running across the top of many of the pages is a timeline of Jewish history.

The commentaries, or annotations, included in The New American Haggadah stem from four different currents of thought: “Library” represents a literary/psychological perspective. “House of Study” presents religious and philosophical observations. “Nation” provides political interpretations, and “Playground” gives humorous observations from what might be a child’s point of view.

As an example, one set of commentaries pertains to the phrase “And the Lord heard our voices.” “The Library” commentator reflects on why God would hold Himself back from abating the sufferings of the world. “House of Study” discusses the importance of intermittently reminding God of His covenant with the Jews. The writer of “The Nation” muses on how the Jews are a vocal people: “Suffering in silence is not a Jewish virtue.” “The Playground” talks about the importance of promises.

Some of the prose in the commentary is particularly compelling. Of the phrase that ends each seder, “Next year in Jerusalem,” the “Library” commentator writes:

Next year in Jerusalem! We sing, from our places scattered around the globe, including the city of Jerusalem itself. And we will sing it year after year, no matter how history disposes of us, just so long as we are still around. Proust wrote, ‘There is no paradise but paradise lost.’ The Jerusalem with which we end the seder is a place in the Proustian dreamscape, only designated not by the ache of loss but the ache of longing.”

About the same phrase the “House of Study” asks,

So what is the wholeness that we seek when we sing ‘Next year in Jerusalem’? Is it a return from exile or the embrace of a broken heart? Is exile a punishment that distances us from God or an opportunity to get closer to him? Is it more Jewish to be broken than whole? Or is the point of Judaism the attempt to find wholeness in brokenness?”

Wholeness out of brokenness is what the celebration of Passover seeks to accomplish. “The seder,” the preface states, “is a protest against despair. The universe might appear deaf to our fears and hopes, but we are not – so we gather, and share them, and pass them down.”

The New American Haggadah does an outstanding job of articulating these hopes and fears, along with its message of redemption. Moreover, with its singular and provocative commentaries, it elevates the nature of the seder to an opportunity to discuss eternal themes and issues with multi-faceted guidance from the well-thought-out annotations. The commentaries are by Nathaniel Deutsch (“House of Study”); Jeffrey Goldberg (“Nation”); Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (“Library”); and Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) “Playground”. The Timeline was created by Mia Sara Bruch, and the beautifully-crafted design is by Oded Ezer.

Evaluation: This book is highly recommended for all faiths, not only because it is a biblical story relevant to most believers, but because the issues raised by the commentaries are also relevant to believers of all faiths, and even non-believers. This book is not meant to appeal to each and every group that might want a haggadah, but remember that aside from this version, there are at least 2999 others! Foer wanted to be more inclusive, but ended up changing his mind:

I didn’t know what I was originally imagining, something that felt more like an anthology, more like a reference tool than a primary Haggadah. But the more I worked on it, the more I became afraid of that. … What the world does not need is a Haggadah that pats itself on the back. It needs a Haggadah that gets out of the way, that starts a conversation and gets out of the way.”

And who doesn’t think about such questions as why is there evil and suffering in the world? How do acts of violence fit in with the idea of a merciful God? How do you determine which laws are just or unjust? How should free and fortunate people best respond to those in poverty and/or slavery?

If for any reason there are those who don’t get enough to eat at a Seder, there is enough food for thought in this Haggadah to last the whole year through.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2012

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