Wednesday, April 12, 2006


The Seder: Discursive or Experiential?

“How is this night different from all other nights?” I’d like to suggest a fifth answer to this question (if you read carefully, the so-called “four questions” are more declarations of fact than they are questions; the mishnah at Pesahim 10.4, and the Talmudic sugya that follows, suggest that the son’s actual questions are meant to be rather more free-form): namely, that on this night we talk more than we engage in other, more ritualized activity—recitation, prayer, etc. The central mode of the evening is discursive rather than ritual or experiential; it seems to speak more to the mind than to the heart.

The other central celebrations of the Jewish year are characterized by mitzvot that function as symbolic acts, rituals that make their impact on the pre-verbal level: the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the waving of the lulav or dwelling in the sukkah on Sukkot, the lighting of candles on Hanukkah, etc. Even these mitzvot which involve the recitation of texts—be it daily or Sabbath prayer, the singing of Hallel, the dramatic, moving piyyutim read on the High Holy Days or the Kinnot on Tisha b’Av—easily lend themselves to an emotive, expressive reading.

On Passover, by contrast, we talk an awful lot. The central experience of the holiday is not so much the reading of a text—the Haggadah—as it is the discursive experience. “You shall tell it to your sons.” The Seder, as experienced today, is mostly words. A good Seder is one in which there is much discussion, in which one hears new interpretations, gleaning new insights and understandings of the Exodus. The Haggadah itself is intended, not so much as a recitation, but as a telling, an explanation, a narrating of the formative event of our people’s history—if you like, a banquet/symposium, doubtless shaped by the forms of Roman culture that were so predominant in Rabbinic times. Or, to put it somewhat differently: if Judaism ordinarily seems to encompass both the rational, intellectual, discursive mode, and the emotive, symbolic, celebratory mode— if you like, the Lithuanian and the Hasidic—on Pesah the atmosphere of the Beit Midrash seems to predominate. The central act of the Seder, Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the relating of the story of the Exodus through the midrashic mode, was once described by Rav Soloveitchik as “an evening of Talmud Torah devoted to the theme of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim.“

Why so? The Seder is the Jewish educational tool par excellence. Its central purpose is to pass on to the next generation the central formative event of our history, one that determines much of our consciousness and our sense of who we are in the world—the Exodus. Thus, each generation of parents is charged with the task of passing on this knowledge to the next generation—which, more than factual knowledge, entails internalization of that knowledge, the formation of a specific consciousness, an attitude toward life, a sense of location in the world—what is today fashionably called ones “narrative.” And, when there are no longer small children in the home, one still has the obligation to rehearse this message, to discuss it with ones adult children and friends on a deeper level, with ones spouse, or even, if there is no one else at the table, to rehearse it to oneself. For all these reasons the discursive mood, rather than the pre-verbal symbolic one, seems essential.

What is the nature of that message? That the Jews are a strange hybrid of nation and religion: neither a religion alone, by virtue of doctrine and God-vision alone, nor a nation in the simple, uncomplicated sense of sharing a common language and soil and culture. A nation born in exile, in suffering, that celebrates its ancient liberation and painful birth in the desert so long ago. A nation by virtue of its beneficent God, and by virtue of its Torah; but also a religion that is defined through its peoplehood, its ethnicity, its peculiar history. A nation that has known many exiles and many periods of foreign domination, so that the Enslavement is as much an archetype as is the Liberation—and the Exodus, not only a past event to be celebrated, but also an archetype for that future event which we constantly hope and await. This paradoxical identity so thoroughly permeates our existence that even the newly-forged Israeli nation, despite all its protestations of normality, cannot really feel itself a nation among nations, defined by land-language-culture, in any uncomplicated sense. It is this message that makes the Passover Seder such a powerful experience, attracting even those Jews with precious few other vestiges of Jewishness.

But ultimately Pesah does in fact transcend the discursive mode. The Seder itself is clearly rich in symbolism, in eye-catching ritual and ceremony: the tableau of the Seder table itself, laid out with elaborate tableware and shining goblets, with the raised Seder plate as its centerpiece; the singing, with each community, if not each family, having its own special Seder melodies; the elaborate ritual, with the various dippings and hand-washings and covering and uncovering of the matzah, raising and lowering of the cup. In ancient times, the earliest Passover celebrations in the First Temple seem to have been marked more by celebration than by discourse: the eating of the Passover offering and the singing of songs of praise, the Hallel, were the two central moments. Virtually all historians say that the Haggadah as we know it took shape only gradually. Thus, in ancient days, the Torahitic mitzvah of telling the story may have been performed in a much simpler, briefer manner.

But even on the halakhic level, the Haggadah may be seen as constructed, not only to further discourse and discussion as an end in itself, but to ultimately bring each participant to the level of feeling, in his or her very bones, that he himself has gone out from Egypt that very night. Somewhere around the passage from Rabban Gamliel— “whoever does not say these three things on Pesah has not fulfilled his obligation”—there is a transition from the discursive mode to the experiential. We turn from recalling past events to the attempt to relive them, to identifying with them in our own innermost being. “In each and very generation a person must see himself as if he has gone out of Egypt.” Thus, we focus upon the symbolic meaning of the special foods we eat on this night—the most powerful, direct, visceral form of experience; and then we declare that it is our obligation to render thanks and praise to the Lord who did all these things for us, bursting into songs of praises and reciting the first two, perhaps most directly apt, psalms from the Hallel (the splitting of the Hallel in half, part before the meal and part afterward, is one of the peculiar features of the Seder).

Four Sons and Four Levels of Consciousness

But even the narration itself, the telling of the story, may be viewed in a more meditative, mystical light. Yaqub ibn Yusuf taught me a different reading of the famous passage in the Haggadah about the four sons, one that turns the usual reading on its head: very much in the manner of the Hasidic pshet’l—or of the Jewish-Sufi synthesis.

The wise son, usually seen as the ideal Jewish type, is here interpreted as being stuck on the lowest, most mundane level of consciousness—that of the rational, analytic, operational intellect. His questions, learned and clever as they may be, are confined to the concrete world of action visible to his corporeal eyes. “What are the laws and ordinances…” He is answered in the same coin, but given a hint, a pointer guiding him towards another level of apprehension: “… one does not add any afikomen, any additional thing, after the Pesah offering.” That is: you have to actually eat the Pesah (or matzah), you have to experience what it’s about, and not only engage in intellectual gymnastics—and stay with it as the last item of the night.

The next year, having learned this lesson, he returns to the Seder, only to ask the question of the “wicked son”: “What is this service to you?” By this point he is aware that the Seder is more than merely a formal legalistic structure, but that it deals with an experiential dimension; he has reached what Ken Wilber calls the existential crisis, the point at which he begins to question the adequacy of purely rational, cognitive tools for understanding the world. But he excludes himself from the celebrant community—and this point is the focus of the answer he is given. “If you would have been there, you would not have been redeemed.”

The third son (or perhaps the same son, having attained yet another level) is on the mythical or archetypal level, and intuitively apprehends the nature of symbolic language. He simply asks “What is this?” and is given a deceptively simple answer, “With a strong hand the Lord took us out…” (This deceptive naivete, concealing profound depths of religious consciousness, reminds me of the figure of the Bobover Rebbe ztz”l, at a Seventh Night of Pesah tisch that I visited perhaps thirty years ago. After the traditional reenactment of the Splitting of the Sea, he told his hasidim with a voice full of awe and reverence: “Milyon’n fun yidd’n tantzen in yam!”—“Millions of Jews dancing in the sea!”)

The fourth son, finally, has no need of words: he already approaches the Seder table with a mystical-unitive consciousness, that is at one with the One who redeems. He “does not know how to ask,” because he is on the level of total unity. To the outsider, there is something naive, child-like or even simple-minded in his bearing. His consciousness is so outside the ken of the work-a-day, pragmatic, ambitious people that populate our world that the latter cannot even comprehend that there is something special going on here. Or perhaps his knowledge is like that of which Maimonides says, “the end of knowledge is knowing that we do not know.” (Note: although I have described these four levels using a modern conceptual framework, they equally reflect the four worlds of the Kabbalistic paradigm.)

On Eliminating Hametz: Some Halakhic and Aggadic Perspectives

The halakhah recognizes two basic methods of performing the obligation of bi’ur hametz, the elimination or removal of all hametz, all leavened or fermented grainstuff, from ones possession on the Eve of Pesah. The first is the physical removal or destruction of hametz: burning it by fire, casting it to the wind or into the sea. This method operates in close tandem with the search for Hametz on the night before Pesah, to assure that one in fact finds all the hametz in ones possession. The second method is that of bittul hametz, of “negating” hametz within ones heart: a purely mental act, expressed in a verbal declaration made on Erev Pesah morning, that all and any hametz in ones possession or located on ones property is null and void, “like the dust of the earth,” and of no interest or value to oneself. Bedikat hametz, in this light, is simply to assure that one doesn’t inadvertently leave behind something really valuable or desirable, which one may inadvertently discover during Pesah and “reacquire.”

Much ink has been spilled on the difference between these two approaches, providing grist for the mill of many a rosh yeshivah’s shiur kelali on Pesahim. I do not intend to compete here with my learned erstwhile mentors, but to make two points: one a practical one; the other, an application of this insight on a metaphorical level.

In practice, no one seriously advocates not cleaning ones house for Pesah and simply leaving all the hametz in one possession in situ. However, the principle that bittul hametz, a purely mental act, can be efficacious to “cancel” ones legal ownership of hametz may validly justify, for those strapped for time, a more perfunctory going-over of all of those rooms in ones home except for the kitchen. It is notorious that Orthodox women work themselves to the bone for weeks before Pesah, cleaning every inch of their homes, turning out drawers and closets and miscellaneous storage spaces where no food normally enters, in order to be certain that they have eliminated every microscopic crumb of hametz. And then they arrive at the Seder table exhausted, grumpy, surly, and neither they nor their family and guests enjoy the hag. Judicious use of bittul hametz might solve some of these problems (assuming, of course, that housewives might not feel the need to do thorough “spring cleaning” anyway).

Second, and more important: a well-known motif of Hasidic and Kabbalist Mussar literature holds that hametz is equated with the attribute of ga’avah, pride, or with the Evil Urge in general. Here bedikat hametz becomes an inner search, a stock-taking of ones life situation to eliminate negative character traits and behavior patterns. These, as anyone knows who has tried, are far more stubborn and difficult to remove than even truck-loads of foodstuffs.

I once gave a short talk on this subject at which I suggested that the above two methods of bi’ur hametz might also be applied to this moral quest. Ba’alei ha-Mussar, Jewish ethicists, particularly of the school of Rabbi Israel Salanter, are wont to speak of two means of combating the Evil Urge: tikkun ha-middot and kibbush hayezer. The former, usually translated as “character correction,” refers to thorough-going attempts at reshaping ones character, involving stock-taking and hard self-discipline. The ultimate aim of this approach is to literally eliminate the bad traits, so that a person no longer feels, even inside himself, pride, jealousy, anger, or whatever, but is actually driven by kindness, generosity, humility, etc. In this sense, the process may be compared to physical destruction of hametz. This path is most appropriate to a person’s earlier years, when character is less fully formed and has not yet been fixed through the patterns of long decades of adult life. In youth, too, a person may be more emotionally free to work on oneself, being less burdened by the responsibilities of family life, career, etc. A classical example of such character work was the program of the Mussar yeshivot of the nineteenth century, in which a good part of the daily schedule was devoted to text study and spiritual exercises geared towards such character change.

By contrast, Kibbush ha-Yetzer, “suppression of the Urge,” may be described as a kind of holding action. The character is not fundamentally altered, but one learns to exert ones will power every time the option of wrong-doing presents itself. This approach may be compared to bittul hametz belibo, to mentally dismissing the hametz from ones ownership. As such, this approach is more suitable to the grown adult in his/her middle years, when the basic character is more rigid, but the person has learned over the years how to marshal will power and to resist or postpone gratification.

Finally, a brief word on the Hasidic approach to this question. The conventional image of Hasidism is of a movement based upon a simple joy, in the sense of a “happy-clappy,” naive type of effervescent bonhomie—lots of singing and dancing, perhaps with the help of drinking lehayyim. But, as Rivka Schatz has demonstrated in her book Hasidism as Mysticism, Hasidic joy was far more dialectical and sophisticated, addressing itself to a far deeper complex of issues. Essentially, Hasidic joy was a response to the nexus of guilt, contrition, and melancholy that might easily result ensue within a person who takes the moral and intellectual imperatives of Judaism seriously and, as is almost inevitable given the nature of human beings, finds himself wanting. At this juncture the call to joy says: leave behind your guilt and negative feelings, which are but one more device of the Yetzer Hara to distract you from your real task; worship God with joy, rather than mulling over your failings; be happy in the positive things you have done: if you are busy doing mitzvot, learning, singing, praising God, you won’t have time to sin.

Aggadah: Passover as Beginnings

David Moss, whom I mentioned earlier, begins his Haggadah with a frontispiece based upon the motif of seed. He explains that the essence of Passover is beginnings: springtime, with its sense of renewal and the beginning of the agricultural year; the Exodus, as the birth of the Jewish people; etc. This is also the symbolism of purging all hametz, everything that ferments, from our homes: food, one of the most fundamental elements of life, is subject to a kind of total renewal, a new beginning. Ones entire stock of old food is destroyed or removed, purging whatever may have had even remote contact with that which is stale, old, fermented (remember that yeast is a living, self- germinating microbe culture; in principle, the yeast used in baking leavened bread may pass on its vital, fermenting element from one batch to another indefinitely); and beginning with that which is fresh, new, pristine.

The seed is an apt symbol for this, containing within itself all that is to grow in the future the whole. Just as the seed contains in potentia that which is to become actual in the grown plant (or living creature), so does the experience of Pesah contain, in microcosm, all of later Jewish history.

This seed-like relation of potential and actual is also perhaps part of the mystery of Creation itself. The Zohar tells us that God created or “carved out“ the universe from a single point, the nekuda penima’ah symbolized by the letter yod, which was then expanded and developed in all directions and dimensions.

My grandfather once spoke of the three festivals as corresponding to the ages of man: Passover to youth; Shavuot to maturity; Sukkot to old age. Pesah is thus a return to youth, to freshness, to renewal, to new beginnings. I must admit that, as I grow older, I find this concept more difficult to realize than I did in my youth. What does it mean for a person who is in mid-life to “return to the beginning”? This is, if you like, the secret of the verse, “They shall bring forth fruit in old age; they are full of sap and freshness” (Ps 92:15). There is a certain sense of renewal, of rediscovery of youth, of freshness, of experiencing the wonder of the world, that is possible at any age. A. J. Heschel spoke of the capacity for “radical amazement” as a fundamental element of the religious personality. Rav JB Soloveitchik, too, often repeated that faith requires a certain childlike faculty.

What is the meaning, in practical terms, of the notion that the Exodus contains in potentia everything that the Jewish people were to become? I see this as true in four aspects.

1. The experience of being enslaved, of Exile, as the fundamental, axiomatic given of our historical condition. The movement from Exile to Land, the dialectic of Galut and Ge’ulah, is central to our way of being in the world; how we look at the world, at other nations, at the sense of “security and permanence.” George Steiner, and other modern Jewish intellectuals, are wont to say that the Jew anticipated the modern experience of alienation. This statement contains elements that are both truth and false: the Jew rooted in his own tradition may feel insecure and a wanderer, and socio-politically uprooted in Exile, but he never feels alienated: both the Torah and the Jewish community are powerful substitutes for a geographical home.

2. Equality. The experience of being slaves, together, led to a certain social solidarity, an ideal of a type of primitive communism, as reflected in Leviticus 25. As a result of slavery, there is a sense in which the possession of great wealth by any given individual is accidental, not based on any inherent virtue or “entitlement.” A wit once said that Jewish wealth never lasts more than three generations: either they cease to be wealthy, or they cease to be Jews (I think I first heard this remark from the late Prof. Abraham Duker). Jews can never be like the New England WASP’s or the British aristocracy.

3. Avdut / avodah. The second dialectic of the Exodus is that between servitude and the service of God. God took us out so that we might serve Him: Exodus was followed by, and for the sake of, Sinai. This is symbolized in the intimate link between Pesah and Shavuot. The purpose of life is neither individual nor collective aggrandizement, or even “self-realization,” which moderns tend to connect with freedom. “For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 25:55).

4. Acceptance and love of the stranger. On numerous occasions the Torah repeats such imperatives as “you shall love the stranger,” “you shall not oppress the stranger,” etc. Many of these verses appear in conjunction with the reminder, “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Admittedly, the Halakhah interprets “stranger” as ger—the convert, the righteous proselyte. (Incidentally, that mitzvah is problematic enough. Too often, the Jewish community doesn’t know how to treat gerim with the due respect.) But I read the term gerim, in addition to the traditional halakhic peshat, as more encompassing. It seems to me that, in the original biblical context, it meant “the stranger,“ “the sojourner”—i.e., the Other, especially one who dwells among you. Thus, the link to the Exodus is: we were slaves, we were the other in Egypt, so we should be able to empathize with the situation of the stranger, the outsider.

There is an interesting paradox here. Passover is the most family-oriented of all Jewish holidays; it first and foremost celebrates the group, its origins, history, and values. Indeed, there are elements in it that, particularly in a kind of desacralized modern context, can easily slide into a vulgar type of clannishness, especially in light of the Jewish historical experience of “us against the world.” (It is interesting to analyze the Seder scenes in American Jewish novels, beginning with Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, in which the Seder becomes a focus of tensions within the family, and between the group and the outsider).

Interestingly, while writing these words, I began to read Daniel Boyarin’s book A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. He analyzes there the tension between Paul and “normative” Rabbinic Judaism in terms of there embodying models of universalism and particularism, respectively. Paul advocates abolishing all differences between people, be these based upon gender, ethnicity, or whatever: “There is neither man nor woman, Jew or Gentile…” (interestingly, Jews and women serve here as models for the archetypal other). In Boyarin’s view, both models are inadequate, each having definite shortcomings.

Yet in principle, as noted, classical Judaism contains many important elements of openness and empathy to the stranger, and tries to counter the natural human proclivity towards group chauvinism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Pesah, which contains a strong emphasis on the particular, through the specificity of the birth of the Jewish nation, and the universal, be it through the message of freedom as such, the implication drawn of empathy for the stranger and the weak, and even in the concluding hymn, “the breath of every living thing will praise you.”

The Multiple Layers of the Passover Seder

People are familiar with the “fourness” of the Pesah Seder celebration: the four questions, the four sons, the four cups of wine, the four “languages of redemption” (Ex 6:4ff.) from which these are derived, etc.—all of which, in turn, perhaps reflect the four levels of interpretation of the Torah (Pardes) and, some would say, the four worlds of the Kabbalistic world-scheme. But upon reflection I realized that there is also a basic “two-ness” to much of the Seder. This, on at least three levels:

The Haggadah relates the story of the Exodus in two parallel paths, with two separate beginnings. These are already mentioned in the Talmud: “One begins with our degradation and concludes with praise. What is meant by ‘degradation’? Rav said: ‘Originally our ancestors were idolators.’ Shmuel said: ‘We were slaves…’” (Pesahim 116a). According to one view, the narrative is to focus narrowly upon the specific events of the Exodus from Egypt, with its liberation from physical enslavement and political subjugation. The other narrative paints a far broader canvas, beginning with the pagan origins of the Jewish nation in pre-Abrahamic times, through the descent to Egypt, the enslavement, and the liberation, whose ultimate goal was, not merely political liberation, but the covenant with God and the epiphany at Mount Sinai. (Hence the well-known link of Pesah and Shavuot to one another).

On a second level, there is a duality within Maggid, the narrative or expository section of the Seder that precedes the festive meal, in terms of the experiential dimension. The first part of the Haggadah (following a kind of prelude, which concerns itself with the laws of and justification for the Seder itself) is essentially a narration, or better, a free-flowing discourse and dialogue between parents and children and among all those seated at the Seder table, about the formative events that shaped the Jewish nation long long ago. This is a kind of legend of origins, if you will, told through the medium of midrash, and focused on a series of key points. But then, at certain point, the Seder makes an abrupt turn. “In each generation a person must see himself as if he himself went out of Egypt.” From a historical, traditional narrative mode we turn to the immediate, experiential, existential mode: we ourselves want to relive the Exodus, to feel as if we ourselves were among the miserable rabble who were suddenly set free from the harsh reality of grinding, brutal slavery to… the unknown. This note is struck at the very beginning: “For if the Holy One blessed be He had not taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and our childrens’ children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

In concrete terms, this experiential dimension is expressed through the act of eating the Matzah, the Marror, and (in symbolic, commemorative fashion) the Paschal lamb (this is the significance of the paragraph beginning “Rabban Gamaliel used to say…”), and by eating and drinking while reclining “like free men.” It reaches its culmination in the recitation of hymns of joy and thanksgiving, in the section beginning with the word Lefikhakh, through the two psalms from the Hallel recited at the end of Maggid, and ending with the blessing “for our redemption and the liberation of our souls” and the second cup of wine.

Then there is a third duality: that between the personal and national levels of interpretation or, put differently, between the allegorical and literal level. Do we read the Exodus only on the literal level, as an ancient historical event, or is it also a metaphor for inner spiritual processes, for the individual’s existential situation. Each person needs, so to speak, to leave his own personal Egypt. Rather than national redemption, the focus is on the redemption of each Jew’s soul—breaking the chains of the Evil Urge, of attachment to material things, so as to become truly free in the spiritual sense. This last motif appears prominently in many Hasidic and other texts, which constantly stress this theme. Thus, the Maharal of Prague, in his explanation of the symbolism of matzah (Gevurot Hashem) states that matzah symbolizes freedom because it is the only food which is completely “simple,” being made without any additives. As such, it is exemplary of the individual who seeks spiritual freedom.

Another widely known example of this line of thought is the prayer recited after the burning of the Hametz on the morning of Passover Eve, printed in many Haggadot. “May it be your will, O Lord... that just as I have burned hametz [leavened matter] from my home and from my property, so... shall You burn away the spirit of impurity from the land, and burn the Evil Urge from within us, and give us a heart of flesh… and all wickedness eliminate as smoke... just as you destroyed Egypt and their gods in those days at this time.”

The common denominator of all three levels is the tendency toward a more expansive, open-ended approach to the text. The liberation was not only political, but also had a covenantal-religious dimension; it was not only something long ago, of mere antiquarian interest, but something living and vibrant with which each person may and should identify; not only one specific event, but also an inner, personal process. In brief, the Exodus, and the Seder, is a paradigmatic, archetypal event, rich in multi-layered meaning and symbolism—and inviting each generation to add their own levels.

It is in this spirit that we find during the twentieth century that Jews of all stripes, including “secularists” of various sorts and ideological orientations, have found their own meaning in the Haggadah, filling “old barrels with new wine.” (A few years ago I wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post on this subject; what follows is a somewhat revised and abridged version of that piece.) Thus, during the period of the Yishuv and the early years of the State of Israel, many secular kibbutzim created their own, untraditional versions of the Haggadah. These generally deleted all reference to the religious dimension of the Exodus; substituted biblical passages for the Rabbinic midrash that forms the core of the traditional Haggadah (following the approach of Ben-Gurion and others, who stressed the Tanakh as against the Talmud); added passages from the Song of Songs and from modern poetry celebrating the renewal of nature at spring time, thus reviving Pesah as a nature festival; and, of course, adding passages celebrating the political and national renascence of the Jewish people in our own day (Shlonsky, Alterman, etc.) . On the visual level, these Haggadot are among the finest examples of the new style of Israeli graphic art, together with the many newly-published Haggadot using the traditional text.

Another line of interpretation, more characteristic of certain Diaspora Jews, is a universalist-humanistic reading, in which the liberation from slavery that occurred in the Exodus is seen as paradigmatic for a universal human imperative. Elements of this approach may be found in the Haggadot of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. But perhaps the most strident example, which aroused a storm of hostile criticism at the time, was Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder, published in the New Left quarterly Ramparts in the late 1960’s. This Haggadah, alongside traditional texts and references to the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, spoke of the struggle to end the war in Vietnam (then at its height), of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and even of the suffering and oppression of the Palestinian people. Not surprisingly, this Haggadah aroused great controversy.

A kind of response to the Freedom Seder was The Fourth World Haggadah, compiled by Joel Harris and published by the World Union of Jewish Students, several years after Waskow’s Haggadah. The title was taken from the conception of the Jewish people as constituting a “fourth world”—belonging neither to the two great superpowers, nor to the “Third World,” from which it was excluded. This Haggadah combined traditional text and Seder ritual (including a translation of the entire 10th chapter of Mishnah Pesahim, under the heading “The Shape of the Seder”—a welcome addition to the Seder as study night) with readings related to contemporary Jewish experience. These included a “prayer for eating hametz on Pesah” composed by religious prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, and the “Song of the Partisans,” but there were also selected commentaries from such classical exegetes as Ramban, Sfrono, Ibn Ezra, Maharal, and others. The overall style—facing pages of traditional text and translation opposite free-ranging comments and supplementary material—was intended to appeal to the freewheeling style of Jewish students and young people.

This openness to innovation is not restricted to non-Orthodox Jews. It has become customary among some to add passages referring to various current concerns of the Jewish people. Thus, I recall during my childhood, in the late ‘50s, my Hebrew school distributed a special prayer in memory of the Six Million to be inserted between the third and fourth cups, when the door is “opened for Elijah”—a point which seemed most appropriate for expressing some of our own deepest hopes and concerns. During the height of the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jewry, in the 1960s and ‘70’s, a prayer or statement of identification with their lot was read; today, there are those who suggest inserting a prayer for Israel’s POW’s and MIA’s at this point.

Thus, through this variety of interpretations and additions made to the Haggadah, a new, possibly unintended, meaning is given to the phrase, “In each generation a person must see himself as though he himself has gone out of Egypt.”

Reflections on Passover 2000

This Erev Pesah I find myself troubled by something which it is difficult to fully formulate, but which I will try to explain. (And my apologies in advance if what follows is somewhat rambling and incoherent.)

I grew up in a Zionist movement, through which I absorbed the conception of Passover as “the birth of the Jewish nation.” The basic model was that all Jews shared a sense of belonging to the Jewish people; the fact that almost all Jews sit down around the Seder table was seen as one that symbolically united us all. Those who were religious also had certain faith affirmations, as well as being committed to halakhic observance. They would be more particular about the details of hametz, changing dishes, saying all the words of the Haggadah; whereas the secular nationalist would perhaps emphasize more the peoplehood aspects. Similarly, the religious might take the biblical account of the Exodus in more literal fashion, whereas others might see it more as part-legend, part-history, a powerful image which formed our national and cultural consciousness. Nevertheless, Pesah was Pesah for everyone: the great celebration of our becoming a people, in which almost every Jew participated in one fashion ore another, however truncated. Traditional religious faith and practice, for those who had it, were like a second story added on to the ground floor of Peoplehood.

As I became more deeply involved in religious thought, I learned of the two-tiered model put forward by Rav Soloveitchik: the brit goral, the covenant of destiny, i.e., the ineluctable fact of simply belonging to the Jewish people, symbolized by circumcision; and brit yi’ud, the covenant of goal, of a community with a definite task, set of values and norms, embodied in the Sinaitic covenant. Interestingly, two of the central rituals of Jewish life—brit milah, circumcision, and the Passover Seder—which are perhaps the two most universally observed mitzvot, may be seen as representing the Jewish destiny, on the individual and collective levels, respectively: the being born into the situation of Jewishness, and the formative historical experiences of Exile and Redemption.

What I find disturbing today is that this sense of cohesion, of community, seems to be becoming more and more unravelled with each passing year, both in Israel and abroad. There is a certain fin de siècle mood among many secularized intellectuals, what is known by the name “post-modernism,” which tends to debunks the connection to past experience, which sees history as no more than a “narrative,” a kind of group myth in the negative sense. This is also coupled with a certain so-called anti- fascist political mood, suspicious of any and all expression of national feeling. The Hebrew language draws a distinction between le’umiut & le’umaniyut, which may be roughly translated, respectively, as “nationalism,” “peoplehood,” “ethnic belonging,” as opposed to “hyper-nationalism,” “jingoism” or “chauvinism.” The tendency today seems to be to overlook this distinction, and to condemn all nationalism as negative. Those who know a bit of history may ground this attitude in a recoil to the horrors of twentieth century nationalism: there are those who would argue that Tonnies’ innocuous “Gemeinshaft” (integral ethnic community), which was counterpoised to the anonymous, utilitarian “Gesellschaft ,“ led in a straight line to the atrocities of Nazism. But today, clearly, it seems that things have gone too much to the other extreme. The facile celebration of the brave new world of “globalism,” apart from its ignoring the rather sinister and rapacious economic forces that stand behind the slogan, overlooks the human need, in a positive sense, to belong to a group, especially one rooted in as long and rich a history as that of the Jews.

Then there is a sense of disappointment in the State of Israel, of “post-Zionism.” At times, indeed, one is tempted to apply de Tocqueville’s witticism about America—that it went from barbarism to decadence without passing through the stage of maturity—to our own nation. Again, society generally (in the West and in Israel) is more egotistical, more private and individual centered.

I recently had cause, in the course of my translation work, to reflect on such figures as A. D. Gordon, Rav Kook, and Hillel Zeitlin. All three thought of the spiritual life as being inextricably linked to the renewal of community; of the need for a circle of others who shared their spiritual enthusiasm, and the renewal of a national culture that would reflect spiritual values. When I reflect upon their buoyant, optimistic mood, and how foreign these ideas sound to us today, I realize the profound negative impact of a great deal of what has happened during the past eighty years.

There is, behind the hype about technology and the new vista opened by the electronic highway, a kind of staleness to our age. There is an alienation created by the new technology, of dehumanization. On another level, the cheapening of sexual intimacy seems to be one of the most salient features of modern culture (on which more in Aharei Mot). Taking all of these things together, it is difficult to avoid a feeling of the decline of community as we have come to know it. Entering the Seder, perhaps our most fervent prayer and wish must be for the renewal of the simple, natural sense of true community, with all that implies.

Hag kasher ve-sameah

I have long been puzzled by the popular blessing, Hag kasher vesame’ach, “A kosher and happy Passover.” There seems to be an implication that making Pesah is so difficult, that people require a special blessing just to manage to do it right. But there are some, like my erstwhile brother-in-law Yehoshua Engelman, who wish people a “kosher’n Purim” and a “freilichen Pesah.” It is fairly easy to have a Happy Purim; the trick is to have a Kosher one (i.e. not to profane the Divine image in ones drunken merriment). Similarly, everyone who is halfway observant has a Kosher Pesah, given the intense effort invested in cleaning the house, etc.; the trick is not to be overwhelmed by the fear of doing something wrong, but to celebrate the Seder and Yom Tov with true joy rather than anxiety.

“The song shall be like the night when a holy feast is kept” (Isa 30:29)

I now wish to return full circle to where we started Pesah: with the Seder. Song, in general, and the Hallel, in particular, play a central role in the Seder. This section of the Seder is too often neglected, because it comes at the end, and there is so much rich material in the Maggid that one seldom gets to discuss Hallel in a serious way. What follows is a combination of insights gleaned from a Shabbat Hagadol shiur given a full third of a century ago by Rabbi Hayyim (Marvin) Luban, my first mentor in the Orthodox world, and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Shabbat Hagadol lecture of this year; together with my own insights and understanding of their words and of the sources they drew upon.

There are several striking halakhic problems involving the Hallel as recited at the Seder. First, it is divided in half: the two psalms “Praise the Lord O you servants of the Lord” and “When Israel went out of Egypt” are recited before the meal, in the concluding part of Maggid—the narrative portion of the Haggadah—immediately preceding the blessing over the second cup, “who has redeemed us and our fathers,” while the remaining four psalms are recited after the meal, over the fourth cup of wine. Second, this Hallel, at least in the Ashkenazic tradition, is said without the customary opening blessing that is recited when said in the synagogue. Third, there is tacked on to its end another psalm, Psalm 136, known as Hallel Hagadol. Fourth, the concluding blessing of Hallel is a matter of great confusion. Some Haggadot have the concluding blessing of Hallel, “Yehallukha,” recited after the Hallel, but without the concluding mention of God’s name; Hallel Hagadol is then followed by “Nishmat Kol Hay,” through “Yishtabah,” as on Shabbat morning; other Haggadot conflate Nishmat kol hay and Yehallukha together, just before the fourth cup. What is going on here?

Basically, there are three different kinds of Hallel:

1. Hallel Hamitzri: the regular, “Egyptian” Hallel, recited on festivals or other days commemorating God’s miraculous, redemptive deeds (e.g., Hanukkah, Yom Ha’atzmaut). “After every occasion or trouble that befalls Israel, when they are redeemed they are to recite Hallel” (Pesahim 117a).

2. Hallel of Pesukei Dezimra: The six concluding hymns from the Book of Psalms, each of which begins and end with the word “Halleluyah,” which form the heart of the introductory praises of the weekday and Shabbat Morning Service (Psalm 145 doesn’t actually conclude with Halleluyah, but Ps 115:18 is tacked on at the end of “Ashrei” so as to fit into this rubric). It is told in the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) that Rav Yossi said: “Would that I were among those who complete the Hallel every day!” The objection is raised: “But one who recites Hallel every day is as if committing blasphemy” (presumably, because he thereby trivializes God’s miraculous interventions in specisl moments in history). He countered: “No, I refer here to the Hallel of Pesukei Dezimra.” We shall return presently to this puzzling passage, and the significance of Rav Yossi’s answer.

3. Hallel Hagadol: “The Great Hallel.” This phrase is generally taken to refer to Psalm 136: an antiphonal psalm, containing 26 phrases, each one of which is followed by the response: “for his lovingkindness is forever.” Some Talmudic opinions say that this also includes the preceding, non-antiphonal, but contents-wise similar Psalm 135; while others say it refers to the 23rd psalm. Why is it called “the great” Hallel? Because of two salient features: one, that it speaks of God’s attribute as universal provider and sustainer, of both man and beast, in heaven and on earth. Second, that it spans both the cosmic and the historical.

Ordinarily, the Hallel is recited with a blessing, being performed in fulfillment of a certain Rabbinic commandment. On Seder night, the aim is ideally that the celebrant will relive and reexperience the Exodus, feeling in his heart the spontaneous sense of joy upon being personally liberated from enslavement. Thus, the Hallel, at least the two key chapters that most speak of the Exodus and of becoming servants of God, is integrated within the culminating section of Maggid which, as we mentioned last week, is structured around the transition from the cognitive to the experiential. The latter half of the Hallel, after the meal, continues on the same tack, and is recited without a blessing, precisely because it is recited on this higher level of religious consciousness.

As for Hallel Hagadol: this psalm moves from the experiencing of God’s direct presence beyond the historical, to the sense of God’s presence in the everyday. This Hallel—which is thematically similar to the Hallel of Pesukei deZimra, but “writ large,” actually represents a deeper, more profound level of religious consciousness: one that, perhaps, anticipates the constant awareness of the divine presence that will exist in the age of the final redemption.

This also coalesces with one final halakhic problem. In many texts (although not in our reading of the Talmud Bavli), such as the Yerushalmi, Alfasi’s Hilkhot ha-Rif, Rambam in Hametz u-Matza 8.10 (although not in 7.10), and many others, Hallel and Hallel Hagadol are recited over two separate cups: the fourth cup and the fifth cup. The fifth cup corresponds to “the latter -day,” Messianic redemption: the words “and I shall bring to the land,” and, in Jeremiah’s prophecy, alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, the defeat of the “fifth kingdom” that oppresses Israel, Gog and Magog. Once sorted out into two separate, distinct cups, the awkward conflation of the concluding blessings likewise disappears. And indeed, some religious Zionist thinkers, most notably the late Rav Menahem Kasher in his Haggadah Sh’leimah, have advocated reintroducing the fifth cup, and not only “until Elijah comes.”


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