PASSOVER 2009: Alternate Takes On Freedom


The People of the Book produce no books in greater quantity than the Passover Haggadah. As surely as the seder brings Jews together every year, the seder table holds a selection of the new Haggadot that appeal to the scholar, the art lover, the historian of all ages.
Here are some of the latest selections:

The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Edited by Rabbi Menachem D. Genack. OU Press. 203 pages. $25.
The latest book of the thoughts on Passover themes by the late philosophical head of the Modern Orthodox movement and a senior lecturer at Yeshiva University, “An Exalted Evening” follows the common path of scholars’ Haggadot published in recent years (seder text with accompanying commentaries; no artwork), but the result is anything but ordinary. The words of “The Rav,” gleaned from decades of his published works, tapes of his lectures and students’ notes from his lessons, reflect the breadth and scope of his thinking that earned him a devoted following.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s explanations of the seder’s readings and rituals transcend the usual from-slavery-to-freedom commentary that is passed along in religious schools, rabbinical sermons and many other Haggadah commentaries.

The seder starts with Kiddush, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, “because the slave lacks the time experience.” Kiddush acknowledges and blesses time. “God endowed man with time awareness, the ability to sense and feel time and the existential stream of selfhood.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik would view the telling of the Pesach story as ”more than a recounting of historical events,” Rabbi Genack, the book’s editor, writes in the introduction. “Retelling the story of the Exodus must intrinsically encompass the mitzvah of Torah study.”
The Rav’s words make both the story of the Exodus and Torah study come alive.

The Lovell Haggadah. Illuminations, Translation, and Commentary by Matthew Berkowitz. Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. 227 pages. $32.
Part-standard Haggadah, part-fine arts book, part-guide to innovative ways of conducting a seder, Rabbi Berkowitz’s book is both too good not to include at your holiday table and too good to pass around — for fear of getting stains on it.
Rabbi Berkowitz, senior rabbinic fellow in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America’s KOLLOT: Voices of Learning Program, infuses the text with beautiful, bordering on breathtaking symbolic illustrations in color that combine art and Hebrew lettering. “Each of the twenty-seven illustrations is an archaeological dig, demonstrating the ability of art to interpret sacred text,” the rabbi writes. “Seder leaders may read through this section each year and select several illuminations as centerpieces for conversation during the evening.”
In addition to insightful explanations of the seder rituals and of each artwork, the Haggadah offers relevant quotes about each section from Jewish sages, poetry, “reflections” for introspection, and suggestions for creative seder customs. One suggestion: “Leave the door open at the beginning of the seder. This recalls the tradition of Rav Huna who, whenever he would sit down to a meal, would open the door to his home and declare, “let all who are hungry come and eat (BT [Babylonian Talmud] Ta’anit 20b).”

The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary. Translation and commentary by Joshua Kulp, illustrations selected and annotated by David Golinkin. 290 pages. $40.
The Schechter Haggadah is heavy in both weight (three pounds, 2.5 ounces) and content. It is in essence three books: the Haggadah text with beautiful illuminations; some 50 pages of Jewish artwork through the ages on Passover themes, some serious, some lighthearted, all of it awe-inspiring; and more than 120 pages of learned commentary fit for the beginner and scholar alike.
There is enough here to spur yom tov discussions for several years. “If the Seder-leader does not have time to study the entire Haggadah,” the authors write, “a different section or sections can be discussed at every Seder or the leader can assign different children or adults to study a section in advance and to explain it at the Seder.”
Kulp, co-founder of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Golinkin, professor of Jewish law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, have provided a valuable service, making a product that is accessible to the layman and serviceable to the expert.
The cross-reference notes in the text, leading to commentary in the back of the book, avoid cluttering the pages of large-type print and evocative art with excessive ancillary text.
The illustrations of the Four Sons — “four types of children” according to the Haggadah section’s egalitarian phrasing — is particularly interesting, with centuries-old woodcuts, Arthur Szyk’s classic interpretation of the sons, and a 1981 poster using the images of the Marx Brothers.

The Eybeshitz Haggadah: Experiencing Redemption by Rabbi Shalom Hammer. Devora Publishing. 225 pages. $24.95
A leading figure in the 18th-century European Jewish community, Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz is largely unknown today, outside of learned yeshiva circles. His Hebrew works — and the controversy that surrounded them — are especially forgotten in the English-speaking world, where his un-translated writings (he served as a communal leader in Czechoslovakia and Germany) are a footnote in the history of divided, post-Shabtai Zvi Jewry.
A kabbalist who favored the use of mystical amulets, he came under attack from some voices in mainstream Torah leadership for what appeared to be Shabbatean leanings.
Rabbi Hammer, a native of upstate Monsey who now lives in Israel, has created a Haggadah (Rabbi Eybeshitz did not write his own), loosely based on an obscure 1985 Israeli translation, by culling the scholar’s Talmudic/kabbalistic/scientific writings on Pesach-related subjects.
“Paraphrasing Rav Yehonatan’s writings is extremely difficult both for substantive and stylistic reasons,” writes the rabbu, who sought to restructure the relationship “between [Rabbi Eybeshitz’] questions and answers in order to increase the overall clarity.” Rabbi Hammer succeeds admirably.
His Haggadah is a welcome addition to seder literature, especially for the tom tov table that seeks to go beyond the introductory level of discussions. His format of asking, then answering a thematic question makes it especially valuable to spur further seder questions.

The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah: Historical Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Joseph Tabory. Jewish Publication Society. 154 pages. $40.
This is a scholar’s Haggadah, laid out like a reference book with footnotes and commentary on nearly every page. With the actual seder comprising less than half the book (several pages of black-and-white illustrations come afterwards), this is a book to be studied beforehand, not to be used at the seder itself.
Rabbi Tabory, a professor of Talmud at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, is as thorough a writer as he is engaging, presenting history and insight about the seder night’s words and rituals.
A rationalist, he favors straight-forward explanations of seder symbolism over the mystical. One example: Ha Lachma, the reading about matzah near the beginning of the Haggadah. Rabbi Tabory presents several insights into the Aramaic words; absent is the explanation, presented in many other Haggadahs, that Aramaic is the language de jour because Satan does not understand it.
“The text should not be thought of as a separate entity but rather as the script of a play,” Rabbi Tabory writes, “which, like the script of a play, include not only the words said but also the instructions for the performance o the drama.”

Dayenu! A Passover Haggadah For Families and Children. With accompanying music CD. Carolyn Boyd Leon. Illustrations by Gwen Connelly. KTAV Publishing House. 32 pages. $16.95.
This is the Haggadah for the kid at your seder, the kid old enough to read simple poems and stories — or to be read to — but not old enough to fathom sophisticated Pesach concepts.
The text, and the CD, which can be studied in advance of the seders to learn the melodies, set the mood for the holiday, and the tunes are catchy enough to keep the attention of children of any age. The drawings, of the seder rituals and the Exodus story, can serve as an interactive aid for the fidgety youngster: point to the candles on a page, then to the real ones on the yom tov table.
The pages are glossy stock — stains can be wiped off.
The text is clearly remedial, offering not the actual words of the Haggadah, outside of the blessings and a few key items like the Four Questions, but introducing the seder themes in broad strokes.
The only shortcoming: the book ends at Dayenu, so little subsequent symbolism of the seder, beyond Elijah’s Cup, is covered. The author clearly felt that was dayenu, enough for us. The tradeoff of depth for breadth is understandable, but the quality of what Leon and Connelly present will leave the young seder goer wanting more.

Briefly Noted

The Liberated Haggadah: A Passover Celebration for Cultural, Secular and Humanistic Jews by Rabbi Peter Schweitzer. The Center for Cultural Judaism. 48 pages. $13.
A normal Haggadah is heavy on God, light on Moses, whose name is absent. That is reversed in this reissued humanistic Haggadah, a Passover guide for non-believers. Written by Rabbi Schweitzer, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, it presents the holiday’s freedom theme, “our liberation from slavery,” as the work of human hands, not heaven’s. Mankind, in the text, is the actor, not God. “We are here today because our ancestors never lost their hope.” This is the Haggadah if you want Pastor Niemoller or “We Shall Overcome” at your seder.

Passover Haggada. Ilan – Israel Foundation for Handicapped Children. 77 pages. $10.
Not a text for a seder leader, the Ilan Haggadah is perfect for guests reading along. There are no commentaries or explanatory notes, but the artworks on nearly every page, drawings and sketches on Israeli or holiday themes by residents and employees of Israel’s home for the disabled, are a beautiful holiday accompaniment. Printed on glossy paper, with easy-to-follow text and standard English translations, the Haggadah, the size of a large pamphlet, gives an American seder a taste of Israel.