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April 02, 2009 - Image 75

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2009-04-02

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Arts & Entertainment

New Haggadot
Renew Traditions

Why is this Passover a throwback to Passovers of old?

Ben Harris

Jewish Telegraphic Agency


n most Passovers, it is the liberal
Jewish denominations that seek
to reinterpret the holiday tradi-
tions, often viewing them through the
prism of contemporary struggles for civil
rights and environmental preservation.
But this Passover, it is the more conser-
vative wings of the Jewish community that
are offering a fresh read on the Haggadah.
Both the Orthodox Union and the
Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a spir-
itual home of some traditionalists within
the Conservative movement, are touting
new offerings in time for the holiday.
The OU has released a new Haggadah
based on the writings of the late Rabbi
Joseph Soloveitchik, while Schechter has put
out two new volumes, including one with a
lengthy survey of ancient Passover rituals.
"The Haggadah has been reinterpreted
in every generation': said Dr. Joshua Kulp,
who authored the historical essay at the
back of The Schechter Haggadah. "I think
that by studying the origins we come to
understand where the customs that we're
observing today and where the text comes
from. For me, it brings greater meaning to
the text."
With upwards of three-quarters of
American Jews attending a seder — more
than who light Chanukah candles or fast
on Yom Kippur, according to the most
recent National Jewish Population Survey
— Passover is likely the most observed of
Jewish holidays. So it's hardly a surprise
that the Haggadah, the traditional guide-
book for the evening, is among the most
frequently reinvented.
But while past years have seen volumes
produced that read the Exodus story
through a distinctly contemporary lens,
the new spate of Haggadahs is far more
oriented toward traditional sources, in
particular excavating certain writings,
themes, artworks and rituals that have
been cast off or forgotten over the years.
The Soloveitchik Haggadah, titled "The
Seder Night: An Exalted Evening," is the
first production of the newly minted OU
Press, which was established this year in
part to disseminate Soloveitchik's unpub-

lished writings and lectures.
Edited by Rabbi Menachem Genack,
the OU's head of kashrut supervision, the
volume culls Soloveitchik's lectures, notes
and teachings to present a dense and
learned commentary on the seder's vari-
ous components.
But while Soloveitchik is revered in part
for breathing life into Modern Orthodoxy,
with its marriage of ritual observance
and engagement with the broader world,
the Haggadah is a pointed, if inadvertent,
rejoinder to those who would re-imagine
the seder in purely contemporary terms.
"The Ray's teachings emphasized the
centrality of Torah study to the seder
Genack writes in the introduction.
According to Genack, part of the chal-
lenge in producing the Haggadah was in
making the famously erudite Soloveitchik
accessible. Readers will ultimately decide
if he succeeds, but the Haggadah is not for
the faint of heart. Many pages have but a
few lines of text accompanied by lengthy
By contrast, the two Schechter
Haggadahs are both heavily infused with
artwork. Kulp's Haggadah includes three
sections: the traditional seder night ser-
vice, a collection of more than 100 illus-
trations collected by Schechter President
Rabbi David Golinkin and a historical
commentary by Kulp, a professor of
Talmud and Jewish law.
Some of the old illustrations were intend-
ed to help participants observe particular
rituals of the seder night. For instance,
the tradition of reclining at the table was
foreign to European Jews who were accus-
tomed to eating at a table, unlike earlier
Jews who may have sat on the floor or on
cushions that more easily lend themselves
to the practice. In one European Haggadah
from the 15th century, a man is depicted
lying awkwardly on a table.
"The history of the night is also the
history of the books and the pictures that
make up the night': Kulp said. "Those
things, I think, go together."
The other Schechter release, The Lovell
Haggadah, was produced by rabbi and art-
ist Matthew Berkowitz of Boca Raton, Fla.
Berkowitz spent four years producing a new
translation and commentary in addition to

Rabbi Mathew
Berkowitz created

this image to accom-
pany the song Who
Knows One?" in the

Haggadah he wrote
and illustrated.

original artworks inspired by the popular
Moss Haggadah, produced by the artist
David Moss in the 1980s in the tradition of
medieval illuminated manuscripts.
"It underscores the nexus of seri-
ous Jewish learning and the visual arts;'
Berkowitz said. "I decided in this project
I wanted to create a Haggadah that was
substantive in art and use the art to start a
discussion seder night."
Though Berkowitz's original works are
deeply rooted in traditional sources, the
Haggadah is not deaf to contemporary
issues. The language is gender neutral, in
keeping with liberal Jewish practice, and is
written with a "questioning consciousness','
as Berkowitz writes in the introduction.
It also reflects modern-day concerns
pertaining to the State of Israel. The
Haggadah finishes with "Hatikvah," the
Israeli national anthem, and tempers the
traditional liturgy urging God to "pour out
his wrath on the nations" with a version
asking him to "pour out his love."
"I definitely see it as part and parcel of
this notion of meaning and modernity':
Berkowitz said.

Of course, the liberal
Jewish world will not be
entirely silent at this
year's seder. Rabbi Peter
Schweitzer, who leads
the City Congregation for
Humanistic Judaism in
New York, has published
The Liberated Haggadah,
a secular Haggadah with a
number of new rituals that
depart significantly from
the traditional service.
Schweitzer has intro-
duced an orange to the seder plate, a symbol
of openness and inclusivity that stresses the
holiday's universal message. The plagues
have been modernized to reflect the con-
cerns of the day, including AIDS, hunger,
poverty and racism.
Supplementing the traditional seder-
ending songs, several of which Schweitzer
rewrote as secularized anthems, is the Civil
Rights era stalwart "We Shall Overcome."
"As secular Jews, we want to claim the
holiday for ourselves in a way that makes
sense to us when the miracles don't neces-
sarily work;' Schweitzer said. "Our position
would be that we as humans chart our
own destiny. And we are free in each gen-
eration to define our own Jewish identity."
Secular Jews reject the historicity of the
Exodus story; Schweitzer noted the pau-
city of historical evidence to support the
account given in traditional Haggadahs. But
the very fact that so many Haggadahs are
now available, both traditional and contem-
porary, is, Schweitzer said, a modern reflec-
tion of the holiday's ancient message.
"The diversity of Haggadahs," he said,
"is itself an expression of freedom." _7

April 2 • 2009


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