Don’t recycle the Maxwell House Haggadah just yet

Image courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

“The Rational Passover Seder, The Alperson Edition” by Dennis Prager. Edited by Joseph Telushkin. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Faith, 2022. 180 pages. $29.99.

“Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah” by Marcia Falk. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2022. 232 pages. $19.95.

Despite their merits, the question is: Should you buy either to use for your Passover celebration?

“The Rational Passover Haggadah” is meant to enhance contemplation of the holiday and beyond. In his brief introduction, author Dennis Prager writes: “This Haggadah is intended to serve as a guide to life, to God, and to Judaism.”

Specifically, he notes, “sacred texts need to be explained in a rational manner and made relevant.”

This book certainly would make discussions at the seder table more interesting because it presents such provocative questions for discussion.

For example, was there really an Exodus? Yes, says Prager, there is evidence that the Jews were slaves in Egypt and escaped to freedom. One such piece of evidence deals with the many details of ancient Egyptian life found in the Torah. How could those who wrote the story centuries later and had no contact with Egypt have known about those particulars, if Jews had not lived in, and left, that country?

Does Judaism rest on any doctrine of faith? Yes, the author writes, “God as the Creator of the Universe and God as the Liberator of the Jews from Egypt.” Had the Jews abandoned either belief in exile, they would have ceased to be Jews.

Other questions in the book include: Why isn’t Moses mentioned in the haggadah? How important is God to meaning in Life? Is it possible to reconcile a good God with unjust suffering? Do all those who believe in God believe in the same God?

Only the intellectually courageous — and those willing to stay up all night — would ask these complex, but fascinating questions at the seder table.

The other new haggadah, “Night of Beginnings,” using drawings and poetry among other tools, aspires to “reveal meanings beneath the surface of the Pesach ritual and to deepen our personal connection to the holiday,” according to author and illustrator Marcia Falk.

In pursuit of that goal, Falk has uprooted much of the tradition associated with the holiday. For example, in the ritual dealing with karpas, the greens, traditionally we thank God, “creator of the fruits of the earth.” In “Night of Beginnings,” we instead recite a verse from Zechariah and then “bless the source that awakens the greening of the earth.”

Drinking the four cups of wine traditionally calls for blessing God “who created the fruit of the vine.” In contrast, the author presents a quote from the book of Amos (“The mountains will drip wine and all the hills will wave with grain.”) and then her blessing (“Let us bless the ever-flowing wellspring that nourishes the fruit of the vine.”)

Once again, God is missing from the blessing, as is the case throughout the book.
The Four Questions are set out as in other haggadot. But then the author notes that the Talmud’s cataloguing of the four archetypes of sons asking the questions (Wise, Wicked, Simple and Who Does Not Know How to Ask) is for many people “problematic and unhelpful.”

She suggests four new categories of children: The Child Who Wants to Know, The Child Who Feels Apart and Alone, The Simple Child and The Child Who Cannot Ask.
What to make of all this? At first glance, we might conclude that if this is what it takes to bring some Jews closer to Judaism and to the holiday, then so be it.

However, I see two serious problems. One has to do with comfort of individual Jews and the unity of the Jewish people. If you had a magic carpet that could transport you to sedarim around the world on Pesach night, you would feel at home everywhere as you heard blessings over the wine, the greens and other items. But not at a seder using “Night of Beginnings.”

Then, there is its effect on Judaism. If you open the Jewish tent so wide as to allow anything and everything to be called “Judaism,” then we may find ourselves left with nothing that distinguishes the Jewish religion from others.

This Haggadah has its strong points. It is attractive, filled with drawings of flowers, original poems and a 21-page narrative laying out the story of the Exodus.
But for me, it constitutes much too radical a break with tradition.

As I noted earlier, “The Rational Passover Haggadah” is loaded with thought-provoking questions. I intend to borrow a few for discussion at my seder table.

But I’m afraid that my guys always are anxious to get to the festive meal — I blame my wife’s formidable culinary skills for their preference for food for the stomach over sustenance for the soul — and then to “Chad Gadya” and the end of the seder.

As to the haggadah, I’ll be sticking with the American-Jewish standard, the Maxwell House Haggadah, that’s been doing its best to make sense of the seder table and keep us at there through the end of the festivities for 90 years.

Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrants’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s” (Chickadee Prince Books), is available for purchase online.

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