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What’s Up with the Haggadah?

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Yesterday, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer concluded his New York Times op-ed on why he spent the last few years working on a new Passover Haggadah by telling how his six-year-old son, after hearing about the death of Moses from a children's book of Bible stories, burst into tears.

“Is something wrong?” I asked, closing the book.

He shook his head.

“Are you sure?”

Without looking up, he asked if Moses was a real person.

“I don’t know,” I told him, “but we’re related to him.”

The Haggadah--the manual for the Passover Seder--is, as Safran Foer recognizes, an exercise in the creation and reinforcement of collective identity. We Jews rehearse the story of the departure from Egypt as a tale of what God did for us, and woe to the family member who asks what all this means for you: That's the question ritually asked by the designated "wicked son," whose teeth we are instructed to "set on edge" by declaring that had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Underlying this emphasis is, of course, anxiety about the loss of communal existence. The Haggadah was written well after the destruction of the Temple, when Passover was marked by a pilgrimage (hag) to sacrifice there. That the seder concludes with the cry, "Next Year in Jerusalem," makes clear that the Haggadah is quintessentially a book of the Diaspora. And it has a bittersweet story to tell--one that is more about suffering and departure (from Egypt) than about arrival and enjoyment (of the Land of Milk and Honey). We are required to recline during the seder as "free men," but are we really free? 

Which brings us to Moses, whose death made little Safran Foer cry. Moshe rabbenu, whose heroic life is the core of the story as told in Exodus, makes but a single brief appearance in the entire Haggadah. It proceeds instead by way of a gloss on (Moses-less) Deuteronomy 26:5-8, supplemented with the kind of Talmudic rabbis' chatter that is so difficult for most contemporary Jews to relate to. No wonder there have been so many updated versions of the Haggadah in our time.

In suppressing Moses' role, the Haggadah insists that it was the Lord himself who brought us forth, i.e. it was "not by a ministering angel (malach), not by a fiery angel (seraph), and not by a messenger (shaliach), but by Himself, in His glory." In fact, Moses is referred to in the Midrash on Exodus as God's shaliach. The Haggadah is precisely concerned to emphasize that Jews did not have to depend on a human intermediary for redemption. We got God Himself; the followers of Jesus, not so much. The polemical purpose of the Haggadah is to establish, and exalt, the Jewish community on that basis.

Beliefs: Judaism
Tags: passover

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