Monday, April 2, 2012

The Purpose of a New Haggadah

Why write a new Haggadah?

More than 7,000 versions of the Haggadah have appeared over the course of our history. In a contest of most-oft-printed Jewish texts, it is hard to imagine what might even run a close second. Given this, one must surely believe one has something either radically new or profoundly important to contribute if one is going to be so bold as to attempt the feat of adding value to a saturated field.

Jonathan Safran Foer's New American Haggadah is this year's most notable attempt. And the justification for this attempt as he describes it in The New York Times' Week in Review is beautifully written and well-put. He writes: "Our grandparents were immigrants to America, but natives to Judaism. We are the opposite: fluent in “American Idol,” but unschooled in Jewish heroes. And so we act like immigrants around Judaism: cautious, rejecting, self-conscious, and feigning (or achieving) indifference. In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent."

If only the content of his guidebook were as compelling as his case for writing it.

It would be almost impossible to add to Leon Wieseltier's outstanding critique of the Haggadah in the current issue of The Jewish Review of Books. (I referenced the piece in my recent Shabbat Hagadol sermon on the Haggadah's wicked child.) In a word, the Haggadah does not live up to its billing.

If one is searching for a Haggadah that speaks to the contemporary moment while remaining steeped in and faithful to our tradition, one would be hard-pressed to do better than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Haggadah whose only shortcoming seems to be its unimaginative title.

But returning to Safran Foer's argument, we are surely on the verge of a critical juncture if we have not already passed it. I applaud him for spending his time and deploying his talents on the project of enlivening the dialogue around Jewish ideas. Any attempt to engage Jews and reconnect them to their tradition should be supported and encouraged. If the genre of the New Haggadah is an entry point for unlearned Jews, then by all means - let us write more Haggadot.

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