Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Telling the story, continued

The maggid, the narration, in the Passover seder, often gets short shrift, for at least two reasons.

The first is that the format itself of the seder is otherwise unfamiliar to us. In our everyday lives we have few models for ceremonial meals, and none that is appropriate. We are all familiar with awards banquets and fund-raising dinners, but those are irrelevant and, for many of us, unwelcome models. The seder isn't anything like either of those.

The original model for the seder was the Graeco-Roman symposium. That was a protracted dinner of many courses that upper-class men would eat while lying on couches, the left arm supporting the head so that the right hand was free for eating. We see a vestige of that in the instruction to lean to the left during the seder.

Although the symposium was a feature of Greek and Roman culture, it wasn't considered off-limits to affluent Jews in the period in which the haggadah began to take its present form. By the time of the Mishnah, Jews, pagans, and early Christians were living side by side in some towns in Israel and sharing in Graeco-Roman culture. This was certainly the case in Tzippori (Sepphoris), where Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, who led the compilation of the Mishnah, lived. 

The element that defined the symposium wasn't the food--it was the philosophical discussion. We should understand the haggadah as an example of such a discussion, focusing on Passover. In other words, the haggadah text is not so much a liturgy (like the prayers prescribed for worship services) as a sample discussion. Because the rabbis knew that most of us weren't scholars, they provided questions and answers.

So: the first thing about the maggid that gives us a problem is that we don't recognize it for what it is. Many of us start out expecting it to be sort of like the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and it isn't. 

The second source of a problem is that the discussion itself isn't like a modern discussion. It's similar to the form of discussion in the Talmud, for which secular education isn't preparation. Talmudic discussion tends to shift without warning from one topic to another, and to veer off through association into new topics that are only tangentially related to the original one. Furthermore, it often embodies multiple, conflicting opinions, and it tends to quote proof texts (often only in part) all the time. In fact, typically the haggadah cites one proof text for a phrase in the maggid and, later, a second proof text for the interpretation of that statement. Both the Talmud and the haggadah are hard slogging if you were expecting something else.

In addition, some of the haggadah text isn't actually the discussion of the topic itself, but rather the discussion of what to discuss about the topic! And the actual telling of the story is the forest that we can't see because there are too many trees.

Modern haggadot deal with the inherent difficulty of the maggid by adding new readings--before, during, and after--that the editors hope will be more meaningful to contemporary Jews. Especially if we're concerned about the total length of the seder, these tend to be substitutes for, not additions to, the maggid. That is, we skip the parts of the maggid that are hard to understand or that don't pertain to the way we understand Passover.

I'm thinking more and more that the way to deal with the maggid isn't to skip it, but to change it. If we understand it to be a sample, not a fixed liturgy, we might choose to replace it with a free-form discussion. We could provide some questions to get started, but not the answers.

On the other hand, most of us aren't scholars, and all of us tend to get off the track. The discussion after the seder is the same in every family: reminiscences of past sedarim, of the family members at whose homes they were held, their recipes, how a zeyde led the seder, who else was there, and so forth. To reserve that discusssion for after the seder, we should probably provide a text for the maggid, but there's no reason that our interpretations can't be new.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Telling the story

Conducting a Passover seder at home, for the first time, is one of the unmarked transitions of adult Jewish life. 

It used to come fairly late in life, not until one's parents were unable to hold it at theire home, and even later if there were older siblings who stepped in. It tends to come earlier now, as more and more of us live far away from the older generations of our families. 

We know from surveys that more Jews in America attend a seder than attend synagogue on Yom Kipper. What we don't know is what kind of seder others attend. Because it takes place at home, generally without the supervision of a rabbi, each of us is free to make the kind of seder we want: short or long, traditional or not, and so on. It can be perfunctory if that's what we want. It can even be just a festive meal.

As much as I like both Passover and the seder, I have to admit that I have disliked many sedarim that I've attended. One reason is that large parts of the traditional haggadah text don't speak to me any more. Another is that many times, depending on the choice of haggadah and the style of the leader, it comes across as "Now we do this, now we do that, now we do this other," without as much attention to meaning as I'd like.

Actually, these are the same thing: when the haggadah text imputes meaning to an action, I tend to disagree with the interpretation. Now, disagreement about interpretations is very much in the tradition of the seder, but it's unusual to be with many others who are ready to emulate the rabbis of B'nei B'rak and continue the discussion until morning.

The first time I led a seder, it wasn't at my home. It was on a university campus, with a group of about 75 people that included students who couldn't go home; faculty and staff, some with children; and a number of non-Jews, the Protestant chaplain among them. (She excelled at "Who knows one?")

We used what is often called the "Baskin haggadah," after its illustrator, Leonard Baskin, rather than after its editor, Rabbi Herbert Bronstein. It was published in 1974 as the official haggadah of the Reform movement. Although it was in preparation at the same time as Gates of Prayer, in comparison it seems backward looking -- partly in a good way, recalling the social activism of the 1960s, and partly in a not-so-good way, retaining too much of the formality of classic Reform.

In my own home, I've been using Gates of Freedom, by Rabbi Chaim Stern. He was the principal author of Gates of Prayer, and the overall feel is very similar. It was neither published nor adopted by the Reform movement, because the CCAR remained committed to the Bronstein-Baskin haggadah.

In recent years I've been dissatisfied with it, too. The Reform movement has published a new haggadah, Sharing the Journey. It's radically different from other almost all other haggadot. Specifically, its maggid (narrative) tells the story more or less as it appears in the Torah, while the traditional haggadah text omits most of the Torah narrative in favor of commentary. Especially, this new haggadah talks a lot about Moses, while the tradition is to focus on God, not Moses. I'll post more about it later.  

So what am I doing? I'm writing a haggadah. I'll post more about that later, too.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Judaism and the War on Science

No stream of Judaism opposes science research and teaching. Not even the most traditional rabbis would say, as did United States Representative Paul Broun, that evolution and embryology are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

Rep. Broun represents a district in Georgia. He’s not an uneducated simpleton: he holds an M.D. degree from the Medical College of Georgia. He ran unopposed for reelection in 2012—there were 4,000 write-in votes for Charles Darwin—and plans to run for the Senate in 2014.

To be clear, there are rabbis who speak against evolution, including Rabbi Yisroel Lau, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. Their view, however, is a minority opinion even among Orthodox rabbis. Most accept all of modern science even if it appears to conflict with the Torah.

One reason they can do so is that we have believed for centuries that not everything in the Hebrew Scriptures needs to be taken literally. The opposition to overly literal interpretations dates back at least to the work of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (called Maimonides or the Rambam) in the twelfth century.

Nevertheless, not all Jewish day schools teach science adequately. There is no problem in day schools affiliated with Reform, Conservative, or modern Orthodox Judaism, but some of the ultra-Orthodox day schools teach little or no science.

It’s also a problem in Israel, where a parallel system of “religious” schools receives government funding. In 2010, university students protested the funding, and one of the issues was the absence of science in the curricula of those schools.

The case helps us to understand why some ultra-Orthodox schools in the United States teach so little science. According to Noah Efron, a professor at Bar Ilan University, they don’t believe that science is wrong. They just believe that it’s unnecessary.

Some of the Jewish day schools in America that don’t teach much science don’t teach much of any secular subject. In yeshivot, all secular subjects are typically lumped together as “english” (not capitalized) and tend to be considered unimportant even if sufficient time (at least three hours per day) is allocated for them. Some schools, however, teach much less than that, as little as four hours per week and perhaps none after the eighth grade. 

These schools are failing to meet the New York State requirements, but enforcement is weak. It falls to the local public schools to monitor secular education in private and religious schools. In New York City and Rockland County, both lack of resources and fear of political reprisals make that ineffective.

It’s no wonder that Kiryas Joel, in Rockland County, has the highest poverty rate in New York. And it can’t be good for any of us if significant numbers of Jews grow up without secular education.

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...