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.

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