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.

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