Rabbis come together to teach about Pesach
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Rabbis come together to teach about Pesach

Consortium focuses on new ways to look at an old text

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At last Thursday’s discussion are, from left, Rabbis David Fine, Ronald Roth, Jonathan Woll, Neil Tow, and Baruch Zeilicovich. Richard Michaelson

In what local rabbis hope will be the first of many joint educational ventures, five religious leaders came together to “think outside the matzoh box,” bringing new ideas to the reading of the haggadah.

The program, “Four Questions, Five Rabbis,” held at Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom on March 24, brought together Rabbis David Fine (Temple Israel and JCC, Ridgewood), Ronald Roth (Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel), Jonathan Woll (Progressive Havurah of Northern New Jersey), Neil Tow (Glen Rock Jewish Center), and Baruch Zeilicovich (Beth Sholom) in what organizers called “Community Limud: A Synagogue Study Consortium.”

After the event, the five rabbis told The Jewish Standard that they were both thrilled and surprised by the large turnout, demonstrating, said Woll, that “there [is] a thirst for continuing education in the Jewish community. It depends on how it’s packaged and delivered.”

Zeilicovich, whose congregation hosted the event, said that “it is nice to have this sense of togetherness. It’s also very nice that the leadership is showing the way and setting a good example. The more united we are, the better chances there are for education. It sets a great example for our children and youth.”

Richard Michaelson – longtime Beth Sholom member and co-chair of the shul’s adult education committee with Harry Melzer – pointed out that the event drew more than 150 people, attributing its success both to the rabbis and to the “interest of the community in this kind of community-style event,” with multiple rabbinic perspectives.

During the event, the five rabbis tackled different sections of the Hagaddah, suggesting ways attendees could foster discussion at their seders.

In a presentation entitled “Idolatry vs. Slavery: How Do We Start the Story?” Fine told attendees about a debate going back to Talmudic times over “the true nature of degradation. Does one begin the story with our slavery in Egypt or with the idolatry practiced before the time of Abraham?” he asked.

“The Hagaddah, in its wisdom, retains both options,” he said, calling that “a discussion starter, to [ask] What is the true nature of the degradation from which we are redeemed: physical slavery or the spiritual state of idolatry?”

To further this discussion, he said, he would ask seder participants, “Is there any way we experience any type of slavery – ways we are not free,” whether medical or economic.

“There are always things that bind us and constrict us,” he said. As did the Talmud, “We need to explore and acknowledge that to be in a better position to appreciate” our redemption.

In his presentation, Roth proposed that the “ideal Passover seder should be like a jazz composition,” with both a fixed melody, the text of the haggadah, and improvisation, or spontaneous discussion.

One should not ask “Did I read every word?” but rather should try to discern what the text is trying to say, he suggested.

The rabbi showed illustrations from numerous haggadot depicting the four children and pointed out how body language, clothing, props, and facial expressions were used to represent certain characteristics.

Sometimes, he said, the same figure might be labeled “wise” in one haggadah and “simple” in another.

“You should look at the illustrations [in the haggadot] and note carefully how different generations defined wise, evil, etc.,” he said, adding that to prepare for the seder, one might copy and cut out the depictions, which can then be distributed at the meal.

Discussing the concept of a fifth cup of wine, Woll said that while the history of this practice is “somewhat controversial, I look at it as an opportunity to become particularly creative.”

Whether a fifth, or even sixth, cup is identified with Elijah, Miriam, or something else, introducing such a custom can “enhance Jewish spiritual identity and creatively broach the themes of community, family, klal yisrael, and our relationship to the rest of community,” he said.

Woll suggested that it is not enough simply to read the narrative and fulfill the ritual mitzvot, but that to be meaningful, “the seder needs personal consideration and attention,” with the leader taking note of who will be sitting around the table.

“Will there be young children, strangers, family members who may want something more?” he asked, noting that guests should not simply sit patiently at the seder table but should be eager for it.

He suggested that an additional cup of wine might be added in support of peace in the Middle East.

“It’s not enough to say next year in Jerusalem,” he said.

Tow engaged attendees in Torah study, focusing their attention on Hallel. Suggesting that we read Hallel at the seder because it is a celebration – both of going out as a free nation and of becoming the people of the God of Israel – he said, “The piece of Hallel that caught my eye and encouraged me to learn more was Psalm 114, focusing specifically on the experience of the Exodus. I wanted to focus in on that and create an opportunity for people to stop for a minute at the seder – before we sing that wonderful melody – and look at the words to see what kind of message the psalm conveys.”

For example, the verse in which the earth is said to “tremble” uses a Hebrew word that also has the overtone of dancing.

“That led me think that we’re sitting down a lot of the time in seders,” he said. He encourages movement in his own family, leading a “freedom march” around the house. “We need to build more active pieces” in the seder, he said.

Of the popular seder song “Chad Gadya,” Zeilicovich said that the characters portrayed in the song – cat, dog, ox, etc. – symbolize all the different civilizations and empires that dominated the ancient world and sought annihilation of the Jewish people.

“But none of them exist anymore,” he said, adding that we cannot even imagine the resurgence of an Egyptian, Babylonian, or Roman empire as they previously existed, “worshipping the sun and building pyramids. But we are back in our land. We became again a nation with the same God, Torah, and Shabbat. Am Yisrael Chai.”

Zeilicovich said we should learn from this that the covenant between God and the Jewish people “is still alive and working.” When we sing the song at the seder, we should take it both as a “history lesson and as a reminder that Judaism is not only about religion but is also a nationality.” He fears, he said, that the national component of Jewish identity is getting lost among American Jews.

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