Religion and science have seats at the seder

Religion and science have seats at the seder

Torah Flora’s Dr. Jon Greenberg talks about the scholarship and passion behind his new haggadah

Jon Greenberg
Jon Greenberg

A huge amount of complex and sophisticated scholarship has gone into Jon Greenberg’s new work, the Torah Flora hagaddah, “Fruits of Freedom,” but the concept behind it is straightforward.

“I am using secular scholarship, science and history to help people to better understand and appreciate Torah,” Dr. Greenberg said. “I use those verbs deliberately.

“I want to distinguish my work” — the project he calls Torah Flora, of which the hagaddah is a part — “from historical criticism.”

In other words, it is a not a dispassionate work of historic excavation, dusting off ancient bones and studying them under harsh, unforgiving light. It is instead, “secular knowledge in the service of talmud Torah.

“It is not Jewish studies. It is not academic. The goal is to use secular understanding to help appreciate it more.” Once again, in other words, at least one goal is to understand that science and faith are not at war, but that one has the power to deepen the other.

Okay. So who is Dr. Greenberg, and what does he do with his haggadah?

Jon Greenberg of Teaneck earned his undergraduate degree at Brown, and then got his master’s and doctorate, both in agronomy, from Cornell, where he concentrated his research on such crops as corn, alfalfa, and soybeans. He also worked at the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Cancer Research. He’s been a high school and college teacher, and he edited science textbooks at Prentice Hall.

That’s the Flora part.

He’s also studied with Rabbi Chaim Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Israel, he’s spoken and run programs at many yeshivot and synagogues, and since 2008 he’s taught at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan.

That’s the Torah part.

Pharaoh Thumtose III (at right) offers two cups of beer to the god Horus in this ancient Egyptian wall painting. Nomadic shepherds like the Israelites drank wine, Dr. Greenberg says; the more settled farmers, like the Egyptians, preferred beer. (Olaf Tausch/Wikimedia)

Having to choose between them “is a false choice,” Dr. Greenberg said. “Most people think they have to choose between them, but they don’t.” Instead, “they can be mutually enriching.”

Take, for example, the line in Psalm 128 that says that a happy person has “children like olive trees around your table.”

If you don’t think about it, but just go with general sound — it follows “your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your house,” which sounds wonderful (particularly if you are the husband) — it’s great.

But when you think about it — what?

Dr. Greenberg explains.

“You think — your kids are like olive trees — is that good?

“Most Jews today do not live in close proximity to olive trees, and even if they do, they are not likely to be familiar with how they are grown. But it was common knowledge at the time that olive trees, which grow in the very rocky, eroded Mediterranean soil, have two kinds of roots.

“Some of them are deep, and the other kind are right below the surface. They grow horizontally, and then, when they get out some distance from the trunk, they turn and grow upward, and become new shoots. So an old olive tree is surrounded by many other, newer ones.

“Olive trees can live for a very long time. They can be over 1,000 years old. A tree puts out a new ring every year. By the time it gets old, the center rots away; you can see daylight through it. So it’s a thin, hollow, fragile old tree, surrounded by its offspring.

“This is the biblical basis of the social security system. When you are old, you sit at the table, surrounded by your children.

“It’s a beautiful metaphor, but it only makes sense if you know how olive trees grow. Today, the metaphor has to be reconstructed. Plant biology can help us appreciate biblical verse.”

This was Tutankhamen’s wine cup. One source for the four cups of the seder is the fact that the wine steward mentioned Pharaoh’s cup four times when he described his dream to Joseph. Such cups were also used for divination, a fact mentioned in the Torah’s account of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. (ETH-Bibliothek/

Dr. Greenberg offers another analogy. “The haggadah talks about idol worship as a kind of social decay or corruption,” he said. “The Hebrew word for it is la’ana,” translated as wormwood. “It’s a kind of root of plant that will produce something poisonous. It’s a close relative of tarragon, but it’s toxic. It’s used to produce absinthe.

“The plant will grow in environments similar to the where grasses grow, so it is a common pasture weed in the places where it exists.

“Why are there no great Chinese cheeses? It’s a sophisticated cuisine, but there’s no dairy in it. Most East Asian people are lactose intolerant. Why? The reason is that in East Asia, those areas that could have been grasslands were infected with wormwood, which is toxic for large animals.

“So wormwood becomes a symbol for corruption.”

We don’t know that now, because we live in cities or suburbs, but “in biblical times, until Joshua, the Israelites were nomadic shepherds. You would graze your animals and come back the next year. But once wormwood infests the areas, the animals will eat it, and die. Wormwood makes that whole area of the range bad.

“It became the symbol of one person in a community introducing idolatrous rituals and enticing others to join them. Everything falls apart.”

So wormwood is the symbol of slowly encroaching evil, a hidden rot that can take over when proper attention is not paid.

The haggadah goes further.

“It is very clear that in the Talmud the original marror is prickly lettuce,” Dr. Greenberg said. “But as Jews migrated out of the region, into Europe, they needed new plants. They began to substitute what they could find. In medieval Bonn, the Ravyah” — that’s Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi of Bonn, who lived from 1140 to 1225 — had a list of vegetables that could stand in for lettuce, “and if you can’t get any of them, you would use wormwood.”

There’s symbolism there even beyond the surface symbolism of the marror, Dr. Greenberg said. “It’s a plant that will slowly get more bitter as it matures, if you leave it in the ground until summer. It’s not like horseradish. It’s not meant to blow your head off. It’s the understanding that it’s not bitter now, but it will be a slow, insidious bitterness, like the bitterness of slavery.”

In this page from the 14th century Barcelona Haggadah — and from the Torah Flora one as well — a bowing dog, representing the Israelites, serves wine to a hare. Something here is not right. (The British Library)

That’s the moral arc of the haggadah, Dr. Greenberg said. “Begin in shame and end in glory.”

So, he continued, “if you can’t get prickly lettuce, you use something else. The metaphor is that if you are lucky enough to live in a place where you are not oppressed, where you can practice Judaism openly, if the bitterness of marror is not your problem, then you have to look at the other side.

“Then, the problem is not what they did to us. The problem is us. So what do we eat instead? Wormwood, the symbol of idolatry and social corruption. If no one is prohibiting us from learning Torah, then who do we have to blame for not learning Torah?

“It’s changing the whole story, from ‘look at what they do to us’ to ‘look at what we’re doing to us.’”

He moved on to the question of the color of wine. “The Talmud says that it is preferable to use red wine, and so does the Shulchan Aruch, but you can use white wine if you don’t have red.

“The Taz” — that’s David HaLevi Segal, who lived in Poland from 1586 to 1697 — “said you also use white because of the blood libel,” the poisonous and dangerous lie that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make matzah.

“Because you are holding the third cup in your hand when you open the door for Elijah, and if you are opening the door in 16th century Europe, and the people in the street see what’s going on, and you say ‘Shefoch Chamatcha’ — pour out your wrath — in the local language, and everyone is holding a cup of something red, you are really asking for it.

“So in Poland, everyone would drink white wine at the seder.” They’d also be more likely to drink white wine in white wine-producing regions, like, say, Alsace, because anyone drinking red would stand out, and Jews drinking red while standing outside on a seder night and asking God to pour out his righteous indignation on the other nations would be extraordinarily dangerous.

White wine at the seder was less common in Muslim countries, which remained unmarred by the blood libel.

“Everything on the seder plate and the table goes back very far and has a great deal of lore associated with it,” Dr. Greenberg said. “There is so much, and you can appreciate it more if you know the background.

“I am trying to reconstruct a lot of this background. I know that much of it has been forgotten, and I am trying to figure out what is means. What does it mean, for example, that we wait so long for dinner on Pesach?” (That’s a question that he answers in the haggadah.)

“I am trying to understand the historical background — and the historical background doesn’t detract from the religious significance. I am trying to show people that they can use science to enhance their understanding of religion, and religion to enhance their understanding of science.

“This is a beautiful body of knowledge. Many of the supposed conflicts between science and Torah can be resolved in fascinating ways if you dig deeply into it.”

Hemlock water dropwort, above, is a toxic close relative of parsley and celery, plants often used for karpas. It is native to Sardinia, where it is often confused for wild celery and eaten by people and livestock with fatal results. It causes involuntary facial spasms that produce a forced smile — that’s where the word “sardonic” comes from.
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