The new traditional Haggadah
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The new traditional Haggadah

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This illlustration, included in “The Schechter Haggadah,” originally appeared in a volume by Joseph Schlesinger in the early 20th century. The Schechter Hagaddah

Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

On most Passovers, it is the liberal Jewish denominations that seek to reinterpret the holiday traditions, often viewing them through the prism of contemporary struggles for civil rights and environmental preservation.

But this Passover, it is the more conservative wings of the Jewish community that are offering a fresh read on the Haggadah.

Both the Orthodox Union and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a spiritual home of some traditionalists within the Conservative movement, are touting new offerings in time for the holiday.

The OU has released a new Haggadah based on the writings of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, while Schechter has put out two new volumes, including one with a lengthy survey of ancient Passover rituals.

“The Haggadah has been reinterpreted in every generation,” said Dr. Joshua Kulp, who authored the historical essay at the back of “The Schechter Haggadah.” “I think that by studying the origins we come to understand where the customs that we’re observing today and where the text comes from. For me, it brings greater meaning to the text.”

With upwards of three-quarters of American Jews attending a seder – more than who light Chanukah candles or fast on Yom Kippur, according to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey – Passover is likely the most observed of Jewish holidays. So it’s hardly a surprise that the Haggadah, the traditional guidebook for the evening, is among the most frequently reinvented.

But while past years have seen volumes produced that read the Exodus story through a distinctly contemporary lens, the new spate of Haggadahs is far more oriented toward traditional sources, in particular excavating certain writings, themes, artworks, and rituals that have been cast off or forgotten over the years.

The Soloveitchik Haggadah, titled “The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening,” is the first production of the newly minted OU Press, which was established this year in part to disseminate Soloveitchik’s unpublished writings and lectures. (See www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/new_haggadah_draws_on_commentary_by_the_rav.)

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Modern “plagues,” like AIDS and racism, figure in “The Liberated Haggadah,” by Rabbi Peter Schweitzer.

Edited by Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s head of kashrut supervision, the volume culls Soloveitchik’s lectures, notes, and teachings to present a dense and learned commentary on the seder’s various components.

But while Soloveitchik is revered in part for breathing life into Modern Orthodoxy, with its marriage of ritual observance and engagement with the broader world, the Haggadah is a pointed, if inadvertent, rejoinder to those who would re-imagine the seder in purely contemporary terms.

“The Rav’s teachings emphasized the centrality of Torah study to the seder night,” Genack writes in the introduction.

According to Genack, part of the challenge in producing the Hagaddah was in making the famously erudite Soloveitchik accessible. Readers will ultimately decide if he succeeded, but the Haggadah is not for the faint of heart. Many pages have but a few lines of text accompanied by lengthy commentary.

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This Haggadah provides commentary by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

By contrast, the two Schechter Haggadahs are heavily infused with artwork. Kulp’s Haggadah includes three sections: the traditional seder night service, a collection of more than 100 illustrations assembled by Schechter President Rabbi David Golinkin, and a historical commentary by Kulp, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law.

Some of the old illustrations were intended to help participants observe particular rituals of the seder night. For instance, the tradition of reclining at the table was foreign to European Jews, who were accustomed to eating at a table, unlike earlier Jews who may have sat on the floor or on cushions, which more easily lend themselves pertaining to the State of Israel. The Haggadah finishes with Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and tempers the traditional liturgy urging God to “pour out His wrath on the nations” with a version asking Him to “pour out His love.”

“I definitely see it as part and parcel of this notion of meaning and modernity,” Berkowitz said.

Of course, the liberal Jewish world will not be silent at this year’s seder. Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York, has published “The Liberated Haggadah,” a secular Haggadah with a number of new rituals that depart significantly from the traditional service.

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Our Way, a program of the Orthodox Union for the deaf and hearing-impaired, has published a pamphlet with highlights of the seder in sign language. For information, call (212) 613-8234 or (212) 613-8127, or visit Ourway@ou.org.

Schweitzer has introduced an orange to the seder plate, a symbol of openness and inclusivity that stresses the holiday’s universal message. The plagues have been modernized to reflect the concerns of the day, including AIDS, hunger, poverty, and racism. Supplementing the traditional songs at the end of the seder, several of which Schweitzer rewrote as secularized anthems, is the civil rights era stalwart “We Shall Overcome.”

“As secular Jews, we want to claim the holiday for ourselves in a way that makes sense to us when the miracles don’t necessarily work,” Schweitzer said. “Our position would be that we as humans chart our own destiny. And we are free in each generation to define our own Jewish identity.”

Secular Jews reject the historicity of the Exodus story; Schweitzer noted the paucity of historical evidence to support the account given in traditional Haggadahs. But the very fact that so many Haggadahs are now available, both traditional and contemporary, is, Schweitzer said, a modern reflection of the holiday’s ancient message.

“The diversity of Haggadahs,” he said, “is itself an expression of freedom.”

JTA

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