Off the Shelf: Haggadot – practical and impractical

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Most haggadot (the plural of haggadah) are designed for use at the seder table. Some include commentary for those interested in either the spiritual or historical aspects of the ritual. Others offer interpretative versions of the material for those who are unable to find meaning in the traditional text. For example, “Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah” by Marcia Falk, with drawings by the author (The Jewish Publication Society), not only offers new versions of the blessings and readings, but a closer look at the female characters in the Exodus story. However, it’s rare for a haggadah to include long discussions that don’t deal directly with the Passover rituals. That’s true of Dennis Prager’s “The Rationalist Haggadah: The Alperson Edition,” edited by Joseph Telushkin (Regnery Faith), which makes it difficult to see how it could be used at a seder table, unless those attending prepared for the event by reading the essays before the holiday.

Falk sees the holiday of Passover as speaking about new beginnings, including “the departure from Egypt – the first step in our becoming a free people – and the start of the year, which in the Book of Exodus, takes place in the springtime month of Aviv (later called Nisan).” In addition, she views her haggadah as a new beginning: rather than just updating the traditional liturgy, it is a radical reworking of the ritual. This includes her blessings, which offer language taken from the “natural world.” For example, God is called “Eyn Hahayim (wellspring of life) and “Ma’yan Hayeynu (flow of our lives).” The maggid section now tells the story of the Exodus by offering the actual biblical text interspersed with Falk’s commentary and includes a focus on women who helped make the Exodus possible. Some material – in particular, the words of the songs at the end of the seder – have been kept the same so people can sing the traditional tunes.

“Night of Beginnings” is beautifully designed and easy to read. The pages of the haggadah are color coded for the elements they contain, whether blessings, kavanot (readings to create the correct mindset), spring poems or psalms of praise. The new blessings offer food for thought and the use of the biblical text allows people to discuss the actual story of the Exodus. My favorite part, though, was her alternate version of the four children, particularly the child who is normally called the wicked child. Falk sees all four children as types who live within us. She calls the wicked child “the child who feels apart and alone,” and suggests this child “is hungry for truth, but a different kind: he wants to know more about you; he asked what this holiday means to you. This child too is studying the world – your world. He is trying to find himself in you, through you.” What Falk suggests is that instead of treating him as evil and casting him out, “don’t turn him away; let him cross your borders. He will bring you insight and surprise.” While I doubt I will use Falk’s work as my only haggadah, parts of it would enrich any seder I lead.

Although it’s easy to see “Night of Beginnings” being used in homes, it’s far more difficult to imagine that for “The Rational Passover Haggadah.” However, I doubt that Prager expects that result. In his introduction, he notes that his work will be “of interest to the religious Jew, the non-religious Jew, and the non-Jew.” In fact, he believes it should be used all year round, not just for seders, because he considers it “a guide to life, to God, and to Judaism.” Although it does contain the traditional elements of a seder, his commentary is not focused on the ritual itself. The numerous essays (most of which are too long to be read during the average seder) are an attempt to convince readers that God exists.

For readers who already believe in God, his proofs will bolster those beliefs. Atheists will note, though, Prager’s rational proof comes down to his statement that he decided to believe in God because – for him, at least – the world is meaningless without that belief. Prager also accepts the Torah as the written word of God, God as the creator of the universe and the Exodus story as the real history of what occurred. Where he does have to take a leap of faith is in believing that God is good: “Given the amount of unjust suffering, natural and man-made, that vast numbers of human beings have endured, it is not axiomatic that God is good. Nevertheless, I do believe that God is good, and reason alone argues for that proposition.” 

While Prager’s writing is easy to read and he does a good job describing his rational beliefs, I don’t believe they will convince anyone who already doesn’t believe in God to change their mind. No, to clarify that: it won’t convince anyone who hasn’t already decided that it is better to believe in God, than not to believe in God, which is the same choice that Prager made. His discussions make “The Rationalist Passover Haggadah” more fitting for a class on theology than the seder table.