Do we really need another version of the Haggadah?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
April 17 2008 12:57 PM

Haggadah Better Idea

Let's stop improving Passover.

As Passover approaches, millions of Jews will bring out their dusty Haggadot and commemorate the exodus of their ancestors from Egypt. Last year, Mark Oppenheimer questioned whether the plethora of different versions of the Haggadah (more than 4,000 by one count) dilutes the significance of the sacred Hebrew text. The article is reprinted below.

According to a March 23 article in the Forward, a Jewish weekly newspaper, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer is editing a new version of the Passover Haggadah, the short book that Jews read every year to commemorate the exodus from slavery in Egypt. "The themes are so important, so relevant, so exciting," Foer tells the Forward. "The Haggadah begs us to make it new." He and about 20 collaborators are aiming to produce a Haggadah that's at once a literary success and a "beautiful book with awesome artwork, not little kitschy scribbles like so many Haggadahs."

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Foer and his collaborators will no doubt produce a Haggadah that is smart and gorgeous and indubitably progressive. It may even rank among the best of the "more than 4,000 known versions" of the Haggadah, to cite the article in the Forward. (The Forward tells us elsewhere of "nearly 3,500 versions.") Though he's most famous for his novels, Foer happens to be a very fine editor: To my mind, the most interesting thing he's done is edit a little-known volume of essays inspired by artist Joseph Cornell. Foer's Haggadah, by contrast, will be widely known. But while Foer's Haggadah may well be a triumph, it will still be yet another Haggadah—and that's a problem. There are only four or five important translations of the Bible into modern English, and each generation needs at most two or three translations of Homer. We couldn't possibly need so many Haggadot—the Hebrew plural—and it's worth interrogating why we think we do.

Whether there are 4,000 or 3,500 versions of the Haggadah out there, it's safe to say that Jews in modernity have often felt the need to reinvent the book. Theologically speaking, there's no problem with multiple Haggadot. While most of the Haggadah consists of Bible verses and traditional prayers, passages of interpretation constitute a significant portion of the text, and there's nothing sacrilegious about altering them or quarreling about them at the Seder, the Passover meal. Though incorporating practices commanded in Exodus, the Haggadah was compiled by rabbis between the first and fourth centuries. It's a work of the "oral Torah," human teachings subject to commentary and development, as opposed to "written Torah," the immutable books of the Hebrew Bible. Thus a raft of modern Haggadot (and supplements to them) have been designed to provoke disputations and appeal to different ideologies: feminist, liberationist, Zionist, humanistic, multicultural, and so forth. Many people create their own Haggadot, often with themes like "freedom" or "diversity"—there's even an open-source project to customize yours. And while many Haggadot are devoted to political ideals, several are famous instead for their visual motifs, like the Ben Shahn Haggadah and the Marc Chagall Haggadah.

Diversity within a religious tradition can be a source of strength, but it can also be a weakness. One of the inarguably great aspects of religion is how it gives communities of people shared experiences: Jews the world over know about the Haggadah's "four questions," the singing of the rousing hymn "Dayeinu," and the traditional foods on the Seder plate. Although traditions vary from region to region—and the Seder, conducted in the vernacular, thus comes in as many versions as there are languages Jews speak—there are certain common Passover rituals that most Jews will recognize.

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