Haggadah Better Idea

Let’s stop improving Passover.

A 14th-century German Haggadah

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.”

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.

The question, then, is how diversified and variegated a cultural tradition can get before it loses meaning to the people who invented it. It’s one thing to add an orange to the Seder plate, an innovation meant to honor Jewish women. But what if one family uses a Haggadah that focuses on vegetarianism, while another reads from one about Palestinian liberation? Both noble causes, to be sure—but are the families celebrating the same holiday? If they’re not, then when their children marry someday (after a touching courtship commenced when they were counselors at a Jewish summer camp), will they see Passover as shared cultural patrimony, something that unites them, or will they have fraught quarrels about which version of the holiday to pass on to their children?

All traditions splinter, and the good fragments will survive while others eventually prove ephemeral. And a Judaism that was hard and unbending would be worse than one that’s too flexible. But there is a deeper problem, I believe, with Haggadot popping up like matzo balls in April. The diversity of Haggadot is a symptom of the unease that many Jews feel about Judaism. For some, the unease is political: Passover is a holiday about liberation, so the Haggadah has special meaning to those who feel that Judaism today is insufficiently attentive to left-wing political causes. For others, the unease is just a species of what all secular Americans feel around religious tradition, and Jews like this are always looking for a Haggadah that is “contemporary” or “relevant” enough to produce religious sentiment with a minimum of embarrassment.

Many Jews think that if only they could tweak the liturgy just so (or associate the religion with enough Hollywood stars) they would feel better about Judaism. Such longings misunderstand the complex nature of religion. Liberals’ desire for religion purely in service to social justice is as wrongheaded as conservatives’ conception of religion as social control, and “relevance” is not the only test to apply. Religion makes some of us better people some of the time, but that’s not all it’s good for. You could found a religion whose core teachings included universal health care and a woman’s right to choose, but it would have all the aesthetic grandeur—and durability—of the Green Party. I try to work for peace, animal rights, and higher taxes, but while my Judaism supports those values, I got them from my secular mom and dad. Judaism, to me, is other things: a reminder of my grandmother when I say the mourner’s prayer in her memory once a year, a closeness to my neighbors, several of whom will attend a Seder at my house. It helps me appreciate the art of Genesis, say, or Bernard Malamud. Religion is richer, and more interesting, than its implications for public policy. Passover is, too.

The Haggadah I like best is the old Maxwell House Haggadah, filled with the “little kitschy scribbles” others find objectionable. According to Maxwell House, nearly 40 million of these handy little booklets have been distributed since 1934, when the coffee company first hit on an ingenious way to win Jewish customers’ loyalty. The 2007 edition is, like all its antecedents, apolitical and middlebrow, geared for mass appeal. But it’s clear and concise, and, most important, my parents and my in-laws all grew up on it. What it lacks in poetry, it makes up in ubiquity. It’s the Haggadah most evocative for my extended family, and there’s majesty in that simple claim, a claim that no better, smarter, more beautiful edition could ever make.