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SBL e-journal

Wendy Zierler





The Haggadah: Toward a Pedagogy of Freedom



APA e-journal

Wendy Zierler





The Haggadah: Toward a Pedagogy of Freedom






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The Haggadah: Toward a Pedagogy of Freedom


The Haggadah: Toward a Pedagogy of Freedom

Photo credits: 1. Craig Duffy, Flickr cc 2.0; 2. Superstock

The Haggadah can be described as a pedagogy of freedom. Through the Seder, we teach about the exodus and its enduring meaning. What, then, is the Haggadah’s teaching philosophy?

One way to home in on the pedagogical approach of the Haggadah is to contrast it with what it is not. Compare the above two photos: The first image is Larry Gopnik’s physics lecture in the film A Serious Man. The second, of course, is a Passover Seder. What teaching model does the Seder represent?

The Seder as a Classroom

In My People’s Passover Haggadah, theologian Neil Gillman outlines the distinctive pedagogy of the Haggadah:

The Passover Seder is a class, with the Haggadah as textbook and the Seder leader as a primary instructor. This metaphor stems from the notion that the mitzvah to be fulfilled at the Seder is to tell the story of our people’s redemption from bondage. The method of instruction is thoroughly up to date in that it uses not only words but also choreography (sitting and standing, opening and closing doors, holding up different symbolic foods, searching for the afikomen) and other forms of experiential learning (consuming different foods, dripping the wine with our fingers, and music). Also unusual is that the participants can be both students and teachers; the learning is thoroughly democratic, as befits the experience of freedom.

The Haggadah text, moreover, is never complete; it is always in the process of formation. The printed text is simply the point of departure, and every class is encouraged to edit the book as the class progresses, to omit and/or add to the received text. Though each Seder is roughly the same, no two are identical and even the same family’s Seder may change from year to year as participants change.[1]

Pedagogy of the Oppressed vs. Pedagogy of Freedom

Gilman’s description of the distinctive elements of the Seder “classroom,” a participatory learning experience that contrasts sharply with the lecture model, immediately brings to mind the pedagogical writing of Paulo Freire in his classic 1970 work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as well as in several subsequent works, including Pedagogy of Hope and Pedagogy of Freedom. According to Freire, education can be either liberatory or oppressive. It becomes oppressive when, as in the physics lecture photo, the teacher acts as a narrating subject and the students as patient, listening objects. Freire refers to this as a “banking” concept of education, wherein

instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits, which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.[2]

In contrast to this “banking,” or passively narrating, method of education, Freire calls for a non-hierarchical classroom structure where both student and teacher function as learner and educator, where personal experience is used as a learning resource, and where learning aims not just for knowledge acquisition but for a fundamental transformation in thinking. This is often effected through problem posing, dialogue, and a leveling of the hierarchical structure of teacher and learner.

A Critique of Linear Teaching

In Freire’s critique of teaching through telling, with the students serving as passive recipients of the teacher’s linear narrative, he notes that the contents of such a narrative, “whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education of this sort, says Freire, “suffers from narration sickness.”[3]

It is worth noting in this context that the Haggadah does not call for conventional linear narration or recitation along the lines of the reading of Megillat Esther on Purim. While the Seder experience is often referred to as a ritual of telling, the traditional Haggadah actually focuses less on direct telling than on modeling digressive, interpretive expansion, even argumentation. The narrative that unfolds through the performance or discussion of this material is an ever-evolving experiential narrative, one that takes on an unconventional, intentionally disrupted form.[4]

R. Joseph B. Soleveitchik

In his teachings on the teaching practices of the Haggadah, Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik describes the Haggadah learning experience in just this way, in dialogical, intellectually transformative terms. Commenting on the role of the teacher or Seder leader in this learning experience, Soloveitchik notes that the

teacher can be considered the legitimate master of the disciple, because he has fashioned him. Yet, there is a higher form of teacher-pupil relationship, namely, that of a metaphysical union, when instruction expresses itself not in relationship of mastery and discipleship, but in existential partnership.[5]

Soleveitchik clearly sees the learning of partnership as more generative and transformative.

Soleveitchik also notes that the specific “form the Halakha prescribes for the narration of the events of the exodus is that of inquiry and information, question and answer, amazement, wondering, and explanation.” Had the rabbis simply wanted the story to be told, the events to be recounted in detail, they would have introduced as mandatory the recitation of the sections of the exodus dealing with the saga of slavery and freedom.[6] Instead, they proposed a structure of non-linear, digressive, and, ideally, participatory telling.

Nechama Leibowitz

In her commentary on the Haggadah, the great teacher Nechama Leibowitz asks her students/readers to pay attention to the Haggadah’s repeated use of the grammatically unusual phrase “לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם” as opposed to the more conventional[7] לְסַפֵּר אֶת יצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם. According to Leibowitz, this usage reflects “high level of engagement in the discussion.” It is similar to the phrase וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם, “[Moses] saw their burden,” in Exodus 2:11, which Rashi interprets as נתן עיניו ולבו להיות מיצר עליהם, “he set his eyes and heart to be distressed over them,” reflecting Moses’ deep involvement in the pain of the people of Israel.[8]

R. Gamliel’s Out-of-Order Story

Gamliel’s counter-intuitive ordering of the Seder symbols at the end of the Maggid section of the Haggadah comes to mind as another indicator of the Haggadah’s distinctive pedagogy of freedom. Pesach, matzah, and marror: Given the order of the events of the story, beginning with the bitterness of slavery and culminating with the Exodus, shouldn’t these symbols appear in reverse order, with maror, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery, coming first and Pesach, symbolizing salvation, coming last?

In his commentary on the Haggadah, Soleveitchik points to this non-chronological ordering as proof that that the Seder aims not so much to tell a story (with a conventional chronology) but to create an atmosphere of discussion, digression, and expansion.[9] The disrupted or flipped order of the symbols reflects this unique discursive strategy.

All Are Part of the Seder

Further evidence of the Haggadah’s pedagogy of freedom arises from the almost obsessive repetition in the early passages of the Maggid section of the Haggadah of the words כָּל (all) and כֻּלָנוּ (all of us):

כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח
All who are hungry, let them come and eat; All who are in need let them come and conduct the Seder of Passover.
וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים, כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים, כֻּלָנוּ זְקֵנִים, כֻּלָנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם. וְכָלהַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.
Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowledgeable in the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and for all who discuss the exodus from Egypt at length it is praiseworthy.

These repetitions suggest a pervasive concern on the part of the editors of the Haggadah to create a broad, comprehensive, inclusive, and, by extension, redemptive learning experience.

As Seder historian Baruch Bokser notes,

The framers of Mishnah Pesahim explicitly require everyone to participate in the evening ritual, thus setting the evening apart from other meal gatherings, in particular the symposia [Greek parties for drinking and learned discussion], which pertain to a more limited social context. This is supported by Mishnah Pesahim 10:1, which states that all Jews, not just the leisurely and the wealthy, are to share in the meal:

ערבי פסחים סמוך למנחה, לא יאכל אדם עד שתחשך
A. On the Eve of Passover, close to the time of minhah, a person should not eat until it gets dark.
ואפלו עני שבישראל לא יאכל עד שיסב
B. Even a poor person in Israel should not eat until he reclines.
ולא יפחתו לו מארבעה כוסות של יין, ואפלו מן התמחוי
C. Those who serve should not give him fewer than four cups of wine even if the funds come from the charity plate.

Clause B applies this principle to reclining on couches and clause C to drinking of wine. The lower classes, who generally ate humble meals in an unleisurely manner, are to follow the practice of more well-to-do and intellectual circles.[10]

The Liberatory Classroom

This aspiration for inclusiveness clearly resonates with the central goals of Freirian pedagogy. Feminist pedagogy, likewise, seeks to democratize learning in a way that includes and empowers females as well as other marginalized individuals and groups. A famous article by Carolyn M. Shrewsbury entitled “What is Feminist Pedagogy?” explains that feminist pedagogy strives to create a liberatory classroom environment where people care about one another—think of friends and family in the Seder context—and which serves as “an important place to connect to our roots, our past, and to envision the future.”

To accomplish empowerment of all, feminist pedagogy employs classroom strategies that

  1. enhance students’ opportunities and abilities to develop their thinking about the goals and objectives they wish and need to accomplish individually and collectively
  2. develop the students’ independence (from formal instructors) as learners
  3. enhance the stake that everyone has in the success of a course and thereby make clear the responsibility of all members of the class in the learning of all
  4. develop skills of planning, negotiating, evaluating, and decision making
  5. reinforce or enhance self-esteem of all class members by the implicit recognition that they are sufficiently competent to play a role in course development and are able to be changed [11]

At its best, the Haggadah espouses similar goals of empowerment, collaboration in the planning of what will be learned and experienced, and enhancement of self-esteem.

The Hagaddah: An Ever-Developing Pedagogy of Freedom

To be sure, the traditional Haggadah text, arising as it did in the rabbinic and geonic periods, cannot be made to reflect and embody each and every one of our contemporary notions of liberation, empowerment, and progressive education. The assumed universal of the rabbis is not ours; by extension, the Haggadah text in its traditional form does not reflect the broad-ranging, transformative pluralism and enfranchisement that Paulo Freire and his feminist disciples advocate.[12]

That said, if, as Neil Gilman argues, the Seder learning experience is never actually complete, that means it remains open to new insights and readings that expand and improve upon its original pedagogical vision. Viewing the Haggadah as a teaching manual rather than as liturgy or linear narrative goes a long way toward helping the Haggadah teach for our time, allowing it to model an ongoing, ever-developing, transforming and transformative pedagogy of freedom.


The Inclusion of Unconventional Rabbinical Voices in the Haggadah

The ‘Sister Haggadah’ Catalonia (Barcelona) 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century. Modified cc The British Librar

R. Elazar ben Azariah

A fascinating example of the inclusiveness discussed in this essay can be seen in the comments of R. Elazar ben Azariah with regard to the obligation to mention the Exodus experience כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, every night of one’s life:[13]

אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה: הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא: שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הַיָמִים, כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הַלֵּילוֹת.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: “I am as if seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it: ‘It is said, “That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life”’; now, ‘the days of your life’ refers to the days, [and the additional word] ‘all’ indicates the inclusion of the nights!”
וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָשִׁיחַ.
The sages, however, said: “‘The days of your life’ refers to the present-day world; and ‘all’ indicates the inclusion of the days of Messiah.”[14]

R. Elazar’s reference to himself here as “as if seventy years old” refers to his ascent at a very young age to the position of patriarch of the Academy, following the deposition of Rabban Gamliel II. (See BT Berachot 28a). According to the Talmud, upon his appointment, R. Elazar ben Azariah’s hair miraculously turned grey overnight so as to give him the look of an elder and ensure that he would receive respect.

Read not as an actual miracle story but as a metaphorical depiction, R. Elazar ben Azariah’s sudden aging or “eldering” represents an instance of radical inclusiveness, whereby a young man is invested with the authority of an older sage by virtue of the imagination and assent of the community. That R. Elazar ben Azariah was chosen to replace Gamliel, who was known for excluding those who did not meet his standards from studying in the academy—specifically those whose outer and inner aspects did not match up[15]—only reinforces this message of inclusiveness.

The mishnah in Sotah 9:15 makes clear that R. Elazar ben Azariah was a man of great wealth and stature,[16] which also abetted his ability to gain the respect of the community. When this aristocratic, wealthy patriarch is specifically highlighted in the Haggadah, however, it is not for guarding this position and wielding exclusive, exegetical authority. Instead, he assigns credit for a central legal insight to Ben Zoma, a man without the titular status of rabbi, who nevertheless is lauded in the same mishnah in Sotah 9:15 as an exemplary darshan, a great expositor of Scripture.

Ben Zoma

What else do we know about the figure of Ben Zoma, elevated in the Haggadah to such a prominent place? The Talmud in tractate Hagigah offers a series of Ben Zoma stories, including the following curious tale in which Ben Zoma is seen immersed in mystical speculation about lower and upper waters from the story of the world’s creation:

ת”ר מעשה ברבי יהושע בן חנניה שהיה עומד על גב מעלה בהר הבית וראהו בן זומא ולא עמד מלפניו אמר לו מאין ולאין בן זומא אמר לו צופה הייתי בין מים העליונים למים התחתונים ואין בין זה לזה אלא שלש אצבעות בלבד שנאמר (בראשית א, ב) ורוח אלהים מרחפת על פני המים כיונה שמרחפת על בניה ואינה נוגעת אמר להן רבי יהושע לתלמידיו עדיין בן זומא מבחוץ
Our Rabbis taught: Once R. Joshua b. Hanania was standing on a step on the Temple Mount, and Ben Zoma saw him and did not stand up before him. So [R. Joshua] said to him: Whence and whither, Ben Zoma? He replied: I was gazing between the upper and the lower waters, and there is only a bare three fingers’ [breadth] between them, for it is said: And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters — like a dove which hovers over her young without touching [them]. Thereupon R. Joshua said to his disciples: Ben Zoma is still outside.[17]

Some view R. Joshua’s description of Ben Zoma as “outside” as indicative of his not arriving at a complete understanding of God’s separation of the upper and lower waters in Genesis 1:6. However, it is important to note Ben Zoma’s failure to adhere to custom and stand up in deference to his teacher, R. Joshua, while busy considering these mystical or cosmological issues. Another way to read R. Joshua’s description of Ben Zoma as “outside”, then, is as offering a picture of Ben Zoma as someone who has difficulty relating to others and adhering to social convention and whose esoteric, cosmological, mystical interests and learning style render him “out there” or marginal in the eyes of the mainstream.

Remarkably, the Haggadah brings this same Ben Zoma, in his otherness or outsiderness, right into the center, marrying his insights with those of the mainstream aristocratic patriarch and connecting his notion of the importance of remembering the exodus every night with the sages’ broader definition of the exodus as a prefiguration of ultimate messianic redemption. The repeated use of the word כָּל (all) to refer to all days and nights, now and in the messianic hereafter, further underscores the previous message of inclusion and empowerment and links it to the broadest possible notions of freedom.


April 21, 2016


Last Updated

April 10, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. from Princeton University, her MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, her B.A. from Stern College (YU), and her rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Maharat. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing, and co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. Most recently she co-edited the book These Truths We Hold: Judaism in an Age of Truthiness.