The Right Way to Read the Haggadah
You don’t have to be a postmodernist to conduct a seder, but it helps. A postmodernist perspective would suggest that all reading is subjective, and that texts mean nothing until they are read–that readers, rather than the text itself, create meaning. We could certainly say that about the story of the exodus from Egypt (יציאת מצרים), about how it’s handled in the Tanakh itself, how it’s read by the Rabbis, and how we each read the Haggadah at the seder table.
The Exodus Generation: Good or Bad?
The Undeserving Israelites (שמות)
Exodus tells the story in the clearest way possible. It is so highly structured, with careful attention to detail, that you really can’t miss the ‘message’: The Israelites did nothing to deserve being brought out of Egypt. They resisted redemption rather than helping to bring it about, but God was sorry for them when they cried out in their suffering (“I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant” – Exodus 6:5), and to fulfill the covenant he made with their fathers he redeemed them (‘bought them back’) to become his own people on the terms he set out at Sinai.
A similar idea appears in Psalm 106, which puts extra emphasis on the contrast between God’s mercy and Israel’s unfaithfulness, seen a paradigm for Israel’s continuing unfaithfulness in the Psalmist’s own time:
ז אֲב֮וֹתֵ֤ינוּ בְמִצְרַ֨יִם׀ לֹא הִשְׂכִּ֬ילוּ נִפְלְאוֹתֶ֗יךָ לֹ֣א זָ֭כְרוּ אֶת רֹ֣ב חֲסָדֶ֑יךָ וַיַּמְר֖וּ עַל יָ֣ם בְּיַם־סֽוּף: ח וַֽיּוֹשִׁיעֵם לְמַ֣עַן שְׁמ֑וֹ…
7. Our forefathers in Egypt did not perceive Your wonders; they did not remember Your abundant love,
but rebelled at the sea, at the Sea of Reeds; 8. Yet He saved them, as befits His name…
מג פְּעָמִ֥ים רַבּ֗וֹת יַצִּ֫ילֵ֥ם וְ֭הֵמָּה יַמְר֣וּ בַעֲצָתָ֑ם וַ֝יָּמֹ֗כּוּ בַּעֲוֹנָֽם:
43. He saved them time and time again Yet they were deliberately rebellious. (JPS translation)
The Punctilious-in-Mitzvot Israelites (Bavli)
Some later Rabbis make out that, contrary to a plain reading of texts like Psalm 106, that the Israelites in the wilderness were wonderful people, living on the highest spiritual plain; there has, after all, been ירידת הדורות, a decline of the generations, over time. For example, the Bavli tells a story that once, Rabbah bar bar Chana was led into the desert by a Bedouin guide. He came across the מתי מדבר (those who died before entering the Promised Land); they lay on their backs and were such ‘giants’ that the Bedouin, mounted on a camel, rode beneath the knee of one of them. Since they had observed the mitzvot meticulously, Rabbah attempted to cut the tzitzit off one of their garments in order to settle a rabbinic dispute, but his plan misfired (Bavli Bava Batra 73b-74a).
In other words, don’t run away with the idea that just because these people worshipped the golden calf, you are superior, ‘bigger’ than them! This is a ‘cut-you-down-to-size’ reading.
Chazal’s Interpretive Freedom
The story of Rabbah bar bar Chana is just one of many examples of the Rabbis’ hermeneutic playfulness, as well as the wide range of interpretive license they allowed themselves. Another more famous example of this interpretive license comes from the midrashic creation known as “the four sons.”
The Four ‘Sons’
What happens when the Rabbis bring their distinctive hermeneutic to bear on the words of Torah? On the assumption that the Torah’s text is perfect and free from redundancy, they translate the story into mitzvot. So if we read four times (Exod 12:26; 13:8; 13:14; Deut 6:20) that we are to tell the story of the exodus to our children, this must refer to four different kinds of children.
Thus, the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (around which much of our Haggada is built) introduces rabbinic psychology to assign characters to these children and the ‘four sons’ are born; each child gets a narrative tailored to his/her own personality.
Four Readers of the Haggadah: Halachic, Theological, Philological, Political
Taking the lead of the Rabbis, I would like to create my own modern version of this midrash:
There are four kinds of Jews who read the Haggadah today (relate them to scripture if you can.)
The Halachic Reader, what does s/he ask? What are the rules, statues and ordinances that I must follow? How do I do the mitzvot properly?
Halachic readers want to know (like the חכם) exactly how to perform each relevant mitzvah: Which herbs count as a bitter, how much matzah constitutes an olive-size or how much wine a revi’it, exactly when is midnight by when we have to eat the afikoman?
The Theological Reader, what does s/he ask? What does God want from me on Seder night? What do these rituals and this story teach me about God?
Theological readers approach the Haggadah as a work reflecting God’s will. The Haggadah tells us about God and Israel’s relationship with God. The seder is a way of enacting this covenant.
The Philological Reader, what does s/he ask? What are the meaning of these words? How was the Haggadah put together? How did these rituals evolve?
The philological reader approaches the text with academic curiosity. What does afikoman mean – is it the Greek epi kōmon (“in addition to the revelry”) or some other Greek phrase or word? Did the wise son really ask, like the wicked son, What did God command you (Deut 6:20), or could it have said “us” as the Septuagint seems to read? Philologists will also want to know what form of ‘literature’ they are reading; is it poetry, prose, a ‘collage of different materials’ (in the postmodernist jargon), or what? Interesting stuff, if disconcerting to some.
The Political Reader, what does s/he ask? What values do I learn from the Haggadah? How can participating in this make me a more ethical person? How can the Seder help me change the world?
The political reader looks for the values behind the ritual and how to apply them to his or her life. Who are the slaves and the persecuted today, and what can we do to bring about their liberation? This category includes many feminist readings of the Haggadah, forcing us to ask whether women are among those who have for long faced discrimination, and to what extent this challenges our traditions?
I hope that, just as we welcome all four ‘sons’ to our table and read to each according to his needs, we can also welcome all four readers, and take from each according to our needs, and the needs of our generation. Passover demands such inclusiveness. If we were all, in our infinite variety, redeemed from Egypt, then let us all aspire together to the future Redemption.
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March 31, 2015
September 17, 2023
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Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven.
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