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It is hard to think of another classic Jewish text reprinted, rewritten, and re-imagined as often, or as divergently, as the Haggadah. The Passover Seder is the most ubiquitous Jewish observance—fully three-quarters of American Jews participate in a Seder of some kind, as do 80–95 percent of Israelis. The abundance of Haggadot, in other words, reflects the ubiquity of the observance.

Relevant Links
The Haggadah  Encyclopedia Judaica. In successive entries, expert guides to the Passover text conduct us through a long and rich history.
Speaking Volumes  Robert Leiter, Jewish Exponent. On Yosef Yerushalmi’s panoramic history of the printed Haggadah.
The Kibbutznik's Passover  Yair Sheleg, Haaretz. In its Haggadot, the pre-state movement offered a vision of personal fulfillment in labor and national liberation.
Ancient Text Meets Modern Art  Yale University Library. The Haggadah through the eyes of contemporary artists.
Growing and Changing  Mark Hurwitz, Davka. A do-it-yourself electronic version of the Haggadah with links that connect parts of the text to other parts and that also lead out to the World Wide Web.
The Schechter Haggadah  Elli Fischer, Seforim. The traditional text, adorned with artwork, plus a learned commentary tracing the evolution both of the words and of Seder practices through history.

Of course, the Haggadah has long been a mirror of Jewish history. Once its text had stabilized by the dawn of the Middle Ages, it became the object of lavish and continuing attention on the part of commentators, illuminators, illustrators, and translators. The advent of printing made it even more available and even more open to interpretation.  Because the basic text and structure have remained more or less in place, the many versions offer snapshots of their times and places.

Today that historical diversity is in overdrive. The number of new Haggadot produced every year is overwhelming. Even more dazzling, or dizzying, is the range of perspectives they exhibit: rabbinic, academic, New Age, feminist, ecological, neo-Hasidic, and on and on.  

Through the Haggadah and the Seder, wrote the late Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, "the memory of the nation is annually revived and replenished, and the collective hope sustained." Yet precisely that sense of the collective, not to mention its celebration, seems absent from many of today's Haggadot, even the best of them. Instead, the journey of Passover is increasingly, intensely, presented as personal and subjective. Here again the Haggadah serves as a mirror of the times.

If today's radically diverse Haggadot seem to strain Jewish collectivity to the breaking point, will tomorrow's witness a rebound? There are grounds for hoping so, provided the shared center holds: the calendar, the set of practices, and the old text itself, read, interpreted, reinterpreted, and then read—and sung—once again.


David Laloum on March 28, 2012 at 12:49 am (Reply)
The unstated premise of the article is that the haggadah is central to the celebration of Pesach. But the celebration and commemoration of Pesach are central; and, although the hagada is a tool assisting all around the seder table to celebrate in chorus, it is not per se essential. Nor are the specific words and readings chosen in the standard hagadot essential. To paraphrase Hillel, it is more important to adhere to the spirit of Pesach than to the letter of the traditional hagada. A feminist, yiddishist, or other hagada achieves this in a manner that a traditional hagada does not--singing the same refrain, which everyone knows by heart, and to which people's minds are effectively closed (familiarity breeds contempt). A fresh take on the same core spirit that needs to be remembered, refreshed, and celebrated annually is something to be celebrated. By the same token, someone who has been using a feminist hagada for 10 years might achieve the same goal by reverting to the traditional hagada. It is not the text that is key but the underlying spirit, ideas, and feelings.

May you have a good pesach

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