Rabbi’s Message, April 10, 2024

Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?
Two Answers (2)

Illustration: What are the Four Questions asked at Passover. You Tube


            Rabbinic culture embraces healthy debate. It also has a tendency to specify and concretize. Both of those features are on display in the Later Rabbinic elaboration of the rule given by earlier Rabbis that the seder leader, in expounding the story of the Exodus, “begin with the disgrace of Israel” and conclude with words of praise. What qualifies as disgrace?
            The answer that we have codified in the Haggadah is attributed to various of the leading rabbis of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Golden Age of Talmudic Judaism. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Indeed, you may ask: is it disgraceful to be enslaved? We were victims. It was not our fault. What is disgraceful about being the victim of a crime?
            But that is the modern mindset.  The Rabbis of those centuries shared a default assumption that slavery was a shameful condition. God makes men free, the enslaved Joshua tells his Egyptian captors in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments; “men make men slaves.” Judaism knows that the enslaved person is no less a person, no less a child of God; but in a world where slavery was an everyday phenomenon, they could not escape the conventional assumption that it was a shame to be a slave.
            Even so, other Rabbinic voices felt that the answer, “We were slaves,” is not quite the place to begin. Trying to fulfill the requirement to begin with the shameful, these other rabbis went back generations, to the childhood of Abraham.  Quoting Joshua 24:2-4, these rabbis reminded their students that once we were idolaters. Now that is certainly shameful. The only surprise is that it seems to have nothing to do with the Exodus. However, if we open the book of Joshua and read the rest of the passage, we will see that it narrates the Exodus and the Wilderness episodes too.
            Perhaps because of its greater comprehensiveness, this second answer served as “the” answer in certain Jewish circles for quite few centuries.  The rabbinic literature of the first half millennium after the Talmud was completed, including Haggadah texts that we have recovered from among the treasures of the Cairo Geniza, shows that this answer competed with our own familiar answer for a long time.
            When did “our” answer become the standard one? In the 9th century, when two of the leading Babylonian Jewish Academy Heads, Rav Amram Gaon and Rav Saadia Gaon, first arranged the Jewish prayerbook, they selected the “We were slaves” answer.  It took some centuries yet, but by the dawn of printing, it was the clear favorite; and printed books made that ordering a done deal.
What can we learn from this little excursion into the history of our seder and its liturgy? I would like to propose four lessons.
  1. Debate is healthy.Today, we have too many people locked into their various echo chambers, either Right Wing or Left Wing, and to debate their partisan consensus invites being silenced. The Rabbinic example is much more hopeful.By exposing ourselves to the ideas of those with whom we disagree, at the very least, we will be forced to “up our game”; and we may even learn something valuable. To change one’s mind, for sufficient cause, is the mark of a free intellect.
  2. Variety is good for Judaism.Three and a half centuries ago, in response to the outbreak of Messianic fever around the Messianic pretender Shabbetai Sevi, the Rabbinic establishment lost the earlier dynamic flexibility of Judaism and ruled that any innovations were automatically wrong. This traditionalist impulse intensified two centuries ago, when Jews left the ghetto and were subject to massive pressures to assimilate into Gentile cultural norms. The new Reform movement tried to adopt wholesale changes, and the Orthodox establishment of that day responded with the dictum that “Chadash assur min ha-Torah”. The dictum is actually a pun. Strictly, Chadash is grain that has been around since Passover. But the word means “new” and in the 19th century Orthodox use of the slogan, it meant “All that is new is prohibited by the Torah.” But if we reclaim the healthy dynamic of classical rabbinic Judaism, we see that two rabbis could have given two answers to the Passover questions. Neither was wrong. Neither was a heretic. Judaism has room for diversity.
  3. Shame comes in different forms.Some people are ashamed that they were victimized. Even if we try to absolve them of that feeling, we must acknowledge that they do feel it, and try to help them from where they are.When our ancestors said it was shameful to have been enslaved, they were not simply beating themselves up. They were opening their hearts…. and deserve our sympathetic hearing. For such people, the answer “we were slaves”—now the first answer printed in the Haggadah—must hit home especially powerfully.
  4. The second answer reminds us that Judaism is not only about political organization and self-defense.Those actions are indeed necessary. But they are not sufficient. Self- protection is the bark of the tree, keeping it alive from the attacks of parasites and predators. But the tree also needs its sap to flow from root, through trunk and branch and twig, into the leaves. Only then is it alive.
            At first we were idolaters--- and then we became monotheists.And then we became Jews.That is truly moving from shame to glory. Let us be worthy of that development. That is why Judaism is a gift to the world.