No More Questions: Leon Wieseltier and the New American Haggadah
03/27/2012 - 20:10

If Leon Wieseltier would for once drop his surly, admonitory tone perhaps more people would listen.  For what he delivers in his scathing review of the New American Haggadah is certainly worth reading.  There are precious few people who are as learned in both Hebrew and English literature as he.  And that’s why, even if you disagree with his reading of the new Haggadah, you will undoubtedly learn something from it.

Wieseltier’s first target is the Haggadah’s translation, by Nathan Englander.  Like Englander, Wieseltier also had an Orthodox yeshiva education, so he knows a bit about Hebrew and Torah.  So take note: he argues that the main problem is Englander’s insistence on over-interpretation.  Many of the Hebrew words Englander translates eschew the original Hebrew’s deliberate opacity. And rather than let that vagueness come through in the English, Englander chooses to give his own take, Wieseltier says. 

“The trouble begins almost at the beginning,” Wieseltier writes, calling attention first to Englander’s translation of the ubiquitous She-hecheyanu benediction.  Here’s how Englander translates it: “You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, who breathed life, and sustained life, and shepherded us through to the current season.”

As someone with only an cursory knowledge of Hebrew, I found Englander’s translation perfectly fine.  Ignorant of the original Hebrew, the translation does have a nice rhythm, a pleasant bit of alliteration, and seems to evoke just the right balance between the concrete, natural world (“the current season,” “shepherded,” “breathed life”) and the celestial, other-worldiness of God (“King of the Cosmos”).

But not for Wieseltier. “What is this ‘God-of-us’?” he says, in his characteristically mocking tone. “Why torture one of the most common and comprehensible words in Jewish worship?” His problem is that “God-of-Us” complicates the simple, straightforward translation of “Our God,” which has been used for centuries. And then there’s the “King of the Cosmos” bit, which Wieseltier finds too, well, Greek.

There are more theologically important criticisms too.  Take for instance Wieseltier’s criticism of Englander’s use of the phrase “who has set us apart with his mitzvoth.”  The Hebrew is Asher kidshanu be-mitzvotav, which means “quite uncontroversially, ‘who has sanctified us with His commandmants.” Wieseltier makes a good point that, while “sanctified” could be interpreted as “set us apart,” it needn’t be. 

And probably shouldn’t be.  “Sanctification is a big and magnificent concept,” Wieseltier writes, “which provokes many ideas and feelings. Being set apart is a somewhat smaller idea, a more technical idea, an idea with implications that are not always elevating.”  Better to let the loaded, but deliberately capacious term stand on its own, and leave the interpretation to readers.

But don’t think Wieseltier is only picking on Englander.  He has a field day with most of the other commentators too.  Jeffrey Goldberg, whose tone he poignantly describes as “noisy worldliness, of tough-guy sentimentality,” gets the hardest hit.  Here, Wieseltier is onto something.  His main problem is that Goldberg thinks that by tying his commentaries to contemporary political issues—how many Jews there are in Congress; the suffering of Africans; the Arab Spring—we are somehow being daring, making, as it goes, “this night different from all other nights.”  To which Wieseltier smartly responds: “Never mind that talk of politics will hardly make this night different from all other nights, especially in a community whose Jewish identity is madly over-politicized.”

But he also gets in a deeper dig on Goldberg.  Throughout the Haggadah, Goldberg seems to deliberately provoke Jewish liberals, asserting that Jews may very well be chosen, and special, and—the catch—have used that chosen-ness to champion liberal causes. “Passover is the most politically radical of all holidays," Goldberg writes, "in part because…the book of Exodus contains the first known example in ancient literature of civil disobedience.”

But behind all that bombast, Wieseltier writes (with equal bombast, to be sure) is a very weak knowledge of Judaism. When Goldberg asserts that the laws of man must be constantly tested to conform to sturdy moral truths “set forth by God,” Wieseltier calls him out: Some of the actions taken by the Jews in the Bible “as set forth by God,” “would justify civil disobedience against Moses, too.”  In other words, don’t think the God of the Bible is the same God we’d call upon for moral guidance today.

One of the main issues Wieseltier has with the New American Haggadah, however, has little to do with anyone’s alleged ignorance of Jewish tradition.  When it comes to the commentaries specifically, it’s their general tepidness that he despises.  Instead of coming up with answers to the provocative questions posed in the Haggadah, the commentators instead only come up with more questions.  Wieseltier says their model may be the very idea of the Four Questions, a central piece of the Haggadah.  But those questions, he points out, were traditionally meant for the children at the Passover seder—the adults at the table were meant to provide answers.

“The adults are supposed to be less interrogative than instructive—to be unembarrassed by the claim that they are in possession of answers,” Wieseltier writes. “Contrary to its contemporary reputation, the Haggadah is more about the prestige of answers than the prestige of questions.”

Underneath this assertion is Wieseltier’s larger disgust for the intellectual habits of the young writers who made this Haggadah.  He basically argues that today’s young writers are so saturated in a post-modern culture, where objectivity is merely a myth, and everyone is right, no one wrong, that the Haggadah they have produced has lost its original temerity.  

As he writes: “The grandeur of the Seder is owed not least to the intellectual confidence of its text. But such confidence is not to our liking anymore. We believe that truth is a form of hegemony. We suspect that pluralism may require perspectivism, or at least a denial of the possibility of objectivity. We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong. We prefer questions.”  Certainly not answers.

Good points, all.  One only wishes that Wieseltier had taken a cue from his note about Goldberg. That “noisy worldliness”? That “tough-guy sentimentality”? Sounds like someone he knows well.

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Wieseltier is right. To anyone who dismisses his argument because he dislikes the tone, and who looks at him as an old established guy beating up a young literary lion: that's a poor way of judging argument.

Every criticism Wieseltier made was on the money. I'm sitting here with the review next to me, and yes, "cosmos" jars, "God-of-Us" is weirdly Octavia-Butlerish for no good reason, matzah isn't poor man's bread, the meaning of zeh is clear to anyone with the background (and instead of excusing your ignorance, why not ameliorate it?)...we have plenty of English haggadot that lack poetry, but euphonia isn't the only thing that matters. You can have a euphonious English translation that doesn't fight with the meaning of what's said in Hebrew. This riffing on the Haggadah isn't just unnecessary, and it isn't just in poor taste. It's a bad translation that thoughtlessly changes the meaning of the text, which is one thing not to do when translating.

You know what? I'm fine with the tone. Nathan had it coming, and he knows what it means. People go tiptoeing around him: Wieseltier doesn't have to, and I'm glad he doesn't.