Let Freedom Ring, Again
Staff Writer
Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Haggadah, above, presents a philosophical look at the seder’s dual themes of slavery and freedom.
Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Haggadah, above, presents a philosophical look at the seder’s dual themes of slavery and freedom.

 Like buds on a tree, new Passover Haggadot are a sure sign of spring. The most-published book in the Jewish community, the Haggadah appears in a variety of forms every year, appealing to the scholar and the beginner, the artist and the historian, the child and the senior citizen.


Here are some of the new crop of Haggadot for 2010.

The Royal Table: A Passover Haggadah. By Rabbi Norman Lamm. Compiled and edited by Joel Wolowelsky (OU Press, 199 pages, $25)
A classical commentator’s Haggadah, Rabbi Lamm’s has a decidedly philosophical bent.

Which is not surprising for the man who served as president of Yeshiva University, the leading training center for Modern Orthodox rabbis and teachers, and before that as spiritual leader of The Jewish Center, a prominent Manhattan synagogue.

The book, based on decades of the rabbi’s sermons and lectures, was put together by Wolowelsky, dean of the faculty at Yeshivah of Flatbush and associate editor of Tradition.

The title comes from the Talmudic expression for both a repast of high quality, and a criticism for those with such hedonistic aspirations.

“The Royal Table is thus a mixed quality: on one hand, it becomes a symbol of both spiritual progress and also worldly aristocracy — the symbol of financial success and social acceptability and prominence,” Rabbi Lamm writes in the introduction. “On the other hand, it was looked down upon as a sign of grubby snobbishness and the unsupportable arrogance of the self-anointed gourmet.”

A dialectic title is fitting for a book read on the night of the seder, which carries a dual meaning of freedom and slavery, the rabbi writes. Its theme permeates his Haggadah.

One example: Pharaoh, the cruel ruler of Egypt, is never referred to by name in the Haggadah text — “nor, indeed, in the entire Bible.”

The behavior of a clearly identified leader might be open to historical explanations and psychological rationalizations, according to Rabbi Lamm. “For the Torah, that is irrelevant,” he writes. “The explanations of the causes of a person’s behavior may be of legitimate concern to a therapist treating a moral-political monster, but to the mass of his victims that is of no consequence whatsoever.”

The Yetzias Mitzrayim Haggadah. Compiled by Rabbi Dovid Grunbaum. Adapted and translated from the Hebrew, Haggadah V’Aggadata, by Rabbi Yehuda Heimowiz (Mesorah Publications, 304 pages, $21.99)

This is a Haggadah of appreciation.

Rabbi Grunbaum, an Israeli educator, approaches the Pesach night experience from the perspective of the seder’s main impetus — telling the story of leaving Egypt (yetzias Mitzrayim) and of each participant seeing himself or herself part of the Exodus generation.

The rabbi presents every reading and ritual through the prism of appreciation for the ancient miraculous acts of liberation, and for the subsequent condition of Jewish freedom that grew out of the collective leaving of Egypt. 

“Relating the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim on Pesach night is, quite obviously, the most concentrated form of remembering the miraculous Exodus from Mitzrayim,” Rabbi Grunbaum writes. “As we sit around the Seder table recounting the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim to our children and grandchildren — just as our fathers and grandfathers did to us — we stir emotions that will instill a deep level of faith in Hashem’s existence in the hearts of all present.”

The imperative of remembering and appreciating outweighs all the other seder rituals, the rabbi writes, and he relates all his commentary — on the Four Cups, on Kiddush, on the ritual hand washing, etc. — to this message.

His Haggadah, Rabbi Grunbaum writes, provides “the details of the story – and only the story – of Yetzias Mitzrayim.”

The karpas, the vegetable dipped in saltwater, is a reminder of slavery in Egypt, he writes. “The Jews in Mitzrayim had to work in the fields all day, and they subsisted primarily on vegetables. Now that we are free, we must praise and thank Hashem for delivering us from that dreadful existence.”

In Every Generation: The JDC Haggadah. Edited by Linda Levi and Ilana Stern Kabak. Commentary by Ari Goldman. (Devora Publishing, 92 pages, $24.95)
This is a perfect complement to Rabbi Grunbaum’s Haggadah.

What the rabbi emphasizes in words, this Haggadah compiled from the archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee does mostly in pictures.

Pictures of endangered Jewish communities, pictures of rescued Jewish communities, both of which the overseas arm of the American Jewish community has played a major role in sustaining until freedom during the last century.

“As you turn its pages,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in the introduction, “you will be reminded ... of just how much the Joint Distribution Committee has done for the Jewish body and soul alike.”

Some of the images are familiar — women blessing the yom tov candles, men standing with Torah scrolls. Some are less-familiar to an American reader — refuseniks at a model seder, matzah being prepared in post-liberation Ukraine, a young boy in Ethiopia carrying a box of matzah.

Each photograph evokes the message of recent Jewish history: we were in slavery, spiritual if not physical, and eventually we became free.

“The photos suggest the rich tapestry of contemporary Judaism — representing Jews of different colors and from different lands,” writes Goldman, Columbia University professor of journalism and former New York Times staffer, in his introduction.

Goldman’s commentary, often in the form of tales and anecdotes from the JDC’s work abroad, are a perfect accompaniment to the photos — short enough to be read at one’s seder table, and spare enough to avoiding overwhelming the traditional text or innovative artwork.

“We are very far removed today from slavery, miraculous rescues at sea and journeys through the wilderness toward the promise of freedom,” he writes. “But the reason that the Passover Haggadah still speaks to us so many centuries later is that its themes of liberation are repeated ‘in every generation” on both a national and personal level.”

Haggadah for the Fifth Child: A Festive Discussion On the Exodus and History. By Donald Susswein (Mill City Press, 141 pages. $15.95)
This is a Haggadah for the child who is not at the seder. Rather, it is a seder to bring the absent child to the table.

Or, as Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes in the foreword, “this new Haggadah is for the Jew eager to ask and discuss questions that are not asked in the traditional Haggadah.”

Susswein, an attorney who designs his book as a series of Socratic questions, a liberal Jew whose text casts the standard words of the Haggadah in a respectful-but-skeptical light, presents the Haggadah as a play’s script. 

“Its questions have the implicit element of ‘really’ within them,” Rabbi Salkin writes. “Did this really happen? Is this really a story for me? Is this really a story for all time? And, better: Can I really enlarge and enhance the tradition by imitating what the ancient sages did?”

Don’t look for answers in Susswein’s Haggadah. His purpose is to ask, not answer; to provoke thinking, not provide fiats; to start a journey, not complete it.

“The biblical text is not presented as (necessarily) divine writ,” Susswein writes. “The scripted dialogue is meant to be read aloud by participants taking turns around the Seder table, as is they were reading a short play or philosophical dialogue.”

The Haggadah is supplemented by such photographs as archaeological sites in Egypt and a Torah scroll, as well as extensive background notes and essays.