Response to sjewindy’s review of Exodus Haggadah.

To be moved by Romeo and Juliet, one need not believe that the lovers existed.  One needs only the ability to suspend disbelief long enough to be caught up in the events Shakespeare narrates.  And, one needs to read or see the play itself, rather than read lengthy literary analyses of the play.

The Passover story should be as moving as Romeo and Juliet.  The Passover Seder is the place to tell that story in a moving fashion – not the place to engage in high literary analysis.  Indeed, the Rabbis, who were not shy about using their analytical skills, taught that at Passover, each Jew must feel personally redeemed from slavery in Egypt to freedom, from despair to hope, from being reviled outcasts of the most powerful king on earth to being the beloved children of God.  Feeling personally redeemed from Egypt requires us to hear the story, and see it through the eyes of our struggling ancestors.

Yet most modern Jews do not know the story of Passover or the cultural context in which it is set.  And, being better trained in flexing the mind than the heart, cynical North American Jews eagerly accept at face value the views of 19th century German scholars, who concluded that the Hebrew Bible is devoid of history.  (Those scholars, largely anti-Semites, put forward a pseudo-scientific theory, the “Documentary Hypothesis,” now discredited by linguists, that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were compiled by half a dozen or so editors, and that it is possible to dissect it and determine – down to a single word – which editor inserted what material.) 

Put more succinctly:  It is easier to find a secular Jew who will find historicity in the Iliad and despite its references to gods, and who will be moved by the Iliad, than to find a Jew who will be moved by the Passover story.

The purpose of the Exodus Haggadah was to tell the story of Passover in a way that would allow each Jew to feel personally redeemed from Egypt.  This is done, first, by including the text of the story (with suggestions as to what can be omitted without damaging the essence of the story).  Second, by using a more accurate translation so we can understand what the story meant when it was first heard.  Thus, the translation in the Exodus Haggadah was prepared by a linguist.  It is not a knock-off of the inaccurate but beautiful King James translation.  Third, by adding context.  And context is key.  For example, most of us regard the plagues as mere parlor tricks to demonstrate that the God of the Hebrews is the biggest god on the block.  But as the Exodus Haggadah points out, our ancestors understood each plague as a direct assault on a major god of Egypt.  The fertility goddess, Heqat, whose name means “Frog,” was depicted as a woman with the head of a frog.  By announcing the proliferation and die-off of frogs, Moses shows that Heqat does not control fertility, discrediting her as a force of nature.  One by one, the gods of Egypt are felled, until none are left.

SJewIndy’s review of the Exodus Haggadah, while pleasant enough, was thorough and thoughtful, for which I am grateful.  At the same time, the review levels several contradictory criticisms at the book: On the one hand, the Exodus Haggadah is viewed as unsuitable for atheists because it includes references to God in the story of Passover include God, on the other hand, the book does not rigidly follow Jewish religious law.  On the one hand, the book does not include a survey of theories of Biblical Minimalists who believe the Exodus never happened, on the other hand the book is long.  (As an aside, three excellent books written by an archeologist and an Egyptologist, that review current thinking on the historicity of the Book of Exodus and conclude that the book is historical are: “Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition”Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition,” James K. Hoffmeier (2005) Oxford University Press; and “On the Reliability of the Old Testament,” K.A. Kitchen, (2003) Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.)

All that said, the proof of the Exodus Haggadah pudding is in the eating.  The feedback from those who have used the Exodus Haggadah has been gratifying, ranging from “most moving Seder ever,” to “time just flew by.” Interestingly, the comments have come from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and atheist Jews. 

As discussed in the Introduction to the Exodus Haggadah, the author’s view is that the Seder is the time to engage in national, religious dinner theater, at which we tell our ancestors’ story – the story of the exodus from slavery to freedom – in a moving way.  There are other times in which we can give vent to our cynicism, explain why we don’t believe in God, or why the Bible is inaccurate.  And, of course, there are times to criticize Romeo and Juliet.  But not while we are watching a performance.