V’chol ha’marbeh l’saper b’yetziat Mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach.
And whoever expands upon the story of the Exodus from Egypt is worthy of praise (from the Passover Haggadah)
As is my custom, as Passover approaches, I took down some various editions of the haggadah from my fairly extensive collection on my bookshelf so that I could study them and begin my internal preparation for Passover. I recommend this practice! The themes of Passover are so stirring and so deep that they merit extra attention.
This year I was especially drawn to an original 1942 edition of The New Haggadah, by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Rabbi Eugene Kohn and Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, all of blessed memory. I don’t remember how this volume came into my possession, but I treasure it, for reasons I will explain.
Today we progressive Jews take for granted that the Passover haggadah appears in many variations, and is an invitation to creativity. Every year new editions appear: I have feminist haggadot, “new age” haggadot, human rights haggadot, children’s haggadot, a Dr. Seuss-style rhyming haggadah, and many other creative contemporary re-workings, just to describe a few. My email inbox has filled with “Passover supplements” addressing contemporary struggles such as human trafficking, the refugee crisis, the plight of illegal immigrants and many other issues of human freedom and ongoing oppression that all connect to the message of Passover. And now there is even a cool website, haggadot.com, that contains thousands of resources and is set up to allow anyone to pick and choose and construct their own haggadah. What a vibrant and meaningful holiday!
It would appear that we are certainly fulfilling the instruction of the traditional haggadah that I cite above: “And whoever expands upon the story of the Exodus from Egypt is worthy of praise.” And yet, this proliferation of new texts is only a recent development in the Jewish world. The traditional text of the haggadah was fixed in the early Middle Ages, and underwent very few changes over the course of the past thousand years. The famed (infamous?) Maxwell House Haggadah that graced many of our seder tables for decades was a reprint of this ancient text.
In 1940 Mordecai Kaplan and his two chief disciples, Ira Eisenstein and Eugene Kohn, determined that this ancient text needed to be revised in order to speak more relevantly to young American Jews. This was consistent with the philosophy of Reconstructionism that Rabbi Kaplan had developed: Judaism needed to evolve in order to remain a vital and meaningful force in Jewish lives. The message of Passover, the core Jewish teaching that the Creator of the Universe opposes tyranny and desires liberation for human beings, is a timeless one, but might need to be restated and reframed so that a modern generation could access and appreciate its power and truth. Kaplan was a trailblazing radical, and he took it upon himself to rewrite the haggadah for the modern American Jew. For the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish world in which Kaplan circulated, this was heresy.* This would be but one of many times when Kaplan would be attacked and marginalized for tampering with tradition. To a very substantial degree, we owe our freedom to reinterpret the Passover story to Kaplan and his co-authors Eisenstein and Kohn.
I share this with you not only because of my own debt as a Reconstructionist rabbi to the framers of this modern approach to Judaism, but also because of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation’s close and very personal connection to these men.
When Rabbi Ira Eisenstein retired as the founding president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1981, he and his wife Judith Kaplan Eisenstein of blessed memory settled in Woodstock. Judith was Mordecai Kaplan’s eldest daughter, and was famed for being the first girl ever to become a Bat Mitzvah, in 1922. Ira and Judy organized a study group, the Woodstock Reconstructionist Havurah, which met in their home, and not long after the Woodstock Jewish Congregation was founded in 1986 they became members of the WJC. Meanwhile, Aaron Kohn of blessed memory and his wife Ruby (who is thankfully still with us, and living near her daughter in Maryland), also retired to Woodstock and joined our congregation. Aaron was the son of Rabbi Eugene Kohn. So, by some marvelous coincidence, in the early days of our congregation we had the families of the three main framers of Reconstructionism all as members and elders of our brand new community! Mordecai Kaplan, Ira Eisenstein and Eugene Kohn had composed the groundbreaking “New Haggadah”, as they would go on to compose many other pioneering, influential and controversial works, and their families were right here in Woodstock. Can you imagine how I felt when I showed up as the student rabbi? Two parts awe, two parts fear, many parts gratitude!
The New Haggadah is still in print, 75 years after its initial publication. As I leafed through my copy, I could see why. Although it was composed in the shadow of World War II, with our nation still in the throes of the Depression, the text still reads as amazingly pertinent and fresh. The authors’ psychological insight and political and economic sophistication on the nature of oppression and liberation still rings true. They fulfilled their goal, which was to bring the ancient message into modern idiom, and we are the fortunate inheritors of their legacy. So let me close by sharing a lengthy passage from that volume, and let it serve as a Passover message for us all.
LET MY PEOPLE GO
We have dedicated this festival tonight to the dream and the hope of freedom, the dream and the hope that have filled the hearts of men and women from the time our Israelite ancestors went forth out of Egypt. People have suffered, nations have struggled to make this dream come true. Now we dedicate ourselves to the struggle for freedom. Though the sacrifice be great and the hardships many, we shall not rest until the chains that enslave all humankind be broken.
But the freedom we strive for means more than broken chains. It means liberation from all those enslavements that warp the spirit and blight the mind, that destroy the soul even though they leave the flesh alive. For people can be enslaved in more ways than one.
People can be enslaved to themselves. When they let emotion sway them to their hurt, when they permit harmful habits to tyrannize over them – they are slaves. When laziness or cowardice keeps them from doing what they know to be right, when ignorance blinds them so that, like Samson, they can only turn round and round in meaningless drudgery – they are slaves. When envy, bitterness and jealousy sour their joys and darken the brightness of their contentment – they are slaves to themselves and shackled by the chains of their own forging.
People can be enslaved by poverty and inequality. When the fear of need drives them to dishonesty and violence, to defending the guilty and accusing the innocent – they are slaves. When the work men or women do enriches others, but leaves them in want of strong houses for shelter, nourishing food for themselves and for their children, and warm clothes to keep out the cold – they are slaves.
People can be enslaved by intolerance. When Jews are forced to give up their Jewish way of life, to abandon their Torah, to neglect their sacred festivals, to leave off rebuilding their ancient homeland – they are slaves. When they must deny that they are Jews in order to get work – they are slaves. When they must live in constant fear of unwarranted hate and prejudice – they are slaves.
How deeply these enslavements scar the world! The wars, the destruction, the suffering, the waste! Pesah calls us to be free, free from the tyranny of our own selves, free from the enslavement of poverty and inequality, free from the corroding hate that eats away the ties which unite humankind.
Pesah calls upon us to put and end to all slavery! Pesah cries out in the name of God, “Let my people go.” Pesah summons us to freedom. (The New Haggadah, p. 11-13 adapted)
Shabbat Shalom and a Sweet and Meaningful Pesach,
PS This column will not appear next week – I’ll be busy setting the Seder table!
*The Reform Movement had published its own revised haggadah in 1923 (and earlier), but in the early 20th century the Reform Movement, which drew mostly from the German-American Jews interfaced relatively little with the Conservative and Orthodox world, which was filled with the Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.