Monday, March 29, 2010

In every generation — Thoughts on Erev Pesah

Some reflections on the haggadah as we approach the time to explore our narratives. Also see this source sheet which accompanies the writing below.

The Seder is my favorite holiday event of the year. When I was younger, it was because I loved the food, the family and all of the rituals attached to it. As I have gotten older, I look forward each year to engaging the tradition and the people who sit around me about issues of both particularistic Jewish relevance and universal tales about freedom stories in all traditions. Like the Sabbath, the seder is a Jewish institution which quite literally keeps the Jewish people; it is a pedagogic lesson, centered around food, which involves people of all ages and backgrounds, and moreover, at its best, challenges people to advance their relationships with their fellow humans and God. At the center of this religious universe, stands the verse בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים.

I am so attached to this central verse because it manifests in one line a connection to the entire course of Jewish history. David Moss's Haggadah perhaps illustrates this better than any other Haggadah text I know of, using mirrors placed in the center of various scenes of Jewish communities throughout history, literally placing the individual amongst the freedom narratives of the nation throughout time. While it is not my personal stance, I would go as far to say that one need not believe that the actual Exodus occurred in order to fulfill the mitzvah of seeing oneself כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים, and this would be an honest reading of the line.  As someone who has always been attached to the rational elements of life and particularly to history, this passage tangibly connects me with my ancestors and gives me a halachic imperative to connect with their stories. As Isaac Abravanel states in his commentary to the haggadah: 
For it is impossible that a person living in our age of exile will not experience [in his life] some type of suffering... For not only was it our forefathers that He redeemed in that all-encompassing redemption, but us as well He redeems and saves every day from different troubles, just as He did for them. And therefore Scripture says, “and us He took out from there” (Deut. 6:23). It did not say “them” but “us” — because each one of us is redeemed innumerable times in his lifetime in the course of having to live in exile. 

The line בכל דור ודור in the haggadah, indeed the entire maggid section of the seder itself, originates from a central commandment in the Exodus narrative — והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמור, זה עשה לי בצאתי ממצרים (Exodus 13:8). 

But of course I wasn't there. You weren't either. How do I fulfill this mitzvah? 

The seder itself explores this very thesis when it comes to explaining the zeroa on the seder plate. We purposefully do not raise it, because this was not the pesah sacrifice that our ancestors conducted. Rather it is a symbol of such (see Bavli Pesahim 116b, specifically commentary of Rashbam)

But we come to a drastically different conclusion with reciting and examining the Passover story with our children — we say that story, and we act it out as if we were there. But there's another step which we add to the symbol of the "capital E" Exodus. In one word, keilu, we transfer the experience from one event which is by definition impossible to remember personally, to a continuing narrative of escaping each of the straights in the overflowing narratives of the Jewish people. 

This word reinforces even more the human agency that is necessary in telling the story of Passover. What is the correct way to do it? There necessarily is not one way. More emphatically, it is specifically not enough to say words of the Haggadah, but one must expand on the text in her own personal way. Questions are at the center of this experience, not the four that are scripted, but the ones which the parent provokes from the child, that we bring out of each other (Bavli Pesachim, 116a). Only by doing this, will one fulfill the mitzvah of doing so keilu she left Egypt. In a tradition that has a series of codified liturgies and texts, בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים mandates that the words of the Haggadah are important, but are not enough on their own. In the words of the Rambam in his comments about the mitzvah of conducting a seder (Sefer HaMitzvot, 157th Mitzvah, commentary on Exodus 13:8): 
...וכל מי שיוסיף במאמר ויאריך הדברים בהגדלת מה שעשה לנו השם ומה שעשו עמנו המצרים מעול וחמס  ואיך לקח השם נקמתינו מהם ובהודות לו ית' על מה שגמלנו מחסדיו יהיה יותר טוב. כמו שאמרו כל המאריך לספר ביציאת מצרים הרי זה משובח.

Expounding about the Exodus, both the original story and subsequent ones is praiseworthy. 

The story of the Exodus has served as a central theme for liberation movements across generations and ethnicities. For twentieth and twenty-first century Jews, בכל דור ודור literally serves as a bumper sticker slogan across our t-shirts (because after all, what's a Jewish cause without a t-shirt?) In every generation, each year, we must remember that we were slaves, and collectively act to bring ourselves out of both our personal and collective Egypts. The story is ongoing, and there is an obligation to apply it to the contemporary situation each and every year. As Michael Walzer states: 

"The story is more important than the events, and the story has grown more and more important as it has been repeated and reflected upon, cited in arguments, elaborated in folklore. Perhaps that was the intention of the authors: certainly, they urge the repetition often enough. The Exodus belongs to a genre of religious and legal texts designed for public reading and rereading and for analogical application." (Exodus and Revolution, (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 8-9) 

The Exodus narrative has resonance both for the Jewish people and for anyone that claims the Bible as a Holy text. Indeed, monotheistic religions across society see themselves as if they personally left Egypt, and utter a pedagogic challenge to their children to engage in such introspection, as well. 

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rabbi Rockstar

It gets my attention when people pack a synagogue to the brim. When there literally is a case of standing room only to listen to a sermon. When people arrive half an hour early to get a seat.

Yesterday we headed to Beit Knesset Ramban to hear Rav Benny Lau give his Shabbat HaGadol drasha (sermon). Traditionally Shabbat HaGadol (the Shabbat before Pesah) features the main sermon of the season, and signs around Jerusalem advertised various rabbis and the topics of their talk. Katamon turned out en-masse for Rav Benny's drash.

The Peaceful Lion received a written copy of the talk in his e-mail today, which truly boggles my mind. From the way he spoke, it seemed like he didn't have any written text in front of him. Scanning it, he clearly read from the text only at select opinions. But here it is, what was sent to the Ramban listserv. Print it out, read it in a few sittings. It's worth it (n.b.: it's in Hebrew).

The central theme is the importance of asking questions as a model for a pedagogy of freedom. We must encourage students to ask as many questions as they can muster, and push them to ask further questions than they already think of.

His concluding political umph doesn't appear in the written copy, as far as I can tell from a quick scan. It lambasted those who silence the questions, pointing to particularly disappointing decisions by the Chief Rabbinate regarding the nullification of conversions. To a once courageous Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef for his halakhic decisions who in the introduction of his first teshuva (see the text above) placed himself as a sage who could innovate decisions and now is part of a Rabbanut establishment behind such decisions as the recent debacle in Ashkelon.

For religion to survive into the future, he implored, the educators in the room — pointing to each and every individual — had to encourage questions. Without it, religious life in Israel might as well close its bags.

I'll say that I was the choir in this audience and he was preaching directly to me. Ask questions, hold tensions in balance, learn as much as I can. Check, check, check. Doing the best I can.

More than that though, the message was couched in deep learning, an eloquent use of texts and such passion for a nation and land. I hope this trop echoes on into the Israeli landscape from a voice that must be heard more.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Learning about Israeli society through a haircut

With Pesah quickly approaching, on Tuesday I headed back to my trusted hair-cutter Micha (next to the new Marzipan on Rahel Imeinu, for those keeping track at home). As I've noted before, Micha sometimes insults me without meaning to, but always inspires a good conversation, usually based on what's on the radio, and gets a laugh to go along with that.

There's a fierce give and take around the Ashkelon hospital right now, a fight which manifests the larger tensions between the Haredi influence on government society and everyone else. After discovering ancient graves where the Barzilai Hospital was planning to build its new emergency room (which had been bombed by kassam missiles coming from Gaza), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman demanded that the new building not be built adjacent to the hospital, but rather in a new location, away from the main building, and not over the (to-be) former graves. While the hospital would have moved the bodies, the United Torah Judaism (a Haredi political party) appointee would not budge on the decision, and the Netanyahu cabinet essentially chose to keep the coalition over overturning Lizan's decision. The project will delay the building for two years, according to all sources make it tougher for doctors to do their jobs. For more information on the events over the past week see here and here.

When this news item came across the radio while I was getting my hair cut, Micha went on a bit of a tyrade against the decision and religion in general. I noted that this was more politics than religion, but it's hard not be furious about the decision, I'll give him that. He also acknowledged the political supertext of the decisions at play.

After finishing the cut, I paid him, gave him a "todah achi" (literally, thanks, my brother, but doesn't really translate as such) put on my kippah. He pointed to it and said, "Keep wearing that kippah (a knitted one). Don't wear a black one."

On one hand it was an amusing comment. As the hit show Srugim (Hebrew for knit kippah) illustrates (among other things), how one wears this head garment reflects deep sociological realities in Israel. But really it's just depressing -- you're religion is fine. Just don't become like THEM.

In a state of 7 million and a nation of about 14 million, there sure is a lot of finger pointing. With good reason many times. But in wears on all of us.

(Thanks to the Peaceful lion for this insight)
In his dvar torah this past week, Rav Benny Lau of Ramban synagogue in Katamon (among one of his many titles) presented the concept of Takkanat HaShavim to illustrate the tremendous gulf between the law in its ideal state and that in its actual State, manifest by the Ashkelon controversy. The Tosefta (Bava Kamma 10:2) offers two opinions for the penalty of how one must repay a situation where a person steals a brick and subsequently builds a house with that brick. According to Beit Shammai, the individual must deconstruct the entire house and return the actual brick. Beit Hillel says that the individual must pay a monetary penalty, an enactment which becomes known as Takkanat HaShavim. If the individual were required to tear down his house, Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgedah argues (Mishna Gittin 5:5) according to Hillel's logic, the thief would be crippled monetarily and spiritually from doing the needed teshuva that is required of him.

Such is the case here, argued R. Lau. The decision by UTJ and the deputy health minister continues a crippling of peoples' relationship to religion, it highjacks the law and returns it to the strictest interpretation which was rejected centuries ago by civil and religious discourse.

The comments in the barber shop were tinged with anger. And with good reason.

It is more than a political party that comes out looking like the other with a case like this. It is tradition, crede, even God which are shaded black. R. Benny's words ring strongly in my ears. May his leadership and those like him be an inspiration for those in Israel and inded around the world.

And with that, the blog is back in action. It's good to be back.