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What do I do about the parts of the Haggadah that trouble me?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life

    Question: I love the Seder, but there are aspects that trouble me such as the slaying of the first born or the wicked son. Are there things that you find difficult and how do you deal with them?

    Rabbi Naftali Brawer: The Seder is an immersive drama that sets out to stimulate our thinking and evoke a range of strong emotions. Some of these thoughts and feelings may be positive, some ambiguous and others can leave us feeling distinctly disturbed. The important thing to bear in mind is that as long as the Seder gets us to think and feel it is a success. So the fact that you are troubled is a good start — it means that your Seder will be anything but dull.


    Personally, I am not that troubled by the four sons. I always understood them as paradigms which is why they are painted in primary colours. I don’t think the text wants us to categorise our own children that way and I certainly don’t think it wants us to write off any of our children as wicked. I see the four sons as co-existing in each of us; we all have elements of the wise, the wicked, the simple and at times we are reduced to “one who does not even know how to ask”. The Haggadah invites us to bring all these conflicting elements of ourselves into our people’s story.


    As far as the slaying of the firstborn, there are nine other plagues that are equally violent. So too is the story of the splitting of the sea in which Pharaoh’s entire army drowns. Yet these bursts of Divine violence are what secures our ancestor’s freedom. Judaism places peace at the top of its value system but that does not mean that Judaism is a pacifist religion. Sometimes, peace — as well as security and dignity — can only be purchased through violence. 


    That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t make us uncomfortable. In fact our complex position on violence is expressed in a beautiful aggadah, which imagines that the angels, upon seeing the mighty Egyptian army drowning in the Red see, wish to sign hymns and praise to God. 


    But God silences them saying “My creatures are drowning and you wish to sing?”(Talmud Megillah 10b). This sentiment is the basis for the custom at the Seder of pouring out drops of wine from our cups as we list the Ten Plagues. It symbolises our empathy with the victims even as we celebrate redemption from their cruelty. 


    I think you’ve got a rich topic for discussion at your Seder. Why not circulate it beforehand and invite your family and guests to give it some thought in preparation?

    Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation

     

    Rabbi Jonathan Romain: You have expressed what most people feel: there are parts of Jewish tradition that we value enormously, and parts we find unpalatable.
    This need not be a problem — it is precisely because of our keen sense of Jewish ethics that we cringe at certain aspects of the past. It is only a problem if we try to defend the indefensible and attempt to squirm out of saying: “that was wrong” or “this is no longer appropriate”. All credit to our Jewish values if we refuse to do so.


    This is not a radical statement, for the rabbis of past generations felt the same. That is why they instituted the custom of depriving ourselves of a dash of wine for each of the Ten Plagues, effectively saying: they happened, we cannot deny history, but we need not gloat over it.


    They went one step further and introduced the practice of the Fast of the Firstborn, to ram home the message of empathy to that particular group. Reciting the names of the 10 sons of Haman killed at Purim as speedily as possible is another example of acknowledging that our survival was at the cost of others.


    However, these are relatively easy ways of expressing our discomfort with historic incidents. We cannot undo the past. What is much more challenging is how we deal with the parts of Jewish life today that are morally debatable, especially those that have a negative impact on everyday lives.


    At a minor level, and relating to Pesach, this might include the religiously questionable and financially prohibitive edifice of regulations surrounding food that is kosher l’Pesach. The checking of chametz products is extended to the minutest possibilities of any contact, and far beyond common sense.


    Meanwhile, the annual ritual of selling one’s chametz to a non-Jew is so clearly a legal fiction that it both embarrasses our sense of honesty and makes us wonder why a sensible faith has sunk to such artifices. 


    But these are harmless examples. Much more concerning are women who are unable to marry in synagogue because their husbands refuse to give them a get; or children who are labelled mamzerim and penalised because of the faults of their parents.     


    These have been rectified within Reform and Liberal synagogues, but remain a moral blot in other circles. An immoral law should not be a Jewish law, at any time of year.

    Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

     

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