Bronfman presents: The Haggada

Edgar Bronfman’s wife created the Haggada’s artwork to complement and enrich the liberal text.

March 24, 2013 13:06
Jan Aronson's artwork

Jan Aronson. (photo credit: Courtesy Edgar Bronfman)

Edgar Bronfman, former World Jewish Congress leader and philanthropist, has written a new Haggada to promote the values of liberal Judaism. Illustrated by his wife Jan Aronson, the Haggada deals with themes of slavery and freedom in a beautifully illustrated edition that may be the delight of progressives even as it might upset the more traditional elements within the Jewish community for its assertions that the Exodus story and God serve as metaphors rather than historical fact. In Bronfman’s text, God can be understood through sounds and images in the natural world.

Bronfman insists that this makes the story more accessible for a contemporary audience.

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He also honors “Miriam’s Cup” beside the traditional Prophet Elijah’s glass in the text. The new ritual object, he notes in the Haggada text, is “a relatively new Seder object... to honor the Prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, along with all other women – biblical, historical, and contemporary – who have worked so tirelessly for freedom on behalf of Jews and non-Jews alike.”

With ample quotes from civil rights leaders, and reinterpretations of various rituals to commemorate non-Jews who have suffered oppression, Bronfman has turned a distinctly Jewish ritual meal into a more universal activity, which has led to praise of his text by organizations like InterfaithFamily, which noted that the Haggada is appropriate for families like Bronfman’s.

“His own family Seders are large and celebratory affairs and include intermarried family members and friends old and new who are welcomed to enjoy the annual feast together,” the organization noted, quoting Bronfman’s statement that, “We can double the amount of Jews that there are, or we can irritate everybody who’s intermarried and lose them all.”

The new Haggada “diverts from the traditional Haggada in a way that is extremely welcoming to interfaith families,” Interfaith Family said.

The Jerusalem Post spoke with Bronfman to gain insight into his new Haggada and his reasons for writing it.

Why did you write the Haggada?
Many have asked why I felt it was necessary to create my own Haggada, the ritual text used during the Passover meal. The answer is very simple. I could never find a Haggada that I felt truly expressed the spirit of the occasion.

Over the years I found myself piecing together parts of existing Haggadot trying to make a satisfying whole from many parts, but it never really worked. It was messy and unwieldy.

A few years ago, I decided to sit down and outline a new Haggada.

The result is the Bronfman Haggada. It has been tested with adults and young people at numerous Seder meals and the response has been overwhelming. One child’s response was especially gratifying: “Now I understand what Passover is all about,” he said.

It is my hope that this Haggada will have the same result in other families and that it will contribute to a Jewish renaissance.

What changes to the traditional text have you made and why? In this Haggada, the role of Moses has been expanded, setting it apart from other Haggadot. I thought it was important to include the Ten Commandments in the Passover story, because with freedom comes responsibility, and it is important to have laws to regulate that. I believe that without the gift of law, the liberation from Egypt would have quickly descended into anarchy. Detailing humans-to-divine and human-to-human conduct, these commandments are essential, in fact, to the creation and sustainment of freedom.

Freedom cannot exist without moral and ethical laws.

In another departure from traditional Haggadot, I decided to open the door to Elijah at the beginning of the meal instead of at the end. I always found it slightly odd that Elijah was invited to the table after the meal. My wife, Jan, and I both believe it is before this joyous feast begins that we ought to invite the stranger into our homes.

It is my view that Elijah represents a redeemed world – a world free of racism, slavery, cruelty, poverty and greed. Elijah also represents the hungry stranger. This gesture reminds us to open the doors of our hearts to those in need during this holiday season and the rest of the year.

In this Haggada, God and the Exodus story serve as metaphors instead of historical fact. Positioning the Exodus story and its main characters as metaphors makes this Haggada meaningful to a modern audience. When one reads the story as a metaphor as opposed to fact, the lessons of the story become timeless.

Finally, I pride myself on perhaps the most important choice I made for this Haggada – I asked my wife Jan Aronson, an acclaimed artist in her own right, to illustrate it. As I expected, she approached this project with great intelligence, creativity and historical research. Her stunning paintings enrich the experience of the Haggada immeasurably and add an element of surprise and delight to what is perhaps the most crucial story of Jewish identity.

Whom is this intended for?
In my opinion, the Passover Seder is the hallmark event for bringing Jews together to connect as a people. Perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity to teach younger generations about Judaism’s vibrant meanings and lessons. Indeed, it is in the annual retelling of the Exodus story, the Jews’ journey from slavery to freedom, that we learn about our deepest values and convictions.

InterfaithFamily has praised your stance on intermarriage and is promoting your Haggada on its website. Does your new Haggada deal with the issue of intermarriage at all? Can you explain your stance on intermarriage and why it may not be a bad thing? While I do not address intermarriage in the Haggada, In my 2008 book Hope Not Fear (A Path to Jewish Renaissance), I wrote that the Jews’ fear of assimilation and intermarriage should not replace fear of anti-Semitism. In the book I wrote: “We must open ourselves up to new ideas and new faces and be welcoming to all who choose to participate. Openness may not be the easiest way, but it is our only way.”

The Bronfman Haggada is perfect for all kinds of Jews and non- Jews because it provides the leader with the opportunity to teach the essence of Judaism. It offers detailed explanations of all the elements of the Seder meal. I hope it will inspire people to say, “Now I understand what Passover is all about.”

What are the challenges facing Jewry today and do you address contemporary concerns in your text? There are many concerns facing Jews today as there are issues of concern to all of us in the world. On the last page of the Haggada I write: “This Passover, and in all the days following, we commit ourselves to supporting every idea, every effort and every carefully crafted plan that seeks to lead Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs – indeed all of the world’s clashing people – out of the dark and narrow straits of fear and violence, out of the structures of hatred and war, and into the spiritual Jerusalem – the true Promised Land, an open and peaceful place.”

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