The traditional Haggada and the non-believing Jew

It is perhaps the traditional Haggada that is most welcoming to the Jew who questions Jewish belief.

April 13, 2017 20:07
4 minute read.
A Passover Seder

A Passover Seder. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)


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Jews who question Jewish tradition have always had a complex relationship with Passover.

Because the Seder is one of the most widely observed Jewish tradition, a wide range of nontraditional haggadot have come into use, including ones with communist, feminist and animal liberation emphases.

But it is perhaps the traditional Haggada that is most welcoming to the Jew who questions Jewish belief. The Haggada presents this welcome subtly and carefully, but it is worth reading between its lines and finding this welcome.

The welcome begins in the ballad of the four sons. Here, the Haggada takes a rather radical position in deploying the term “kafar ba-ikkar” to describe the wicked son. The term literally means “to deny a basic principle,” but actually refers to “engage in heresy.” Usually, this term is used to describe one who denies God’s existence or control of the world. But in the Haggada, the wicked son is not critiqued for his theological questions.

On the contrary, the Haggada in no way criticizes his theology. He is critiqued only for excluding himself from the Jewish community: “Since he excluded himself from the community, he engaged in heresy.” The Haggada reinterprets “heresy,” in order to deliberately raise the bar for exclusion, and lower the bar for inclusion: A Jew who excludes himself from the Jewish experience is a heretic. It follows that a Jew who includes himself in the Jewish experience – and by participating in the Seder s/he is including himself – is not a heretic. The Haggada has subtly but deliberately removed the “heretic” label from the non-believing Jew, as long as s/he participates in the Seder.

This trend toward inclusion continues several paragraphs later. A Jew who questions belief in God may wonder why s/he need be at the Seder. To respond to this, the Haggada does not begin its overview of “our” history with the Exodus from Egypt, but with the period when all Jews denied God’s existence, when the ancestors of all Jews were idolaters: “Across the river dwelled your ancient ancestors, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor.”

As we connect to our historic ancestors, we do not connect only to the famous names from Abraham and onward, who worshiped God: We begin our history from Terah, the owner of the famous idol-shop, and affirm him as one of our ancestors.

The Haggada does not place Terah on a pedestal; it does not highlight him as the “ideal Jew.” But it recognizes him as one of the Jewish people’s ancestors, implicitly arguing that the non-believer is part of the chain of generations. The generations have moved from idolatry to worship of God, but we recognize that Terah is part of the chain, as is any non-believing Jew at the Seder.

The Haggada intentionally refrains from placing any single Jew on a pedestal. It deliberately omits the name of Moses, to emphasize a sense of equality: Passover is about all Jews, not about a single man, no matter how great he may have been.

And the Haggada continues by specifically mentioning Jews who do not pray as those whom God hears. It does this by reinterpreting the famous verse from Deuteronomy 26:7 – “We called out to the Lord the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voices and saw our oppression, work and pressure.” When did the Jews call out to God? In interpreting this event, the Haggada quotes Exodus 2:23 – “The king of Egypt died, and the Israelites sighed from the work, and they screamed, and their cries went up to God from the work.”

The verse from Exodus clearly does not say that the Jews prayed or called out to God. It only states that the Jews sighed and screamed. God heard their voices, without the Jews addressing him. But the Haggada nevertheless sees Exodus 2:23, which does not describe the Jews as praying, as substantiating the claim that “We called out to the Lord.” The Haggada here is making a subtle point: it was not really necessary for Jews to pray to God in order for Him to hear them. Or more accurately, perhaps, it is not necessary for Jews to pray to God in order for Him to hear us. God hears the voice of the Jew who does not pray to Him, who only sighs and expresses pain.

The Haggada walks a careful line in each of these passages. On the one hand, it includes in the Seder-community Jews who question God, Jews who question basic Jewish beliefs. And on the other, it affirms these beliefs. God exists, and God listens, and God saves. But to be included among those whom God cares about enough to save, it is not absolutely necessary to be a believer.

Shawn Zelig Aster is senior lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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