The thinking man’s Haggada

Rabbi Norman Lamm continues his tradition of original thought in his new volume for the Seder.

royal table 311 (photo credit: .)
royal table 311
(photo credit: .)
The Royal TableCommentary by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm Compiled and edited by Rabbi Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky OU Press/KTAV | 200 pages | $25
Few scholars have been able to communicate with equal efficacy in both the beit midrash and the pulpit. Rabbi Norman Lamm has long excelled at both. A “rabbi’s rabbi,” he enjoys renown both as a talmudic luminary and a masterful darshan. When I received smicha from him 25 years ago, and subsequently in conversations we have had over these years, he has always left me with the same charge and challenge, “go be mehadeish.” Bring novel dimensions to your deliberations.
Lamm has remained steadfast and insistent in this simple statement yet difficult assignment. Certainly over this last quarter of a century, I have heard the rosh yeshiva in Lamm exhort his students to toil in the fields of new and novel interpretations. In an address to Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary rabbinic alumni at one of our conventions, he lamented the rise of a generation of scholars who distinguish themselves more by what they gather and relate in the names of others and less by their own new insights and inspirations. “Sadly we have become a generation of melaktim and not mehadshim.”
It is clearly against this tendency as “hunter gatherers in learning” that Lamm writes on so many issues and in so many places, not the least of which is this new Haggada. Absent from its liner notes are the commonly used pithy points that one can easily peruse and pick off the page as easy droplets to sprinkle onto the ongoing Seder ritual. While handsome in its layout and still easy to read, this is very much the thinking person’s Haggada. It is not set up for an easy appropriation of text and texture. Instead, it invites the reader into carefully considered discussions of the weighty subject matter that rightfully defines and distinguishes the Haggada as Jewish life’s signature pedagogy, and the Seder context as the ultimate classroom and teachable moment.
Understanding the Seder ritual as such, Lamm uses his enviable homiletical talents and exacting intellect to provide the reader and would-be Seder participant with brief but strategically composed essay-like presentations on many of the Seder’s generative themes. He takes on the big questions of theodicy and human suffering as seen in his comments on Jacob’s suffering and King David’s despair. Lamm lends his own social commentary to diverse themes and ills in society, an example being his treatment of the dual nature of the plague of darkness, which he cites not only for its existential loneliness but for “the great opportunities one might seek from the this solitude of contemplation.” Humanism, history and Halacha are woven together in an integrated whole that brings the timely to the timeless.
One noteworthy example of Lamm’s penchant for hiddush, of his ability to lend a novel approach and new voice to a text well-travelled in time, emerges from his commentary on “Had Gadya,” perhaps the most quixotic of the Seder songs. Borrowing from the recurring thematic and typological associations we make throughout the Pessah rituals by our use of the number four, Lamm introduces the typology of the Four Fathers and with it a new level of profundity, for this highly favored but otherwise hardly understood Seder ditty.
Rather than focusing solely on the dissection of the character of our children that we see earlier in the case of Four Sons with its supporting texts, he writes, “Let us speak of Four Fathers and proceed to a typology of parents. These four are: the Domineering Father, the Wise Father, the WASP Father, and the Democratic Father.”
The Domineering one outdoes his role as one “who should tell” and “orders and commands.” He broadcasts and the communication is one way. The Wise Father instead teaches the law by talking with his child. The WASP Father is a tragic figure, in caricature. Sadly we know he exists and have met him often. He is not really worthy of this appellation of successful societal integration, but tragically spends his life wishing that he were a purebred American without the dross and drag of his immigrant roots.
But still most troubling is the Democratic Father who represents the absurd extreme to the Domineering Father. This product of our times will not in any way impose his own beliefs and views on his child, even to the point of allowing for his ignorance of tradition.
In his analysis, Lamm acknowledges the perils of parenting and through his expansive treatment of this weighty role, describes its agonizing course. “In a child-centered culture such as ours it is important to emphasize the Four Fathers as well as the Four Sons. For sons do ultimately grow up and become fathers.”
Throughout this Haggada commentary, while dutifully citing numeroussacred sources, Lamm expands upon each in ways to better illustrate thelessons for life and the effective construction of community that ofnecessity must emerge from this annual exercise. His commitment tonovel thinking and singular skills as a mehadeish are ubiquitous throughout his treatment of the Haggada’s text.
This is not the Haggada to simply go through for easy comments butrather one that will pass through and rest on its readers, leaving anew claim to a serious consideration of our contemporary Jewishcondition.
The writer is the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and a senior rabbinic fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.