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August 21, 2014 | 25th Av 5774

Pesach III

April 4, 2004
Marc Rosenstein
 

How is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we may eat chameitz or matzah – tonight only matzah;
On all other nights children and parents eat separately – tonight we all eat together;
On all other nights we hurry through the meal – tonight we spend a long time; it is a “night of watching;”
On all other nights our conversation is of everyday matters – tonight we speak at length about the exodus from Egypt.
-Hashomer Hatza’ir Kibbutz Haggadah, 1958

The Passover Haggadah has been printed in more different editions – around 4,000 – than any other book in Jewish history. The creativity lavished on these publications is obvious even to a casual observer; many of them, from the era before the printing press and down to today, are great works of art. While we may have felt constrained not to alter the text, we felt free to interpret it through illustration. In the modern period, of course, the Reform movement led the way in modifying the core text to make it more relevant and alive for present generations.

In Israel, however, the normative definition of Judaism has always been Orthodox. That has meant that whether you were secular or traditional or Orthodox, the Haggadah you used on seder night was the traditional text. A disappointment to many Zionists, especially those from western democracies, has been the failure of the experience of return to the land to generate a renewed Judaism. One might have expected that this massive historical event would be reflected in our liturgical texts and practices in significant ways, that the encounter with our geographical, historical, and cultural roots would yield new forms, new expressions. Except for the pronunciation of Hebrew, and some melodies, and some messianic hints in the liturgy, Jewish liturgy and practice hasn’t changed in the past century. In other words, the Haggadah still ends with the line “next year in Jerusalem.”

One important exception to this “freeze” was the Haggadot used in the kibbutzim. The kibbutz was of course a stridently secular community; however, the Passover seder was a high point of the year, socially, spiritually, and artistically. Significant resources of time and material were expended on this gathering. And since the kibbutz saw itself as a kind of “New Community” made up of “New Jews,” unconstrained by the tradition, a great deal of creativity was invested not only in illustrating the Haggadah, but in revising and renewing the text. Especially in the period from the 20s to the 60s, radical surgery on the text was common. The emphasis was shifted from divine redemption to human action, from ancient battles to modern ones, from the revolt against Pharaoh to the revolt against capitalism. Many readings, ancient and modern, were added on the subject of spring. The Holocaust in Europe and the struggle for security and independence were reflected in revised and new texts in every part of the seder from the four questions to the concluding songs. Each kibbutz developed its own community tradition and mimeographed its own text, though there were some professional editions produced by the nationwide associations of kibbutzim.

It is interesting to trace the development of kibbutz Haggadot over the years. The radicalism began to fade in the 60s, and the kibbutz Haggadot of the past few decades have gotten closer and closer to the traditional text, with auxiliary readings. Recently, the kibbutz teachers’ seminary published a lavish Haggadah which contains the full traditional text, with extensive commentary and auxiliary readings – many of which are culled from kibbutz Haggadot over the decades. A cop-out? A failure of nerve? A victory for orthodoxy? Or perhaps the realization that radical cultural change is a contradiction in terms.

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