This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Why Was This Haggadah Different?*

For people making their first acquaintance with the traditional Passover Haggadah, the most startling discovery is likely to be how disconnected the text is from the original biblical story. In their quest to fulfill the precept of recounting the miracles of our liberation from Egypt, the authors of the Haggadah did not take the obvious route of instituting a recitation of the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus. Instead, they focused on secondary digests of the story from the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua.

More significantly, much of the seder liturgy is composed of a bewildering assortment of sayings and stories involving rabbis from the eras of the Mishnah and the Talmud, whereas Moses' name is almost entirely absent.

All of this suggests that the rabbis who assembled the traditional liturgy were determined to stress that Scripture must always be filtered through the authorized interpretation of the oral Torah, as represented in the literature of the Talmud and Midrash.

This principle was clearly enunciated by Rav Natronai Ga'on, the ninth-century leader of the Babylonian talmudic academy of Sura.

It had been brought to Rav Natronai's attention that some communities were making use of a Haggadah in which the biblical texts were recited without their midrashic expositions.

The Ga'on declared not only that anyone who used such a Haggadah was not fulfilling their religious obligation, but that "he is a heretic, a dissident, rejecting the authority of the sages and showing disdain for the words of the Mishnah and Talmud. It is incumbent upon every community to ostracize such persons and separate them from the congregation of Israel."

On first reading, this might strike us as an excessive response to a relatively minor deviation from the standard liturgy. However, Rav Natronai reveals later on that there are serious grounds for his concern, when he accuses the authors of the unorthodox Haggadah of being "disciples of Anan, may his name rot!"

Anan ben David was the founder of the Karaite movement that arose in the eighth century to oppose the hegemony of the Talmud and the rabbis, and to proclaim the exclusive authority of the Bible in defining normative Judaism.

The particular Haggadah that provoked the Ga'on's ire was evidently not actually of Karaite origin. It may in fact have preserved an ancient rabbinic tradition from the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, the Rabbinite-Karaite controversy was so intense at that time that he refused to countenance even an appearance of heretical sympathies.

The Passover Haggadot used by the Karaites reflect their conviction that the Bible must be the sole source of spiritual guidance for Jews. For this reason, their liturgies adhere closely to the sequential telling of the Exodus story, supplemented by appropriate biblical texts prescribing how the festival is to be celebrated, and songs of thanksgiving from the book of Psalms.

Notwithstanding their declared rejection of talmudic embellishments, that ideal was not realized consistently. Even the assumption that the Passover meal should be the occasion for recounting the exodus story to the next generation has no explicit basis in the Torah, though it was never questioned by the Karaites.

The exclusively biblical content of the Karaite Haggadah makes perfect sense in light of their ideology. It is more difficult, however, to understand why a similar approach was adopted by non-Karaite Jews in the nineteenth century. A non-rabbinic Haggadah was published in London in 1842 as part of a two-volume prayer book, under the auspices of David Woolf Marks, who served as spiritual leader of the West London Synagogue of British Jews, the pioneering Liberal congregation of the United Kingdom.

In Marks' Haggadah, the exclusion of post-biblical elements was not limited to midrashic expositions and other questionable texts, but extended as well to the customs and rituals of the Seder meal. Gone were the familiar "four cups," the hand-washings, haroset, Hillel's matzah sandwich and the afikoman, none of which were perceived as genuine biblical ceremonies.

The mere fact that the Haggadah was composed for Liberal Jews is not sufficient to explain its rejection of rabbinic components. After all, no equivalent work was produced in any of the other main centre of religious reform, whether on the European continent or in the New World.

Although some German Reformers claimed to be "Jews of the Mosaic persuasion," and proclaimed their commitment to "Mosaism." these grandiose phrases did not translate into a consistent rejection of the rabbinic tradition. Indeed, historians have coined the term "Neo-karaism" to designate the distinctive British attitude.

The most plausible explanation for the rise of this ideology in England is that the Jews were assimilating attitudes that were current in the surrounding Christian society. During the Victorian era, the Church of England was experiencing a revival of evangelical fundamentalism that stressed the primacy of Scripture as the sole wellspring of spiritual legitimacy.

In most respects, this reflected the traditional Protestant opposition to the authority of the Pope and historical traditions in the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, many Jews felt (whether consciously or unconsciously) that they were called upon to justify their faith in terms that would be acceptable to Christian sensibilities.

This translated into a widespread rejection of Jewish practices that could not find support in the Bible, such as the observance of the second days of festivals; though some have argued that the desire to abolish the burdensome extra holidays was the primary concern of the reformers, and that the rejection of non-biblical authority was merely chosen as a convenient pretext for that departure from tradition.

The Christian stimulus to the debate comes across quite unmistakably in the bizarre-sounding theological terminology and assumptions that appear in the discussions. Particularly jarring to Jewish ears is the frequently-cited premise that the authority of rabbinic writings is contingent on a belief in their "divinity."

Another factor that may have favoured the rise of the biblicist ideology among English Jewry was the strong influence of Spanish and Portuguese Marranos in shaping the Jewish religious establishment there. Crypto-Jews who had been raised in the shadow of the Inquisition had no access to any post-biblical Jewish documents, and developed a naive image of Judaism as "the religion of the Old Testament."

When these refugees openly assumed their ancestral faith in England, they often suffered serious crises when it came to acknowledging the living reality of rabbinic Judaism. This issue was grave enough to inspire David Nieto, the eighteenth-century Haham of London's Spanish-Portuguese community to compose a major work in defense of the Oral Law; and it is perhaps significant that chapters from this work were reissued during the 1840's.

At any rate, the distinctive theology that underlay Marks's prayer book gave rise to some fascinating departures from the liturgies that were being developed by the Liberal movements in other Jewish communities. Probably the most surprising of these was the inclusion of entreaties for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and the reestablishment of sacrificial worship, ideas that were rejected as primitive and parochial by the Reformers on the Continent in spite of their deep biblical roots. Most of these passages were removed in later incarnations of the Marks prayer book.

Furthermore, Marks insisted on eliminating the Aramaic passages from his text, since he apparently viewed the language itself as a residue of abhorrent rabbinism. German Reformers, on the contrary, when they were not insisting on translating all their prayers into the prevailing vernacular, had a fondness for Aramaic prayers, which they viewed as a precedent for the adaptation of the tradition to the language of the common folk.

The fact that a book has been published does not guarantee that it will be read or used. This appears to have been the case with David Woolf Marks' revolutionary Haggadah. Although the clergy of the West London congregation could enforce the use of the new prayer book within the walls of the synagogue, they had little power over what people did in their own homes.

The evidence suggests that Marks' successors did not share his commitment to the Jewish Scripturalist ideology, and eventually replaced his liturgical innovations with more conventional versions.

All this serves as a powerful illustration of how traditional Judaism does not recall the liberation from Egypt as a one-time event from the distant biblical past, but as a personal experience that must be continually reinterpreted for us by the rabbis and sages of every generation.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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