Published in The New York Jewish Week, March 28, 2017
by Steve Lipman
The most published book in the Jewish world, the Haggadah has witnessed a decrease in the number of traditional, commentary-based guides to the holiday’s readings and rituals, but an increase in individualized — and sometimes humorous — interpretations of the Pesach customs. Blame the expense of putting out new books; the fact that Haggadot, by their seasonal nature, have a limited shelf life; and the surfeit of existing Haggadot; and the deepening of DIY culture and the self-publishing craze.
Here, then, is a roundup of some of the new titles.
The people who attend Rabbi Aryeh Ben David’s seders in Efrat every year know they have to do some homework beforehand — they have to answer a philosophical question about their place in the Exodus experience, and be prepared to discuss it at his seder.
Now, every seder leader can assign similar homework.
In “The Ayeka Haggadah: Hearing Your Own Voice, A Guide for All Ages to Personalize Your Seder” (Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education), Rabbi Ben David, a Scarsdale native who made aliyah three decades ago, brings to Passover his approach to Jewish spirituality that he has emphasized in a career as a Jewish educator.
The rabbi is the founder of Ayeka (Hebrew for “where are you?” the question God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden), an educational initiative that places the heart above the mind. Which is reflected in his Haggadah.
Rabbi Ben David, who previously served as director of spiritual education at the Pardes Institute and rabbinical educational consultant for Hillel International, packs his Haggadah with questions instead of answers, spiritual insights instead of traditional rabbinical commentaries. “If maror (the bitter herb) could talk, what do you think it would say?”
Most extant Haggadahs “are more or less the same genre — so-and-so’s commentary,” the rabbi said in a telephone interview. Too passive, too impersonal, he said; a seder participant doesn’t necessarily feel him/herself part of the Jews who left Egypt and began their path to becoming a unified people.
“People are not changed by being passive,” the rabbi said.
Hence, “your own voice” in the title — what you’re feeling, what you’re saying, takes precedence over some scholar’s explanations.
The rabbi’s Haggadah places a seder participant in the Exodus generation. He offers, he explains in the introduction, 40 “trigger” questions for people of various ages, “forty different opportunities for engaging personally with the haggadah.” Questions like “Can you summarize the Exodus in one sentence?” “Today, what questions do you imagine the wise child would ask?” “If maror (the bitter herb) could talk, what do you think it would say?”
After each question is blank space on each page for writing out one’s answer.
The purpose is to stimulate “quality conversations” said the rabbi. No need for each seder participant to answer each question in depth. “People don’t need to have 40 quality conversations.”
And there are short insights and suggestions for better absorbing the seder themes: “Ask someone to talk in Egyptian.” “Ask someone to act out one of the four children.” “Have everyone share a ‘Jerusalem moment,’ a high point they experienced in Jerusalem.”
The Haggadah’s input from participants makes it easier for the seder leader to lead, Rabbi Ben David writes. “The pressure is off. You don’t have to illuminate or entertain. Your job is to create the space for everyone to feel comfortable, to participate, and to share.”
Every Haggadah contains the reminder that in every generation everyone at the seder should act as if he/she came out of Egypt.
Rabbi Ben David’s Haggadah refines this obligation with the request that everyone answer the question “Where am I?” – where do I see myself in the exodus experience?
“I’m not interested in what happened [to the collective Jewish people] in leaving Egypt,” Rabbi Ben David said. “I’m interested in what happened to you.”