Free Your Minds

I find it extremely sad that most “modern”, “innovative”, “relevant” rewrites to the Haggadah begin with removing “the boring parts”, all the rabbinic teaching that actually makes up the bulk of the liturgy. Indeed, it is exactly these Mishnaic and Mishna-like passages that power not just the Seder, but the entire journey from slavery to freedom.

While any kind of slavery is, indeed a travesty and a “crime against humanity”, the slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt was sui generis, one-of-a-kind. It encompassed much more than being forced to labor under inhuman conditions, inescapable poverty, the constant threat of physical violence, contempt by the majority population and the suspension of all that we now call “human rights”, which is probably how most contemporary westerners would describe slavery. Rather, the Egyptian Exile was so all-consuming that it’s described in our tradition as “the exile of thought”–we no longer owned what went on in our own minds!

Many traditions share values such as kindness and justice.  Judaism doesn’t hold an exclusive patent on concern for the earth, for all life and the hope for a better tomorrow. However, Judaism does contain and is based on a very unique way of thinking. Rather than being exclusively based on empirical reality, and also not being based on the very denial of that reality as “illusion”, Jewish thinking combines and requires both the empirical and the intuitive, the linear and the associative, the mundane and the divine. Moreover, it demands that we evaluate in all of these seemingly opposing realms simultaneously! And, in addition to that, we’re constantly reminded that human understanding, while potentially great, is, by definition, limited. We’re also not only allowed to think is such a free, revolutionary mode, we’re mandated to!

When we read on Seder night about the struggles of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah to convince his colleagues that it’s proper to include the paragraph about tzitzit (ritual fringes) in the evening recitation of the Sh’ma, the discussion of just how many plagues struck the Egyptians in Egypt and how many at the Red Sea and the disputations about when to eat matzah and maror (bitter herbs), the intent of the Haggadah is not to instruct us in those or any other rules. Rather, the deliberate planning that went into creating the Haggadah by the rabbis of the Mishna is focused on returning to each of us the ability and power of Jewish thought.

The Haggadah is a crash course on How To Think Jewish 101! It’s all there to remind us of the methodology, to remind us that there is such a thing as objective truth and right-and-wrong, based on the Torah, but not in a fundamentalist, literalist, ignorant reading of it, but rather using our specific analytic tools which force us to think in so many contrasting modes all at the same time.

John Lennon wrote about revolutions, “You better free your mind instead”. As long as we’re limited in our thinking abilities we’ll be enslaved to the latest intellectual fad, to whatever value system is imposed on us from the outside and also by our own tyrannical impulses. But if we remember to constantly question, not in the childish/rebellious way based on our own narcissism (and so in fashion today), but rather using the transcendental logic of our tradition, we’ll remain at least able to reclaim our freedom as often as necessary.

I invite you to enjoy and put to good use the resources our tradition has already provided us. Chag Sameach to all.

(note:  I want to thank my student, Elissa Yaffe, for pointing out to me the obvious, but often overlooked (certainly by me), fact that the Haggadah is, indeed, largely composed of Mishnaic teachings. This illustrates another important feature of the traditional style of Jewish Thought–truth can only be approached through the cooperative effort of people studying and working together, honing each other’s ideas.)

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5 Responses to Free Your Minds

  1. Ileanah says:

    Excellent! I was wondering about the same while choosing texts for discussion during the seder. I felt sad to see that not only in our homes, but also in our community sedarim, there is this tendency of skipping most of the texts that “apparently” have nothing to do with the Exodus. I’ll be using your comment as a focus of our conversation this year. Hag Sameach!

  2. Reb Harry,
    Thank you so much for these thoughts. I remember when I first recognized that the parts of the Haggadah I didn’t understand were rabbinic discussions in the manner of Mishnah and Gemara. And I fell in love. I know that when we don’t understand something, we can fall into the trap of thinking, “it’s boring”. I’ve had that brought home to me many times.

    Wishing you an expansive (!) Pesach!!!!!!

    • We often shortchange both ourselves and our ancestors. Ourselves for having the skills/patience/background to understand and our ancestors for having anything to say to us today. But when we open ourselves to the dialogue, as you say, “I fall in love”.
      Chag Sameach!

  3. Dear Reb Harry,
    So appreciate this post and the opportunity to delve into some of the Ashkenazi minhagim with you and David this year. The Haggadah has taken on expanded meaning as a tool for encouraging questions rather than a manual for providing answers. As I better understand the way our ancients constructed processes for learning, I join you and Laurie – head over heals in this garden of endless opportunities for gaining insight and making connections across generations of our People. With great tools and great teachers the journey is increasingly meaningful and delightful.
    !חג פסח שמח!

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