In anticipation of the forthcoming publication of The New Union Haggadah, Revised Edition, CCAR rabbinic intern Liz Piper-Goldberg interviewed editor Rabbi Howard Berman.
1. In true Passover fashion, why is this haggadah different from all other haggadot? Can you tell us what makes it unique? Why is this haggadah a good fit for the Jews of 2014?
A broad variety of historic minhagim, local traditions and ideologies are reflected in the hundreds of Haggadah versions available today. In the midst of this rich tapestry, the distinctive liturgical and spiritual heritage of American Reform Judaism stands in its own integrity and enduring significance. Our Movement has always created liturgies to give expression to the special understandings of Jewish belief and life embodied in our liberal spiritual commitment. Characteristically, Reform Judaism – and particularly the Classical Reform understanding – has interpreted the Passover Story from a broad, universalistic perspective- as a paradigm of redemption and liberation for all humanity… to use Rabbi Herbert Bronstein’s wonderful imagery- retained in this new version – “living our story that is told for all people…whose shining conclusion is yet to unfold!” The traditional Haggadah is far narrower and more particularistic in its vision, and other versions focus on particular ideological themes. Our Reform versions, all of which have built upon the foundation of the original Union Haggadah, embraces a far more inclusive approach, recognizing the enduring inspiration of the Exodus as a model for so many others, while celebrating its unique meaning for us as those who came out of Egypt.
2. What is the history of the original 1923 Union Haggadah? What was unique about that Haggadah at the time?
The 1923 version of the Union Haggadah was in turn a revision of the first edition of 1907. At that point, the pioneer Reformers had shifted the locus of religious life and worship from the home to the synagogue, where the principles of a new, modern, liberal Judaism were proclaimed in the liturgy and expounded from the pulpit. Passover was celebrated in Reform temples with well-attended services on the first and seventh Festival days, highlighted by the majestic liturgy of the Union Prayer Book’s texts expressing the vision of the “universal Passover” of future redemption and liberation of all humanity. However, in the early years of the 20th century, the home Seder had indeed declined in popular observance. The leaders of our Movement were confident that a new version of the Haggadah, which, like the Union Prayer Book itself, would be “at once modern in spirit and rich in traditional elements” would renew the compelling meanings of the Seder and inspire a revival of its celebration. This goal was indeed fulfilled, and what had been an “anxious” hope was rewarded with the eventual reality today, that the Passover Seder remains the most observed religious tradition among American Reform Jews.
3. What new traditions have been added to this edition? What did you want to keep the same, and what did you want to change, and why?
In the New Union Haggadah, we have attempted to preserve the literary beauty, the direct and accessible text, and the broad, universalistic spirit embodied in the 1923 version. We have rendered the majority of the English text in contemporary, inclusive, gender-neutral language, following the egalitarian values that have guided all of the CCAR’s liturgical developments over the past forty years. In the spirit of Classical Reform, this haggadah is conceived to be used as a forthrightly and primarily English language experience- with all of the major Hebrew texts included in transliteration, and accompanied by versions of the most popular holiday songs and hymns that may be sung in both languages.
We have introduced new elements in the text as well. These include traditional parts of the Haggadah that were consciously eliminated by the editors of the earlier versions. Our predecessors sought to remain true to the vigorously rational spirit of a liberal faith that rejected superstition and parochialism. The original Union Haggadah consequently omitted such well-known dimensions of the ritual as the triumphant enumeration of the Ten Plagues – considered a “vindictive act unworthy of enlightened minds and hearts.” While they provided for the tradition of welcoming of the Prophet Elijah, there was no particular ceremony attached to it – reflecting the ambivalence toward what may have been considered a remnant of ancient myth and fantasy. We have reinstated the recollection of the plagues, retaining the beautiful and moving interpretation originated by Rabbi Herbert Bronstein in the 1974 A Passover Haggadah. This brilliant and creative rendition links the recitation of the plagues to the symbolism of the ten drops of wine- the diminishing of our joy at our own redemption as we recall the sufferings of our oppressors. We have also been inspired by the concept of echoing the ancient plagues with those of our own time – also a feature of the Bronstein version –offered here in a new form that weaves the two together. Despite the rationalist objections, Elijah remained stubbornly ensconced in the hearts of most Reform Jews. For the ceremony of Opening of the Door for the Prophet, we have reclaimed a little-known supplement created by the Joint Committee on Ceremonies of the CCAR and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1942 – which brilliantly recasts this beloved tradition in the universalistic spirit of Reform Judaism, as an authentic question and answer dialogue between parent and child. In addition, we have incorporated more recent innovations that have broadened the embrace and symbolism of the Seder – the Cup of Miriam and the Orange on the Plate – with explanations that express the heightened awareness and contemporary sensibilities of these popular rituals, in a way that compliments the rest of the text.
4. Which aspects or traditions of the Passover seder are most meaningful to you? How are they expressed in the Union Haggadah?
Like so many of us, having grown up with the old Union Haggadah, its cadences and distinctive literary style echo in my consciousness as the quintessential sounds and images of Pesach. The unique phrases of its Magid narrative continue to express the Festival’s timeless, transforming message. Preserving and creatively renewing this tradition for a new generation is the essence of my work with the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, and has guided my efforts in this project. The Seder’s symbolic progression from remembrance to hope, from oppression to liberation to future redemption, all find profoundly clear and compelling expression for me in the Union Haggadah’s simplicity and flow.
Ultimately, what we “tell our children on this day” encompasses a rich and distinctive heritage that weaves together our identities and experiences as Jews, as Reform Jews, and as American Jews. The seamless integration of each of these strands of our tradition and faith remain the unique genius of Classical Reform Judaism and the guiding principle of The New Union Haggadah.
Rabbi Howard Berman A. Berman is Founding Rabbi of Central Reform Temple of Boston. He is also Rabbi Emeritus of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism.