In addition to his scholarly work on religious metaphors and biblical historical texts, Marc Brettler has devoted much of his career to making Jewish texts more accessible to lay readers, in books like How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford University Press, 2007) and his essays for My People’s Prayer Book (Jewish Lights, 2005). Gaining insight into Passover and making the seder more meaningful will be his topics when the Brandeis University professor gives a series of talks at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, Friday-Saturday, April 8-9.
Brettler, the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at the university in Waltham, Mass., gave an advance taste of the weekend discussions in an e-mail exchange with NJJN.
NJJN: What is the most misunderstood part of the Passover Haggadah?
Brettler: The middle section — after the Four Questions and before the meal — that contains the rabbinic material which develops the Exodus story as found in the biblical text. It is very beautiful, but very difficult to understand, especially in translation.
NJJN: If you could add or delete one ritual or passage in the Haggadah from most seders, what would it be?
Brettler: I would delete the paragraph “shfoch hamat’ha,” in which we ask God to pour out divine wrath upon the nations who do not worship God; this was added in the Middle Ages, as a reaction against the Crusades. I understand the historical reasons it became part of the Haggadah, but I wish it could be deleted, or at least downplayed significantly.
If I could also add a paragraph, I would add a tradition found in several places in rabbinic literature that Israel was liberated from Egypt because of the merit of righteous women.
NJJN: So much of the Haggadah includes references to other sources that many people cannot access. Do you think this is detrimental to the seder and is there a way to address this issue?
Brettler: Thankfully, there are many Haggadot published over the last few years that offer clear explanations of the text. My favorite, to which I also contributed, is My People’s Passover Haggadah, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow, published by Jewish Lights several years ago. It offers a wide variety of modern commentary from different perspectives, satisfying the interests of just about any reader. I also think that it is important to realize that most of the Haggadah is not etched in stone, and some parts may be skipped or expanded upon.
NJJN: Your talks at Beth El will focus on enhancing the seder experience. What do you think is the easiest way to make the seder more enjoyable?
Brettler: A good nap the afternoon before the seder is very helpful. It is very important to involve all participants, both adults and children. A week before one of the most fun seders I went to, everyone was asked to prepare something to say about any part of the Haggadah, and we all learned a great deal from each other.
Also, there are lots of fun websites and CDs (my favorite is 300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions) that can make the seder more fun. At a synagogue where I was teaching last week, I saw some wonderful seder art, made from matza and other seder items (haroset, vegetables used for dipping, bitter herbs) that can be a great way to keep some kids (and some adults) engaged.
NJJN: Is there any historical basis for the Exodus story? If not, what does that mean for the Passover seder?
Brettler: The word “any” is very vague, and it is very difficult to reconstruct the history of any event from over 3,000 years ago. Various pieces of evidence suggest that the Exodus did not happen as it is described in the Book of Exodus. For beginners, the idea that 600,000 adult males left Egypt is very difficult from a historical perspective.
Yet I fully enjoy all aspects of Passover. Judaism takes its stories very seriously and to me, it is not important exactly how they happened. Indeed in the Haggadah itself there are different traditions about aspects of the story. More significantly, the story of the Exodus is often adduced in the Bible as the reason we need to help those who are in need, and this remains a key meaning of Passover and the seder, where toward the beginning, in the “Halahma anya,” we invite anyone who is needy to join us.
In the context of 21st-century life, where we have invited guests a month in advance, we may see this as hyperbole, but it should not be seen as such.