Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Soloveitchik Seder

To date, three Haggadahs have been published that purport to be collections of insights of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Haggadah Si'ach Ha-Gerid by his grandson, R. Yitzchak Lichtenstein; Haggadah for Passover With Commentary Based on the Shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by R. Yosef Adler; and The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening: The Passover Haggadah: With a Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik edited by R. Menachem Genack. Each Haggadah is different and I'd like to discuss briefly their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Click here to read moreR. Lichtenstein's is mainly a collection of his grandfather's halakhic insights. It is written in rabbinic Hebrew with the traditional style of question/contradiction and then neat resolution. Interspersed throughout the halakhic discussions are occasional explanatory comments that offer insight into the meaning of phrases or the underlying theological intent of the Haggadah.

R. Adler's is a presentation of his notes from R. Soloveitchik's lectures. There is a certain lack of polish to the notes which I think is intentional, to make it clear that they are not R. Soloveitchik's words. There is a surprising amount of passages in the Haggadah that have no commentary, presumably because R. Adler had no notes on them. That makes for a relatively short book. Additionally, everything in this book is in R. Adler's words, so the language is not too formal but, on the other hand, they aren't the words of the master.

R. Genack's is approximately one-third direct quotes from R. Soloveitchik (with minor tweaking to transform the passage from an excerpt of an essay into a commentary), one-third original material from notes and one-third edited transcripts from taped lectures. R. Soloveitchik's command of language was magnificent and you can tell the difference between his own words and those of others, but only barely. The editorial work is, in my opinion, fairly solid. This is both good and bad. It means that the work is a respectable representation of R. Soloveitchik's teachings but it also means that everything is on a high level of English; you might need a dictionary to read through this work. The commentary is extensive and every page has multiple comments, representing the breadth of R. Soloveitchik's interests -- halakhic, theological and philosophical.

To get a flavor of these different works, let's look at a passage on which all three comment:

Rabban Gamliel used to say: Whoever does not discuss the following three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his duty, and these are: Pesach (the Passover sacrifice), Matzah (the unleavened bread) and Maror (the bitter herbs).

The Pesach sacrifice that our ancestors ate during the time of the Holy Temple, what is its explanation?...
R. Lichtenstein has four entries on this passage. In entry #50, he points out that the Rambam had a different order (Pesach, Maror and Matzah) and proceeds to explain that this difference is due to Maror being a mitzvah dependent on the Passover sacrifice. Since we no longer offer the sacrifice, the order has been changed. In entry #51, he discusses that the Mishnah does not ask "what is its meaning?" but merely gives an explanation. He explains that we must fulfill the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus in a question-and-answer format, which is why the Haggadah has a different style than the Mishnah. Entry #52 tells us that R. Moshe Soloveichik would have everyone lift the Matzah when they discussed it. In entry #53, he points out that the Haggadah and the Mishnah have different reasons for Matzah, and the Rambam seems to quote each in different places. He explains that the explanation in the Haggadah is really the equivalent to that in the Mishnah but adds more details of how the Exodus took place because of the context.

R. Adler has three comments on this passage. His first points out that the items -- Pesach, Matzah and Maror -- reflect three behaviors that are typical of freed slaves: 1) forgetting the past, 2) acquiring wealth, 3) becoming selfish. We eat these three items to counteract those three behaviors. His second comment distinguishes between the phrases "al shem mah" and "al shum mah", of which the latter is in the Haggadah. The former phrase is looking for a reason while the latter asks not for a reason but for its significance. We don't ask why God commanded us to do these things but what meaning we can find in them (see this post: link). The third comment states that Matzah has two aspects to it: before we eat, it represents poverty and slavery; after Hallel it represents freedom. The idea that a religious item can represent opposing concepts is unique to the Seder; Pesach is a mixture of themes. Abarbanel says this is the explanation of the introduction to the four questions, which is really a fifth question: why is this night different from all other nights? It is in this mixture of opposing ideas that we see the difference.

R. Genack has seven entries on this passage. The first points out that the Pesach, Matzah and Maror serve a double purpose -- eating them and using them to facilitate discussion of the Exodus. The second uses a Ramban to show that one who does not discuss Pesach, Matzah and Maror fulfills his mitzvah of eating them but, by failing to discuss them, does not fully meet his obligation. The third contrasts Tosafos' approach to the rule that an apostate may not eat a Pesach sacrifice with that of the Rambam's. According to the Rambam, as explained by R. Soloveitchik, it is because an apostate may take part in remembering the Exodus. The fourth discusses the order of the three items, as R. Lichtenstein's entry #50, although at greater length. The fifth connects the eating of the Pesach sacrifice with chesed, kindness to others, that is generally unique to free people as compared to slaves. The sixth distinguishes between the phrases "al shem mah" and "al shum mah", as in R. Adler's second comment above, but at greater length. And the seventh focuses on the phrase "and redeemed them", in the explanation for Matzah, and points out that genuine redemption always comes suddenly and unexpectedly, as happened in Egypt.

Overall, I found R. Genack's Haggadah to be a combination of the other two plus much new material. Some were taken from Toras Horav books like Festival of Freedom but, even still, I would probably not have connected them to the Haggadah without this new book. However, this new Haggadah does not entirely replace the other two, so die-hard fans should probably acquire all three.

(One slightly annoying thing about R. Genack's Haggadah is that it uses academic transliteration (e.g. "z" for צ and "h" for ח). Granted, that is what R. Soloveitchik authorized for Reflections of the Rav and Halakhic Man, and is what is used in all the Toras Horav books. But it isn't as comfortable as Modern Hebrew transliteration.)

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