Questioning the Haggadah

Questioning the Haggadah

‘Seder Interrupted’ provides new resources post-October 7

Anna Abramzon, “We Will Dance Again”
Anna Abramzon, “We Will Dance Again”

Is it possible that one of the reasons that we Jews have survived for so long is that we ask so many questions?

The Haggadah famously is full of questions; the youngest child who is able asks the Four Questions, each of the four sons has a question, and other questions are sprinkled throughout the evening.

On a deeper level, the Haggadah poses questions to us throughout the seder: What is freedom? How do we become free? How much do we need? When do we wander and when do we stop? What is enough and when is it too much?

Because both we, the Jewish people, and the Haggadah are so old, the text has accompanied us through radically different times and places. It must have sounded very different to North Americans around the turn of the last century, through World War I, during the Great Depression, through World War II and the Holocaust, then during the golden age for Jews that lasted until the end of the century, followed by September 11 and its aftermath, and now, terribly, October 7.

The world around us had been changing before October 7, but the brutal slaughter of that day and the unleashed antisemitism from the left that worked a pincer attack with the antisemitism from the right that had slithered up from the sewers during the last eight years have left an indelible mark on our world.

Pesach is coming. How do we combine our new reality with that millennia-old one?

There are probably as many ways to adjust to our new reality as there are seders, but Dr. Ora Horn Prouser of Franklin Lakes, the CEO and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, and Rabbi Menachem Creditor, the scholar in residence at UJA-Federation of New York, have compiled and edited a supplement to the Haggadah that provides post-October 7 insights, suggestions, poetry, and even focused anger in response to specific sections of the Haggadah.

The new book, “Seder Interrupted: A Post October 7 Haggadah Supplement,” is available in hard copy on Amazon and online, ready to be printed out, on AJR’s website, It’s free. The school also is offering a webinar to present the supplement and help start a discussion on some of its larger themes. It’s set for Wednesday, March 27, at 1 p.m.

The supplement was created quickly, to meet a need whose importance became evident. “It started with a student expressing concern about how to think about Pesach,” Dr. Prouser said. “Everyone feels a need to think through these holiday observances in this very difficult time. That’s what got us started. And then we, at AJR, decided that this is something that we can do to help.

“We’re all trying to figure out what we can do to make a difference.

“So we put out a call for material.” It was answered quickly, and the book — short essays, poems, and some artwork — was put together in about two weeks. “The contributors are not all from AJR,” Dr. Prouser said. “Some of them are students, alumni, and faculty at AJR, but others are clergy, poets, and thinking people from all over, who are not connected with AJR.

“We’re all struggling with how to talk about freedom this year, when the Jewish community is struggling with the knowledge that the hostages, who are in our thoughts and prayers, are not free.

“What does it mean to think about freedom?” Dr. Prouser asked. “Freedom from what? What does it mean to sing or chant or read the Vehi Sheamda — ‘This is what stood by our ancestors and us to save us’ — where it says ‘in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And The Holy One, who is blessed, rescues us from their hands.’

Lisa Link, “Next Year in Jerusalem”

“How do we read that this year? What does Dayenu mean this year? How do we think about Shefoch Chamatcha?” (That’s when we ask God to “Pour out your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments that do not call upon Your Name.” That’s the section that we say loudly as we open the door from the house to the outside world; it’s been difficult for many people to say, infused as it is with a desire for vengeance. Has that changed?

“Do we feel that every person is entitled — I might almost say every person has the responsibility — to think this through themselves?” Dr. Prouser continued. “There is not a unified view on these questions.”

The supplement’s answers are diverse. “There is a combination of voices in it,” she said. That fits with AJR’s pluralism. We believe that we grow from our diversity, and we cherish different views.”

Local rabbis are well represented in the book.

Rabbi David Greenstein, who recently retired from Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, wrote about the concept of “Ilu” — a word he defines as meaning both “if” and “if only” — as he lays out the urgency of responding properly to the “unique demands of our own time, a time of incomparable crisis.” We can and must do it right, he stressed; if we don’t — if we don’t see the humanity in ourselves and in our foes — and “had we been in Egypt with that mindset – we would not have been redeemed.”

Rabbi Eliezer Diamond of Teaneck, who teaches Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes about the tragedies of Jewish history, and questions why God has to set up horrors in order to rescue the people of Israel from them. He understands, he writes, why some Jews decide that the deal is not a good one. But “to be part of the Jewish people is to learn to keep the faith even in the worst moments, not just for one’s own sake but for the sake of the people of Israel.”

Dr. Prouser’s husband, Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, has turned the four sons into the “Four Sins.” It’s a textually based and angry piece.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Teaneck writes about the hope inherent in “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Rabbi Anat Katzir of Tenafly is the education director of Kol Dorot in Oradell; her piece, in the Maror section, is called “Being an Egyptian.”

She’s an Israeli who, like her husband, has lived in the United States for 12 years; their children have grown up in America, so all of them experience life as hyphenates, although their perspectives vary. That underlies her essay.

“For me, being Israeli and living here, I have split brain now,” Rabbi Katzir said. “Right now, everything I do, whether it’s about Jewish holidays or work or school or teaching Torah, or anything that’s day-to-day life, I always do with an echo of what is going on in Israel. With the war. With the narratives that I grew up with in Israel, that exist in the Middle East. This plays very strongly into the conversation for me because it’s a Middle Eastern conversation. Passover plays very strongly into that conversation for me; it’s a narrative with good guys and bad guys, in a way that is mythological and also a Jewish and an Israeli narrative.”

Her children identify as Israeli, Rabbi Katzir said, but what does that mean? “They’ve grown up in Tenafly. They’re not living an Israeli life, but they are living a liberal Jewish life.”

Those complicated identities, and the uncomplicated labels that we give to figures in the narrative, where “every word has a loaded context and subcontext,” led her to thinking about the plagues, and their effect on the people who suffered them.

“It’s about the Egyptians who are not leaders, who had no hand in the suffering of the people of Israel, but suffered from the plagues anyway,” she said.

“I mean the simple Egyptians, that worked in the field,” she wrote. “Whose crops were eaten by locusts, whose livestock died from disease. They sat there scratching their heads, perhaps from lice, perhaps because they couldn’t understand why all these horrible things were happening to them.

“What must have been their pain as they held their eldest children in their arms in that final plague…”?

More questions.

“What is the food of the voiceless, caught up in someone else’s war?”

But she has an answer.

“Maybe brussels sprouts,” she answers her own question. “Bitter, but if given time, and cared for properly, can become something good. Or maybe because sprouts have hope.”

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg leads the United Synagogue of Hoboken; he’s also AJR’s interim rabbi in residence.

“There’s a long tradition of seeing important events in the world and in the experience of the Jewish people through the lens of the Pesach seder,” he said. “Shortly after October 7, we started to see memes and Facebook posts that said things like each one of us has the responsibility to see ourselves as if we personally had been in Kibbutz Be’eri or Kfar Aza. Or that each of us has the responsibility to think of ourselves as parents of hostages. The Haggadah becomes a kind of lens that we use to view our current experiences and dilemmas, and also to help us put our experiences in continuity with the experiences of our ancestors.”

He chose to write about Chad Gadya, the merry-sounding little ditty that’s actually a horrifying list of animals, generally inanimate objects, and then supernatural beings inflicting unlikely deaths on each other, beginning with the poor little goat — the chad gadya — improbably eaten by a cat, and it goes all the way up to the Holy One who slays the Angel of Death. This song, often thought of as a treat for children at the end of a long seder, includes such words as “slaughter,” “butcher,” “burned,” “beat,” and “killed.”

Rabbi Scheinberg talked about an interpretation of Chad Gadya from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the great Israeli teacher, thinker, and talmudic translator who died in 2020. “He said that children might be inclined to think of Chad Gadya as a story of vengeance.” It’s a binary idea; if we assume that the kid was innocent, then the cat that ate it had to be evil, and so the dog that bit the cat had to be good. Because of the way the back-and-forth works, though, if it just goes from evil to good to evil, the final player in this game, God, must be evil. But that doesn’t work.”

So what does this mean?

Rabbi Steinsaltz suggested that it means that Chad Gadya is not about vengeance, Rabbi Scheinberg said, and he agrees. But, as he writes in “Seder Interrupted,” that idea has become deeply ingrained in Jewish thought. “Chad Gadya is fated to continue until someone breaks the cycle,” he wrote. He mentions some Israeli poets — Yehuda Amichai, Chava Alberstein, Levin Kipnis — who have written about ways to escape it.

“Somehow, we’ll have to learn to turn the page from Chad Gadya-style violence, even though the Haggadah’s next page is blank,” he concluded. “We’ll have to write it together.”

To download “Seder Interrupted” go to; go to that same link to register for the free webinar on Wednesday, March 27, at 1 in the afternoon.

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