Rational Haggadah happens to be an ultra-right politicization of Pesach

Ma'yan Haggadah kaft

Dennis Prager’s The Rational Passover Haggadah poses the liberal media are a greater threat to Western democracies than Russia

There are those who object to the politicization of Passover. In particular gestures made by many Jewish communities – certainly most non-Orthodox families and kehillot – towards justice issues traditionally associated with progressive politics, more specifically the marginalization of the disempowered and the disenfranchised.

But like it or not, adjusting the text of the seder to allow it to harmonize with contemporary or local sensibilities and ethics has always been the tradition. In the 1930s and 1940s haggadot forcefully and explicitly responded to fascism, and recent decades have seen haggadot inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement (Arthur Waskow’s 1965 Freedom Seder), the Gay Liberation Movement (The Stonewall Seder), and Third Wave Feminism (E.M. Broner and Naomi Nimrod’s 1994 Women’s Haggadah). Among the 3,000 extant versions are those for children, vegetarians, Holocaust survivors, Zionists, and communities with significant non-Jewish participation. In the past few years haggadot have even cropped up that reference the Palestinian conflict, recovering addicts, and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Dynamic evolution

Objections to the politicization of Pesach are, well, irrational. It is a political story, a narrative of national redemption and liberation, in which a dictator whose country’s apartheid economy, propped up by slavery, is defeated by a racial revolt led by a charismatic halfling. It is a tale that has always begged to be and always has been translated into contemporary terms. The haggadah is a text whose shape-shifting, dynamic evolution is not only the ironic secret to its longevity, but one authorized by Torah itself.

Few of us actually recline during the seder, but that appears to be among the most authentic features of the seder, and it derives not from any Jewish tradition but from Greco-Roman practice in which festivities were celebrated prone–and drunk. We are commanded in Torah (twice, actually, in Shemot 13:8 and 13:14-15) to remember the story of Passover and retell it (the word haggadah of course means “retelling”). But we are not told how to remember and retell, so every generation and community is not only authorized but compelled to do it their own way.

Early rabbinic period

Of course, the Biblical narrative is largely fixed, as are the other foundational materials (and their order and their domestic but festive setting), which date from the early rabbinic period and include the blessings over the four cups of wine, the four questions, and the ritual washing of hands. Other features, such as the singing of Dayenu and Ha-Gadya and the practice of illustrating and supplementing the text in the vernacular seem to date to the Middle Ages. The benefits and dangers of translating, borrowing, transforming, and appropriating may indeed be the very essence of the Passover story.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before political conservatives arrived to save us from the supposedly narrow – which is of course what mitzrayim means – imperatives of liberal thought.  But that’s not exactly what Dennis Prager’s Rational Passover Haggadah does. To be sure, Prager, the author of popular ‘rational’ commentaries on the books of Exodus and Genesis, and perhaps more importantly a famous if not notorious mainstay of the religious right in America, might be politically distasteful to some, but he does have the religious chops. 

The Billy Graham of the Jews

Born in 1948 into a Modern Orthodox home in Brooklyn, he attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush, where he met Richard Telushkin, who would of course go on to become Southern California’s celebrity rabbi and best-selling author (they’ve remained close and have written a number of books together). After studying at Brooklyn College and Columbia University, Prager was drawn in the late 1960s into the struggle of the Soviet Refuseniks, which was the inspiration for so many Jews turning to the right in the 1970s. It was also his initiation into activist Judaism, and in the decades that followed, when he began appearing on radio and television, in addition to authoring dozens of books, he earned the nickname The Billy Graham of the Jews because of his focus on ‘family values.’

It was no surprise to see him support Donald Trump in 2016, then suggesting that Climate Change was a hoax, then that COVID-19 was an exaggerated threat. What could we possibly learn about Pesach, or anything else, from such a figure, whose rigid world view and fear of growth and change increasingly appears to resemble that of Pharoah himself? 

Plain vanilla version of the text

Those who are hoping that The Rational Passover Haggadah will confirm their dislike of Prager’s politics will not be disappointed. It is a mostly rather straightford, plain vanilla version of the text – and it is, unfortunately, all text, without any illustrations that might make the seder more inviting for children. But Prager does smuggle in plenty of ideology that seems imported from a megachurch sermon. A discussion of the four cups of wine becomes a warning against secularism and hedonism. The distinction between man and woman is as fixed as that between God and man. The earth was made for man (would it have been so difficult to say ‘humankind’?), and science has become a false God. Racism is wrong only because it’s theologically unacceptable. There is no Judaism without the land of Israel. Then there’s his rather startling summoning of ’those in need’ (the hungry, the poor, and the lonely) without any sense that their needs have their origins in political decisions made by humans. Indeed, Prager’s discussion of slavery ends on a crescendo in which he celebrates America as “the freest country in the world.”  

Prey to ‘moral relativism’

Those who are hoping for a haggadah that de-emphasizes the theological elements of the Pesach story, some version of Edwin Mishkin’s 2010 Haggadah for the Nonobservant or Peter Schweitzer’s Liberated Haggadah (2006), will also be disappointed. Prager insists on God as the essence of Judaism and the God-centered life as both the means and the goal of Jewish existence. He fears that Christianity might not one day dominate the West, leaving us all prey to ‘moral relativism’.  Cleanliness could obviously explain the ritual washing of hands during the seder, but Prager insists that it is meant to signal the holiness of the meal. Sometimes, The Rational Passover Haggadah reads like something out of Orwell: Faith is reason, according to Prager, and it is irrational to believe that the world wasn’t created by some sort of intelligence.

Avoidance tactics

To end things here, with the advice to avoid this book, especially when there are so many other haggadot out there, seems contrary to the spirit of the holiday. Still, for all of those millions who consider Prager a wise son, there are millions more who consider him a wicked son for having claimed that ‘heterosexual AIDS’, whatever that is, ‘was manufactured by the Left’, and that the liberal media poses a greater threat to western democracies than Russia. More moderate minds might consider him a simple son, well-intentioned but politically naive.  Perhaps our best option is to consider him the son who doesn’t know how to ask the right questions. Tellingly, it’s the only son about which Prager has nothing to say.

Cover: The Ma’yan Passover Haggadah, The Journey Continues. The Jewish Women’s project of teh Jewish Community Center Upper West Side, NY, NY. Project director: Rabbi Joy Leviit and Cantor Nancy Abramson, first edition 1994, this one 2000.

Over Jonathan Gill 10 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

1 Comment

  1. Wow that was very, objective (sarcasm).
    I’ve read some of Prager’s stuff, like the rational bible and I find it informative and intelligent. You don’t have to agree to appreciate a different interpretation. I find it ironic that the author of this article is criticizing a book on the haggadah, for it’s position that an authentic Jewish life is God-centered.
    Mr Prager may have said some controversial things, but you could judge a book on its own merit.

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