04 April 2010

Omer 5: The Matzah Fast

Omer Day Five

The consumption of matzah is a fast, not unlike Yom Kippur. It helps to view it that way. When we view it as a celebration of or commemoration of our having been freed from Egypt, we run the risk of depriving it of its power to shape the particular Jewish worldview of nationalism.

Yesterday, David suggested in his comment that the Passover story is too 'hubristic' for his liking and that at next year's seder, he's going to 'take apart' the story. That's exactly the point of the haggadah, some of which is written under the yoke of Roman rule. As the text itself develops in an ever-widening circle of Jewish diasporas, the hubris of the straight reading (we won, they lost) is meant to give way to the philosophical introspection about the nature and value of freedom, nationalism, and their incumbent responsibilities. Adding to this complicated mix is the historical reality that Jewish communities for the following two thousand years lived under a variety of forms of government, making the engagement between the Passover story and the host cultures of Jewish communities even more interesting.

Over on Facebook, Professor Allan Nadler added in his two kopeks on Bontshe the Silent, and his reading of the story as "a damning caricature of the minimal expectations of the politically passive and oppressed Jews of Peretz's time and place. The second time around, (he) read Bontshe not as 'peshat' but as a 'midrashic' nationalist parody, very much in the spirit of the Zionist critique of the Galut mentality."

Internal self-critique and questioning is essential to the experience of Jewish reading; how much more so is it essential to our reading of and understanding of the haggadah?

What did it mean to contemplate our freedom under ancient Roman rule? In early medieval Babylonia? During the Crusades? In revolutionary France and America and Russia? In the Warsaw ghetto? Or today, in Israel with an army and nuclear weapons and an irredentist Palestinian movement? And then of course, there is America, an ongoing experiment in democracy in its own right and the most open and friendly diaspora host culture the Jews have ever known.

This is to say that there are no easy answers to what it has meant, what it means, and what it may mean to future generations. That is, after all, the origin of the word "haggadah"--to tell. "You shall tell it (the story of the Exodus) to your son (children)." How we talk about it is the matter at hand.

Back to the matzah. In the Biblical text, we seem to eat it because it was consumed during a springtime ritual in ancient days; and, in order to remember that the Israelites left Egypt in haste. But the Sages spiritualize its consumption and turn the ritual into a fast from leaven, which they understand to be the physical representation of the desire to do evil. Rabbi Yerucham of Mir argued that even the candlelight search for leavened goods in one's home on the evening before Passover begins is nothing less than a descent into the darkest corners and recesses of a person's soul, with the candle serving as the only expression of light and goodness in an otherwise dark and forbidden place.

In an article in today's Times about the impending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens,
one of quotes immediately comes to mind. Speaking of the fact that he is the only sitting Justice now to have served our nation in the Second World War, Justice Stevens said, "It really was a unique period of time, in the sense that the total country, with very few exceptions, was really united. We were all on the same team, wanting the same result. You don’t like to think of war as having anything good about it, but it is something that was a positive experience.”

Collective narratives can be unifying both for the shared experience as well as the shared ethic of critiquing that experience. My parents always reflected back to me their pride in having passed the Great Depression and the war years with having learned to live with less. It's no different with the fast from leaven--matzah--at Passover time.

1 comment:

DPGreenberg said...

You see what rabbis do? You try to attack religion and they agree with you. It's not a fair way to fight, although there may be a lesson in it for the Catholic Church.

Actually, I may not have been clear enough. I was really more intent on attacking the collective Jewish People than going after the haggadah per se. As Jimmy Breslin used to write about the Irish every St. Patrick's Day, the Jews have forgotten who they are. In retelling the Passover story absent a critical eye we, indeed, forget the point of the story and who we have been throughout real history, which is more important than the ritual history of the Torah.

So I'm glad to learn that I stand with the sages in threatening to hold a "bizzarro" seder next year. If the ritual really lies in experiencing the story as a forum, it will be a much more comfortable fit.