The Passover Haggadah: Insights from Louis Finkelstein

louis-finkelstein_aLouis Finkelstein (1895 – 1991) taught at and eventually became the chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, the leading seminary of Conservative Judaism. He was a man of great influence and a shaper of Conservative Judaism in the twentieth century.

When I heard about a Haggadah from 1942 in which Finkelstein wrote an introduction, I had to get it even though it is a rare book and cost me $45 (Haggadah of Passover, trans. Maurice Samuel. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1942).

Though his introduction is short, it is apt and filled with insight beyond its size. I have already quoted him many times in posts here in the past week and a half. See for example my post on March 30, “The Rabbis of the Passover Haggadah.”

Today I would like to offer a little help to those who are about to lead or participate in the Seder on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The traditional Passover Haggadah is an intellectual challenge. The following elucidations are intended to motivate you to further reading and thinking (lots of posts on Messianic Jewish Musings for the past month will get you thinking and studying as well).

Moses, Left Out of the Haggadah?
The Haggadah is not a straight telling of the Passover and Exodus story. It is a series of playful, mysterious, and deceptively profound musings on the stories of Passover in Torah and in later Judaism. Perhaps the greatest surprise is the virtual omission of Moses from the Haggadah. Finkelstein explains:

It is characteristic of Moses and of the Jewish tradition that the Passover celebration, of which he is, under God, the central figure, virtually ignores him. In the fascinating Seder ceremony, rabbis are quoted, legends and parables unfolded, interpretations of the event elaborated; Moses alone is mute. It would be absurd to suspect the writers of the Haggadah of trying to “suppress.” Actually their evasion of his name was a subtle tribute to his greatness — and an echo of his most characteristic virtue. He appears only incidentally and in one quoted verse.

But something more was meant. Moses was of those spiritual dimensions which in other traditions have invited worship. The Haggadah passes him over in order to refer to the Primal Source of all human greatness. Moses is forgotten in order than his teachings may be remembered.

On God as the Sole Savior in the Haggadah
We have already commented on the unusual passage in the Haggadah which says it was God alone, and no angel, that brought Israel out of Egypt. Biblicist Marc Brettler, as we noted, felt this was an example of the rabbis preferring one of the sources behind the Torah over another and choosing the verses which name God as the cause of death in the last plague instead of the Destroying Angel. We rejected that idea in favor of a historical consideration by Lawrence Hoffman that the real issue is combatting a charge Christianity leveled against Judaism — as Origen of Alexandria charged that Judaism was inferior to Christianity since it required second-hand mediators while Christianity had God in the flesh.

We should rightly reject an uncharitable Christian critique of Judaism. Christ is not exalted by denigrating God’s Torah or demeaning Moses.

Finkelstein comments on the theme of God as the sole savior in the Haggadah:

The whole of the Passover Haggadah is pervaded by this motif of God as man’s sole savior and hope. It begins appropriately with a slightly altered form of the verse in Deut. 6:21, stating that “we were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us forth from there, with a strong hand and a mighty arm.” It proceeds to describe the manner of Israel’s descent into Egypt, as part of the Divine plan for the dedication of Israel to him, as bearers of his teaching. It culminates in a blessing to God for having redeemed Israel from bondage, and a prayer that he might bring about the final restoration of his temple in Jerusalem, as a source of joy and inspiration, to us, and to all mankind.

On the Haggadah as a Lesson
We have noted again and again that the Haggadah is designed to be intriguing. It is not a simple telling of a story. Finkelstein says it well:

Because Jewish tradition holds that God must be worshiped not only through Jewish prayer, but in an equal degree through study and learning, the Passover celebration is arranged primarily as a lesson, in which are mingled Jewish history, literature, and religion. Regarded as a means of instruction, it is the oldest, and — judging objectively from results — probably the most effective pedagogic instrument ever devised.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Holidays, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Passover. Bookmark the permalink.

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