Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger's April 1, 1898 column
Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger's April 1, 1898 column

In 1898, this newspaper declared the haggadah ‘literary nonsense’

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On April 1, 1898, Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, editor of this publication, then called The Emanu-El, began his column with a hearty “Good Jomtof, everybody.”

It was April 1, and Passover was approaching. Voorsanger, a Reform rabbi in a reform-minded age, had some thoughts about the haggadah to share with his city.

“We are, and have been, an ardent believer in the Seder service, modified to meet the demands of the times,” he wrote. “We feel the need of eliminating much of the literary nonsense of the Hag’gadah, but the new order that shall vivify the service for American Israel has not yet been found. Meanwhile, let us do the best we can.”

In the 124 years since, there have been quite a few attempts to “vivify” the ancient ritual text. Voorsanger was likely familiar with the first versions from the 9th and 10th centuries, but he probably didn’t anticipate a cannabis haggadah, a Buddhist haggadah or even a Soviet version. Today, J.’s digital editor, David A.M. Wilensky, does an annual roundup of new and interesting haggadahs; this year’s had superheroes and a reprint of the Israeli Black Panthers’ haggadah from 1971, among others.

But even without the more outré renditions, the boundaries of tradition made for a hot topic in the pages of The Emanu-El. It was really just another iteration of the question that preoccupied the paper, no matter what the subject: how to be an American Jew. Just what was that new creature? If only they could figure that out, it would be easier to decide how to celebrate Passover.

They were trying to make it work. In 1905, the paper carried news of a decision by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the national association of Reform religious leadership, to adopt a Union Haggadah.

“It is a decided improvement on any work we have heretofore examined,” the paper said in a review of an advance copy. “Its principal features are a careful excision of uninteresting facts and an elimination of all doctrinal allusions no longer held by the body of American Jews. We should say that the new Haggadah is decidedly anti-Zionistic, hence will be assailed by the other camp.”

When this text, freed from uninteresting facts, finally came to the public’s attention two years later, it was advertised in The Emanu-El as well.

“It contains the quaint form and traditional sentiment of the ancient seder service in modern setting. It aims to supply the demand of those to whom the old form of the Haggadah no longer appeals,” the ad copy said. (It ran, incidentally, next to an advertisement for pipe organs for “churches — lodge rooms — schools — secret societies.”)

Mrs. Philip Cowen’s haggadah was also advertised regularly in the paper at that time, promoting in a rather low-key way a simpler kind of seder: “An abridgment of the service indicated for those wanting a modernized version.”

In 1923 the paper again reviewed the Union Haggadah, this time the third edition. Apparently unaware of the rule that one should never judge a book by its cover, the editors first reviewed the binding before going on to the meat of the matter: the need for a modern version of the ritual.

“Many preferred to use the old Haggadah, omitting such passages as they felt to be inappropriate or infelicitous. Many used the book as a whole, reconciling themselves to its inadequacies from the modern point of view by the perennial charm of its quaint and picturesque appeal. Such romanticism is highly commendable; but it has its obvious dangers and limitations.”

Those dangers were the inevitable conflict between modern values and the traditions of the past. But rational clarity and contemporary thought aside, there was still something to be said for the emotional side of Passover and the ancient story enshrined in the haggadah. In 1938, the cantor of Temple Emanu-El, Reuben Rinder, had this to say about the “lilting songs of Passover”:

“There is-not a Jew so devoid of emotion that he can sit at a Passover Seder without perceiving in this observance a summons to carry on the battle for freedom begun so gloriously in Egypt thirty-two centuries ago,” he wrote. He continued: “The singing of the Seder songs remains one of the pleasantest recollections in the lives of even those who in later years separate themselves from the Jewish community.”

And even in 1898, Voorsanger, while a modern man, did hold the seder close to his heart for its age-old story of the value of freedom.

“It leaves room, setting aside its dear, loveable, old-fashioned, domestic spirit, for the inculcation of the lessons of human liberty and for the resuscitation of the genius that enfolds Israel in every generation,” he wrote.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.