The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life, by Mark Gerson (St. Martin’s Essentials, 352 pages, $29.99)
The seder has become America’s most beloved Jewish ritual. Sedarim, or “seders,” as the term is typically pluralized in English, have spread far beyond their roots. Among Christians eager to explore the Judaic roots of their faith, the seder, the ritual meal that many believe to be what Jesus hosted as his Last Supper, has assumed expanded significance. Spiritual Americans with weak or even no adherence to an organized religion now conduct seders to express gratitude or extol freedom (themes extracted easily from the Haggadah, the text on which the ritual is based), as well as to advocate peace or environmentalism (themes whose connections to the original are far more tenuous).
That some traditionalists decry this cooptation of a quintessential Jewish ritual is hardly surprising. The conflict between universalism and particularism is one of the defining features of our time, playing a central role in America’s polarized politics. Western Jews have been fighting that battle at least since the start of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment, roughly 250 years ago.
American Jews in particular have long stood on opposing sides of a deep chasm. One side defines Judaism in terms of fidelity to Jewish particulars: Torah, halacha (Jewish law), Talmudic education, and Jewish tradition. The other sees Judaism as an abstract set of values oriented toward making the world a better place, or tikkun olam.
This rift manifests itself in many clear ways, from family size to community structure to politics. When it comes to Jewish texts, however, the distinction is subtler — and therefore potentially far more interesting.
Walk into any room designated for Jewish prayer service, from a Chasidic shtibl to a high-Reform temple, and you can count on finding (at least) two texts: a siddur (prayer book) and a Torah scroll. It is worth contemplating how we treat these two ubiquitous texts. The siddurim will vary. Traditional siddurim maintain a common core, although those deriving from different parts of the world are noticeably distinct. Conservative, Reform, and other liberal Jewish denominations take those distinctions even further. They appoint periodic committees to revise the liturgy in line with changing beliefs about society and theology.
Torah scrolls, on the other hand, remain unchanged and identical to one another. No Jewish denomination has (yet) edited the Torah. Rabbis and congregations far prouder to display the LGBT rainbow flag than the flags of either the United States or Israel still house Torahs declaring homosexuality an abomination. It seems that even to these universalistic, tikkun olam Jews, there are still texts so sacred that to edit them would be inconceivable. (Although current trends suggest that this attitude may not persist, it remains noteworthy that it has lasted this long).
That sharp distinction between the siddur and the Torah reflects a shared belief that some texts are open to editing and updating and that others must remain untouched. Which other Jewish texts belong to which category?
In The Telling, Mark Gerson places the Passover Haggadah squarely in the “fixed” category. He notes — correctly, to the best of my knowledge — that there is only one Haggadah. Yes, there are alternative guidebooks and source materials for hosts who turn to the original only for inspiration, but those are not true Haggadahs. Unlike the siddur, or even the laws of Pesach, the Haggadah knows neither regional variations nor committee updates.
Furthermore, as Gerson explains at length, the Haggadah is an emphatically Jewish text. Its central story, divinely mandated, is the foundational story of the Jewish nation, the Exodus from Egypt. In the Haggadah, the chosen mechanism for telling that story is Jewish metaphor and history, grounded in Talmudic anecdotes and the accompanying deliberations of rabbis and sages. It’s hard to think of a clearer expression of Jewish particularism.
Yet Gerson uses that uniquely Jewish source text to explain, in the words of his subtitle, “how Judaism’s essential book reveals the meaning of life.” Needless to say, curiosity about the meaning of life is hardly restricted to Jews. In fact, it’s hard to think of a clearer expression of Jewish universalism.
In his book about a book, Gerson weaves these strands together masterfully. He works his way through the Haggadah, showing the uniquely Jewish roots of some deeply universal messages. He brings life and relevance to seemingly arcane passages, providing insights capable of enlightening and enlivening any seder — from the deeply traditional to the generically spiritual and political. In so doing, he also provides a narrow bridge across the chasm, a ray of hope to those of us who believe that there is no need more pressing for Judaism, American society, or the world at large than a reconciliation of our particular and our universal tendencies.
The Telling, like the Haggadah itself, is an invitation. The Haggadah proclaims: Let any who are hungry come in and eat! Let any who are needy come in and make Pesach! In The Telling, Gerson implies: Let any who hunger for meaning come find it in Pesach. It’s an invitation well worth accepting.