Review by Israel Drazin
Festival of Freedom
Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah
By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Ktav Publishing House, 2006, 206 pages
This is the sixth of so-far eleven posthumous writings assembled, edited, and published by The Toras Horav Foundation based on writings the famed Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) did not publish. This volume contains ten essays on subjects such as the Passover Seder, slavery, freedom, matzah, Moses, the plague of the first born, and the biblical requirement to count the omer. The essays were collected from manuscripts and speeches written and delivered by the rabbi. They do not attempt to reveal the plain meaning of the Passover holiday and the various practices associated with it, but are homiletics, sermons that express the rabbi’s view about the Jewish approach to eating, Torah study, peoplehood, and Judaism generally.
Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that humans, animals, and vegetation eat, but: “Man must not respond to hunger in the same manner as the beast or the brute in the field.” Humans must transform “primitive automatism into dignified activism” (1) be selective in what they eat, (2) realize that “eating serves a higher purpose,” making it possible to recognize God’s gifts and giving people strength to do the divine will, (3) eat with others and realize that people must share with others and show them respect, and (4) use the meal as an opportunity to learn.
He writes that God has no need or desire for sacrifices. “God did not need the pascal lamb; He had no interest in the sacrifice. He simply wanted the people” to stop “insane self-centeredness,” eat together, and learn to be with and work with others with a sense of “solidarity and sympathy.” This involvement with others is why the Passover eve Seder meal begins with Jews reciting “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” The learning aspect of the meal explains why the ancient sages “demanded that Torah be taught at every meal.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that one reason for the Jewish custom to eat at the Passover evening Seder meal leaning on the left side is that, contrary to standing or sitting at attention, leaning symbolizes being at ease, relaxing, and freedom. It is “indicative of disobedience, of a courageous stand, of refusing to take orders, of rejecting the authority of man,” and submitting ourselves to God, and working to improve ourselves and society. Yet it is not enough to feel and act free. Nor is it enough simply to recite the Haggadah at the Seder. People are obligated to act, to improve. The Torah “way of thinking and valuing manifests itself in action.”
The term “Seder” means “order” and denotes organization and structure. The term does not appear in the Talmud, which was edited around 600-700 CE. It highlights, as Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, that the Seder meal was purposely and carefully organized to teach many lessons. The “Haggadah” is the book that Jewish families use during the Seder meal. It is filled with readings, songs, and practices that encourage participation and learning.
Rabbi Soloveitchik sites Chassidic teachings and the thirteenth century mystical book Zohar frequently. He stresses his view that Jews need to have blind faith and they must sacrifice themselves and surrender totally to God. Thus he writes: “Matzah (the unleavened bread) is also called ‘the food of faith’ in the Zohar, for faith too is a matter of nullification (just as matzah doesn’t contain leaven, so) one nullifies his intellect and does not seek reasons, but rather believes the truth with pure faith.” Isaac’s willingness to allow his father Abraham to sacrifice him in Genesis 22 is the paradigm of Judaism for Rabbi Soloveitchik.
Although focusing for the most part on the Jewish Passover, Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasizes that “God loves all His children, Jew and gentile alike.” All humans have “a common image – the image of God in which we are all created. Black, red, yellow, white – it doesn’t matter…. Every human being is a child of God.” All people should have freedom and seek improvement, which are the messages of Passover.