Sermon: First Day Pesach

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 26 April 2016

25 versions were published in the 16th Century; 37 in the 17th; 1269 in the 19th. Between 1900 and 1960 over 1000 new versions of the Haggadah were published – though ‘new’ isn’t quite the right word because most still had the traditional text. What made them ‘new,’ then, was how they are like a screen on which are projected the Jewish concerns and experience of their time.

Not surprisingly, by the late 1940s, some haggadot equated Egyptian slavery with Nazi servitude; Israeli haggadot from the 1950s reflected newly-won independence; in the 1970s haggadot appeared out of the Jewish Women’s movement; the anti-Apartheid and Civil Rights struggles; Soviet Jewry was a constant in haggadot throughout the 70s and 80s; ‘green’ haggadot reflect the environmental crisis. And over the past 25 years, The Israeli-Arab conflict has been a constant theme in haggadot and one produced this year would surely refer to the refugee crisis

Haggadot are, truly, documents of Jewish social and religious history. The text might have remained more or less the same, but the commentary gives us a sense of the issues which pre-occupied the Jewish world at that time. Chameleon-like, the Haggadah has metamorphosed into new editions reflecting contemporary concerns.

We forget how unusual it is for a book, used just for a few hours once a year, to have appeared in so many editions and to show no sign of ceasing to do so. Since the first printed ones appeared in the 1480s, it’s estimated that there have been more than 4000 different versions.

But newness is also evident in another unique dimension of the haggadah. We have a whole range of books for religious purposes: books with orders of prayer for this or that time of the day, of the week or of the year. Jewish learning is done through reading texts in books. But none of them are illustrated, let alone as lavishly so, as the Haggadah.

Sometimes they simply embellish and beautify the text. Sometimes they serve a pedagogic function, to capture the attention of children at the Seder. How many of us grew up with the Children’s Haggadah, with its pull-out tabs? Pictures are a midrash, a commentary on the text and tell us something of what Jews understood by what was being depicted.

This is particularly clear in the illustrations for one of the oldest parts of the Haggadah: the arba’ah banim, the so-called ‘Four Children’ – the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask. The four are actually ageless, even if many perceive them as young children. Indeed it’s only been in recent times that they have actually been depicted as children.

The four are really types, stereotypes, of four sorts of person to be found at most seder tables. Each asks a question, which shows a particular level of involvement, ability and attitude to what is going on. The illustrations of the four attempt to bring that out, to express how ‘interest’ and ’involvement’ were understood in their time, in their place.

Predictably, the chacham, the ‘wise’ one, has been portrayed as the scholar, the learned one surrounded by books; the tam, usually translated as ‘the simple one,’ is unfortunately usually shown as somebody a bit simple-minded. Now while tam does, indeed, mean ‘simple,’ it’s in the sense of somebody who is straightforward, without guile, WYSIWYG ‘what you see is what you get.’ So the tam asks a straightforward question but not one that suggests being a sandwich short of a picnic. And the she-eyno yodea lishol, ‘the one who does not know how to ask’ is often shown as a young child

Most fascinating, for me, is how the wicked one has been depicted because of the insight it gives us into how Judaism has understood wickedness over the years. (A sheet had been distributed with various illustrations of the Wicked Son in haggadot which Rabbi Eimer explained)

  1. 1695 Amsterdam – the wicked one shown as a soldier. This reflects a very old tradition, already even before printed haggadot. In the Middle Ages, soldiers were primarily mercenaries, fighting for whoever paid their salary. Killing for a living went so much against the Jewish grain that being a soldier was seen as the epitome of wickedness.
  2. That tradition lasted through into the 20th century so that in 1924, the German artist, Jakob Steinhardt, could still portray the wicked one as a soldier, this time with the helmet of a WWI German soldier.
  3. In an 1879 Haggadah from Chicago, we see a family seder. The wicked one is on the right: dressed in contemporary clothes, rocking on his chair, smoking a cigarette which he holds in a disdainful gesture. His entire body language mocks what is going on.
  4. Or this one, by an artist called Lola, from the USA 1920, portrays the wicked one as a boxer – not as bad as the mercenary, perhaps, but still: earning your living by inflicting more damage on somebody than they can on you?….. what sort of job is that for a Jewish boy?!
  5. Another of my favourites, this from 1928 by Otto Geismar, a German illustrator. All the figures in his Haggadah are minimalist stick figures like this but so expressive. Marvellous body language as the wicked one cocks a snook, thumbs his nose, at the proceedings.
  6. 1939 Artur Szyk – a Polish illustrator who came to England and worked in the Ministry of Information. Some of you might know the lavishly illustrated Declaration of Independence he did for Israel. Here the wicked one, top left, is in riding breeches, hacking jacket and boots with spurs, a horsewhip tucked under his arm. A cigar firmly in his mouth, he sports a monocle, a natty Tyrolean hat and stands legs akimbo, arrogant, cocksure, master of all he surveys. In short, the complete country squire and gentleman. Szyk equates wickedness with assimilation – the man who has left Judaism far behind because it is an unwelcome encumbrance to advancement in society.
  7. Israeli haggadot have a problem. In the Diaspora, we can always say “’wicked’ is what ‘they’ do – but not ‘us.’” Given that you’ve got every sort of Jewish criminal in Israel, how do you depict the wicked one? In Israeli society it clearly can’t be as a soldier. As an assimilated Jew? But how do you portray assimilatedness today? Not by the way we dress. So a 1952 haggadah from Tel Aviv shows the wicked one as a sort of Bill Sykes type from ‘Oliver Twist’: a big brute of a man, with a vicious dog. He holds an open handbag – presumably one he’s stolen. He’s a mugger, a petty thief.
  8. An American Haggadah from 1959 (Sigmund Forst) shows the wicked one as a profligate fellow, smoking a cigar, a smug look on his face as he holds a newspaper showing the sections he’s interested in: racing, gambling, sport, comics. A pretty vacuous empty, hedonistic life.
  9. Finally on this whirlwind tour through 400 years of Haggadah illustrations, the ones from the 2013 Reform Haggadah. The illustrations are all papercuts by Suzy Taylor. The wicked one, translated here as the ‘cynical one’ with a sort of disdainful “what’s all this rubbish in this Haggadah about, anyway.”

Is there some thread running through these pictures telling us how ‘wickedness’ has been viewed? Maybe it comes back to the response to the wicked son’s question?

For there is a problem with it. The wise and the wicked one actually ask the same question: “what does this Seder mean to you?” But to bring out the difference, the translation plays a bit fast and loose with the Hebrew, mistranslating the question of the wise one as “what does this Seder mean to us?” – meaning “I’m counting myself in” – but leaving giving a correct translation when the wicked one asks, “what does this Seder mean to you?” All of which enables the Haggadah to respond to the wicked one by saying “you’re excluding yourself from all of this.”

So the Haggadah does not, interestingly perhaps, define ‘wicked’ on some moral scale – ‘wicked’ as the opposite of ‘good’ – but as an existential act of separation from the community.

Nor should we be too hard on the wicked one. After all, they are still there at the seder table – reluctantly, maybe, watching what’s going on in a detached way, not feeling part of it, yet there all the same. Because maybe in our time, the Haggadah should include a fifth type: the person who is not even there.

Behind the question of the wicked one lies the anguish of many modern Jews who seek to find meaning for themselves in the Jewish tradition but cannot quite find the way in. Maybe not a fifth type, maybe not even the ‘wicked’ one, but a new way of understanding “the one who doesn’t know how to ask”: they can’t even find the right words to formulate how they are feeling about their Jewish identity.

Most of the more modern illustrations seem to equate wickedness with assimilation. Yet would we consider assimilation, in and of itself, to be some form of wickedness? I’m not sure we would. We believe that it is absolutely appropriate to live in the midst of the world, not sequestered away from it, with very little contact with non-Jewish life or culture.

Maybe Artur Szyk, depicts the wicked one as landed gentry not because of the clothing and other trappings per se, but because of the attitude that lies behind it. For it’s the Jew who wants to be like others, not in a positive sense because they want to play a full part in society, but because they don’t want to appear different and so play down their Jewishness.

If I had to choose a contemporary image for the wicked one I might choose indifference, though I have no idea how to depict that – perhaps somebody with no facial features at all, a blank. We can deal with somebody who feels negatively towards their Judaism. For even negativity suggests the presence of strong emotions. But somebody who is indifferent to their Judaism seems to be far more of a danger – and in that sense ‘wicked’ – to the continuity of Judaism and Jewish life than somebody who feels negatively about it. If they will enter into some sort of dialogue, you can work with them. The indifferent are precisely that – indifferent even to talking.

The illustrations in haggadot were never meant simply for decoration. They show, in the case of these 4 types, how the understanding of wickedness has changed over time. Those illustrations are a commentary on some of the major concerns of Jewish life. In that respect, their purpose has remained the same across the ages. The four types are there to entertain us, to be sure, but have a deeper purpose and meaning: to challenge, to raise questions, to make us ask: “what does it mean to be Jewishly ‘wicked’ – or Jewishly ‘wise’ – in our time?”