New Review – Berkovits Haggadah

Israel Drazin

Hungarian-born scholar Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) was a highly respected Orthodox rabbi. He was educated in Berlin, Germany, where he received his PhD. He authored 19 books in several languages.

He held fast to traditional beliefs such as that the Israelites met God at Sinai where God gave them both the Written and the Oral Torahs. He felt that halakha, Jewish law, is necessary to control people from acting against their own and society’s best interest. He explained that during the Holocaust God “hid his face,” hester panim, because God wants humans to use their free will even if they do so in a harmful fashion. He stressed the importance of Zionism. Although he recognized that women are not treated well in matters of marriage and divorce, and believed that both sexes are equal, he did not encourage changes in Jewish law.

This commentary on the Haggadah was not composed by Rabbi Berkovits but is a compilation of his thoughts on the Haggadah taken from his various writings. The rabbi explains some of his ideas with short stories and with some reminders of history. The Foreword to the book is by Rabbi Berkovits’ son who writes warmly about his dad. He mentions a few ideas about him and about the Seder. He said, for example, “He believed that a redeeming vision of hope for the human spirit can only come from an ongoing human encounter in the fulness of life with the Eternal Word.” The editor of this Haggadah adds an Introduction where he offers some ideas of the rabbi and praises him, saying, for example, that he “was a pioneer in examining many crucial present-day ideas within a halakhic framework.” Both emphasized his view of the need to obey halakha.

Some parts of the collection of commentaries may appear to some readers as somewhat mystical to rational thinkers, such as myself, but I nevertheless found what was said to be interesting and thought-provoking, certainly worth reading. Some examples of the commentaries are: How was Passover and the Seder celebrated in concentration camps during the Holocaust? In Judaism, the sacred and the profane are not related. What distinguishes the holy and mundane? What makes the Shabbat holy? People need to understand the concept of the creation. Are Jews a chosen people? How is sanctification of life achieved? Why does the history of Judaism begin with Jews being outside of Israel?

All the many practices during the Seder are explained. The sources of all the quotes are given so that readers can go to the source for more details. For example, Why do we recline during the Seder? What constitutes a wise son? Why do some Jews have the practice to eat a hard-boiled egg at the Seder? 

In short, this is a splendid book that will help teach its readers much about Judaism, Passover, and the Seder in an interesting way.

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