Although I have fallen away from observance in many areas, Passover remains a special case where I remain a bit medakdek – not by comparison with somebody strictly observant, but in comparison with my year-round standards of observance. In particular, we always do a fairly complete rendition of the Passover seder, reading (and singing) the complete text of the haggadah.
As with many traditional liturgical texts, the combination of strangeness and familiarity in the haggadah both attracts and repels readers, particularly young readers. If they attend to it, children inevitably ask questions – the text itself is organized around the concept of questions, though the questions it assumes will be asked (“why on this night do we dip twice?”) are not necessarily the ones a modern child would resort to, and the answers tend to prompt additional questions rather than satisfying. But attending to the text is a tall order – for great stretches, the text itself seems to be treating irrelevancies (“One might think that the obligation to relate the story of the Exodus begins with the first day of the month of Nissan”) or being mind-numbingly pedantic (“‘Our oppression’ – this refers to the persecution, as it is said, ‘I have also seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them’”).
Updating the text to make it more modern or relevant does not tend to be a very effective strategy – it tends to make it less interesting rather than more so. A better strategy is to make a game of the whole process – a favorite in our family is “seder bingo,” which requires that participants listen carefully for some of the more obscure words in the haggadah so that they can score them first on their cards.
The other funny thing about the haggadah is that, while supposedly we are “telling the story,” the story doesn’t actually get told anywhere in the text. Rather, the text presumes familiarity with both the story of the Exodus and the words of the biblical telling, and then riffs on it – and on the obligation to tell – in various ways. In our family, we’ve remedied that omission over the past few years by acting out the story in a kind of “pre-show” before sitting down to the table. My son typically played Moses, until last year when he decided he wanted to play Pharaoh.
This year, though, he announced that he’s getting too old for the “kids’ play” and wanted to do something different. What we settled on was: a mock trial. Of God. We would put God on trial – for the crime of inflicting the plagues on the Egyptians.
The idea turned out to be inspired, as everybody, adults and children alike, got into the spirit of the thing. My wife did a fabulously over-the-top turn as Pharaoh’s daughter, called as a witness for the prosecution (“such a nice boy, until he got into GOD – after that, oy, such troubles!”); a friend of my son’s was a splendidly self-regarding Pharaoh, and both the prosecution and defense did a fine job making their respective cases.
Trials of God have been undertaken before, in life and in literature, but the typical plaintiff is someone who asserts his or her own innocence – the great problem of theodicy is typically described as the problem of the suffering of the innocent, particularly children who cannot be plausibly understood to be guilty. In our trial, the prosecution pursued this tack to a certain extent, but not as much as I expected. The focus was much more on the violent and aggressive nature of the crimes than on the innocence of the victims.
The defense’s case proceeded even further from the form that I expected. I expected them either to claim justifiable homicide (the plagues were just punishment for the crimes of the Egyptians, and constituted a kind of self-defense on the part of God’s people) or lack of jurisdiction (who has the standing to prosecute God?). Instead, they claimed there was no evidence that God had anything to do with the crimes attributed to Him. Who, after all, had seen God perform any of the miracles? Moses, yes; Aaron, yes; but God? Pure hearsay.
The more I thought about both the prosecution and the defense tack, the more I liked them. I have never much liked the Deuteronomic logic of reward and punishment, which is so obviously at variance with the way reality actually works, nor seen the appeal of approaching prayer and sacrifice as a way of propitiating the deity. I’ve also never been much moved by assertions of God’s injustice – because they seem animated by that same Deuteronomic conviction that I never shared in the first place. The question to my mind has always been: how do you relate to reality? The prosecution’s case – that terrible things happen in the universe – is unarguable. The question is whether one still sees the hand of God in the universe, or whether one does not.
Oh, and the result of the trial? It ended in a hung jury.