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The New American Haggadah and the New American Spirituality

I have always found the phenomenon of secular Jewish spiritual practice to be particularly poignant.  So deep is the Jewish identity and practice embedded in some people’s lives, and yet how disconnected from organized religious practice.  I believe it is the forerunner of contemporary spiritual expression, and reveals some interesting divergent directions of where people wish to take their faith.

Two novelists recently collaborated on writing a New American Haggadah  – Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander.  Foer grew up secular, but had wonderful memories of practicing seder as a child.  Englander did as well, though he grew up Orthodox.  Both desired to create a translation that would speak to their contemporary experience, while maintaining the beauty and majesty of the original text.  What they thought would be a short project (Englander says, “I thought we were making the Hipster Haggadah and it’d be six weeks or something and we’d be done) turned into a consuming project of several years.  The result is stunningly beautiful – visually, textually, experientially.

What is most interesting to me for this blogpost, though, is how each describe how this experience impacted their understanding of their faith.  Englander says “I came to recognize how much I truly relate to texts, not to organized religion.”  Foer, on the other hand, had a different response: “I’ve become more and more interested in the things that religion can do,” he says. While it is possible for a family to gather for an extended meal and a discussion about individual and community identity, most people won’t do it without the impetus of a religion.”

“The older I get, the more aware I am of my inability to, you know, live the life I want to lead without help, without some kind of structure,” he says.

Foer is obviously not desiring to find a path back to “organized religion” the way we might traditionally understand it, but clearly he is looking for a community of practice – a term Reformed Judaism is now using.

It is yet another expression of the desire so many have to find a community of practice without the constraints of “organization”.  While the institutionalist in me wants to rail against this prejudice about organized religion, I must accept that it is a judgment based on real experience, and it will not be overcome entirely by proving to people that congregational life can be different.

What is our new role in helping create and support communities of practice?

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Kenn Hurto #

    Excellent question. I’m grateful for this sharing. It leads me to ponder how our reactive “I’m an ex-something” combine with logical positivism to have us trusting no literature, sort of a modernist, “it’s all okay, but none is particularly special” emptiness.

    With you, I wonder what it would look like to have our congregations take on a behavioral rather than belief-centric identity. What would our practice include?

    When the 1961 Principles were recast in 1985, “free and disciplined” lost to “free and responsible.” I think that a mistake and would like us to lift up the disciplined practice of faith and reason.

    April 2, 2012

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