Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving Does Need a Haggadah

EstherK posted this ReTweet a few days back

RT @Phil_Brodsky: How is is that there is no "hagadah" for Thanksgiving, yet we all know exactly what the holiday is about? #JEd21

At the time, I read it, sort of nodded my head, and didn’t give it much thought

Today, when I noticed it again, I began to give it some thought, and decided that, while it makes an interesting point, I’m not sure it’s an accurate one.

Judaic scholars tell us that the Haggadah had to have been around in some form since at least 200 C.E., because the Mishna, in Pesakhim, already lays out a rather specific seder (order) for the observance of Pesakh. These scholars attempt to say that the basic form of the Pesakh Seder was already in place during second Temple times. Other scholars argue that this is just an  attempt at wishful thinking in order to insist that the “Last Supper” was indeed a Passover Seder.  These scholars argue that the Haggadah as we know it, was developed in response to the destruction of the second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and the rising influence of Christianity.

The oldest extant haggadah text dates from the 10th century C.E. (from the Siddur of Saadia Gaon.) The 13th-15th centuries C.E. saw the flourishing of illuminated Haggadot. Today, of course, we have many, many Haggadot, with variations, but all pretty much adhering to the same basic formulas, rituals, and understandings. The Seder may have grown, changed, been adapted over time, but its essence remains the same as it has been for thousands of years.

In contrast, Thanksgiving can only trace its official roots back 146 years to 1863, when President Lincoln first proclaimed a national holiday of Thanksgiving. He did that only after 40 years of persistent efforts by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, best known as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” to have a national Thanksgiving holiday established. While we like to fantasize the history of Thanksgiving and trace it back to that famous banquet at Plymouth Plantation in 1693 (though Virginia claims the first thanksgiving occurred at Berkley Plantation in 1619) there’s no clear and direct linkage, other than that which we mythologize.

In 1789 President Washington issued a proclamation

"to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Subsequent Presidents and State Governors continued to proclaim days of Thanksgiving. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War (largely persuaded, as previously mentioned, by Sara Josepha Hale.) Subsequent presidents continued this annual proclamation. FDR tried changing it to one week earlier (trying to spur Xmas shopping in the depression) but met with such resistance that, after two years of trying the change (which many states did not follow) Congress passed a bill making the fourth Thursday of November an official national holiday of Thanksgiving.

Enough history (though there’s lots more.) Can we truly say that all who celebrate Thanksgiving today fully comprehend and understand its meaning? I’m not so sure every family Thanksgiving feast these days would appropriately grace a Currier and Ives engraving. Thanksgiving is, for many, the official kickoff to the Xmas shopping season. (Clearly,the following day, now called “Black Friday” is a greater focus for many than actually offering thanks to their understanding of the Deity for the bounty of this good earth.  Plenty of Thanksgiving dinners give but brief lip service to the whole idea of giving thanks to G”d, and others are merely PTSD-inducing toxic-family gatherings.

While we can say that not everyone who observes the Passover Seder buys into the ideas and concepts it espouses, it  can be reasonably argued that they at least can learn or come to understand what the point/purpose of the Seder is. The Haggadah is the vehicle that makes that possible. As a modern, liberal Jew, I am willing to take great liberties with the Haggadah. There is much in it that troubles me, and that I choose to omit or replace. (“Pour out your wrath” being but one example.) Nevertheless, I am thankful there is a Haggadah. It has enabled this observance to survive, with most essential meanings intact, for thousands of years. In only a few hundred years, Thanksgiving has already morphed. It is not at all clear that the majority of those observing Thanksgiving truly understand what the holiday is all about. It is not as self-evidently clear as we perhaps wish it might be, or, perhaps more to the point, it often interferes with other values we might hold in esteem (like watching grown men throw a pigskin around and tackle each other, eating like a glutton, enabling dysfunctional families to pretend all is normal, etc.)

Thanksgiving as it exists today is not the holiday imagined by Sara Josepha Hale; not like the harvest feasts held in 1619 or 1693; not like the national coming together envisioned by Lincoln; perhaps a bit more like that imagined by FDR as a tool to stimulate the economy, but still not the same. The Passover Seder of today is certainly not the Seder of 100, 500, 1000, or 1500 years ago, but it is far from being unrecognizable to those who did observe it in those days. We owe that to the Haggadah.

So maybe this country needs the equivalent of a Haggadah for Thanksgiving. We have the beginnings of such a thing in the way we fancifully are taught the stories of those first Thanksgivings in school. There’s no great crime in incorporating myths and legends into such a document-the Passover Haggadah certainly does so.

Of course, just like Judaism exists, even requires, tension – that effect of l’havdil that is inescapable,that balance between yetzer tov and yetzer ra – so, too, does America exist with, perhaps even require by its democratic nature, some tensions. The tension between a democracy whose constitution has a clause preventing the establishment of a state religion, yet which prints “In G”d We Trust” on its legal tender. Creating a Thanksgiving Haggadah that fairly treats all Americans-atheists, religionists, et al- could be a significant challenge. I think there are lessons on how to do this that could be drawn from how the Jewish world, with all its differences, has handled the Haggadah.

So, who wants to take a crack at it?

@2009 by Adrian A. Durlester (aka Migdalor Guy)

1 comment:

Dr. Dreidel said...

This was a really interesting post. I was especially interested in the way that the haggadah has changed so much but still remains essentially the same. Perhaps assimilation allowed Jews over time to adapt their rituals so that while they look different they remain the same at their heart. Or perhaps it was a religious determination of a seemingly eternal people motivated to keep their covenant with the Creator.

Either way there are some signs to reclaiming thanksgiving, Shawn Landres passed this link onto me through twitter after my initial post:

I think it is a great exercise to think about Thanksgiving and design a service around it and then apply those same principles to looking at the way Jewish services or rituals, like the Seder, are designed. It could be a great exercise for Jewish class of any age to learn more about how the services are constructed while simultaneously learning about the elements of a great educational experience.