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New resource for the holiday

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Few scholars have been able to communicate with equal efficacy in both the beit midrash and the pulpit. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm has long excelled at both.

A “rabbi’s rabbi,” he enjoys renown both as a talmudic luminary and a masterful darshan. When I received semicha from him 25 years ago — and in subsequent conversations over the years — he has always left me with the same charge and challenge: “Go be ‘me-chadeish.’” Bring novel dimensions to your deliberations.

Lamm has remained steadfast and insistent in this simple statement, yet difficult assignment. Certainly over this last quarter of a century, I have heard the rosh yeshiva in this rabbi exhort his students to toil in the fields of new and novel interpretations. In an address to Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary rabbinic alumni, for example, he lamented the rise of a generation of scholars who distinguish themselves more by what they gather and relate in the names of others and less by their own new insights and inspirations.

“Sadly, we have become a generation of ‘me-laktim’ and not ‘me-chadshim,’” he said. In his new haggadah, he is clearly taking a stand against this tendency of “hunter gatherers in learning.” Absent from its liner notes are the commonly used pithy points that one can easily peruse and pick off the page as easy droplets to sprinkle onto the ongoing seder ritual.

While handsome in its layout and still easy to read, this is very much the thinking person’s haggadah. It is not set up for an easy appropriation of text and texture. Instead, it invites the reader into carefully considered discussions of the weighty subject matter that rightfully defines and distinguishes the haggadah as Jewish life’s signature pedagogy, and the seder context as the ultimate classroom and teachable moment.

Understanding the seder ritual as such, he uses his homiletical talents and intellect to provide the reader and would-be seder participant with brief but strategically composed essay-like presentations on many of the seder’s generative themes. He takes on the big questions of theodicy and human suffering, as seen in his comments on Jacob’s suffering and King David’s despair. The rabbi lends his own social commentary to diverse themes and ills in society, an example being his treatment of the dual nature of the plague of darkness. Humanism, history, and halacha are woven together in an integrated whole that brings the timely to the timeless.

One noteworthy example of his penchant for chiddush, of his ability to lend a novel approach and new voice to a text well-traveled in time, emerges from his commentary on Chad Gadya, perhaps the most quixotic of the seder songs.

Borrowing from the recurring thematic and typological associations we make throughout the Pesach rituals by our use of the number 4, he introduces the typology of the Four Fathers and with it a new level of profundity, for this highly favored but otherwise hardly understood seder ditty.

Throughout this haggadah commentary, while dutifully citing numerous sacred sources, Lamm expands upon each to better illustrate the lessons for life and the effective construction of community that — of necessity — must emerge from this annual exercise.

This is not the haggadah to simply go through for easy comments, but rather one that will pass through and rest on its readers, leaving a new claim to a serious consideration of our contemporary Jewish condition.

The author is religious leader of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

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In search of dairy’s meaning

There are many reasons given for eating dairy on Shavuot, but most leave the intellectual appetite unsatisfied.

The custom is recorded in the halachic literature as early as the 12th century, and it is widely observed by both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. But despite being a longstanding and widespread tradition, its meaning remains obscure.

Many of the authors who refer to the practice seem strained to provide multiple explanations, and for good reason: Dairy simply is absent from the list of Shavuot themes mentioned in biblical and early rabbinic sources. There is no clear connection between dairy and the wheat harvest, the offering of two wheat-bread loaves and first fruits in the Temple, and the revelation on Mount Sinai. Symbolic foods abound in Jewish holiday traditions, but unlike those we eat on Passover and Rosh Hashanah, nowhere in the Torah or Talmud do we find anything about dairy on Shavuot.


The three faces of Ruth

A new look at the relationship between Ruth and Naomi

The book of Ruth is of course a story about choosing — about choosing us. It’s read, correctly, as the story of a woman who forsakes her own people to join the Israelites, leaving familiarity and safety for the terrifying rollercoaster life of a Jew, becoming the ancestor of King David as her reward.

That is a beautiful and satisfying story.

But I read mysteries, not works of uplift, and to anybody brought up on Sherlock Holmes and his descendants, a question intrudes itself — why does no one seem to see Naomi and Ruth together? Why, when they walk back to Bethlehem, do the women talk only to and about Naomi? Why does Ruth vanish from the story as soon as she gives birth to a child, which is given to Naomi? Why do the women talk only to Naomi about the baby? Why are the two women together in Bethlehem only when they are alone?


Shavuot recipes

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