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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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What if?

Playwright tells the sort-of-familiar story of the four matriarchs in the garden

One of our frequently told stories is of the four sages who enter Paradise. Of the four, one dies, one is struck mad, one becomes a heretic, and one leaves unscathed. It is a powerful, mysterious, and unsettling tale.

Sigal Samuel of Brooklyn, a writer and editor for the Jewish Forward, thought a great deal about that midrash. “I remember studying it in school” — a modern Orthodox day school in Montreal — “and with my father,” a former professor of Jewish mysticism in that city’s Concordia University, she said. “I’ve been sitting with it for many years.”

Last year, Ms. Samuel was a fellow at the Laba program sponsored by the 14th Street Y in Manhattan. Laba, which its founders called a laboratory for Jewish culture, uses classic Jewish texts “as a springboard to artistic creation,” Ms. Samuel said. The year’s theme was mothers. So when the idea of Jewish texts in general, the idea of mothers in general, and this text, which had floated around in her subconscious practically forever, came together, they were catalyzed by another realization.


‘A blaze of light in every word’

Leonard Cohen’s songs to ring in the High Holy Days in Bayonne

In 1974, Leonard Cohen borrowed from the High Holy Day liturgy for his song “Who By Fire.”

This year, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is returning the favor. He will bring Leonard Cohen songs into the High Holy Day services at Temple Beth Am in Bayonne — and chant Unetaneh Tokef to the melody of the song it inspired.

“So much of his music is rooted in Jewish thought and Jewish images,” said Rabbi Salkin of Mr. Cohen, who will turn 80 on Sunday. Two days later, on Tuesday, Mr. Cohen’s 13th studio album will be released. Rabbi Salkin believes that Mr. Cohen’s continuing relevance as he reaches what Pirkei Avot calls “the age of strength” provides an important role model for his congregation.


Turn, turn, stop turning

Slichot in River Edge focuses on music by Mahler, Mendelssohn

One of the main themes of the High Holy Days is teshuva.

The word literally means return; it is about repentance, the desire to return to God, to the community, to life as you really meant to have lived it. To try again.

“Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” we are told; that lesson is applied particularly to the holidays, with its focus on turning toward redemption.

We usually think of turning as making a circle, a full 360 degrees. What if it’s only 180, and you end up facing away from where you began?

And what if that direction points away from Judaism?

That’s the idea that the pre-Slichot program at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge will examine.

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