Open Orthodox Haggadah- Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

By all criteria the Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld released just two weeks before Passover is a smashing success, quickly selling out of its initial run of 5000 copies. Not bad for a haggadah that is mainly made up of long articles and op-eds.  But more than this, it is the first book or statement produced by a significant pulpit rabbi within the Open Orthodoxy wing of Modern Orthodoxy.  Congregants have already bought every copy, yet historians should acquire a copy of this work to document the changes in American Jewry.


The Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah is quite self- conscious of setting out an agenda for the future of Orthodoxy mentioning the word Orthodoxy as a denomination more times and in more combinations than probably any book that I know. Not only does it trumpet Open Orthodoxy, it also points out the limits of Centrist Orthodoxy and the RCA.

But let us start at the beginning with the opening epithet: “There can be no communal redemption without it also being an individual redemption.” The goal of the community is to hear the needs of its individual members. This affirmation is immediately followed by a very concrete example of proclaiming that we will never be redeemed as long as there is even one agunah. The operative words right from the opening remarks are “sensitivity” and “inclusion of our entire community.”

The text includes the family and children with basic questions for guiding children or beginners before each section, with a distinctive invention for a haggadah, an answer key in the back. The questions are about the lived experience of the seder such as: Why are parents happy for mah nishtaneh? Or in what languages can it be recited?

The majority of the haggadah consists of long essays by the author but much of it consists of guest authors including Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Maharat Ruth Balinsky, Rabbi Avi Weiss, and even the non-Jewish public relations professional to whom they sell their Chometz. These essays confront the reader with our first clear list of Open Orthodox positions including  kol ishah, infertility sensitivity, on entering a church, on including the mentally challenged, the need for Maharats, increasing the role of women, the problems with current conversion policy, and the need to solve the problem of agunot. It may be the first self-proclaimed Orthodox haggadah to support Women of the Wall, discuss the importance of Martin Luther King, and to suggest placing a cup for Miriam on the table and an orange on the seder plate.

Willy-nilly, one finds oneself reading about the agunah problem while everyone is singing dayenu and about the rapid downfall of a local rabbi who violated everyone’s trust while everyone is singing Ha Gadya. For many, these juxtapositions will be the first impression of the haggadah.

What is the message of this haggadah about Passover for those who take the time to read it fully? Herzfeld considers the essence of baking matzos is the need to push ourselves in life. We need to challenge ourselves to succeed; we need spiritual adrenaline, and not settle for mediocrity. Why must matzo baking be done in eighteen minutes? Herzfeld cites the widely read Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle is a 2009 book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer to teach us that we have to act in real life quickly and decisively.  When we fight the Chametz within, we have to change ourselves forever and seek challenges. This Hagadah offers a message for active people- doers who want to change the world.

The community addressed sees itself as go-getters and achievers- baking matzos themselves, succeeding in their careers, and taking position of Judaism as their own.  Herzfeld encourages individuals and families to gain control of their ritual life. After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism is no longer about priests but ordinary person. The haggadah reflects an ethos that educated laity should take an active role.

The Haggadah opens with an essay by the father of Open Orthodoxy Rabbi Avi Weiss but nevertheless I see the historical value in the haggadah as reflecting the current younger and mid-career pulpit rabbis, rather than the issues of the older generation. (I may argue this in a future post as a review of his own book.)

Nevertheless, Rav Avi provides  an unambiguous affirmation of revelation stating that Open Orthodoxy is “completely committed to torah min hashamayim, to believe that God wrote the Torah.” Future readers now have a formal statement as lapidary as that written by Rabbi J. H. Hertz that   “Judaism stands or falls with its belief in the historical actuality of the Revelation at Sinai.”

Rav Avi defines Open Orthodoxy as “the meticulous observance of halakhah,” and “at the same time it is open- inclusivive, pluralistic, and non-judgmental.” Notice that the younger Herzfeld was more about action and pragmatics than offering a definition. Weiss complains that the Centrist Orthodoxy version of Modern Orthodoxy has turned right, rigid, and closed. In contrast, he is envisions the movement as encouraging greater women’s roles, and sensitivity to sexual orientation, but distances himself from the egalitarianism of the liberal movements whom he considers heterodox. Rav Avi advocates for outreach through accepting people as they are in order to increase their involvement, and a mesorah that faces new situations. The message is that Centrist Orthodoxy was forced to revamp and has already made changes.

It is noticeable that innovations not currently practiced in Orthodox synagogues such as Partnership Minyanim are not mentioned. There is no significant use of historical context, academic Jewish studies, or source criticism. The volume is not aimed at those who seek an intellectual discussion. Its audience is not seeking aesthetics or Torah uMadda. In addition, there is neither focus on the Holocaust nor any on the State of Israel.

I would compare this volume to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s out of print programmatic 1983 Haggadah where he used the text to present his agenda as a “window of the Jewish future.” He envisioned solving the agunah problem, increasing women’s roles, and leading a glorious return to Israel. In order to make the text accessible to the newly observant, Riskin sought to have everything fully explained. In contrast, Herzfeld’s volume assumes an already frum readership in that there are no instructions or indications of what to do, but also the basics are available elsewhere.

What is at stake with this programmatic haggadah? Several reviewers –JTA, JPost- mentioned the similarity in using the haggadah as a platform for denominational clarity to several early 20th century Reform haggadot. I will offer another comparison, that of the 1929 controversy for the Vilna Rabbinate between Rabbi Isaac Rubinstein and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. The later was undoubtedly the great scholar but the rabbinic establishment had lost the trust of the people.  In contrast, the Mizrachi leader was a tireless worker for the people, was on all Jewish welfare boards, lead day schools, and was seen as listening to the people’s problems. He was also in favor of secular studies, economic productivity, and the return to the land. Hence, Rubinstein the industrious Mizrachi rabbi was elected to be rabbi in Vilna over the Rosh Yeshiva. There is a fictional version of the controversy for the rabbinate in Chaim Grade’s “The Rebbetzin” and in The Agunah we read a depiction of the loss of trust in the Vilna Rabbinate in that the rabbis are not helping the people with social issues, unlike the lone wolf unorthodox Mizrachi rabbi who was willing to rely on leniencies to help an agunah. Not only in 1929, but also in 1983, and 2015 the plight of the agunah remains a concern. (Has anything been learned?)

I would not overly push the comparison to 1929 rabbinical controversy, but what is common to both is what anthropologist Bruce Lincoln considers essential to authority, that is confidence and trust. In both cases there has been a loss of trust, hence a loss of authority, a large number of Orthodox laity has lost their trust in the Roshei Yeshiva and in the establishment. If there is public debate about the need to submit to authority, then according to Bruce Lincoln the discussion is already a sign that the implicit trust is lost.

Many of the critics of Open Orthodoxy have self-destructed in recent years– one is even on way to jail. To those who lost their trust, Rabbis with desk jobs or minor rabbinic functionaries are irrelevant. Internet critics and bickering is extraneous to regaining trust. As in 1929, it would take a major Centrist pulpit rabbi to offer something to the people to regain their trust, to make them feel heard and addressed. A haggadah can only contain this much critique of the system if a significant number of homes did not already feel alienated.

One should not say that this is only a small group and anecdotally say that my neighbors agree with me. There is a shift in the younger laity. And several synagogues in various parts of the US replaced their long time rabbis with newer YU rabbis who are more about inclusion, family activities, and social orientation.


The translation created for the volume has colloquialisms and is awkward at points to read in public. More worrying is that it is theologically not thought through. The haggadah uses as the translation of the blessing formula “Be blessed God, our God” as if the two divine names were interchangeable. On the other hand, in some places we find lines that read as “my lord, our G-d” indicating a different translator.

Personally, both academically and spiritually, I prefer a focus on the text of the seder as explained by Abarbanel, Maharal, Gra, or Shelah and Sefat Emet. It was not written for my intellectual or spiritual edification, or for those who want to hear about how God took us out from Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm.

In short, this Haggadah oozes moxie and a direct appeal to those who like the Orthodox lifestyle but find a tension with what they perceive as the abuses of the system. For them, they do not need reasons for the commandments, rather an active commitment, determination and ability to overcome their social concerns. All who are hungry  for this moxie, let them come and eat.

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