Jonathan Safran Foer and the sin of the Ten Commandments

Author Jonathan Safran Foer is as usual getting a lot of attention for his most recent work. But unlike his novels, this tome isn’t a piece of original fiction. It’s an adaptation of one of the oldest narratives around, the Haggadah, the Passover seder’s guidebook. Translated by fellow novelist Nathan Englander, Foer’s “New American Haggadah” also features commentary from Jewish luminaries Lemony Snicket, Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

This edition has caused quite a stir among Jews and non-Jews alike. Even President Obama was unsure of why Foer and company would feel the need for a new Haggadah. “Does this mean that we can’t use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?” he asked after journalist Goldberg presented him with an advanced copy during a recent interview.

The Maxwell House version, published in 1932 to convince Jewish people to drink coffee rather than tea after seder, is a staple in almost all American Jewish homes, providing the backbone to personalized Haggadahs. Foer of course knows his edition will never replace families’ respective Haggadahs. It’s simply another take on the ancient text, a text with which we’re all meant to “wrestle,” a common theme in the Passover ritual. It’s a supplement, not a replacement. “One of the things that’s so exciting about the Haggadah is that it’s not just a mental exercise, it is intended to guide our lives, to bring us closer to that metaphorical Jerusalem of next year,” said the young author in an interview at a discussion organized by United Jewish Appeal. And in a New York Times op-ed, Foer wrote, “I wanted to take a step toward the conversation I could only barely hear through the closed door of my ignorance; a step toward a Judaism of question marks rather than quotation marks…”

My friends and I gave Foer’s Haggadah a test run during our seder last Friday. The general consensus, especially among the older members of the table, was that the translation was insufficient to become a permanent reading, or at least too unfamiliar. There was much debate over the use of “King of the cosmos,” rather than King of the universe” to describe God, for example. And many of the commentaries were too heavy-handed to be taken seriously (Lemony Snicket’s use of dry matzoh as a symbol for the soul-crushing reality of slavery elicited a collective groan) but there were some commentaries we felt were worth discussion. Or at least a note.

One was a rumination on the Ten Commandments from Deutsch, a professor of Jewish studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. “According to the book of Exodus, when the Torah was given at Sinai,the Israelites accepted its commandments without first hearing what they would be,” he writes. “But even the simple son of the Haggadah asks, ‘What is this?’ when presented with the story of the Exodus. Were the Israelites at Sinai so naive that they were like the son who does not even know how to ask?” That son is the least respected of the Haggadah’s four, the one who asks, the simple son, the wicked son and the son who doesn’t think to ask.

To discuss the Ten Commandments take a leap of faith. Or, put another way, one should take the story, and all Biblical tales, with a grain of salt. They should be examined and dissected and absorbed for future use, but not accepted without consideration. And to discuss, and perhaps even affirm the commandments’ origins, requires us to go back to the most Biblical scene, the one involving those original sinners, Adam and Eve.

The most common telling of the Adam and Eve story is that Eve, at the goading of the satanic serpent, ate of tree of knowledge and then gave it to her husband, damning them both lives of hardship, pain and death. It’s this idea that helps perpetuate the myth of the sinful, wicked, temptress woman. The reading I have always preferred, however, presents the story a different way.

Eve broke God’s rule by eating the apple, but she also hesitated. She considered the consequences of her actions and though made the “wrong decision,” she at least put thought into it, telling the Serpent, “It is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'” It’s here that the serpent convinces Eve, telling her, “You’re not going to die, but God knows as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened…” She takes that fateful bite.

Adam, we know, comes along and aimlessly takes the apple from his wife, no questions asked. God, seeing that the humans have realized their nakedness, is pissed beyond belief and comes down to confront the humans. Adam cravenly pins blame on Eve, saying to God, “The woman you put at my side — she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”

Though the angry God punishes both the man and the woman, he explains to Adam that he’s being punished not only for the apple, but for his lack of personal agency and accountability, an error made all the worst for the fact that it was to Adam that God dictated the dietary rules. “Because you did as your wife said,” said the angry God before dolling out his wrath. Eve broke the rules, but at least she thought about it first.

The pursuit of knowledge and understanding is a divine act. Yet that connection is not made in Exodus, when the Jews accept the commandments. The tribe had grown increasingly anxious and frustrated after fleeing Egypt, and despite all they had seen, they still were not fully committed to the God Moses claimed to know. After some back-and-forth, and many trials, God finally called upon Moses to deliver, in the midst of smoke and fearsome lightning, the commandments. Shocked and awed, the Jews took Moses word for it, saying, nassaeh venishmah, which translates to “We will do and we will hear.”

If the liberal reading of original sin paraphrased above is to be believed, and it was indeed Adam’s carelessness that caused God the most grief, then is the automatic, thoughtless accepting of the Ten Commandments, no matter how much common sense they make, just as abominable? Perhaps. But the lesson in the Haggadah, as in all religious teachings worth their salt, is that a blind faith is not one worth practicing. For any religion to have an impact on a person or congregation, it must be challenged and constantly adapted for the changing times.

Reading the Bible as if it were written yesterday does it no justice, more often than not leading to injustice here on the earthly plane, just as Adam’s careless eating of the apple helped introduce sorrow and woe into his life.