The Jonathan Sacks Haggada: Judaism Begins at Home

Erica Brown Tradition Online | March 7, 2021

“Judaism,” R. Jonathan Sacks writes in A Letter in the Scroll, “is a religion of the family.” In his extensive oeuvre, home and family are often used coterminously as the source and origin of covenantal relationships that form the spine of Jewish life. Many of Judaism’s most sacred laws and practices take place in the home, including the observance of the Sabbath, dietary laws, and education. But for R. Sacks, the notion of home goes far beyond the place where Judaism is practiced and is, instead, where God joins the human family in its deepest partnership. “And there is something moving about the fact that the Divine presence is here, in ordinary families in ordinary homes, rather than in the palaces of the great or the cathedrals of the many” (84).

Rabbi Sacks even used the metaphor of home as the title and theme of a book on the failures of British multiculturalism, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society. Instead of a culture where immigrants and native-born citizens integrated in a society as a macrocosm for family, he saw the fabric of British culture torn apart by segregation with little or no incentive to come together through the bonds of tolerance. This led to fracture, division, and intolerance. Britain was, in R. Sacks’s metaphor, a country home that invited its guests to stay, but not one where anyone felt particularly welcome or comfortable. 

[The country house] speaks about host and guests. There are insiders and outsiders, the majority and the minorities. There is one dominant culture, and if you don’t belong to it, you don’t really belong at all… This is the assimilationaist model… It says, minorities must lose their identity in order to belong (15).

Instead, R. Sacks contended, British society needed to reframe its understanding of the structure. It needed to build a house together. The enterprise that resulted from this collective effort would become a home that all were part of and whose success and interrelatedness was reflective of every one of its residents. 

[T]he home we build together values the identities of both the majority and the minorities. It says: we are different, but that does not mean there is nothing to bind us in shared belonging…. We create the common good. Society is not static but dynamic. It is not just something we inherit and inhabit; it is something we make. The more different we are, the richer the possibilities of what we make together (The Home We Build Together, 16).

If this is true for society at large, it is even more so for the nuclear family unit. In some of his earliest writings, R. Sacks demonstrated that with changing societal understandings of the family from a work structure to a more sentimental notion of shelter as the seat of protection and leisure, the perception of the family as a place of human respite grew: “As the family was gradually separated from the work environment, it became instead a protected enclave away from the harsh outside world” (Traditional Alternatives, 140). The “privatization” of the family meant, over time, a greater investment in the family unit. This development bolstered what Judaism has long known. The family is far more than an economic stronghold; it embodies and represents the core of just and compassionate living.

In his last book, Morality, R. Sacks returned to the economics of family life from a different vantage point. He devoted several pages to the recession and the loss of home ownership as a modern scourge where the market, in a perfect storm of brutal callousness, undermined the stability of the family to stay and grow in one place. In Morality, he makes perhaps his most direct and impassioned plea for the return of the nuclear family, citing the breakdown of marriage and the family as an explanation for an array of problems in young people: “eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, stress-related syndromes, depression, and actual and attempted suicides” (64). The treasure that is home and family and is at the center of R. Sacks’ religious worldview is under attack.

What makes the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education, and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love. 

It is no surprise, then, that Rabbi Sacks introduces his Haggada with an emphasis on the family – the ultimate work of high religious art – as the heart of the Passover experience. R. Sacks makes the case that the Seder, what he calls the oldest of Jewish rituals, takes place at home because “Judaism attaches immense significance to the family.” If Genesis is a record of Judaism’s first families, then Exodus offers the family as the place where master narratives and values are first formed: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8). These stories are then translated into responsibilities to the world at large:

The  family is the birthplace of a free society. It is where we learn the reciprocity on which the moral life deepens. It is where, sharing our vulnerabilities, we discover strength. Through the bonds it creates, we learn hesed, the duty that flows from love. Above all it is where we learn who we are, where we came from, and what our story is (The Sacks Haggada, 8 – see excerpted chapter below).

Curiously, his Haggada is one of the few places where R. Sacks criticizes the family unit as a possible source of intolerance that may undermine exactly what it is designed to impart:

Families are a source of strength, but they can also be the source of narrowness, nepotism, and indifference to the world outside. There is a potential conflict between the family and the wider concerns that are needed to build a society of justice and compassion. For that reason a Jewish home must always be open – to the hungry, the lonely and visitors (9).

Rabbi Sacks’ Haggada, with its poignant short commentary and its impressive collected essays, is not only a guiding document for the Seder night. It offers a lesson in what the ideal religious family and home should be through the lens of Passover: an interlocked network of relationships and space, guided by a majestic story, that express godliness, Jewish continuity, openness, empathy, security, justice, kindness and, most of all, provides the warm embrace of love. 

Dr. Erica Brown, a consulting editor at TRADITION, is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University.

Read an excerpted chapter “The Story of Stories” from The Jonathan Sacks Haggada (courtesy of Maggid Books).

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