An Interview with Dennis Prager on Why the Seder Still Matters
Dennis Prager is a Jewish theologian, philosopher, nationally syndicated radio host, and bestselling author on a wide variety of subjects, including religion, politics, America, morality, and happiness. As if that weren't accomplished enough, he sidelines as a symphony orchestra conductor. He is also the founder of Prager University (PragerU), a website featuring engaging, digestible videos on a veritable panoply of topics. In 2018, Prager released the first installment of The Rational Bible, a planned five-volume, reason-based commentary on the Torah. His most recent book, The Rational Passover Haggadah, complements the series.
Passover is the oldest ongoing celebrated holiday in human history, and a Haggadah is a text setting forth the order of observing it. In addition, The Rational Passover Haggadah contains supplemental explanatory sections with discussion questions to foster thoughtful reflection for all participants. Prager wrote it to appeal to people of any faith or no faith at all. "This Haggadah is not confined to Passover use," he wrote in the introduction, "nor is it only for people who attend a Seder. It is intended for year-round use and for those who may never attend a Seder." Mr. Prager was kind enough to answer a few questions about it for Salvo.
Was there really an Exodus?
The evidence is compelling that there was. In The Rational Passover Haggadah, I cite Richard Elliott Friedman's seven arguments for the historicity of the Exodus. Friedman is a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, a renowned Bible scholar, the author of a commentary on, and his own translation of, the Torah—and he is not an Orthodox Jew.
Why does that matter today?
Judaism rests on two divine actions—the Creation and the Exodus. If Jews stopped believing in either—that God created the world or that God took the Jews out of Egypt—Judaism would not survive.
The Haggadah is ancient. Why is it relevant today?
The answer to that question is why I wrote this commentary. In a nutshell, if God, the meaning of freedom, the question of theodicy (reconciling God's existence with unjust suffering), the centrality of gratitude to a good and happy life, the difference between wisdom and goodness, and a listing of the seventeen core beliefs of Judaism—among many other topics—are relevant, then the Haggadah is relevant.
Why did God save the Jews in Egypt but not the millions of Jews who died in Europe?
I offer a number of answers in the Haggadah, so I will only note here that if God took the Jews out of Europe, people would ask why God didn't take the Jews out of Poland during the seventeenth-century Khmelnitsky Pogroms, in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered. Why didn't God save the 60 million Chinese people starved and beaten to death under Mao? Or why didn't he save the Armenians, or the tens of millions Stalin sent to the Gulag Archipelago, or, for that matter, any innocent who was ever murdered?
What makes this Haggadah rational? What does it mean that it is rational?
The Haggadah is quite rational. I titled it The Rational Passover Haggadah to link it to my five-volume Torah commentary titled The Rational Bible. The word "rational" describes my approach to holy texts—one entirely rooted in reason. My vehicle to God and to Judaism is reason.
What does a Haggadah offer to those who are not Jews?
My view of the Haggadah is the same as my view of the Torah. Ever since I began teaching the Torah to both Jews and non-Jews, I have argued that either the Torah has something to say to non-Jews or it has nothing to say to Jews. The idea that the Torah only speaks to Jews is as absurd as the idea that Beethoven only speaks to Germans or Shakespeare only speaks to the English.
Many of the readings in the Haggadah are taken from the Psalter. Are the Psalms beneficial for modern readers apart from the week of Passover? If so, how?
For many people, the Psalms are the most comforting book in the Bible. I have often thought that if I were on a sinking ship, I would want someone to lead a recitation of the Twenty-Third Psalm.
What would you say to Christians who are trying to understand the importance of Passover in helping to form and maintain the identity of the Jewish people over the centuries?
No nation and no religion can survive without rituals. And the Passover Seder is the longest ongoing ritual in the world. The demise of American rituals—such as those of the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, and daily ritual, such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools—threatens the survival of America as America.
The same holds true for religion. Many Christians have begun attending Passover Seders because they wish to reconnect with the Jewish origins of Christianity, and because there is a dearth of ritual in modern Christian—especially Protestant—life.
Christians believe that Passover was the last meal Jesus had before his crucifixion. How can Passover be meaningful through the lens of its being Christ's "Last Supper"?
The answer is in the question: Given how important the Passover Seder was to Jesus, an observant religious Jew, how could the Seder and Passover not be important to a believing Christian?
During the Last Supper, many Christians believe that Jesus was breaking the Afikomen bread when he said, "This is my body, given for you" (Luke 22:19). What is the traditional symbolic significance of the Afikomen during Passover?
It is a Greek word that loosely means "dessert"—as it is the last food eaten at the Seder. It can represent many things, including the broken world in which we live. It is a piece of matzo that is broken off a larger piece of matzo at the beginning of the Seder and hidden (then the children at the Seder are supposed to find it).
During the Last Supper, many Christians believe Jesus was speaking of the Cup of Redemption (the third cup of wine traditionally drunk during Passover) when he said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you" (Luke 22:20). What is the traditional symbolic significance of the Cup of Redemption during Passover?
The third cup of the four cups represents God's promise to redeem the children of Israel. The four cups represent: "I shall take you out"; "I shall rescue you"; "I shall redeem you"; and "I shall bring you" (Exodus 6:6–8). It represents God redeeming the Jews from slavery.
Many Jews and Christians rejoice at the common saying at the end of Passover, "Next year in Jerusalem!" Do you believe we have seen some of the biblical prophecies begin to come about, such as how God will "bring them back to live in Jerusalem" (Zechariah 8:7–8) or "Gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth" (Isaiah 11:11–12)? Is it possible that we may be getting closer to the day when it really will be "Next year in Jerusalem"?
The Hebrew Bible records God's promises that the Jews will be an eternal people and that they will return to their homeland after living outside the land. That this actually occurred after 2,000 years of dispersal would seem to suggest that the hand of God is involved in Jewish history. And as such, the return of the Jews to Israel is as affirming to a believing Christian as to a believing Jew.
What else would you like your Christian friends to know about Passover?
That many of us would be honored to have you join us.Terrell Clemmons
is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #61, Summer 2022 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo61/keeping-passover