Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah

One of the most interesting commentaries on the haggadah of the last decade was the one by
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah: The Passover Story (Paperback)

Ouaknin, a follower of Levinas and Lacan who teaches at Bar Ilan, when he is not busy writing profitable coffee table books, does some serious engagement with contemporary French thought, especially in his The Burnt Book. For him, the Talmudic project of the Eastern European beit midrash has no closure, ever changing, ever forgetful and driven by desire. He freely mixes R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Rav Nahman, Reb Zadok with psychoanalysis, symbolist poetry, and semiotics. Ouaknin has a reading of Judaism as indeterminacy. “Man must reject the illusion of thinking that life is already written and the way is drawn.” He are various fragments from the web that give some indiation of his approach to the Passover haggadah.

My favorite section is his explanation of Yachatz, breaking the middle matzah, as the Lacanian Real sending us on our quest through the seder for our ever receding Real , creating a symbolic order in the Lacan sense. Breaking the matzah creates an open space for our symbolic registry to occur. We are throw in the seder just as we are thrown into our quest for the recovery of the real.

On the telling of the Passover story, he writes:
“The words of telling emerge from that break, from the empty place left between the two pieces of matzah.”
The act of telling the story of the Exodus occurs through an exchange of conversation and ideas. We take the one whole matzah and break it in half because discussion and conversation occur when there is a minimum of two — me and the other.

On opening the door for Elijah, Ouaknin quotes the story in which Elijah goes alone to a cave on Mount Horev in the desert. God brings a great wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire—but God was not in any of these. Instead, after the fire, he finds God in ‘a still, small voice.’ (1 Kings 19:11-13) Ouaknin comments that one must reach the level of Elijah, self-forgetfulness in the desert.

One must have sharpened one’s hearing, to be led to the absolute level of attention, to become capable of perceiving such a tenuous breath. One must have sounded oneself, have explored oneself in the darkest places of consciousness, to the furthest of thoughts, to have made the circuit of one’s inner domain many times, in constantly growing but nevertheless tightening circles, so as to attain the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness, to be able to be stroked lightly, touched, visited by such an inaudible sigh.
The point of concluding the seder with opening the door for Elijah is to signify that this journey in ‘the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness’ is the ultimate intention of the seder. While we aim to find ourselves on seder night, to reconnect with the story of our people and see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, remembering who we are paradoxically requires losing ourselves at the same time.

For his approach to “my forefathers worshiped idols” he quotes J.L. Marion about idols as false forms that distort reality and fill in the gap between us and the divine.
What the idol tries to reduce is the gap and the withdrawal of the divine… Filling in for the absence of the divinity, the idol brings the divine within reach, ensures its presence, and, eventually, distorts it. Its completion finishes the divine off… The idol lacks the distance that identifies and authenticates the divine as such–as that which does not belong to us, but which happens to us. (Ouaknin, The Burnt Book, p. 65)

3 responses to “Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah

  1. This is a misreading of Marion. For Marion there is a valorization of the idol as a tool for shaping distanciation and appearance. The idol allows enough distance to apprehend the divine. Idols are not all bad in Marion, but there is another level beyond the fashioning process represented by the idol. They definitely feed in teleologically to what comes next.

    • I just checked on Google books, he does indeed quote it as Marion. It would be interesting to see what Ouaknin skipped in the ellipsis.

  2. Had I known about this earlier, I probably would have bought it before Pesach this year. Maybe next year (unless there are good sales on Haggadot right after Pesach…)

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