Monday, February 13, 2012

a seder of the liberated

Roger Cohen's piece in today's New York Times on the inability of Jews to imagine themselves as powerful reminded me of something - so a hunt through my dusty digital attic turned this up:

Usually, we think of religion in terms of faith, and to be sure there are many places in the tradition where we are commanded to believe--or even to know--something: about God, or the world, or ourselves.

At Passover, however, we are enjoined to imagine. No matter what haggadah you use, it is almost certain that you will find the passage that says that it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as though we individually had been redeemed from Egypt. I remember that I used to be suspicious of that section; I assumed that it had been inserted by some twentieth-century editor in an attempt to make this ancient text relevant. But it has been part of the Haggadah for as long as there has been a Haggadah, going at least back to the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE).

With the Hadrianic persecutions still in living memory, with the yoke of Roman imperial rule still heavy on their necks, the Jews were told that one day out of the year they were to experience themselves as liberated. Now that, if not revolutionary, was certainly subversive. For most of the following two millennia, the Seder continued to serve as an exercise in this subversive imagination. Perhaps now our bodies are in bondage, but our minds have taken us to a place where we find ourselves freed and our oppressors overthrown.

But there has been an odd development since then: Jews are not an oppressed people. It is true, of course, that anti-Semitism hasn't disappeared. And it is also certainly true that there are Jews who are victims of a variety of oppressive structures, such as racism, homophobia, and contemporary capitalism. And there is no doubt that the world as a whole is in desperate need of redemption. Still, by any useful measure, Jews as a whole (and American Jews in particular) are doing just fine, thank you.

And thank God for that development, I say. But in the process, what has happened to our Seder? What happens to a ceremony designed to comfort the afflicted when the afflicted become comfortable themselves? First, the imaginative task changes. No longer needing to conjure up a vision of freedom, we may find ourselves in an odd search for the experience of oppression. Frequently this is done through history, and many modern haggadahs refer to the Holocaust (there is even, I believe, an edition entirely devoted to it). Sometimes this is done by making connections to truly oppressed Jews; I remember the "Matzah of Hope" on our table for our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union. And there are some especially progressive haggadahs which try to establish solidarity with other struggles for liberation, whether particular or global.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is important for us to remember our history, to stay connected with our brethren, to be mindful of the oppressed of all nations. But when we start imagining ourselves as in bondage we face the danger of "misusing" the Seder. For it is the task of the enslaved to seek freedom for themselves, and to do this they must see that their enslavement is not the primary determinant of who they are. But it is the task of the free to seek freedom for others, and to do this they must take full ownership of such power and position as they have. Rather, such power and position as we have.

Not once, and not twice, but over and over the Torah has God warn the freed slaves that when they come into the Land, when they are in power, they are to remember their experience in Egypt and take special care of those on the margins: the widow, the orphan, the stranger. For Jews, the price of liberty may be eternal vigilance, but it is vigilance about the condition of others. But it is mighty hard to take responsibility for others when you are imagining yourself as powerless.

How should a reasonably free, reasonably prosperous people celebrate the Exodus? By embracing that freedom, accepting that prosperity, and accepting with it God's demands that we look to the condition of those around us.

Much is at stake. The most painful part of the Exodus story for me has always been the death of the Egyptian first-born. It struck me as grotesquely unfair that the innocent, who themselves were perhaps none too free, would suffer. But perhaps it is true that in the great struggle one is either on the side of the slaves, or one is on the side of the slave-owners; there is no neutral ground.

If that is so, perhaps when we spill the wine during the recitation of the ten plagues it is more than a memory. Perhaps it is a warning. For there are those in the world who are truly oppressed, who are waiting for their own Exodus. Whether they know it or not, they look to us. Will we be innocent Egyptians? Or will we be the kind of free men and women God wants us to be?

Maybe that is the first of four new questions, questions for a Seder of the liberated.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

i ain't signing any more (or: it's not enough not to abuse your wife to be a good husband)

Update 2/10/2012. Rabbis Jack Moline and Daniel Zemet, the writers of the letter, have released a YouTube video of themselves reciting the letter (which means it's now public), and it's being posted on Facebook, asking people to "like" it. I'm not, for obvious reasons. If it comes around to you, then, well, you'll get to make your own choice.

To the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet:

Over the past year, those of us who have been paying attention have seen an increasing amount of bad, if not shocking, news from Israel. We have read of assaults – against women and girls, against non-Jewish clergy, against the sacred structures and books of Muslims – and other acts of bigotry by Jews who call themselves religious, as well as physical attacks against the IDF by Israelis who call themselves Zionist. Those of us in particular who claim or aspire to a leadership role, however modest, need to respond, and two rabbis – one of whom I know and respect and honor – have written a letter condemning in no uncertain terms these actions, J Street, an organization I affiliate with, has circulated it. It should be, as they say, a slam dunk, a no-brainer, an easy win.

I am writing to tell you why I am not going to sign.

The letter presents itself as a call for “Religious Ethical Zionism,” which certainly sounds wonderful. I would love to think of myself as part of a vanguard promoting it – it would give me that warm, righteous feeling I so rarely have. To be quite honest, I’m not always sure what people actually mean by Zionism these days, but I do have some ideas about what an ethical-religious vision might involve:

  • It could be the claim that Jewish religious practice needs to make the practitioner more open to the needs and experiences of the other;
  • It could be an insistence that any teaching that contributed to an atmosphere of dehumanization or delegitimization of one’s opponents, whether Jewish or not, could not be called Torah;
  • It could be a serious campaign to learn and respond to the experience of those who are strangers in the community and State;
  • It could be a move towards a Mussar-like approach, demanding a rigorous honesty about one’s own flaws.
It could be any number of things, things I haven’t even imagined. One thing I do know, though:

Being ethical is more than not being a creep.

Here is the core of the letter:

“We stand in solidarity with the victims of these crimes, believing that those who perpetrate them cross the line that separates righteousness from immorality. We condemn these acts as desecrations of human beings and of our sacred tradition. We call upon [the] Israeli government and legal authorities to bring these criminals to justice.

“We call upon the leaders of all branches and forms of Judaism to denounce these crimes for what they are: a denigration of the essential Jewish teaching tht honors the divine imate in which every human being is created.”

That’s it? The religious ethical vision is don’t do crime?

We can’t let ourselves off the hook that easily. To be able to call ourselves or our approach “ethical” – to wear that badge, to tell ourselves that story about ourselves as we drift off to sleep – shouldn’t we be actively trying to make the lives of others better? Or at least addressing the roots of criminal behavior in non-criminal (but still abhorrent) culture?

I have no doubt that the writers of the letter had the best of intentions – a desire to craft a statement that as broad a range of Jews as possible could sign on. That’s a noble desire. But I’m afraid that by using the language of “this constitutes an ethical response,” we send a signal to others that we think that it’s sufficient, when in fact it’s barely the beginning. Worse, I’m afraid that we will fool ourselves.