No, Shmuel Rosner, Jews Should Not Keep Their Politics Out Of Passover

Shmuel Rosner suggests we should keep Passover apolitical and disdains the new Seders that reconfigure the Haggadah:

In some ways, new readings of the Haggadah are a blessing. They take an ancient text and make it relevant. They make it easier for disconnected Jews to find meaning in the Passover Seder. They enable a contemporary — often secular — Jew to relate to a text that is in many ways culturally foreign. And it is reasonable to expect that a text that was devised in a messy and unorderly process over hundreds of years will continue to evolve.

But in other ways, the modern Haggadot are a curse. They take a historically unifying celebration of a people and turn it into a politically divisive event. Some Jews celebrate their Passover by mourning an occupation of land; others celebrate by highlighting the reclamation of the same land. Some Jews celebrate by stressing the need for compassion for the stranger; others celebrate by underscoring the merits of tribalism. Passover is a time for Jews to acknowledge their shared roots and their covenants of fate and destiny. Yet many new Haggadot define Jewish groups by pitting them against one another.

They also trivialize Judaism and its sacred festivals and texts. And this is not unique to Passover. There’s a growing tendency among Jews — whether rabbis, teachers, community leaders or lay people — to employ Jewish texts to score political points. A Passover Seder during which you spend time criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies or regretting the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Gaza is not a “relevant” Seder, it is a mediocre and redundant one. Passover is for celebrating the transcendent, the mysterious, the eternal, not rehashing worn-out political debates. It is a night to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.

Oh dear. Yet another ‘don’t politicize the actually already politicized, and fundamentally political’ screed. Rosner will get ample pushback from Jewish folks themselves on this piece of pompous hectoring, but let me throw in my (external) tuppence.

Rosner would have done well enough to have stopped at the first paragraph quoted above. The ‘modern Haggadot‘ are indeed a blessing that takes many forms; besides the ones Rosner himself notes above, I can add–as a non-Jewish person who has been fortunate enough to participate in a couple of Seders himself thanks to some kind invitations from near and dear Jewish friends–that the modern Haggadot make it possible for folks like me to gain insights into the history and practices of Judaism, into how the Jewish sensibility, such as it is, has come about, and what its present day concerns are. My participation in these Seders has added to my respect for the spirit of social justice and the concern for freedom that animates so many of my Jewish friends. It is no exaggeration to say that my views on the Palestinian crisis and the rights of the Palestinian are a direct consequence of my encounters with Jewish writings and thoughts on these subjects.

Moreover, and Rosner really should know this better than anyone else, Jews are not a monolithic bloc; tremendous diversity of political, cultural, religious, and moral opinion is to be found among them. Remember that old saw about ‘ask two Jews, and you get three opinions’?  Debates and argumentation and contentiousness–sometimes fertile, sometimes futile–are found here in ample measure; why should Passover be any different? Indeed, wouldn’t engaging in so-called ‘politically divisive’ celebrations of Passover be a classically Jewish thing to do?

Rosner considers the ‘politicization’ of Passover to follow from the usage of Jewish texts to ‘score political points,’ an act that he considers makes Passover Seders ‘mediocre and redundant.’ Au contraire; paying attention to the political subtext of Passover, casting Seders in a form relevant to everyday politics keeps Passover alive and reinvigorates it for the next generation, especially for those secular Jews who might not be so taken by its connections with the with spiritual and the transcendent. These new understandings can help bring about new debates on theological, moral, and political issues, keeping alive Judaism’s intense engagements in these domains. Seders featuring the ‘modern Haggadot’ do not ‘trivialize’ religious texts; they bring them alive in newer ways.

So Rosner’s conclusion above is correct in at least one sense: Passover is a night “to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.” The folks coming up with modern Haggadot are doing just that, while Rosner is the one forcing Passover into a “preconceived political platform.” The supposedly apolitical never is.



Brian Williams Is Right: War Is Beautiful, And We Are Fascinated By It

Brian Williams has offended many with his invocation of the ‘beauty’ of the weapons fired into Syria on Thursday. But he is right: war and its weapons are beautiful, and we are surrounded by them; we succumb all to easily to their embrace, to the clarion call of war, precisely because we find them beautiful. As I noted in a post about the phenomenon of Israelis pulling up lawn chairs to watch the bombardment of Gaza in 2014:

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatant can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN…and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay….They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

Or, in a post on John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’:

we were spectators and consumers of [the Iraq war]; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life….War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Or, in wondering about the political consistency of Christopher Hitchens’ views:

[W]hy would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may…be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

There is a caveat, of course:

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.

When Brian Williams offered his views on the sight of cruise missiles being fired into a dark night he was articulating a sensibility which lies deep in the nation’s spirit–“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”; he was merely articulating what many others felt. I say ‘we’ above again and again, because I do not think we can simply condemn Williams and leave ourselves out of the picture.

Missile Firing Day: The Republic’s Inaugural Day Is Here

There is a popular and enduring American fiction that the US President is sworn into office on something called Inauguration Day, which is commemorated on January 20th in Washington DC. Seasoned students of the Republic are well aware, however, that the actual, truly meaningful, Inauguration Day is not so rigidly anchored to a particular freezing day, a particular locale, one that makes it decidedly inconvenient for most Americans to participate in any meaningful way. Instead, Inauguration Day is a floater; it takes place on a select day later in the year following the elections–when the President-elect decides that the time is right to launch a few missiles–or perhaps a long-range bombing raid or two–at distant targets. Such an inaugural method offers some distinct advantages over the model commonly supposed to exist.

First, the firing of the missiles prompts an almost immediate civics lesson as curious citizens hear–for the first time–about things called ‘Presidential war powers’ or ‘Congressional approval for declarations of war.’ Some devoted folks even open copies of the US Constitution; most others use this as an opportunity to learn about the relationships between the different branches of the government. Admittedly, the judicial branch is somewhat shortchanged in this context; no Supreme Court Justice is required for the swearing in, and there is little talk of it in connection with the President’s war powers.

Second, on a related point, the citizens of the American republic also enjoy the benefits of many history and geography lessons pertaining to the historical and spatial location of this particular act of missile-firing. Where is this country that we have just attacked? How many times have we attacked it before? What sorts of reasons have been adduced in the past for similar attacks? Small children learning how to count can also be profitably engaged by teaching them the serial number of the latest instance of bombing; ‘forty-one, forty-two…what comes next? Forty-three!’; obviously, such counting would have to be restricted to just post-WWII instances to make it less intimidating for our little ones.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the nation comes together in a fashion quite unlike any other. The traditional Inauguration Day often features demonstrations and protests by disgruntled losers; Missile Firing Day produces effusive proclamations of patriotism and calls to ‘support the troops.’ Political pundits, much given to expending considerable ink from their poison pens in attacking the Presidents, now lay them down and term the President-elect ‘presidential’ (c.f. the related phenomena of hailing the parading of war widows as ‘presidential.’)

Missile Firing Day, the 2017 edition, is here. This time, the US has launched sixty Cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. (After courteously and politely informing the Russians so that the Syrian military could also move its military assets out of the way.) President-elect Donald Trump has now, in the words of at least one former critic, just ‘become President of the United States.’  These missiles’ most effective vanquishing will be that of former critics of the regime. A nation united can never be defeated.

Inaugural Day is here; long live the Republic.

On Congratulating A ‘Dropout’

A few years ago, I went out for dinner and drinks with some friends of mine at a Manhattan restaurant. As we placed our orders, I noticed my waiter looked familiar; he smiled, walked over, and said, “Hey professor, remember me? It’s D_; I took your Modern Philosophy class a couple of years ago.” Indeed, I did; I remembered him quite clearly as a budding comic book artist, someone who was normally quiet and reserved in class, but sometimes spoke up to offer a thoughtful comment or two. His facial expressions were often more eloquent; he frequently seemed to perk up in response to either the passages read out loud in class, or to the commentary I offered. (Truth be told, this form of feedback was highly gratifying; it often helped sustain me during our long class meetings at night.) D_ was also a thoughtful writer, keen to improve his writing, and to this end, often came to meet me in my office hours to discuss his papers. In any case, I asked him what he was up to now, fully expecting to hear a variant of the usual “I’ve got x more classes before I finish,” or “I graduated last year and am now doing y.” D_’s response was “Professor, your class changed my life; after I took it, I dropped out of college!”

My student did not offer me too elaborate an explanation of what influence my class had had on him, and given my social commitments, I could not press much further. He did say that he was now spending more time on what he really wanted to do; from my perspective, he seemed much happier than I had ever seen him before. I can only venture a guess as to what effect the content of our class–one devoted largely to sixteenth and seventeenth century metaphysics and epistemology–could have had on my student: I suspect that talking about these sorts of foundational issues might have broadened my student’s perspectives on his own life and his attendant scheme of priorities. Thinking critically in one domain can often prompt critical inquiry in others; perhaps my student had realized that he was in college for the wrong reasons; perhaps he was merely going through the motions, and that his true passions lay elsewhere. Perhaps the concentration on questions in my class that were never asked elsewhere in my student’s life had prompted him to examine further those unexamined verities in his life that were keeping him in college; the result of that inquiry might  have been to prompt him reorder his life’s priorities and make a bold decision to reconfigure how he lived it; perhaps he had realized that he had merely been molding himself into an ‘acceptable’ and ‘respectable’ form for the ‘real world.’ Perhaps philosophy had enabled the examined life and found it wanting in crucial regards. My student had made an existential choice in response.

After D_ made this pronouncement, I slapped him on the back and said, “Well done!” It’s not everyday that I congratulate a ‘drop-out.’ But D_ was sincere; and he had, like many others before him, showed that that term is far more pejorative than it needs to be. Alasdair Macintyre reportedly once said that “The point of a modern university education should be to ensure that it leaves the student entirely unfitted to the modern world.” There is a great deal to disagree with the way the modern world is structured and run; and too much of modern university education merely aids and abets those pathologies. I’m happy to have contributed, if only in the most minor of ways, to weakening one person’s allegiance to a way of life he had not chosen for himself, and had no further interest in pursuing.

Max Weber On The Ubiquity Of ‘Meaning’ In ‘Social Life’ And ‘Nature’

In “The Concept of ‘Following a Rule'” (Weber: Selections in Translation, ed. W. G. Runciman, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 107) Max Weber writes:

If we separate in our minds the ‘meaning’ which we find ‘expressed’ in an object or event from those elements in the object or event which are left over when we abstract precisely that ‘meaning,’ and if we call an enquiry which considers only these latter elements a ‘naturalistic’ one, then we get a broader concept of ‘nature,’ which is quite distinct from the previous one. Nature is what is ‘meaningless’ – or, more correctly, an event becomes part of ‘nature’ if we do not ask for its ‘meaning.’ But plainly in that case the opposite of ‘nature,’ in the sense of the ‘meaningless,’ is not ‘social life’ but just the ‘meaningful’ – that is, the ‘meaning’ which can be attached to, or ‘found in,’ an event or object, from the metaphysical ‘meaning’ given to the cosmos in a system of religious doctrine down to the ‘meaning’ which the baying of one of Robinson Crusoe’s hounds ‘has’ when a wolf is approaching.

In ‘The Concept of ‘Following A Rule’ Weber was concerned to provide an extended critique of the notion put forward by Rudolf Stammler that–roughly–‘social’ life could be demarcated from ‘nature’ on the basis of the criteria that social life was characterized by rule-following; it is this ‘following a rule’ which generates the meaning attached to social events; Robinson Crusoe, bound ‘only’ by nature and his own desires and constraints follows no such rules; his is not a social life; it is life lived in ‘nature.’ As Weber went on to argue, such a distinction was not enough; Crusoe’s existence on his isolated island could be interpreted to be bound by ‘rules’ too; the curious social scientist just had to look farther afield, perhaps at the laws of nature that Crusoe was bound by, perhaps the rhythms of a daily routine that best served his continued existence and survival. The boundaries between the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ cannot be so easily drawn; the social cannot so easily be described by a logic different from that used to describe nature.

In the passage above, Weber notes that ‘meaning’ is far too loose a notion to do the work that such a distinction would seek to make it do; ‘meaning’ is ubiquitous depending on the perspectives and interpretations at play; we can read meaning into and out of natural events just as easily as we do with social ones. If we are determined to describe ‘nature’ as ‘meaningless’ we will not obtain ‘social life’ as its converse, but rather, just the ‘meaningful,’ which will not map on precisely to what we understand in normal practice by ‘nature.’ This is a point that should be familiar to those who struggle to provide theories of meaning in the philosophy of language; far too much is found ‘meaningful’–using explicitly linguistic units or otherwise–for one all-encompassing theory to do do justice to the concept.

An Unexpected Lesson On The Emotional Complexity Of Children

On Sunday, while watching David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon, my daughter turned to me during one of its late tear-jerking moments–as the titular dragon, apparently named Elliott, faces grave danger from the usual motley crew of busybodies, law enforcement types, and crass exploiters who would imprison him for all sorts of nefarious purposes–and said that ‘sometimes sad movies make you sad, they make you cry.’ (For ‘Elliott,’ substitute ‘ET‘ and you will get some idea of what was afoot in the movie.) As she said this, her lips quivered, she swallowed rapidly, and her voice quavered and broke. She might even have dropped an actual tear. A short while later, as poor Elliott was further mistreated, she burst into tears and burrowed face down into the couch, snuggling up against her mother.

I watched this behavior with some astonishment–before I ran to offer her some consolation to the effect that this being a Hollywood movie, I could predict with some confidence that Elliott was going to be just fine. Indeed he was.

But my surprise and astonishment remained. For some reason, even though tears and crying are an all too frequent occurrence in my four-year old’s life–as they are in those of most others like her–I had not considered that she could be moved to tears by a melodramatic or melancholy movie. Tears on being denied sundry goodies, yes; tears in response to physical injury, perceived or imaginary, yes; but tears in response to the misfortunes of others, tears that originated in sympathy or empathy, no. Perhaps I was learning yet another lesson about the emotional complexity of children; perhaps I had not been paying sufficient attention to my child’s responses on previous, similar, occasions (she has often, of course, been frightened or awed by the images she has seen during her ‘weekly movie treat’); in either case, I had been educated. And impressed.

It is not entirely clear to me why I did not think children as young as my daughter could have had the reaction she did to cinematic and cultural offerings. After all, as I noted above, they are extraordinarily sensitive; and lacking a full arsenal of linguistic and emotional resources for coping with injury, crying makes all too-frequent an appearance in their responses to external stimuli. In the case of my daughter, I was also taken aback by her announcement that she was feeling ‘sad,’ that she was going to cry. The reaction that followed this announcement, one that was also, I think, infected with a kind of sympathetic fear for Elliott’s fate, would have been far more comprehensible to me; it would have followed a pattern of spontaneous, highly emotional reactions visible elsewhere. But her–dare I say, articulate–preamble threw me off. It was evidence of a verbal and emotional maturity that I had not previously reckoned with.

This will not be the last time, obviously, that my daughter will say or do something that will surprise me. Some of these surprises will be more pleasant than others. May the tribe of those pleasures of parenting increase.

Pat Tillman, The Skeptical ‘Warrior’ And ‘Hero’

The Pat Tillman who is the centerpiece of Jon Krakauer‘s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman is a familiar, often admirable, archetype: the ‘warrior’ who wants to fight, to win glory, but who doubts the moral standing of the domain in which he will exercise his courage and skills, and as such, his own standing as a hero. This kind of soldier finds deeply problematic all those aspects of military life which are the subject of critique by those on the ‘outside’: the fascist discipline, the endless chickenshit (so memorably described by Paul Fussell in Wartime), the dubious justification of deadly violence, the quiescent acceptance of political atrocity. This ‘warrior’ finds, in the company he keeps, the best and worst humanity has to offer; his companions are not the bravest, the best, or anything like that; they are, instead, in the diversity they embody, perfectly ordinary. The battlefield promises sublimity, but it is also a zone for stupidity, cowardice, treachery, and the worst humanity has to offer. This ‘warrior’ sees it all; takes it all in; and continues to fight, to support his ‘brothers in arms.’ He remains conflicted; not for him the simple clarity of those who obey orders and care for little else. His inconsistency is a familiar one; we are all afflicted by it. We know we can despise something one moment, and yet still be unable to tear ourselves away from it, because of a conflicting commitment.

Tillman, an NFL player who signed up for the US Army after 9/11 because he wanted to ‘do something,’ to ‘fight for the right thing,’ found, almost immediately, that the military was not what he imagined it to be, that the wars he would fight were not the ones he imagined them to be. Yet, he fought on, unwilling to back out and quit even when he had the chance to do so–his contractual commitment called for a three-year stint, and he would complete it, despite his increasing disgust at the conduct of war, at military manners and ways of being. Given the conflict that seemed to be an ever-present aspect of his life in the military, his life’s end seemed grimly appropriate: Tillman was killed, in Afghanistan, by ‘friendly fire’ and his death was covered up by a military and administration keen to use his death for its propaganda value, to cover up any of its own operational, tactical, and ultimately, moral, shortcomings.

There will be more wars in our future, and many more soldiers will die fighting them. They will continue to fight alongside the ‘dregs of humanity’ and the ‘best their nation has to offer’; they will be led by clowns and geniuses alike; they will kill innocents. And  they will include, in their ranks, soldiers like Pat Tillman (and Bowe Bergdahl.) They will be caught up in the rush, but they will find time to step back and cast a quizzical glance over it all. Reading about them is useful, especially in the American context; we are a nation that fights wars all the time; we should know who fights for us, and what is on their minds. We should expect to find humans in all their complicated glory.