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.



Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’: Talking About Religion, Identity, And Culture In A Philosophy Classroom

Last week, the students in this semester’s edition of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class began reading and discussing Chaim Potok‘s The Chosen. (We have just concluded our discussions of Chapters 1-5 i.e., Book One, which details the initial encounters between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, the book’s central protagonists.) I had not read the novel before the semester began, and had placed it on this semester’s reading list–the organizing theme is ‘the religious novel and its intersections with identity and culture’–on the recommendations of some friends who had. Thus far, this has been an exceedingly good move; I can wholeheartedly recommend the book to any other philosophers looking to place fiction on their reading lists.

This is because, as might be suspected, the book provides ample material to spark philosophical discussion in the classroom–Potok was a philosopher by training, and it shows. I had not looked at his biography too closely before the semester began, but once I began reading the book, it was blindingly obvious to me that the author had either studied philosophy extensively or was an academic himself. (The central give-away for me was the mentioning of Russell and Whitehead‘s Principia Mathematica by Danny Saunders as he describes his intellectual interests and career plans to Reuven.) Literary critics might complain about the heavy-handedness of the symbolism employed in these preliminary chapters but philosophy teachers will not complain about the fairly explicit invitation to delve into the questions of how religious faith and practice inform our sense of self, what their limits are, and how intra-group differences can be more sharply drawn than even inter-group ones. Many of my students come from backgrounds where religion has formed an integral part of their upbringing; some have attended Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish parochial schools so they can relate quite easily to the yeshiva-educated central characters of The Chosen. (It does not hurt that the novel is set in Brooklyn itself.). These students have a diverse set of reactions to the influence of their parochial education on their identities; their discussion of the themes The Chosen focuses on lets them draw upon their personal experiences in their reactions to it.

The selection of The Chosen for a philosophy class also makes an acute topical sense in these times, for the opening chapters permit an examination of the peculiar position of a minority culture–one made up of refugees and their descendants–surrounded by a dominant one, one to which it feels it must prove itself in times of war and greater patriotism, even if at the cost of having to make adjustments to its dominant sense of priorities and norms. The use of a baseball game, the playing of which takes up the entire first chapter, allowed for a discussion of the intersections of nationalism and sport too–how and why does the sport field function as a proving ground for ideological claims?

I’ve often written on this blog on how fiction helps my teaching of philosophy; the opening weeks of this semester have offered a gratifying confirmation of that claim.

Israel And A Jewish Solution To The Palestinian Problem

When I was eight years old, my mother told me the story of the Jews. We were on a month-long vacation, the mother of all road-trips; our destinations included the mountains and the valleys of Kashmir and the Garhwal. One day, after a long and tiring drive through innumerable twisting roads, we had reached our long-sought destination for the day, a charming forest bungalow, and after we had eaten dinner and settled in for the night, she drew my brother and me close to her and told us their tale.

It was a story that haunted and inspired me: a story of suffering and perseverance, of persecution and survival, of endurance and persistence in the face of adversity. It was a tale of dispersal and flight, of resistance, of the preservation of the things most precious to the Jewish identity. She told us of the Holocaust, of the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps, and then, she told us of Israel, and its creation as a safe haven, finally, for an eternally persecuted people. She told us of a land reclaimed from the desert, made fertile and populated by a people who saw within its borders a chance to make their lives anew, away from the death and destruction that had been visited them during mankind’s most horrible conflict. She told us of their continued fight for survival through the wars that followed; their continued and enduring resilience. She told us of their learning and culture; she told us of their intellectual accomplishments in science, literature and the arts; she told us of the value they placed on education and lifelong learning.

And, then, unforgettably, bringing up the example of the Rothschilds, she told us of Jewish philanthropy, how a long-oppressed and suffering people had taken their immense, hard-earned wealth and used it for the greater good, deciding that their pain would be unique only in that they were determined to not let others suffer as they had, that they would do what they could to decrease the sum total of the inevitable pain and anguish that is every human’s lot on this earth.

I do not remember if my mother told us about Palestine and its dispossessed people. Perhaps she did, but only briefly. Perhaps she meant to tell us another time. Or perhaps she did, but I could not pay attention, for I was riveted by other components of the tale I had just heard.  Perhaps my mother only told me the Exodus version of happenings in the Middle East, and elsewhere. All stories are incomplete; this one surely was.

I grew familiar with the story of the Palestinians much later; the moral burden that placed upon the residents of Israel and perhaps Jews everywhere, only became clearer to me much later in my life. By then, because of the story I had first heard as a eight-year old, and its storyteller, and because–other than Edward Said–the strongest and clearest voices that pointed out Israeli missteps were always Jewish, I had come to believe–even as figurative scales fell from my eyes–that a resolution of the ‘Palestinian problem’ lay within the moral, intellectual and political reach of the Jewish people.

It might be their sternest challenge yet, to find the moral clarity and the political courage to undo undoubted injustice, one which Judaism’s ethical codes most certainly instruct them to.

Larry Gopnik: A Serious Man Dealt a Bad Hand

Ethan and Joel Cohen‘s A Serious Man is a very funny, very bleak movie. It is very funny because it points out that life is really quite ludicrous, a gigantic joke at our expense; it is very bleak because it points out that life is really quite ludicrous, a gigantic joke…you see where I’m going with this. Life isn’t just one damn thing after another; very often, it’s just one damn painful, miserable, mystifying thing after another. Its terminus–death–doesn’t promise much more than a continuation of the same mysteries that plagued us during our conscious, waking lives.

Larry Gopnik is a physics professor–seeking tenure–who is used to abstruse mathematics making clear the perplexing details of the reality it purports to model; he can master its seemingly inexplicable formalisms better than he can the incomprehensible actions of the humans around him. His wife wants to leave him for another man, one who imagines himself a rabbi in disguise; his students don’t like the grades he gives them; his kids are proving, yet again, that you have no idea who your kids really are. And his rabbis and his faith can offer little consolation, except to descend into the kinds of homilies and bromides that can only comfort those who utter them. Life seems cruel, relentlessly, puzzlingly so.

Tales of middle-aged men encountering crisis and dysfunction at the workplace and at home are familiar to us (consider American Beauty for instance). Our protagonists sometimes transcend these cosmic misfortunes; perhaps they find new talents in themselves, or in those that surround them; perhaps they indulge in dramatic acts that are supposed to jolt them out of their grooves–they engage in various versions of getting tattoos, buying sports cars, or finding lovers half their age.  Larry Gopnik does none of these; rather, bemused and befuddled by the endless series of insult and injury sent his way, he seeks help again and again, hoping desperately that he will find answers and solace. (His encounters with his sexy, sunbathing-in-the-nude neighbor, despite involving the lighting up of marijuana joints, do not lead to therapeutic sexual consummation.) None, of course, is forthcoming.

A classic, well-worn trope in cinema that provides agonizing tension is the depiction of fragile hope: a condemned prisoner is promised deliverance, sees it on the horizon, and then has it snatched away. The narrative arc of A Serious Man is similar: we fear for Larry’s fate, we dare to hope as his star rises, and then, in the movie’s brutal, unrelieved ending, as storm clouds gather (literally), we learn that that hope was illusory. Life might not just be indifferent to us; it might actually be against us.

This last possibility is the most unnerving of all; it is hinted at by the movie’s epilogue, in which the Coen Brothers present us with a Jewish folktale, about a family who  might have brought a curse down on their heads by inviting a dybbuk across their threshold. Gopnik might be their descendant; perhaps he is merely paying for the sins of his ancestors. But the tale itself leaves it unclear which sin could have provoked the cosmos’ curse–bringing a dybbuk home or assaulting a harmless old man.

In the end, none of it matters. We will all die; we will often be miserable and unhappy; we will receive no satisfactory answers to our most anguished and persistent queries. This is an absurd state of affairs. No wonder we are a species whose laughter turns to tears, which often finds humor in the misfortune of others. We are a joke, and in our clearest moments, we know it.

Philip Roth and Writing for One’s ‘Community’

In reviewing Claudia Roth Pierpont‘s Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books, Adam Mars-Jones writes:

Letting Go…hadn’t yet been published when Roth was given a hostile reception at a symposium organised by Yeshiva University….The topic was ‘The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction’, and the idea seemed to be, if he didn’t already have such a crisis, to lay one on for him. The first question he was asked was: ‘Would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?’….

There might have been places where Pietro di Donato, author of Christ in Concrete, would be grilled in fine detail about his depiction of Italian immigrants. There were certainly places where Ralph Ellison would be called out for Invisible Man’s representation of the Negro and for his views on the race question. But at Yeshiva University Philip Roth was always going to be the main dish. By accepting a Jewish university’s invitation…Roth was also implicitly accepting that he had responsibilities towards his community.

Even if the hostile questioning lasted half an hour…The profound effect it had seems to combine a rejection of the forces that held him to account and a rejection of the elements of his personality that led him to expect anything different….Roth’s idealism…was certainly transformed, not poisoned but pickled, perhaps, by the bitter juices of experience.

The immediate effect of the Yeshiva confrontation…was that Roth resolved never to write about Jews again. Of course he did, but from that point on he took pleasure in defying any party line.

Writing for a community while informed by some supposed responsibility to it feels like an impossible burden to bear. This is not because the writer (or some other artist) is a magically autonomous entity outside the realm of moral judgment; rather, it is because the supposed community is not easily defined. A ‘community’ is as nebulous an entity as ‘nation’, as problematic in the way it is invoked and used for chastisement and censure.That old slogan “no entity without identity” seems particularly apropos in this situation: Who and what are included in the community? What are its origins and extents? Who occupies its margins, who its center?

This problem of demarcation and definition immediately renders the writer’s fulfillment of his supposed ‘responsibilities’ to his ‘community’ intractable: Who should she write for? Whom should she represent? Whose voice should she articulate? Which agendas should be hers?

Those who demand responsibilities toward a community from those who write, all the while bearing the nominal identity of this supposed group, are very often a privileged group, comfortably ensconced in a dominant position. When they make their demands for fidelity, they are all too often seeking a commitment to their ideologically inflected vision of the community, their positions of privilege and power, their roles as community story-tellers.

The writer who is accused of having abdicated his responsibilities to the community has, more often than not, complicated this comfortable picture. In those cases, such accusations should be worn like badges of honor.