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.

Stephen Jay Gould’s Weak Argument For Science And Religion’s ‘Separate Domains’

Stephen Jay Gould‘s famous ‘Two Separate Domains‘ argues, roughly, that religion and science operate in different domains of inquiry, and as such do not conflict with each other:

We get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

Or, science gets the descriptive and the quantitative, religion gets the prescriptive and the qualitative. Facts on one side; values on the other.

‘Two Separate Domains’ is an essay I read some years ago; yesterday, I discussed it with my philosophy of religion class. On this revisitation, I was struck by how weak and narrowly focused Gould’s arguments are.

Most crucially, Gould is almost entirely concerned with responding to a very particular religious tradition: Christianity. Moreover, within that, he takes himself to be pushing back against that species of Protestant fundamentalism which would indulge in literal interpretations of the Bible to promulgate creationism:

I do not doubt that one could find an occasional nun who would prefer to teach creationism in her parochial school biology class or an occasional orthodox rabbi who does the same in his yeshiva, but creationism based on biblical literalism makes little sense in either Catholicism or Judaism for neither religion maintains any extensive tradition for reading the Bible as literal truth rather than illuminating literature, based partly on metaphor and allegory…and demanding interpretation for proper understanding. Most Protestant groups, of course, take the same position—the fundamentalist fringe notwithstanding.

Later in the essay, Gould concentrates on responding to a pair of Papal encyclicals on the subject of evolution, issued by Pius XII in 1950 and John Paul II in 1996, the differences between which–the latter takes on board the scientific evidence for evolution–Gould takes as evidence for the flexibility of the Church to respond to scientific findings in a manner which preserves its own ‘non-overlapping magisteria.’

Several problems now present themselves. First, there are a diversity of hermeneutical approaches in different religious traditions, with varying reliance on metaphorical, allegorical, literal, or historically contextualized readings, which generate conflicts of various degrees with the content of scientific statements. (As a student in my class said, getting rid of literal interpretations in Islam would remove, for many followers, their reason for believing in the Koran’s claims.) Second, Gould relies on an untenable fact-value distinction. But science’s empirical claims are infused with value-laden choices, and religion’s value-laden claims rest on empirical foundations (neither domain of inquiry offers a purely descriptive or prescriptive claim and are thus entangled.) Third, and perhaps most crucially in my opinion, Gould’s task is made considerably easier–at least apparently, in this essay–by concentrating on a religious tradition which has a central church–the Catholic–with an authoritative head, the Pope, who issues documents which articulate a position representative of the religious institution, and which can be expected to serve as instruction for its many followers’ practices and beliefs. That is, that religion’s practices can be usefully understood as being guided by such institutions, persons, and writings–they are representative of it. Such is obviously not the case with many other religious traditions, and I simply cannot see Gould’s strategy working for Islam or Judaism or Hinduism. (Buddhism is another matter altogether.)

Gould’s irenic stance is admirable, but I cannot see that the strategy adopted in this essay advances his central thesis very much.

Isaac Bashevis Singer on A Rabbi’s Crisis

In Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s “I Place My Reliance on No Man” (collected with other short stories in Short Friday) Rabbi Jonathan Danziger goes to pray in his synagogue one Monday morning. As he prays, he encounters a crisis:

When the rabbi came to the words, ‘I place my reliance on no man,’ he stopped. The words stuck in his throat.

For the first time he realized that he was lying. No one relied on people more than he. The whole town gave him orders, he depended on everyone. Anyone could do him harm. Today it happened in Yampol, tomorrow it would happen in Yavrov. He, the rabbi, was slave to every powerful man in the community. He must hope for gifts, for favors, and must always seek supporters. The rabbi began to examine the other worshippers. Not one of them needed allies. No one else worried about who might be for or against him.  No one cared a penny for the tales of rumormongers. ‘Then what’s the use of lying?’ the rabbi thought. ‘Whom am I cheating? The Almighty?’ The rabbi shuddered and covered his face in shame….Suddenly, something inside the rabbi laughed. he lifted his hand as if swearing an oath. A long-forgotten joy came over him, and he felt an unexpected determination. In one moment everything became clear to him…

Rabbi Jonathan Danziger then asks one of the congregants, Shloime Meyer, if he can work for him, picking fruits in his orchard. He will no longer serve as rabbi. His mind is made up. That life is behind him.

As the story ends, the rabbi wonders:

Why did you wait for so long? Couldn’t you see from the start that one cannot serve God and man at the same time?

Danziger might have imagined that as rabbi he would spend his days studying the scriptures, engaging in learned debates about their interpretations, dispensing sage advice to the perplexed, and being respected and admired for his great learning and moral rectitude. Instead, his certifications met with disfavor and disapproval, and his parishioners found a veritable litany of complaints to level against him. He might have contemplated a life spent in contemplation of the sacred, but instead he found himself immersed in the profane.

Rabbi Danziger’s resolution of his crisis is perhaps novel, but his crisis is not. He has come to realize like all too many of us, that our exalted visions of our work and our life, are sadly incongruent with the actual lived reality of our lives. (The What People Think I Do/What I Really Do meme often captures this quite well.) Our levels of awareness about this fact can vary. Some rabbis might be just as immersed as Danziger in the all too worldly goings on about them, but might disregard this evidence in favor of holding to their preconceived notions of their imagined life. Such illusions might be desirable too. The mundane realities of life sometimes require, as a palliative of sorts, some elaborate storytelling about what we have let ourselves in for.  But only if they do not create the kind the painful dissonance that finally forced Danziger to put down the holy scrolls and head for the orchards. The maintenance and sustenance of that inner discord can be more damaging than the price paid for a life left behind. In those cases, it might be better to seek the kind of reconceived life that Danziger sought.

Woody Allen’s Guide to Civil Disobedience and Revolution

Today is Easter Sunday. Jesus was a Jew and a rebel. So, on this great day in Jewish history, and in honor of Jewish rebellion, here is Woody Allen on civil disobedience and revolutions.

In perpetrating a revolution, there are two requirements: someone or something to revolt against and someone to actually show up and do the revolting. Dress is usually casual and both parties may be flexible about time and place but if either faction fails to attend, the whole enterprise is likely to come off badly. In the Chinese Revolution of 1650 neither party showed up and the deposit on the fall was forfeited.

The people or the parties revolted against are called the ‘oppressors’ and are easily recognized as they seem to be ones having all the fun. The ‘oppressors’ generally get to wear suits, own land, and play their radios late at night without being yelled at. Their job is to maintain the ‘status quo’, a condition where everything remains the same although they may be willing to paint every two years.

When the ‘oppressors’ become too strict, we have what is know as a police state, wherein all dissent is forbidden, as is chuckling, showing up in a bow tie, or referring to the mayor as ‘Fats.’ Civil liberties are greatly curtailed in a police state, and freedom of  speech is unheard of, although one is allowed to mime to a record. Opinions critical of the government are not tolerated, particularly about their dancing. Freedom of the press is also curtailed, and the ruling party ‘manages’ the news, permitting the citizens to hear only acceptable political ideas and ball scores that will not cause unrest.

The groups who revolt are called the ‘oppressed’ and can generally be seen milling about and grumbling or claiming to have headaches. (It should be noted that the oppressors never revolt and attempt to become the oppressed as that would entail a change of underwear.)

Some famous examples of revolutions are:

The French Revolution, in which the peasants seized power by force and quickly changed all the locks on the palace doors so that the nobles could not get back in. Then they had a large party and gorged themselves. When the nobles finally recaptured the palace they were forced to clean up and found many stains and cigarette burns.

The Russian Revolution, which simmered for years and suddenly erupted when the serfs finally realized that the Czar and the Tsar were one and the same person.

It should be noted that after a revolution is over, the ‘oppressed’ frequently take over and being acting like the ‘oppressors.’ Of course by then it is very hard to get them on the phone and money lent for cigarettes and gum during the fighting may as well be forgotten about.

As always, in the best comedy, there is enough truth to make our laughter just ever so rueful.

Note: Excerpted from ‘A Brief, Yet Helpful, Guide to Civil Disobedience’ in Without Feathers (Warner Brothers, New York, 1975), pp 111-112.

Generals and their Strategies: Patton and Napoleon on the Koran

Today, on my new Tumblr ( I posted two quotes on the Koran (or the Quran, take your pick). The first, by George S. Patton:

Just finished reading the Koran—a good book and interesting. (George S. Patton Jr., War As I Knew It, Bantam Books, 1981, page 5. War Diary for North Africa landings ‘Operation Torch’, 2nd November 1942)

Patton wrote these lines on board the USS Augusta as the Western Task Force headed for landings on Morocco to enter into battle with French Vichy Forces. (Operation Torch was an attack on French North Africa, ostensibly to remove  Axis forces from North Africa, improve Allied naval control of the Mediterranean and aid in the preparation, hopefully, of an invasion of Southern Europe in 1943.) He appears to have read the Koran as part of a self-imposed ‘backgrounder’ in Morocco’s history and culture. In his diary entries that follow, Patton keeps up a stream of commentary on Morocco’s culture and institutions, but shows little evidence of applying any particular principles gleaned from the Koran. There is, however, a note of a conversation with the Sultan of Morocco–during a meeting held after the surrender of Vichy forces–in which Patton’s reading of Koran might have helped:

When the initial conversation had terminated, he informed me that, since we were in Mohammedan country, he hoped the American soldier would show proper respect for Mohammedan institutions. I told him that such an order had been issued in forceful language prior to our departure from the United States and would be enforced. I further stated that since in all armies, including the American Army, there might be some foolish persons, I hoped that he would report to me any incidents of sacrilege which some individual soldier might commit.

Patton’s reading of the Koran then, appears to be a self-edificatory strategy: to equip himself with knowledge that would aid him in an understanding of a country, whose population was almost entirely Muslim, and which he would soon administer as a military governor.

The second quote is from Napoleon Bonaparte:

I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness. (Letter to Sheikh El-Messiri, (28 August 1798); published in Correspondance Napoleon edited by Henri Plon (1861), Vol.4, No. 3148, p. 420)

Napoleon being Napoleon, this drawing upon, and citing of the Koran, is more interesting. It foreshadows Napoleon’s concordat with the Catholic Church in 1801, which reinstated most of the Church’s civil status in France, his assembling the Jewish Grand Sanhedrin in 1806 and his establishing Judaism as one of the official religions of post-revolutionary France in 1807.  For Napoleon, religion was yet another arrow in his quiver, one that would aid in efficient rule. For a man who so easily moved from the military to the political and back again, this stocking of his arsenal would have been the proverbial no-brainer: a good general always calls upon all available resources in winning a battle or waging a protracted campaign.

Russell on Marx as Excessively Practical Messiah and Schoolman

In his sometimes cranky, often witty, and always erudite History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell paints deflationary portraits of many members of the Western philosophical tradition.  (Russell is particularly witty when dealing with Kant and Nietzsche; those treatments will soon form the subject of posts here). He also shows a rare talent for the artful digression, which I want to illustrate by pointing to a couple of his asides on Marx.

In a  chapter titled St. Augustine’s Philosophy and Theology, Russell, immediately after informing us that the eschatology of The City of God is “Jewish in origin, and came into Christianity mainly through the Book of Revelation” and that Augustine’s primary talent lay in bringing together the “sacred and profane history” of the Old Testament and relating it to the history of his time in “such a way that the fall of the Western Empire, and the subsequent period of confusion, could be assimilated by Christians without any unduly severe trial of their faith,” goes on to say:

The Jewish pattern of history, past and future, is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and unfortunate at all times. St. Augustine adapted this pattern to Christianity, Marx to Socialism. To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

Yahweh = Dialectial Materialism

The Messiah = Marx

The Elect = The Proletariat

The Church = The Communist Party

The Second Coming = The Revolution

Hell = Punishment of the Capitalists

The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth

I do not know if the analogizing of Marxism to a religion or the description of Marx as Messiah began with Russell–it certainly didn’t end with him–but I doubt if anyone has quite so deftly moved from a discussion of medieval philosophers to doing so.

Later, in a chapter titled Locke’s Political Philosophy, Russell, after noting that the labor theory of value is to be found in Locke, and may be traced back to Aquinas, quotes R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism:

The essence of the argument was that payment may properly be demanded by the craftsmen who make the goods, or by the merchants who transport them, for both labour in their vocation and serve the common need. The unpardonable sin is that of the middleman , who snatches private gain by the exploitation of public necessities. The true descendant of the doctrines of Aquinas is the labor theory of value. The last of the schoolmen was Karl Marx.

When Russell does get to discussing Marx directly, he is frank enough to admit that he finds Marx not philosophical enough:

Considered purely as a philosopher, Marx has grave shortcomings. He is too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time. His purview is confined to this planet, and, within this planet, to man.

Marx might have resisted the description of himself as a Prophet, and perhaps even as merely having inherited the mantle of an older tradition of philosophizing, but I doubt whether he would have reckoned it a serious criticism of his thought that it was all too tightly bound to man, to this earthly domain of concern.