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.



A Theological Lesson Via Military History

In Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (J. B Lipincott, New York, 1966, p. 85), Bernard B. Fall describes the build-up which foretold the grim military disaster to unfold at Dien Bien Phu–the lack of adequate defenses and ammunition, the poor tactical location etc–making note, along the way, of that curious mixture of arrogance, complacency, and overconfidence that infected French military leadership. There were ample notes of worry too, of course, and finally, even of the grim resignation that is often the military man’s lot. The deputy chief of staff of the French commander General Cogny, Lt. Col. Denef had written in an assessment to his commander that “It is too late to throw the machine into reverse gear….That battle will have to be fought on the scale of the whole Indochina peninsula or it will become a hopeless retreat.” As Fall notes:

In transmitting this report…Col. Bastiani, the chief of staff added a note of his which was deeply significant:

I fully agree…in either case, it will have to be the battle of the Commander-in-Chief. I think he must have foreseen the necessary requirements before letting himself into that kind of hornet’s nest.

This was the ultimate excuse of a staff officer: the situation was hopeless, the action made no sense, but there might after all be higher reason for all of this. “The Führer must know what he is doing.” This phrase had been repeated a hundred times over by the German defenders of Stalingrad as they senselessly fought on toward catastrophe.

The analogy that may be drawn with theological responses to the problem of evil is inescapable and irresistible. There is, all around us, misery and suffering and disease and pestilence afoot, all apparently for no good reason. How is this reconcilable with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God? One answer: evil is a ‘local’ disaster, the ‘badness’ of which vanishes when viewed from a broader, all-inclusive, synoptic perspective–the one God has.  From our epistemically limited perspective, we might be surrounded by catastrophes that suggest disorder and untrammeled badness, but zooming back reveals a larger plan within which these seeming disasters fall into place, directed onward and upward by a grand teleological scheme of greater order and good. (The chemotherapy kills healthy and cancer cells alike, but it heals the body. Trust the doctor; he knows best; he will make sense of your nausea, your hair loss, your weakened body. Or something like that.)

So if we are to ‘endure’ these disasters, we must reassure ourselves that someone, somewhere knows what time it is, what the score, the deal, is. Much like the determined soldier marching into battle, ours is not ask why, but to do or die. Our lot, of course, would be considerably improved if we knew why this was all necessary; after all, as Nietzsche had pointed out, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” For the theologically inclined and the militarily obedient, the ‘why’ is supplied by faith in the benevolence of the Supreme Commander. The rest of us are left to weakly reassure ourselves that this too shall pass. Or not.

Bertrand Russell On Deterrence By Making ‘Freedom More Pleasant’

In ‘What I Believe,’ an essay whose content–selectively quoted–was instrumental in him having his appointment at the City College of New York revoked¹, Bertrand Russell wrote:

One other respect in which our society suffers from the theological conception of ‘sin’ is the treatment of criminals. The view that criminals are ‘wicked’ and ‘deserve’ punishment is not one which a rational morality can support….The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty. Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective….the prevention of crime and the punishment of crime are two different questions; the object of causing pain to the criminal is presumably deterrent. If prisons were so humanized that a prisoner got a good education for nothing, people might commit crimes in order to qualify for entrance. No doubt prison must be less pleasant than freedom; but the best way to secure this result is to make freedom more pleasant than it sometimes is at present.

Russell was a logician, so he cannot resist making a simple logical point here: if you want prison to represent an uncomfortable alternative to ‘the world outside’ that constitutes an effective deterrent to crime, you have two choices: make prison conditions much worse, or make the state of ‘the world outside’ much better. Our reactions to the world we encounter rely on contrasts and conditioning; it took a princess used to the utter luxury of royal palaces to find the pea under the pile of mattresses unbearable; the parched wanderer in the desert finds the brackish water of a dusty oasis the sweetest nectar of all. It is not inconceivable that many who are used to endemic and grinding poverty, hunger, and violence might find prison not such a bad alternative, and find that its supposed terrors, when viewed from afar, are entirely lacking in deterrent effect. (That sad old saw about criminals committing crimes in order to get three square meals and a roof over their heads perhaps bears repeating here.)

Unsurprisingly, the vindictive and retributive mentality of societies informed at heart by the “theological conception of ‘sin’,” entirely unconcerned with the actual and effective amelioration of social ills, chooses the former of the options listed above. Moreover, the emphasis on retribution acts as a powerful distraction from clear thinking on what might have made criminals act the way they did–perhaps if ‘the world outside’ were improved, some of the causal chains leading to the commission of crime could be disrupted.

Note 1: The details of this shameful scandal and its gross violation of academic freedom  are still worth reading after all these years (especially because, as the Steven Salaita affair reminds us, academic freedom remains under assault.) Paul Edwards‘ ‘Appendix’ in Why I Am Not A Christian (Allen and Unwin, New York, 1957) contains the sordid and infuriating details. Edwards’ essay is in turn based on The Bertrand Russell Case (eds. Horace Kallen and John Dewey, Viking Press, 1941).

Dickipedia Was Invented For Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney‘s continued existence, his persistent and unconscionable consumption of space, oxygen, and sundry precious natural resources, has long been an airtight argument against the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God. To wit, does such a God know of his existence? If not, then he is not all-knowing. If God does know of his existence, his foul, malevolent presence, his blighting of our lives, why does he not bring it to an end? If he chooses to not do so, then he is not all-good. If he wants to, but cannot, then he is not omnipotent. QED.

As Ivan might have said in The Brothers Karamazov, if the price of admission to your heaven, your promised abode of well-being, your supposed land of milk and honey, O Lord, is to tolerate this Dick, then I’d rather be intolerant; if the fraternity of man includes this Dick, then I don’t wish to put up with this hazing.  Mighty theologians tremble in the face of the Cheney phenomenon; they prepare to change professions; they acknowledge defeat; they know well their usual sophisticated maneuvers, their slippery, sophistical evasions, will find no traction here. No invocation of the free will of man, no suggestions that the suffering of Man is the suffering of God, no suggestion that this benighted presence prepares us for greater bliss,  will do justice to this ineluctable fact, this producer of dread. We are, yet again, confronted with an awful truth: there is no God. There is, instead, this Dick.

Not only does Dick Cheney survive heart attacks–again and again, and I think, again, shoot friends, and wage illegal wars that cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, he shows up on national media, grinning and leering, reminding us that cartoon villains have a long way to go in catching up to him in the evil stakes. Defending the torture of innocents for the sake of a patently useless, ineffective and counterproductive tactic establishes that fact pretty clearly. Those not inclined to be force-fed this latest serving of Dick Soup will change channels or cancel subscriptions; the rest of us will defriend those who share video links showing his foul visage.

As mass-murdering war criminals go, this Dick hasn’t done too badly. He will never face trial, be cross-questioned, or spend time in jail, thanks to an administration that resolutely turns its face away–perhaps it holds its nose instead; he has many cheerleaders, who admire his forthright disavowal of humanity and decency, having long forsworn their own. Indeed, thanks to Halliburton and the determined dispensation of favors to cronies, he will continue acquire considerable fortunes, thumbing through gigantic stacks of greenbacks, now rapidly acquiring a distinctive shade of crimson thanks to the unwashable blood on his war-profiteering hands.

This Dick will live a long life, and die an old man, surrounded by those who, mysteriously, persist in their love for him. If the arc of his life thus far is any indication, he will feel no pain, no misery, no fear. In death, even as he is lowered into his grave, he will grin back at us, a rictus of triumph reminding us that he outwitted us all.

The only hope, if any, for this world, is that his grave will not be left unmarked. Perhaps sometime in the future, a well-placed and firmly hammered stake–or two, just to make sure–will bring deliverance and closure.

No Atheists In Foxholes? Plenty of Atheists In Cancer Wards

In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:

Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:

Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination–where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine

With that in mind, let us press on.

It does not take us too long to encounter Douthat’s current version of the answer I supplied. Here it is. ‘Liberalism’, in the context of the assisted suicide debate, is:

[A] worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

Thus, unsurprisingly, in the Maynard case:

[W]hen it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they [liberals] often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.

But perhaps liberals demur because they don’t think they can articulate a rationale for continuing a life of pain and discomfort, with no possibility of relief, one that saps the soul of those left behind, without descending into dishonest turnings away from the suffering at hand. I’ve read Tippett’s letter. It reminds me of theological solutions to the problem of evil that I often discuss in my philosophy of religion classes: they don’t work; they only do on those already convinced of the theses the suffering find inexplicable.  Tippett has found her solution to her crisis; she should respect Maynard’s.

Douthat continues:

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

I have news for Douthat. Assuming that what he means by ‘liberalism’ is just ‘atheism’ or ‘secularism’, as he so clearly seems to, he should realize it is a metaphysical platform: its ontology is bereft of a Supreme Being, of a non-human scale of value, of a purpose that  somehow transcends human strivings and value-construction.

Let me offer my answer to Douthat’s question: Because political debate in this country, one in which an atheist will never be elected president, is still, all too often, susceptible to, and hijacked by, the religiosity on display in Tippett’s letter, one which infects all too many of our political representatives. Where the ‘landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction,’ it has done so in those spaces where its progress is not so impeded. The legalization of marijuana is a good example; the abortion debate shows the limits of American ‘individualism’ in a domain where religion and sexism rule the roost. (Gay marriage is a notable exception.) Perhaps too, physician-assisted suicide is a complicated issue in a country where healthcare costs–especially end-of-life ones–are astronomical, where the terminally ill, besides not being mentally competent to make such decisions, might feel the pressure to end their lives to not be a financial burden on those left behind. It is in these issues that the real complexity lies. Here, the theological will have little to contribute, transfixed as it is by a vision of a purpose to human suffering invisible to all too many.

Blood Meridian and The Nature of the Universe

Yesterday’s post, in which I excerpted a couple of passages from Samuel Delany channeling Foucault, is followed today by two excerpts from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International, New York, 1992). I’m going to call these ‘theological’ in nature. (The entire novel, I realize, may be termed a kind of theology.)

First, the judge speaks to us about the ways and manners of God’s speaking and how traces may be found, read and heard in the world around us:

[T]he judge took one of the packanimals and emptied out the panniers and went off to explore the works. In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

As the judge’s investigations–careful and systematic and thoughtful–suggest, this reading and hearing is a form of diligent study; God’s ‘words’ are not written in the most straightforward fashion and may require some decipherment.

Second, a passage–again featuring the judge–that suggests the universe is a little less comprehensible than the first claim might have indicated:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

These lines suggest a universe our understanding of which is necessarily limited; our best theories of it rest on assumptions about its comprehensibility and uniformity that are unjustified. We are especially hamstrung in our efforts to comprehend the universe because the very tools we use for its study–our mind included–are themselves part of it, and thus always subject to the mysteries and vagaries that self-reference creates.

God as Therapist, Existent or Non-Existent

In ‘When God is your Therapist‘, (New York Times, 13  April 2013) T.M Luhrmann suggests that the evangelical relationship with God often resembles that between client and therapist:

I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.

One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals…. the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones…..Warren….spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.

In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them….[F]or [evangelical Christians] God is a relationship, not an explanation….What churches like these offer is a way of dealing with unhappiness.

Luhrmann’s observations on the practice of evangelical Christianity are interesting and instructive. They show how the truth of the various existential claims–about God or evil–that might be made by the faithful in the groups she observes is besides the point: what matters is the efficacy of the therapeutic relationship that is set up with the entity referred to as ‘God.’ This non-realist reading of evangelical Christianity suggests that what grants its doctrines and practices their particular resilience, accessibility and popularity is not their correspondence to some transcendent reality, but their success in catering to the felt and expressed emotional and psychological needs of its adherents.  The ‘faith’ of the evangelical Christians that Luhrmann studies is not a set of epistemically evaluable claims made about the theological domain; rather, it is a set of visible practices and utterances directed towards achieving definite outcomes like greater equanimity in the face of life’s uncertain offerings.  This faith is a set of tools, tactics and strategies that orient the believer in this life; to inquire into its ‘truth’ would be to make a category mistake; its evaluation lies elsewhere, in an instrumentalist assessment of its success in providing a new self-recounted narrative. The imperviousness of the evangelically inclined to the demonstration of the falsity of a substantive theological claim becomes comprehensible; that refutation cannot be accepted so long as the need underwriting the claim continues to be met by practiced belief in its truth.