23 June 2011

Our Troubled Waters

One more thought.  And maybe this is because my late and beloved grandfather was a physician, but I'd diagnose this debate about American Jews and alienation from Israel in a way slightly different from what is the assumed boiling point of controversy--definitions of Zionism and Israeli settlement policy--and attempt to understand another manifestation altogether--fading associations with Peoplehood as the result of the particularly fortunate circumstances of American Jewry.

Let me explain by returning to yesterday's debate about the Wicked Child in the Passover liturgy.  In her debate with Jeffrey Goldberg, Allison Benedikt talked about deleting the Wicked Child from the creative Haggadah she and her husband assembled and use to to celebrate Passover.  As a rabbi and teacher, I saw this as a powerful metaphor for a certain kind of alienation--conceptual and literal--from the classical Jewish narrative of the past 3000 years.  That's a heavy burden, I'll grant you, but I think it's a fair timeline.

If one understands Passover Seder material to date to the early Exodus time-frame (somewhere between the 15th-13th century BCE) where Pesach, Matza and Maror are mentioned in the Exodus narrative; to the early Haggadic material codified by the Sages in the late 2nd century CE and down throughout the Medieval and Modern period where the current Haggadah text takes shape, one over-arching theme that emerges is that one sits at the Seder and is commanded to see him or herself *as if* they themselves had just been freed from Egypt.  One ethical implication of this idea is that each of us *knows* oppression and by further implication, is expected to act ethically toward others as a result.  That is one of the unique ways Jews have always acted in the world religiously by rooting the spiritual mandate in the reality of historical experience.

Here is where the 4 Children come in.  The fateful Wicked Son, whose questions about the Passover ritual are understood to be expressions of one's alienation from the Jewish narrative, triggers much debate among the Sages.  One response, so pedagogically harsh as to likely not stand up to educational best practice today, is to purposely alienate the child back--"set their teeth on edge" as the Sages famously put it:  give 'em a taste of their own medicine.  It's safe to say from my own experience that the methodology usually backfires and the result tends to be further alienation.  Unless you're driving out a collaborator or one who is a physical danger to the community, you're not accomplishing much except your own self-righteous victory.  I try not to daven in that shul.

However, as the Sages debate the proper response to the alienated child, they note that his "wickedness" comes from a couple of different places.  One, his knowledge that may be used to lead others astray; and two, the refusal to feel the community's pain.  They see his question about "what does this service mean to you" as another way of saying, "why are you troubling me with all this historical trouble?  Who needs it!"

And herein lies the real heart of the matter--not with Allison and Jeffrey's debate, not with whatever Peter Beinart may be diagnosing for American Jewish audiences, not with whatever amount of hasbarah that may be emerging from countless initiatives to explain Israel to young people.

In fact, one could argue, the alienation is not about Israel at all.  But it's about the rapidly waning American Jewish propensity to know and feel the suffering of their fellow Jews as a Jewish value.  Pie charts of American Jewish philanthropic giving are as clear an indicator as anything--our liberal hearts go out to the greater world at far greater rates of generosity than they turn inward to care for our own.  This is a trend that began nearly a century ago and is reaching an astonishing crescendo today.  We care more for the environment, organic foods, service-learning trips to Africa and Asia, and any number of other public interest causes, not to mention art, culture and entertainment, well beyond the boundaries of our own classical narrative.  We're educated and work everywhere; love whomever we want to love; and raise our own families in whatever way we want to raise them. 

I sat at my daughter's eighth grade graduation at BAM yesterday.  More than 350 Brooklyn kids ascended the stage to receive their diplomas and at one point, my father-in-law said to me, "Gee, not a whole lot of Jews in this class."  In fact, I pointed out, there were quite a few.  We just don't easily recognize their names anymore.  Is that an irretrievable erosion of connection?  Does it all begin with a name, and who that name links you to, back in time?

At baby-namings here on Saturday mornings, I often mention the famous Midrash about God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt because they retained the practice of giving their children Hebrew names.  Naming yourself in the ancient language of your people; creating an irreducible bond with past generations of Jews; and yes, attaching yourself with the trouble that comes with it--are elemental to who we have been and who we ought to always be as a nation.

So as we sail through these troubled waters of emotional public debates about ties of loyalty, let's do so with open eyes toward a deeper reality.  The question we may ask ourselves is the following:  to what degree are American Jews willing to be troubled at all by any manifestation of the Jewish narrative?  Israeli policy is but one example in our own age; should we survive this one, surely, as the American project continues to unfold, there will be other tests as well.  Where we land will tell us much about our roots to what we have always known to be sacred tropes of the Jewish Nation.


Jon said...

Gotta say, I'm happy I wound up here from Goldblog. Great post.

Rob Rosenberg said...

Another beautiful post, Rabbi. It's a pleasure to read what you write. I only wish you had a bimah from which to speak in Chicago.

Dan O. said...

And this continues to lead to a confusion of how narratives like Ms. Benedikt's are to be understood - as a segment in a process, not a representation of a formed and solid reality. The story is not of the end of a journey taken.

For a variety of reasons (intersecting Benedikt's), I loathed the wicked son's rebuke. I'd have told you so, and as a 20-year old might have added an expletive when you'd object. For a variety of reasons, it's altogether different now.

There's a reason to understand the Wicked Son as allegorical. Because otherwise it becomes overly personal. As it has done in this case.

Andy Bachman said...

Dan O: I entirely agree with you characterization as "a segment in a process." Good point.

Rabbi Michael Bernstein said...

I have found my way here after following the trail from Allison Benedikts original piece through the Goldblog Variations and your message yesterday. I was struck by how this conversation has turned on the question of the "wicked son" and even more so on its "deletion." Like Allison, I have found the wicked son narrative to be a harsh statement and in my experience it is often softened by replacing "wicked" with "rebellious" or sympathetically casting him (or her) as a victim of alienation, rather than a perpetrator. It is possible that this is what Allison meant. Still, what is ironic is that Allison's own piece, as a personal testimony and not a policy statement, might be the very way to include the "wicked child" perspective in the seder. In other words, one cannot chastise her for "deleting" the wicked son in the same breath as one chastises her for sharing her
own experience.
I also thought it significant that in her response to Jeffrey Goldberg, she concludes by wondering if she was in his eyes better labeled as the "child who knows not how to ask." That child, as you well know, must be opened ("at p'tach lo")rather than shut out.
I believe that your responses have shown the power of our shared tradition of Jewish wisdom, but that we are still in danger of missing the point of Allison Benedikt's piece. Her experience is not at all rare and her reactions to her disillusionment represents only one possible response within the spectrum. We, as Rabbis and other members of the establishment, do well to be open to her words as an invitation rather than feel the need to make sure the door remains shut.

Andy Bachman said...

Thanks Michael. I will say that I wrote my piece in order keep the door open and that is how it has been received by the most important relevant parties to this debate. There are, as you have articulated, numerous ways to interpret the Seder and numerous ways to interpret this debate!