Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Deal--And Haggadah's Repressed Anger

The Passover Haggadah, the short book of hymns, chronicles, and liturgical practices whose reading constitutes the traditional Seder, is thought to have been compiled as early as the second century—around the time the Talmud was compiled, just when rabbinic Judaism as we know it was emerging, a rival to Jewish followers of Jesus in coming to terms with the catastrophe of exile. The Haggadah is thus a book immanently at odds with itself: committed to the principle of emancipation—“from slavery to freedom”—and to symbolic rituals that celebrate deliverance, yet also replete with what Arthur Koestler once called “claustrophilia”—a commitment to self-segregating ancestral commandments and barely repressed rabbinic defensiveness and rage.

At the opening of the Seder, the leader holds up a piece of matza, unleavened bread, and speaks in ancient Aramaic, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.” It is easy enough to imagine that for exiled, haunted Jews still living under Roman rule, the “land of Israel” was still a formative place, kept in the collective memory—and initiating yearly Seders helped to memorialize it. But, by the time the Haggadah was itself formative—certainly by the early Middle Ages, when anti-Jewish massacres had become common in Christian lands—the “land of Israel” seemed less a geographical fact than a place of messianic hope.

So the Haggadah also reflects the sense of grief, helplessness—and craving for retaliation—that many rabbis cultivated over the centuries. The divine, not any political figure (Moses, strangely, is hardly mentioned), liberated His chosen “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” Early rabbis are quoted revelling, with a unself-conscious pathos, in plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, magnifying oppressors’ suffering like a wounded boy fantasizing about what his father should do to a bully. Rabbi Eliezer hypothesizes that the ten plagues were actually forty, because each plague was delivered with attitude: “ ‘Fury’ is one; ‘indignation’ makes two; ‘trouble’ makes three; ‘discharge of messengers of evil’ makes four.” These forty, plus the notional two hundred plagues inflicted at the Red Sea, make two hundred and forty. Rabbi Akiva then trumps Rabbi Eliezer, reckoning along similar lines that the plagues actually numbered two hundred and fifty. In every generation, the Haggadah exhorts us to sing, unnamed forces “rise against us to annihilate us.”

If there was always this tension in the traditional Haggadah—between valorizing what must be done to liberate all people in need and valorizing what must be done to liberate Jews as a particular people—this hardly mattered in the diaspora, where the Haggadah was composed and for which it was intended. The tension was alleviated, if not resolved, by an implicit knowledge that Jews were the outsiders—so that doing what prevented their persecution, or advanced their civic interests, also advanced social tolerance and the formation of civil society more generally. This is not the way the Haggadah reads today, however: the tension is more palpable and vexing for Israelis—and, increasingly, for American Jews. When you have the military or police power to act against others, or the political power to oppose others, you don’t have the arguable luxury of assuming Jewish interests to be coincident with those of every oppressed person. (As if to prove this point as grotesquely as possible, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—of all weeks, just before Passover—began the forced expulsion of many hundreds of the forty thousand of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who had crossed the Sinai to find asylum in Israel.)

Today, the land of Israel is not something poetic and hypothetical, nor is the survival imperative inherently free of bigotry or the hunger for revenge harmless. The last point seems particularly urgent this day of the Seder, the day after the announcement of the great power agreement with Iran; Israelis and American Jews will find it impossible to read the Haggadah tonight without thinking about the deal’s implications. It is worth observing that, already, Netanyahu is denouncing the deal as “threaten[ing] the survival of the state of Israel.” And his view is widely echoed in Israel, including by otherwise balanced observers like Ari Shavit, who argued yesterday in Haaretz that the Lausanne talks were something like Munich all over again; that economic sanctions on Iran should rather have been intensified until “Iran’s nuclear capability was entirely sterilized.”

Hyperbole of this kind is safely conformist in today’s Israel—also among Jews supporting AIPAC in America. Its champions view themselves as stiffening spines against foes who, the Haggadah didn’t need to remind us, are real. Yet it is hard to hear the talk without thinking tonight of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, cowering and in mourning, defaulting to a frame of mind in which the only response to Jew-hatred is multiplied plagues. If this is Munich, then the alternative, as President Obama justly observed, is “another Mideast war.” But would war, or even the threat of war, really force Iran’s most authoritarian leaders to back down—or would it entrench them? Would increased sanctions really weaken Iranian hardliners as much as the integration of the country’s isolated, restless entrepreneurs and professionals into the global system? Rabbi Akiva, the Haggadah doesn’t bother reminding us, also inspired, early in the second century, the catastrophic Bar Kochba wars.

At tonight’s Seder, I would suggest that the cautionary words of Thucydides, who predated the Haggadah by six hundred years, be added to Rabbi Eliezer’s and Rabbi Akiva’s imaginings of plagues. “A moderate attitude,” he lamented in his “History of The Peloponnesian War,” “was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything.” He added, dismissively, “One who displayed violent anger was considered eternally faithful.” The Haggadah supposes that, in every generation, we should imagine that we ourselves stood at Sinai and assumed the burdens of law. We should imagine that we stood also at Amphipolis, and assumed the awkwardness of moderation.

Read in The New Yorker