Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Passover without Jews

The Four Sons. From An Amsterdam Haggadah, 1695, via University of Chicago.
Just three years ago, former New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a Passover column in which he managed not to mention the story of the first 18 chapters of Exodus, the biblical narrative of the Hebrews' escape from slavery in Egypt that is central to this key Jewish holiday—instead he made it about the rest of the book, in which God gives Moses the Law, which is celebrated on a completely different holiday later in the year, Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks.

Today he makes up for it with a Passover column (a couple of weeks early, it begins April 10) in which he manages to discusss Exodus without mentioning Passover ("The Unifying American Story"), or Jews at all, let alone Egyptians, like the Trump administration celebrating the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 without mentioning Jews. It's a very remarkable performance:

One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.
For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.
Not that God had to afflict England with plagues to persuade the king to let the Puritans go. The king was delighted, and they got a contract on very favorable terms, same as the Virginia colonists, over whom the story really did not overarch; they ended up building a new Egypt, with plenty of bondage, instead. And that's another thing:

Frederick Douglass embraced the Exodus too. African-Americans, he pointed out, have been part of this journey too. “We came when it was a wilderness …. We leveled your forests; our hands removed the stumps from the field …. We have been with you … in adversity, and by the help of God will be with you in prosperity.”
Brooks doesn't seem to realize that African Americans found their Egypt right here in North America, and that they had been identifying with the Hebrews of Exodus for many decades before Frederick Douglass was born.

Then again he really thinks it's not nice to talk about slavery at Passover:

The Exodus narrative has pretty much been dropped from our civic culture. Schools cast off the Puritans as a bunch of religious fundamentalists. [American Covenant by Philip] Gorski shows how a social-science, technocratic mind-set has triumphed, treating politics as just a competition of self-interested utilitarians.
Today’s students get steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and segregation. American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed.
Isn't that terrible! If you think that's bad, you should go to a Seder sometime and hear all the Jews talking about genocide, slavery, oppression, and segregation all through dinner as prescribed by the Haggadah! 

Brooks doesn't even know he's Jewish any more. In 2015 his Passover column mentioned God parting the Dead Sea (instead of the Red) and denied once again that Exodus is a story of liberation from slavery, and he celebrated by offering Jane Eisner, editor of America's preeminent Jewish newspaper, The Forward, a toasted bagel, in defiance of the Law presented to Moses by the Lord, which commands
“Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt." (Exodus 34:18)
He didn't know what day it was even a couple of days after writing a column about it, though I guess we can conclude that it wasn't a column about Passover at all, but his own personal liberation from the bondage of his own ethnicity, to merge into a completely imaginary conflict-free sea of undifferentiated whitebread Americanitas. While he keeps kvetching and exhorting everybody else to perform these "re-binding" rituals of citizenship kicking around in his head. He's the second, wicked son of the Torah Passover parable:
What does the wicked son say? "What does this drudgery mean to you?" To you and not to him. Since he excludes himself from the community, he has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should blunt his teeth by saying to him: "It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for him. If he was there he would not have been redeemed." 

I know the old Massachusetts colonials liked the trope of the "shining city on a hill", but that doesn't license today's Christian ruling class to appropriate the Exodus story to their own use; still less somebody like Brooks to do it for them. 

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