Thursday, April 1, 2010

The White House Seder

I have been trying to warm to the idea of the Obamas’ hosting their very own seder in the White House ever since I read that essay in the Times last week offering all those interesting details about the guest list and the menu. And on some level it is very gratifying to know that our supreme leader and his family are interested enough in the humble traditions of our people to see what it feels like not merely to read about our festivals but actually to experience something as richly meaningful and satisfying as a Pesach seder. Or that, at any rate, is how part of thinks I’m supposed to feel. Part of me even does feel that way, I suppose, even despite my inability to develop a clear mental image of the president meaningfully washing his hands without saying a brocho before Karpas or, even more peculiarly, praising God for commanding us (us!) to eat maror.

But there’s also another part of me that finds the whole thing beyond irritating, coming as it does on the heels of a week of behavior on the part of the White House towards Israel that seems—to say the very least—insensitive to the very lessons that rest at the center of all genuine Pesach observance. Indeed, that slightly curmudgeonly part of myself wonders exactly what the president’s court Jews actually did identify for him as the central lesson of Pesach, the core concept that anyone at all—or at least any decent person—may embrace without having actually to be Jewish, the one of which all those ancient, slightly obscure rituals are merely poetic or midrashic elaborations. Or rather I think I can imagine all too well how they sold the concept to their boss…and how, eager to be perceived as a friend of a segment of the American people that voted for him so overwhelmingly—most estimates gave the president a full 77% of the Jewish vote in the 2008 election—and that until recently had remained strongly among his most vocal supporters, the president saw a bandwagon well worth an evening of his family’s time publicly to jump onto.

To our president—if not precisely the descendant of American slaves than at least married into such a family and almost totally identified in the eyes of the electorate with the African-American experience—Pesach must feel like the most totally rational and easily digestible part of Judaism. What American, after all, could possibly take issue with a festival that celebrates freedom? The Israelites were slaves, then they became free. And the American experience too revolves around the concept of freedom to such an overwhelming degree that Benjamin Franklin actually proposed that the Great Seal of the United States bear an image of Israel crossing the Sea of Reeds to freedom. (Thomas Jefferson proposed an alternate scene from the same story, one depicting Israel wandering in the desert led forward by the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.) And indeed the quest for freedom—freedom from tyranny, freedom from taxation without representation, freedom for the real slaves held in bondage before the thirteenth amendment to our Constitution permanently outlawed slavery in our country, freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the freedom to assemble, etc.—eventually did become the single thread running through all American history that binds what would otherwise be disparate events involving unrelated segments of the population of a vast nation into a single pageant of unified historical purpose. It all sounds so perfect for a night at the White House! Why none of this offends our basic American obligation to keep separate matters of church and state, I can’t quite understand (although I suppose the legal answer must be that the Obamas’ seder was a private dinner not formally governed by the president’s moral obligation not to favor one religion over another in matters of public policy), but the far more important issue for me personally has to do with the real meaning of Passover itself…and whether the president is really prepared to embrace the lesson of the festival not as I’m guessing his handlers hopefully described it to him but as it actually flows for the story itself, the one the Haggadah exists in the first place to put forward.

As I’m sure was stressed repeatedly at the president’s seder, the Pesach story begins with the Israelite slaves moaning under the weight of relentless Egyptian oppression. But the key to understanding their story does not rest solely in empathizing with their misery, but in appreciating the way they themselves framed the issue of freedom not by developing the fantasy that with the right combination of forceful leadership and divine help they might break the bonds of slavery and become proud, free citizens of Egypt, thus transforming themselves from Pharaoh’s slaves into his subjects, but by leaving Egypt entirely and establishing themselves in the Land of Israel as a free people in pursuit of its own destiny in its own place. The Passover story, after all, is not about political freedom in the American key. Indeed, unlike the slaves in ante-bellum America who specifically did want to become free citizens of the United States, the ancient Israelites understood freedom as inexorably tied to the land promised to their ancestors as their inalienable patrimony. In other words, they do not appear to have wanted to be free merely so that they could wake up in the morning and have nothing to do, but because they wanted to be free to cross the desert, to take hold of their national inheritance, to establish themselves as the People of Israel in the Land of Israel, and there to pursue their national destiny not as slaves but as free men and women. In other words, the definition of freedom at the core of the Passover story has to do with the realization of a national dream in the context of a people’s political aspirations to return to the land God promised its ancestors would eventually be their descendants’ in its entirety.

This part of the story has no parallel, or no particularly profound parallel, in the history of black slavery in the United States. Building on the earlier work of one Paul Cuffee, an American of combined Indian and African descent, who managed actually to underwrite the resettlement of a few dozen freed American slaves in Africa (specifically in Freetown, Sierra Leone) in 1815, the American Colonization Society (founded by Charles Fenton Mercer in 1816) actually managed to found a national state, Liberia, in Africa and between 1822 and 1867 to resettle 13,000 freed American slaves there. And there were some other so-called “colonization” societies devoted to the idea of resettling freed slaves in Africa as well—interested readers can very profitably consult Eric Burin’s book, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution, published in 2008 by the University of Florida Press—but the key element here is that none of them captured the imagination of the masses of freed slaves after the Civil War ended precisely because the large majority of former slaves wished to become free citizens of the only country most of them knew or could remember. That this process turned out to be as painful as it did only makes the point more forcefully: even despite the incredible obstacles freed slaves faced during the decades of Reconstruction, the ideal for the large majority of former slaves was to take their rightful place in the American mosaic as full citizens endowed with a full, unrestricted set of civil rights and responsibilities.

To Americans today, this sounds entirely reasonable. Indeed, it’s challenging even to attempt to imagine what America would be like today had not thousands but millions of freed slaves chosen to return to their ancestral lands in Africa. (Did this not happen because so many of the slaves had been consciously deprived of any knowledge of their native languages or even of the specific region in Africa from which their personal ancestors had been seized and sold into slavery? Would things have been otherwise had black Americans somehow managed to retain the kind of deep tribal identity that would have made possible their re-integration into the national lives of those tribes as they had flourished in the interim in Africa? We’re veering into the province of novelists and poets with that line of speculation, but the point is that none of this happened. And the large majority of freed slaves had no interest in becoming free Africans but wanted only to become free Americans.)

This is where the narratives diverge. The story of Israel in Egypt is of a people unbearably oppressed and finally, through a combination of able leadership, concerted national will, and divine assistance, able to move forward to the establishment of itself as a free nation in its national homeland. Did the president seize the fact that by holding a seder at the White House he was personally endorsing the right of the Jewish people to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel as a matter both of biblical precedent and divine right? Did his Jewish advisors make clear to him that the very cities that are the least hospitable to Jewish settlement today—Nablus-Shechem, Jericho, and Hebron—are the ones celebrated over and over within the biblical narrative as constituting the very heartland of ancient Israel in which the freed slaves could hardly wait to establish themselves? Did they note that when the Bible refers over and over in Deuteronomy to Jerusalem as the place “in which God shall choose to settle the divine name,” it is making the Jewish right to govern the city and to flourish in that place the foundation stone upon which rests the larger narrative linking a people to its land and its God?

To summarize, did the president’s advisors pause long enough on their way into talking their boss into hosting yet another White House seder to point out that Passover is only about political freedom in the American key in some sort of extended, metaphoric sense, but is far more accurately about the inalienable right of Jewish people to settle in the Land of Israel wherever and whenever they wish? Why do I think that probably wasn’t the part of the Passover message the president was encouraged to believe he would be embracing by hosting a White House seder? Why do I think it likely no one stressed how absurd it would be to utter the words "Next year in Jerusalem," but only to include in that thought certain pre-approved neighborhoods that had the good fortune not to be occupied by Jordan for less than two decades in the middle of the last century?

There is still part of me that admires the president for hosting his seder. It’s weird, it’s inappropriate (the whole concept of non-Jews reciting liturgical blessings as though they were somehow also commanded by God to eat matzah and maror both devalues the meaning of the text and insults its integrity), it’s peculiar—all that is true. But it’s also hard to imagine another country in which a head of state with no formal connection to Judaism or Jewishness would do such a thing and that part of the story is not without meaning either. In the end, I suppose I’m proud to be a citizen of the kind of country in which things like this take place. I can only hope that the experience will leave the president chastened by the moral implication of the seder he himself chose to host, thus less likely in the future to relate to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, let alone in Jerusalem itself, as an irritant somehow to be gotten past instead of the natural expression of a nation’s inalienable right to live in peace in its own place.

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