Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pesach 2014

Other than Jewish parents and a healthy respect for American optimism, one of the few things I can say that I truly have in common with Franz Kafka is our shared fondness for, of all books, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

Maybe I should set that thought in its fuller context. It was 1913. Here, Grand Central Station had just opened and the federal government had just granted itself the right to collect income tax. But in Prague, one of the last century’s true greats was sitting down to write his first novel, one he personally called Der Verschollene (“The Disappeared”) and never quite finished, but which was eventually published anyway under a title his literary executor thought would be more appealing: Amerika. And, indeed, the book is set mostly in New York and a little bit, unexpectedly, in Oklahoma.  Good authors, I suppose, can write successfully about places they haven’t been personally—think, for example, of Robert Harris’s terrific lawyer-novels set in ancient Rome—but when Kafka’s friends asked how he could set a book in a country he hadn’t ever visited, his answer was simply that between reading Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, he had more than enough information to work with. (It was at the end of that same sentence, by the way, that Kafka mentioned that he specifically admired the American people because of their robust health and their native optimism.)

Nor were/are Kafka and I Franklin’s only Jewish admirers. One of the great works of Jewish moral literature of the nineteenth century is Menachem Mendel Lefin’s 1808 book, Sefer Ḥeshbon Ha-nefesh, in which the Galician rabbi—himself an early associate of Moses Mendelssohn and a pivotal figure in the intellectual history of Polish Jewry—consciously bases himself on the ethical program set forth by Franklin in his autobiography. (Lefin’s book is very readable and I recommend it to my readers as an excellent text for study and contemplation. I have a heartbreaking edition that was published in 1936 in Kedainiai, Lithuania, by people who obviously had no idea that the entire Jewish community in that place—numbering more than 5000 souls—would be murdered by the nation’s German occupiers and their local collaborators just five years later and on one single day, August 28, 1941. Non-Hebrew readers can profitably use Shraga Silverstein’s English translation, published by Feldheim Publishers in 1995 and still in print and easily available.)  And it wasn’t only their ideas that overlapped—their lives did as well: Lefin was born in 1749 when Franklin was thirty-three and outlived him by thirty-six years.

Much has been made of Ben Franklin’s influence on nineteenth-century Jewish thought through the medium of that specific book. Interested readers can very profitably begin with Shai Afsai’s essay, “Ben Franklin’s Influence on Judaism,” published in the winter/spring 2012 issue of The Early America Review (and available on-line at or Nancy Sinkoff’s “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of Enlightenment,” published in the January 2000 issue of the University of Pennsylvania Press’s Journal of the History of Ideas. But I write today neither to expatiate about the autobiography—which I have read and reread over the years and enjoyed thoroughly each time—nor specifically to write about Menachem Lefin’s book, but rather to talk, in pre-Pesach mode, about a topic that both authors raise for discussion, and which I feel engaging me too as we just a bit paradoxically prepare to celebrate our liberation from bondage by working like slaves to make ready our homes for the oncoming festival.

At the core of Franklin’s book is the notion that life itself is made meaningful through the effort to embrace virtue. But because virtue itself is not actually a character trait one may actually adopt—any more than one can speak in “language” itself as opposed to some specific one among the world’s languages—he set himself to enumerating the specific moral traits that he felt, taken together, embody the concept of virtue in practical terms. There are, in sum, thirteen that Franklin identified: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, chastity, tranquility, and humility.  They have weathered the test of time differently, these thirteen attributes of the virtuous individual. Some, for example, would be on all of our lists of desirable character traits; others, perhaps only on some of our lists. I would, in fact, like to address myself to any number of them in future letters, but today, as we prepare for the most labor-intensive of all Jewish holidays, I am drawn to considering specifically the sixth of Franklin’s virtues: industry.

We live in a world that mostly treasures leisure. And, indeed, the notion that the reward for a lifetime of work is the gift, if that’s the right world, of retirement from work is one of the cornerstones of the way Americans think about labor. We obviously try to choose jobs that suit us. The fortunate among us, like myself, find positions that make them feel useful, creative, and productive. But even rabbis are expected, at least eventually, to retire! As are all sorts of people whose work is, at least ideally, deemed fulfilling and desirable. The Torah commands us to work for six days and to rest on the seventh…but even among the punctiliously observant the second of those commandments is generally considered far more sacrosanct than the former. Indeed, I don’t actually know of any authority who forbids retirement on the grounds that Scripture commands us to work six days out of seven. Nor, I think, will that opinion ever be seriously put forward…or at least not by any rabbi who wishes to keep his job in the congregational world.

Franklin, on the other hand, valorizes industry in a way that will possibly sound foreign to at least some readers. He pairs it with frugality and writes openly that by cultivating both, he personally acquired both the means to be useful to society and the right to be considered a man of repute among the learned of his day. And, indeed, the man’s whole story as told in the autobiography is one of ferociously hard work to establish a toe-hold in society and then to flourish as the result of his own labor. The notion that pleasure in leisure derives directly from having personally created the context for that rest by having previously working oneself to exhaustion is an idea that will resonate with most moderns only theoretically: we value hard work because it seems that we should, not because any of us actually wishes to exhaust him or herself through the kind of backbreaking labor that we in our world connect with the kind of jobs people take when they have no less strenuous options to consider.

Lefin takes much the same tack, devoting a full chapter to z’rizut, the name he assigns to Franklin’s virtue of industry. The human soul, he writes, has higher and lower elements in it. The lower part, which he labels “bestial,” is the part that longs for indolence, that wants nothing more than to seek and enjoy pleasure in life, and which rejects the notion that both pleasure and leisure have to be earned truly to be savored, or even savor-able. The higher part of the soul, which Lefin labels the “insightful” part (that is, the part able to reason thoughtfully in a way the bestial part of one’s soul simply cannot), is the one that understands that the boredom that derives directly from excessive inactivity is not just unpleasant but ultimately harmful in the extreme: it is, he writes, the pleasure of work that keeps the mind agile and the body healthy, both obvious prerequisites for happiness in life.

Both authors provided handy tables for people to use in charting their progress. Franklin explains how it works: “I made a little book,” he writes, “to which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letters of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black dot, every fault I found upon examination to have committed respecting that virtue upon that day.”  Lefin reproduced the same table in his book, changing (for some reason) Franklin’s order, but basically suggesting the same concept, that people copy out the table, choose one specific virtue to concentrate on per week, then note how many times they deviate not from other people’s expectations of them but from virtues that they themselves claim to wish to embrace as their own.

I should admit up front that I do not carry the table around with me so as the better to be able to chart my own moral progress through life. Perhaps I should. Perhaps we all should!  But I write today to remind you—and to remind myself—that the labor connected with getting ready for Pesach—the cooking and the cleaning, the shopping and the whole chametz-eradication thing—should not be dismissed as the irritating prelude to what we all eventually experience as one of the peak experiences of the Jewish year. Instead, what both authors suggest, particularly when read in each other’s light, is that the labor of making Pesach is, in a very real sense, its own reward. Even that expression—so natural to speakers of Jewish American English—itself, “making” Pesach, implies that the festival is not something that floats down to us from heaven like manna, but something we are called upon annually—and then over and over throughout the years of our lives—to make, to fashion, to create…in our homes and for our families, but also for ourselves and for the benefit of our own spiritual wellbeing.  Industry itself, they write, is a virtue…and, at that, one that by its very nature improves us and makes us more ready than we otherwise might be to feel drawn into the story of our ancestors’ redemption from slavery in Egypt.

So the moral of the story is to embrace the effort and not dismiss it as the unavoidable but otherwise unwanted road we must travel into the ḥag. Being so beat you can’t stay awake for the seder is not the point, nor should it be anyone’s goal. But feeling drawn into the narrative through the intensity of our preparatory labors is precisely what our goal really should be. By “making” Pesach as it should be made, we also make ourselves into the kind of men and women who can easily obey the Haggadah’s injunction to think of ourselves as though we ourselves left Egypt beneath the beneficent protection of God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm. And that, I think, is precisely the point of the whole undertaking!

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