Follow by Email

Friday, April 24, 2020

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Jewish ethics and the State of Israel (1959) - an excerpt

I've transcribed a section of a recorded lecture by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions, Part 3” (1959)

The excerpt below begins at 33:29. For the sake of clarity 
I've made minor edits, generally indicated by square brackets. A useful historical background, summary, and analysis by Alan Brill can be found here.

[Judaism] insisted upon full axiological democracy. You see, this is the kind of democracy which modern man does not understand. Modern man understands political democracy and also understands, perhaps, economic democracy – as the socialist countries, so to [speak], claim to understand; [though] perhaps it isn’t true. He doesn't understand democracy axiologically, as to the worth of the person. That the great scholar, the scientist, and the little person have the same worth, modern man did not understand, I don’t believe I understand, and perhaps no one understands. But Judaism insisted upon it. Judaism was both realistic, at times, and at times it was simply daydreaming, completely caught in the web of fantasy and imagination. But it was a beautiful fantasy, at least.

I will tell you frankly. Now, with the emergence of the State of Israel, I utter one prayer. And simply, many times, my mind is disturbed. We have a beautiful ethic. And, it is hard to say that we were angels but, more or less, the pages of our history are not as stained with blood and tears and injustice and brutality, as are the pages of the history of European society, to take feudal times or medieval times. The simple reason is not, perhaps, because we are superior to them, [but that] we simply did not encounter the challenge. We never had a state. We never had political problems. […]

A private person, a weak person, a persecuted person, a person who [had no] say could not commit the injustices which, for instance, France or Germany or feudal England committed in the middle ages. But, many times I ask, what if our history had been different, had taken a different course? What if we had been a state in the middle ages, how would we have acted? Just like the feudal lords? Or would we have acted differently because of Judaic ethics? I have no answer to that. Who knows? To say hypothetically how we would have acted is ridiculous. Now, with the State of Israel, we are facing the test. Will we behave like any other state, ethically?

Basically, no state is ethical. I believe that statehood itself implies an intrinsic contradiction to ethics; [even] the best one. Will we act differently or will we restrain ourselves from engaging in certain [practices] which are in conflict with basic Judaic ethics? Or will we yield to temptation? Of course, a few experiences are not very [re]assuring, I must tell you. Others, somehow, hold out hope. I don’t know. But, to me, this is the basic problem with which we, the Diaspora Jews, are faced with regard to the State of Israel. [...] The problem is, here we have an opportunity – the Jews are the rulers, they legislate the laws, they are the masters, so to [speak]. We have never been masters, obviously. We have always been the subordinates. Always. Since the destruction of the Second Temple 1900 years ago. It’s quite a long time. Now, we are the masters. Of course, in a small land, on a narrow strip along the eastern Mediterranean. Will we act like masters or will we understand that Judaism does not know the concept of master and slave, victor and vanquished, powerful and weak? This is my problem with regard to the State of Israel.

The whole of Jewish history will be interpreted in terms of what the State of Israel will do in the next fifty years. If the State of Israel will not live up to the great hopes and challenges of Judaic ethics – I am not speaking now of economics and science, this is a secondary problem to me – then the whole of Jewish history will appear in a different light. People will reinterpret Jewish history. So the Jews were nice and decent? This is simply because they didn’t have the opportunity to be wicked. But as soon as they got the opportunity, they proved to the world that they are not better than anybody else.

Monday, April 6, 2020

A second look at the Haggadah's simple child

Of the Haggadah's four archetypal children, the תם — usually translated as simple or simple-minded — may be the most misunderstood and underappreciated. He (or she) appears to earn the name from his unembellished, innocently curious reaction to the Passover service -- ?מה זאת -- "what is this?" The Haggadah presents his short and seemingly naive formulation in stark contrast to the question of the wise child. Seeking detailed instruction on the ritual obligations of the Seder, the latter uses technical halakhic categories to distinguish between the holiday rituals even before he gets his answer.

The traditional view of the תם may be best represented by a comment in Siddur Rashi, an anonymous anthology from the school of the master exegete:

תם: Neither wise nor wicked, but simple (תמים). He lacks the intelligence to ask “what are the testimonies, statutes, and judgments,” a detailed inquiry into each aspect of the Passover service. He simply asks, "what is this?" 

In fact, the original dichotomy between the wise child and his intellectual opposite, found in the oldest versions of the rabbinic "four children" passage, was much more explicit. In those texts, instead of a בן תם there is a בן טיפש, a foolish child. Scholars surmise that when it was incorporated into the Haggadah, the text was deliberately altered to avoid offense.

Medieval Haggadah manuscripts, printed versions from the sixteenth century onward, and illustrated Haggadot still in use, almost always portray the wise child as an elderly, pious scholar. But how do you draw the תם, either on paper or in the imagination? 

To take a modern example, the extremely popular Haggadah illustrations of Siegmund Forst (1904-2006) from the 1950s and 1960s include several variations on the simple child, none too flattering: He tends to have an absent or quizzical look, holding a finger to his chin as he tries to make sense of his surroundings, and appears only marginally more engaged than the silent child ("who does not know how to ask"). In another, somewhat disturbing Forst rendering, he is a grown man playing with blocks. And in his best portrait, from 1959, תם is an Everyman -- in Yiddish, א פשוטע איד -- reading the comics and sports pages while he smokes a cigar. Over his shoulder stands his bearded counterpart, wrapped in a tallit and pondering a page of Talmud. 

But we may have distorted the image of the תם well beyond recognition. It may be time to re-imagine his much maligned personality.

When transforming the בן טיפש into a בן תם, the ancient composers of the Haggadah may have had more in mind than just euphemism. The תם, I believe, is not intellectually deficient. He is morally advantaged.

Recall that the wise child is a חכם, but he is no צדיק. He is never praised, likely for good reason, for his moral or religious aptitude. While he seems to be, like the תם, genuinely curious, he's also, to be honest, a bit of a showoff. His fairly pretentious question, while full of "lomdus" (abstract conceptualization), is designed to impress as much as to learn. He also seems to have a poorly ordered set of religious-moral priorities.

More significantly, in the Bible, תם has a clear moral connotation, often used in parallel with the word ישר (morally upright). Not once does the biblical word describe a mediocre intellect; instead, it is reserved for towering moral and religious figures like Noah, Job, Abraham, Jacob, and David. Understood this way, the תם of the Haggadah's typology stands opposite the wicked child rather than the wise child (see, e.g., Gen. 25:27, which contrasts Jacob, an איש תם, with his evil twin Esau, the cunning hunter; Job 9:22: "He destroys the blameless [תם] and the guilty [רשע]"*).

"What is this?" may sound unsophisticated, but it is also guileless and pure, both morally and intellectually. It's the kind of question -- full of childlike wonder at everything beautiful, true, and good in the universe -- to which we can all aspire. In the image of Seder's תם, we may recognize those who spend their days practicing unpretentious moral heroism, guided by an uncompromising loyalty to the truth. They are the best among us.


*My son Yaakov נ״י notes that the Vilna Gaon in his Haggadah commentary already cited this verse to argue that תם and רשע are opposite types. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Illustrated Seder

Like me, you may have vivid memories of Haggadah illustrations that accompanied the Seder over the years, especially the "four sons" motif. Here are some favorites from my family's collection.