Friday, June 24, 2011

Jeffrey Goldberg, excommunicator

Jeffrey Goldberg has ignited a blog conflagration with an attack on Allison Benedikt's coming-of-age tale of her progressive disillusionment with the gung-ho Zionism she sucked up in summer camp. I found Benedikt's  narrative riveting, and Goldberg's critique smotheringly self-righteous.

Goldberg asks of Benedikt: "Does she ever try to answer for herself why Israel exists? Or is she happy to subcontract out her thinking about the most important questions facing Jews first to her camp counselors, and then to her husband?"  It's true that Benedikt's stances on the issues are barely sketched in, but that in itself suggests neither a lack of thought nor of due diligence. Her focus is on how her changing perceptions registered emotionally, not on the data points that caused them. Hers is not a policy piece; it's a chronicle about how she navigated the family mania for Israel -- and later, her husband's antipathy toward the country -- over the course of a decade and a half or so. Benedikt's response to Goldberg makes this point better than I can.

I want to focus on Goldberg's most poisonous charge -- which he saves for last. I think it reveals more about him than about Benedikt:
And then there is a whole set of other questions:  Does she ask herself whether she has a responsibility to make Israel a better, more humane, place? Does she question herself about the consequences of abandoning Israel? Does she think about the sin of the wicked son in the Passover story, and how that sin might echo in her own life? 
Abandoning Israel? Goldberg seems to have derived that idea from Benedikt's kicker at the close. Let's take a look:

My sister lives a full and happy life in Tel Aviv. She has two awesome kids who will both serve in the Israeli Army one day. I love them all very much. All of us kids have had an impact on my mother—as has Jeffrey Goldberg. Mom turns out to be open-minded. She thinks she never got the full story either, and is now tortured over Israel, a torture that seems to occupy 80% of her brain. She is basically alone among her friends, most of them reflexively "pro"-Israel, one-issue voters who try to make her feel stupid when she is not. My father is still a hawk. I don't care as much as either of them, but I do still care—and not just because it's a Major World Issue, and not just because my sister lives there.

John and I have two kids of our own and are raising them as Jews. Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel. It seems my trajectory is not at all unique. My best memories from childhood are from camp, and I will never, ever send my kids there.
"There" is the Zionist summer camp, a repellent, brainwashing organization. "There" is not Israel, and "disgusted with" does not equal abandonment -- Goldberg himself is often disgusted with Israel. Benedikt is not obligated to make Israel the focal point of her life, nor to become an investigative journalist (she is the Village Voice's film editor). Not doing so does not mean that she is "abandoning" anything.

Goldberg, it should be noted, is quite capable of nuance and admirably endowed with empathy for Palestinians as well as Israelis.. But the smug, parochial strain in his writing and thinking is embedded in that toxic little zinger about the wicked son in the Passover story. Does she think about the sin of the wicked son in the Passover story, and how that sin might echo in her own life?  Make no mistake, he is implicitly expelling her from the community.  Wise Son that he is, he takes the Haggadah's 1st or 2nd-century C.E. special ed prescriptions to heart:
The Torah speaks of four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask. ..
The wicked son, what does he say? "What is this service to you?" By saying, "to you," he implies: "but not to himself." Since he has excluded himself from the people at large, he denies the foundation of our faith.
Therefore, you should blunt his teeth and tell him: "It is because of this, what God did for me when I went out of Egypt."By saying "for me," you imply: "but not him." Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.
Bludgeoned by Goldberg with this putrid bit of religious invective, Benedikt responds that in her own family Seder, she deletes reference to the wicked child. That sets off a fresh round of spiritual hand-wringing, inducing Goldberg not only to condemn this "un-Jewish" editing himself, but to call in the heavy religious artillery -- a certain Rabbi Andy Bachman, who responds to the deletion as follows:
I was blown away by this.  The structure of the Seder is built on the number 4 (4 questions, 4 cups, 4 children) There is a long intellectual tradition of writing creative Haggadahs but to delete a core element, to delete a *child* seems to be severing a connection to the people that cuts to the heart of the Jewish peoplehood debate today.  A Seder without a Wicked Child is not a Seder.  A Jewish people without all its voices is not a people.  It's an American denominationalist religion where land, history and language gather dust.  That may work for some people; but it obviously doesn't work for others. 
Thus does Bachman sentimentalize the harsh exclusions inherent in the Seder (along with a bit of pointless number symbolism). The "wicked child" is part of the community! An essential part!  The scapegoated, demonized, labeled, ostracized part. Holy paradox -- forever "including" the excluded one as excluded one. What a useful reminder the little bastard is. And so Bachman uses Benedikt -- an instructively lost daughter who is severing a connection to the people that cuts to the heart of the Jewish peoplehood debate today.

The corollary is that for the wise (Goldberg and Bachman), the Seder is about what God did for me and for my people. That is, smite "our" oppressors, lead "us" out of slavery, and, ultimately, command and impel "us" to exterminate and displace the inhabitants of a certain once-again-contested sliver of land. The Seder is focused on the first part of the story: the liberation.  There is a brief, pious nod toward not celebrating the death of the Egyptians, and -- in modern American Haggadot in any case --  a modicum of guided discussion about universal values and rights. But the whole narrative is of course sacred to Jews. The Seder reflects a basic tension in Judaism between tribalism and universalism.

For centuries, in Jewish thought, universalism was dominant.  What Benedikt's piece implicitly suggests is that today, increasingly, tribalism has come to the fore. How do we react if the Tanach, which celebrates displacement of the Promised Land's prior inhabitants, is being used by an increasingly dominant cohort of fundamentalist Israelis to justify ever more displacement of the current inhabitants -- and American Jews go along with it? To turn Goldberg's charge around, Benedikt's piece can be understood to ask: What if the wicked one is the one doing the indoctrinating, rather than the resistant child at the receiving end of the indoctrination? 

Personally, that's how I experienced the God of the Jewish Bible in my religious instruction: as a haranguing, threatening, punishing bully. And still do.I am that wicked son -- sitting through the Seder resenting the endless repetition of a tale told by an idiot. Okay, that's rage boiling over. There's nothing "idiotic" about the original narrative. Let's call it a tale handed down by ancient theocrats with an agenda, held up by atavist reflex by those invested in the belief that the tale encapsulates timeless wisdom, notwithstanding its assertions of divinely commanded genocide. And in this generation, some have reified a virulent strain of original intent: The land is mine, God gave this land to me.  What an evil lie.  God does not deal in real estate.

That's not the whole story, of course. I am not writing this to morally condemn the writers of Exodus, or their Jewish interpreters through the centuries.  I agree with Robert Wright that God grows kinder through the ages -- that is, His (and/or Her) perceived nature reflects evolving and yes improving human ethics. For many a century, the rabbis were strong drivers of that process.  But post-Enlightenment,  I don't see any reason to invest continued sanctity in texts that are morally archaic, that we have improved upon.  As a personal guide, I'll take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over the Ten Commandments any day.  "Sacred" texts are better equipped to teach us where we came from and how our moral understanding has evolved than how to live or think today.

Benedikt, on the other hand, is raising her children as observant Jews by her lights.  Last I checked, Judaism has no pope, though these days, alas, it's not short of theocratic thugs, like the one who tweeted to her: "you make up your own hagada? who in the world do you think you are? and why do you think it's a hagada?"

Goldberg finds Benedikt's response -- "I am Jewish, you mother fucker. And I'm not unique" -- "repellent."  As he might expect from one to be repelled, a wicked child.

Kudos to Benedikt for rejecting such rejection.

Related posts:
Myths are all very well, but dreams of purity are pernicious
On not respecting the past


  1. "As a personal guide, I'll take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over the Ten Commandments any day."

    No Universal Declaration without the Ten Commandments, and no inclination to write or receive the former without the history that connects the two. Benedikt, Goldberg, and you, too (and me - don't be misled by my goyische surname), are coping with being a Jew in the age of the Third Manifestation of Israel, which, along with the Universal Declaration and the UN, too, is a messianic institution that profoundly alters what it means to be a Jew, and for that matter a Christian or a Muslim.

    "And many nations shall join themselves to the Eternal in that day."

  2. "And still do.I am that wicked son -- sitting through the Seder resenting the endless repetition of a tale told by an idiot."

    I agree with most of what you say here. I'd like to say that both Benedikt and her interlocutors are "wicked" in the sense of one of the four sons. Both ask the other, "Who are you, and what do you mean by this?" The difference is that Benedikt is aware of her wickedness as an act of rebellion. She's using it to be provocative. The response of her interlocutors seems, as you say, knee-jerk.

    Still, there are other ways of understanding the wicked son within the context of the seder, as opposed to within the context of the Haggadah as a piece of literature. Imagine the seder as a ritual where you engage your family, instead of a lip-syncing of ethnic history. Seen this way, the wicked son's rejection is much more difficult to bear (it's the rejection of the family), and so is the response (it's the expulsion of a member). It's a complete lesson in dysfunction. The lesson is: be neither of those who reject the other.