Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Stop being snarky about Judaism!

Passover Haggadah published by Maxwell House. Religion News Service photo by Aysha Khan

Passover Haggadah published by Maxwell House. Religion News Service photo by Aysha Khan

Even I sometimes lose patience with the culture of snark.

A few days ago, the Washington Post ran an opinion column by the author Shalom Auslander, in which he declared his independence from Passover — and from any serious thinking about Judaism.

Shalom Auslander is a refugee from what he characterizes as a restrictive, hypocritical, Orthodox childhood — which he describes, poignantly and humorously, in his autobiography Foreskin’s Lament.

But, in his piece on Passover, he went too far.

“Passover is the ancient Jewish holiday on which we celebrate the story of a man who probably never existed and who may or may not have freed his people from a slavery that probably never happened by bringing forth plagues of which there is no historical record, ultimately leading them on a journey through the desert for which there is no evidence to a Promised Land that turned out to be anything but.”

True — there is ongoing scholarly controversy over the precise details of the enslavement and exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

But, the absolute veracity of the story is not what is important here.

It is the story’s lesson — that a people, enslaved to a tyrant, becomes committed to a relationship with God.

As political philosopher Michael Walzer has written in Exodus and Revolution, the story of the Exodus, however inaccurate or inaccurate, has been the inspiration for every revolution and social movement in history.

This might be the biggest story in the world.

“Passover, which is supposed to celebrate freedom from enslavement to man, imposes in its place a more complete enslavement to God.”

Auslander outrageously suggests that the contemporary S and M classic, Fifty Shades of Grey, might be a good book to read during Passover.

This is the same story as Passover: A needy young woman (the Jews) falls for a domineering sociopath (God) who promises to bring her joy (the Holy Land) by beating the heck out of her (40 years in the desert), pain she actually thanks him for (Passover) by doing all manner of loathsome things (i.e., eating matzoh, drinking kosher wine).”

This is an immature caricature of Judaism and of God. Judaism is not about enslavement to God. It is about a historic conversation between God and the Jewish people, in which the human being maintains every shred of dignity and freedom.

Finally, Auslander suggests that Franz Kafka’s “Letter To His Father” would be a good Passover read.

Dearest Father,

You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you.

…Maybe instead of Passover, we should have a holiday that truly celebrates freedom. We’ll call it Kafkover. And on that day, people all over the world won’t pray to gods that enslave them, won’t point their fingers at their enemies, won’t get together with the families that don’t love them and will, instead, spend the day enjoying the only freedom that matters: freedom from the past.

“Freedom from the past” is not freedom. It is amnesia. It is what the Passover Haggadah describes as the mindset of the “wicked” (or “rebellious”) child — to utterly withdraw yourself from the Jewish conversation.

Is there hope for Shalom Auslander?

There could be, and there should be.

Consider what happened with writer Anne Roiphe. In 1978, she wrote “Christmas Comes To A Jewish Home” for the Living section of the New York Times. In that article, she described how her Jewish family had a Christmas tree.

The Times published a full page of letters on her article, most of them lambasting her for her practice.

Ms. Roiphe took those criticisms to heart. She said to herself: If all of these people are so upset, perhaps I have missed something. Perhaps I need to learn more about Judaism.

That is what she did. She described her Jewish journey in Generation Without Memory, wrote other books and articles about Judaism — and today, she is a major Jewish pundit.

Anne Roiphe was escaping from secularism and assimilation.

Auslander is escaping from a hardened ultra-Orthodoxy.

Based on what Auslander experienced in his boyhood, we are not surprised at his perceptions of Judaism. And, based on his memories of his father, we are not surprised that his view of the “Father God” might not be loving.

Shalom, you made it out of the geographical ghetto of your childhood — Monsey, in Rockland County, New York.

How about the spiritual ghetto, as well? There are many Jewish options out there.

Isn’t it time that you learned about those Jewish options, and even tried them?

Because, while it might be uber-cool to be a publicly recognized “rebellious child,” the snark won’t help anyone.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

18 Comments

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  • Your attempt to ‘label’ realism as ‘snark’ is transparent religist apologetics(apologizing for the obvious failings of a particular brand of religion).

  • There is no slavery like the slavery of secularism. If G’d disappears the State necessarily will become the locus of omnipotence. Only the presupposition a transcendent G’d can break (in)human absolutism.

  • “……..escaping from secularism and assimilation.”
    If modern factual historical accounts are of less value than traditional tribal stories, then we may as well let the “Game of Thrones” be our guide and inspiration. There is something really wrong in your head, Rabbi.

  • I can play your game and simply string unsupported declaritive sentences together. Up is down, my fantisy is factual, and my good lie beats your bad truth.

  • It is possible to take Passover completely seriously and not believe it literally. There are other choices. If I read War and Peace, I know it is a novel and not literally true, but I can learn a lot about human nature and history even so. There is a lot more to the Hebrew Bible than “traditional tribal stories.” The Game of Thrones doesn’t tell you to treat the stranger well, because you were a stranger or to help the poor is a way to be close to God.

    There always have been Jews who thought the way to freedom was assimilating. A lot of them were German and they are all died. We know assimilation doesn’t work for long.

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    Honestly, that’s been Auslander’s shtick for many years. In fact, it is his ONLY shtick. There is a tiny audience for his shtick, and they can kvell about it all they want.

    His shtick won’t (and doesn’t) help anyone. It’s just noise in the transmission.

  • It seems to me that the point is clear that a transcendent reality frees the mundane from becoming absolute. However, if there is no transcendent reality (G’d), then mundane reality is the only thing there is and will take on absolute characteristics. From a Jewish perspective this is where idolatry begins. In the modern secular world this will lead to the absolutization of the state and politics, because of the denial of any higher (or transcendent) authority. Both Nazism and Communism are forms of this absolutization. Modern secularism has a dangerous tendency to forget that a secular outlook is not neutral, but is as biased as any religious outlook is.

  • Not if you/they get to define religion as the hallowed wisdom of our shared religious traditions. As the rational fool, i will try to explain. The exterior world is independent of our internal reaction to it. Religious wisdom should be about a constructive emotional reaction to that situation. This inner world of representations which we humans of necessity construct, are not passive reflections of reality, as the ancients believed, but are entirely new “mindscapes” created by our evolutionary path to survival, thus far. These simple facts were not known to the ancients of the Middle East, nor were the guessed by any major group there, as some farther East did. We “Moderns” wait for these ignorant dogmatists to “catch up” with the discoveries of the last two Centuries in the Biological sciences. This is futile, because they love their mythology, and their traditions, and their revenge, much more than they love new knowledge and constructive self discovery. This is the common sin of these three old religions. Ideology is not science, it is politics. It is politics aping the ignorant exploitive behavior of traditional religion, and that downward spiral may sweep us all away in an orgy of revenge. If Modernism fails, we revert rapidly to primitivism. Sharpen your spears boys. Expansion is slow but collapse is very fast indeed.

  • So the short answer is you DON’T want to read the Religious News Service, but have some obsessive-compulsive reason to keep doing so against your better interests … and posting long silly screeds about God-knows-what (see what I did there?) just so long as it does not in any way refer to the topic of the article.

    So let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas – Feliz Navidad!

  • So the short answer is you DON’T want to read the Religious News
    Service, but have some obsessive-compulsive reason to keep doing so, and posting silly screeds about things no one is interested in, just so long as it does not in any way refer to the topic of the article.

    At least that screed was short.

    The topic is … did Aulander go too far or not? I don’t care, so stop posting to me. If you have an opinion, post it to everyone.

  • On the 6th of the month of Av, 5416 (July 27, 1656) the excommunication of Baruch de Spinoza was proclaimed from the Ark in the synagogue of Talmud Torah, the united congregation of the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam. “By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein”.

    There is no evidence that Spinoza sought any kind of pardon, and good reason to believe that he had no desire to return to the community anyway. It is clear that Spinoza had already formed a circle of friends and disciples, mainly of the Mennonite sect known as Collegiants, whoso doctrines were similar to those of the Quakers; and that he had attended a philosophical club composed mainly of these sectaries. After his excommunication Spinoza found it desirable to take up his abode with a Collegiant friend who lived two or three miles outside of Amsterdam on the Ouderkerk road, near the old Jewish cemetery.

    The Christian calendar anniversary is coming up, so get a candle ready.

    PS – The entire edifice of modern ethical theory stands upon Spinoza being cast out.

  • “Spinoza’s thinking conflicted with both the Judaism of his time and the Christianity of his host society. The “Theological-Political Treatise” was banned and had to be sold with false title pages; and the experience caused Spinoza to withhold publication of the “Ethics” during his lifetime.

    One of his best friends, liberal political leader Jan de Witt, was murdered by a mob, and Spinoza is said to have been restrained from risking his own life to denounce the crime.”

    We excommunicated him and still study him The other folks tried to kill him … and don’t. And DID murder Jan de Witt. Pays your money, takes your choice.

  • This is all so silly. Everyone know that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created everything you can think of on a Tuesday afternoon while getting HER nails done. Right?

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