What do we read? The vital lesson of Hillel in the 21st century.
I was mooching around the internet, looking for a copy of the (excellently-named) Chazon Ovadia (the haggadah of Rav Ovadia Yosef, z”l) and I was thinking about the fact that President Obama is the first president to host and lead a pesach seder at the White House. This somehow led me back to the remarkable speech that the president gave in eulogizing the Reverend Clementa Pinckney z”l last year. His speech included this:
Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history; but we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”
What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind – but, more importantly, an open heart.
Each clause of this is relevant to seder night and worth its own extended discussion. “My liberty depends on you being free, too” has become something of a commonplace, for instance, though it is easier said than accomplished. But the line before it is less obvious, less frequently stated, more challenging and even more relevant. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.
Recognizing ourselves in each other: this is the very opposite of the narrowcasting world in which we now live. Which part of ourselves do Bernie supporters see in Hillary Clinton? Which part of ourselves do Democrats see in the supporters of Donald Trump? Which part of myself do I see in a haredi rabbi, in someone who lives in Efrat, in someone serving in the Israeli army? In a Palestinian Israeli – or an Israeli Palestinian – who grows up in Akko and is treated like a second-class citizen in her own country? Which part of myself was at the AIPAC conference this year; which part of me do I recognize in the person who changed gender, or who prefers they as a pronoun? Do I recognize something of myself in a policeman, a drug dealer, an investment banker, a nurse? An Afghan, an Iranian, a German nationalist, a Muslim in the banlieues?
Recognizing ourselves in each other is more critical today than it has ever been for two reasons. First, because it has become far easier not to do so, but instead to surround ourselves with people with whom we agree. We couldn’t so easily do that in the 1950s, in the worlds of Walter Cronkite and Richard Dimbleby – three networks in the US, just the BBC in Britain. Today, of course, we read facebook feeds and blogs and newspapers that steadily mirror and strengthen our own prejudices. The dislocations of contemporary Jewish life, which are getting steadily worse, mirror the wider culture and are rooted in the same affirmation of our own views. The strongest AIPAC supporters and the strongest BDS supporters evidence little understanding of why someone of good faith might conceivably hold opposite views. I disagree strongly with those who advocate for BDS, for instance, but I feel I could explicate their position reasonably well. You can only do that if you’re willing to listen and empathize and take a moment to defend a position, even if ultimately you reject it. (I wish more supporters of BDS had more – or any – empathy for three generations of Israeli Jews who don’t support withdrawal from the territories precisely because they fear what would happen the day after).
The second reason that we have to listen to those with whom we disagree is because there are so many of us here. The fact that it’s Earth Day tomorrow may prompt us to think about connecting “environmental issues” with the themes of the seder. But “environmental issues” – water, pollution, climate change – are not quite the right place to look. The deeper connection between Earth Day and seder night is that this same line is vital to engaging with the consequences of our own behavior: “justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.” Because what we’re actually living with, right now, is the collision of “environmental” issues with the most primary challenges of human behavior and the human psyche. 7.4 billion people, and counting, on this small and beautiful and fragile planet. The room is getting smaller. Recessions in the nineteenth century were “cured” by colonialism or, in this country, the move west. In the twentieth century the American economy was bailed out partly by the New Deal but ultimately by the second world war. Societal conflict was ameliorated by economic growth.
But how does that work when there are no empty places? When economic growth is constrained by planetary limits? Central bank rates are zero or negative, i.e. they’re pushing on a piece of string. It doesn’t get you very far.
So we are living on a small fragile planet, and there are a lot of us, and our aggregate over-consumption is starting to do real and irreversible damage, and the limits of growth are stalling economies and triggering further economic and then social dislocation. The Syrian refugees who are unsettling the post-war compacts in Europe, the British vote on June 23rd, the people who support Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders: these issues are not separate from “Earth Day issues”, they are Earth Day issues.
Tomorrow night is seder night, the great night of freedom from. And Saturday night we start to count the omer, and meditate for seven weeks on “freedom to.” The Talmud famously records, in Eruvin 13b, that we poskin with Hillel – we rule with Hillel – because they were polite when insulted, because they studied their own views and the views of Beit Shammai, and they would place the views of Beit Shammai before their own. Put a different way: Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That’s what Reverend Pinckney understood. That’s what the President said at a moment of tragedy. It’s Rav Ovadia ruling leniently on many occasions. It’s what Hillel and the school of Hillel lived – an open heart anchoring intellectual respect.
And that, I really believe, is the key freedom we each need to choose this pesach, this counting of the omer, this year, this era. The world is in a dark place, and getting darker. Untangling ourselves is the work of our lifetime. There are no easy solutions; just a whole bunch of problems, many of them getting worse. We will need to make difficult decisions – the decisions of free people, weighing complex choices. Pesach comes to remind us that we are free, that we get to choose, and that our decisions have consequences. The work of Hazon – our many people, our many programs – is one tiny expression of all of this.
Here’s how President Obama – or we – might say it at seder this year:
We have a deep appreciation of history; but we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.
What is true in the Jewish community, true in America, is true across the world.
Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.
That my liberty depends on you being free, too.
That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world.
He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind – but, more importantly, an open heart.
PS: If you read this far, I leave you with this postscript, from Walt Whitman. I’ve been thinking of this, also, but didn’t want to make the email any longer. Think of this as Whitman’s seder night midrash on all of this:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
Through me the afflatus surging and surging, through me the current and index.
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.