Friday, March 27, 2009

Shebechol Dor Va'dor - The Modern Day Blood Libel

Thoughts on the Hagadah

One of the most compelling parts of the Seder night is the emotional paragraph of vehi she'amdah - "This is what has stood." In the midst of the hagadah we raise our cups of wine and say:
This is what has stood by our ancestors and us! For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One blessed be He, saves us from their hand!"
On the night of the Seder we don't simply remember an event from our history. We reenact the past, but apply it to today. We affirm the understanding that persecution and hatred of the Jewish people has remained a constant across the spectrum of time. Pharaoh did not just hate us then; he hates us today. Except that today's Pharaohs don't carry scepters; they write articles. They don't wear their hatred and derision on their sleeves; they hide it in their smug elitism and humanism.
The Torah tells us that Pharaoh used delegitimization as the first step in the enslavement of the Jewish people. You cannot perpetrate terrible acts on an entire people before you have reduced them in your mind to less than human. Once they no longer share the same status; once they have been reduced to inhuman, anything and everything goes, including enslavement, oppression, even infanticide. The Torah clearly communicates this campaign of hate through its choice of language describing the growth of the Israelites in Egypt.
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.
And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.
The most important word in this verse is the word vayishretzu - "and increased abundantly," because it must be understood in context. The root of the verb is lesharetz - literally meaning "to swarm." In the context of the Torah, a sheretz is an impure, defiled organism; a low, degraded life-form. In essence the Egyptians, watching the rapid growth of the Israelites within their country, saw them not as an engine of growth for the Egyptian economy but rather as a "swarm" of locusts that had descended on Egypt and which, if left unchecked, would one day destroy the country.
Kli Yakkar (on Shemot 1:7) makes precisely this point.
And we can also explain the language of vayishretzu, that after the death of Joseph and his brothers and that entire righteous generation that was protecting them, from then on they became degraded like vermin crawling in the dirt in the eyes of the Egyptians. That is why [the verse] says vayishretzu.
"The land was filled with them." Not something you'd say about citizens. But this is precisely how you'd describe a plague of cicadas, begging for extermination. From that point forward the path seems relatively clear: degradation leads to oppression; oppression to enslavement.

She'bechol dor v'dor. In every generation. When we think about the world we live in today and wonder who hates us and wants to destroy us, the answers seem to come easily: radical Islamists; murderous terrorists; most member-states in the United Nations. But in the United States, Jews enjoy an unprecedented level of freedom, prominence, status - precisely the opposite of oppression. True enough. But when you look a little deeper, the signs do not seem promising.

Christopher Hitchins recently authored an article called "An Army of Extremists" published in Slate Magazine. (For those of you who might not know, Slate is an online venture owned by the Washington Post Company, which also publishes Newsweek. It's considered very "fresh" and "hip", and has an important voice in the news media.) Spurred on by the recent flurry of allegations against religous soldiers in the Israeli Army, and citing this article that appeared recently in the New York Times, Hitchins took the evidence to its logical conclusion.
Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it's fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order. Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs.
So, anyone religous is the following:
  • Violent in the extreme, and obvoiusly guity of creating the "horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties" (is it just me, or do you also see the "Holocaust" imagery in his description?)
  • Zealots
  • Murderers, willing to kill not only Arabs, but secular Jews who dare to contradict their view of Israel, Judaism and the world
I wish I were making this up. But this is the underlying attitude that has fueled the furor over when the IDF is really moral after all. (Obvious message: it's not.) There's really no point in trying to rebut any of the allegations. Truth, facts, substance, nuance - none of that matters.

In the old days, they used to say that we killed Christian children to bake our matzah for Pesach. It really does sound crazy. Had anyone ever looked at a matzah? How in the world would such a charge make any sense at all? But sense never really mattered, when the true agenda was deligimization. Nowadays, they don't claim that we murder Christian children - just Palestinian ones. And Arabs. And even secular Jews. All in the name of the Torah.

In every generation. Indeed.