The Ego-Mad Ehuds and the Seder’s Secular Sacredness

May all our seders, like their predecessors, confuse us constructively.

The Jerusalem Post

March 27, 2018

The Ego-Mad Ehuds and the Seder’s Secular Sacredness

May all our seders, like their predecessors, confuse us constructively.

T he ego-mad Ehuds – Olmert and Barak – bickering over who deserves credit for a secret neither should have spilled, sullied us all. Israel should have continued denying responsibility for the mysterious destruction of Syria’s North Korean-built nuclear reactor – at least until Syrian President Bashar Assad falls. Although Olmert triumphed, making Barak look hesitant and hysterical, both ex-prime ministers seemed pretty petty. Once again, watching the news in 2018 prompted the clichéd question, “is nothing sacred?” – this time without even mentioning US President Donald Trump.

By contrast, seders celebrate a secular sacredness in politics. The Jewish people’s duality as a holy nation whose political history has a sanctified purpose and thus cosmic meaning emerges. Many Jewish liberals today ignore the Haggada’s synthesis of politics and religion, profundity and normalcy. Many Jewish conservatives overlook its demand that politics foster morality and social justice.

In the Passover story, synagogue and state blur. A true prophet, Moses leads politically and religiously. The seder passes over that distinction, just as most liberal Jews pass over the contradiction.

In fact, even American democracy cannot divorce church from state. America lacks an established church like England, yet has an established religious presence in politics. The sense of the sacred in American democracy – America’s civil religion – has long anchored that diverse, disputatious democracy. Trump’s vulgar, demagogic, tweet-driven assault on the presidency’s sacred character, his inability to transcend partisanship, amplified by his own smallness, wounds American governance and civil society.

Jewish politics, the conception of the people and the state embedded in Torah, celebrated at seder, integrates religion, fusing the profound and the prosaic (hopefully not the profane). This goes far beyond faith in God propping up faith in the king. This is about stretching people to transcend themselves, thinking big, doing right, trying to save the world. Jewish politics’ most universalist, most idealistic dimensions stem from its godliness.

While more ambivalent about this equation, American democracy embraces religion as both ballast and catalyst, preserving order, fermenting change. Sundays, Christmas and Thanksgiving have long been building blocks of American morality, stability and reform. Dollar bills proclaim “In God We Trust.” Liberals cheer when ethical crusaders like the Reverend Martin Luther King enter politics, just as conservatives welcome their Reverend Billy Grahams and Pat Robertsons.

Similarly, while many declared the Zionist revolution a secular rebellion, it’s always been deeply Jewish and deliciously ambiguous. The late David Hartman compared Zionism’s anti-religiousness to the rebel teenager’s vows to run away from home – without actually leaving.

When Karl Marx’s friend Moses Hess broke with what became “Godless Communism,” his early Zionist work, Rome and Jerusalem  (1862), celebrated rediscovering “my nationality, which is inseparably connected with my ancestral heritage, with the Holy Land and the Eternal City, the birthplace of the belief in the divine unity of life and of the hope for the ultimate brotherhood of all men….”

In an excellent essay excerpted in my new book The Zionist Ideas , Daniel Polisar of Shalem College debunks the “widely held myth… that democracy is fundamentally at odds with religion.” Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, even Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, believed that democratic citizens must be “steeped in religious traditions and values. Without the self-discipline and the commitment to the nation produced by particularist traditions, democratic freedoms will produce corruption and decay – and the destruction of the republic that offered those freedoms in the first place.”

The sacred offers grounding and a launching pad – anchors that keep us stable and ideals that propel our shared mission to improve the world.

Polisar wrote these words in 1999. Consider the cynicism, the corruption and decay, Trump triggers – actually accelerates; it’s been building for decades. Consider the cynicism, the corruption and decay resulting from the ego-mad Ehuds’ assault on the sacred insulation most Israeli leaders usually try adding around national security matters, not stripping away.

Sadly, modern seders are often hijacked to make Judaism seem politically correct, morphing its core message into a mushy, open-ended, universally liberal freedom-fest. Yet even US president Barack Obama – or his speechwriters – resisted that anchorless, sanitized, Kumbaya “universalist demagogy,” in Polisar’s tart, spot-on, phrase.

“Led by a prophet and chased by an army, sustained by a faith in God and rewarded with deliverance, the Israelites’ journey from bondage to the Promised Land remains one of history’s greatest examples of emancipation,” Obama said last year. He ended with the rhetorical – and ideological – knockout punch: “Passover gives us all a special opportunity to renew our belief in things unseen even as the future remains uncertain.”

Similarly, Trump’s 2018 Passover message blurs the political and the religious, hailing Israel “as a monument” to the Jewish people’s “faith and endurance.”

May all our seders, like their predecessors, confuse us constructively. May they spur us to return the godliness to politics, without treating politicians as godly or partisan positions as gospel. May they remind us of the Jewish links between our religious and national identities, between embracing our traditions and fighting for freedom. And may the seders spur us to reject our leaders’ tendency to boost themselves up even if it knocks the nation down, and our own tendency to polarize, confining everyone and every position to intellectual prisons. Instead, let’s build delightfully messy political lean-tos, which let in air, light, and even those who, like good democrats, may not agree with us always, but might nevertheless ally with us occasionally.

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Gil Troy  is the author of  The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s . His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. Professor Gil Troy is Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University.

Follow on Twitter  @GilTroy .

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