I recently read an article in Harper’s Magazine about the slow death of the long-form book review. It was a lengthy lament on the decline not merely of book reviews, but also an appreciation of nuance overall in our current media environment. The author, Christian Lorentzen, a former book reviewer for New York magazine, opined that even respectable media outlets have focused on covering books in a way that suits today’s climate: shorter bits, recommended lists, author Q&As, thumbs-up-thumbs-down-type coverage. In one passage, acknowledging that the reality is that even the New York Times Book Review is ultimately in search of more clicks, the author drew a fine point on it
… For certain types of journalism the quest for traffic is incompatible with, if not antithetical to, the task at hand. Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it…, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”
Lorentzen takes us all to task. Book coverage, like virtually everything else, has been reduced to black and white. It’s either awesome or horrible, enthusiastically recommended or panned. We either “like” it (with a thumb icon) or we don’t. Not much room in that thumb for nuance, for accepting some good points with some weaknesses. The subtlety that should mark any great work of literature is lost, because such subtlety is virtually invisible in an online environment in which EVERYBODY IS SHOUTING in capital letters.
And so too throughout society. On every issue, we are all polarized. You either agree or disagree. End of story. The middle won’t hold, because it doesn’t attract enough online traffic.
Who has time for nuance? I can’t help but view the world through my professional Jewish lens. And I see a parallel between long form book reviews and (get this!) Conservative Judaism. Our greatest challenge, being in the middle of Jewish life, is that we cannot be described in a soundbite. An unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement, in the middle of the 20th century, came from Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Great Neck on Long Island for 55 years, from 1947 until 2002. His slogan, “Tradition and Change,” used to resonate throughout the movement. We stand for halakhah, Jewish law, (i.e. tradition) and yet we exercise our right as modern Jews to interpret halakhah (that is, to make some change) to adapt to the framework of contemporary life.
A classic example is that, in 1950, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, in an effort to encourage Shabbat observance when more and more American Jews were moving to the suburbs, passed a teshuvah, a rabbinic opinion, that said that if you do not live within walking distance of a synagogue, it is better that you should drive to be with your qehillah, your community on Shabbat than not to go at all, even though driving a car with an internal combustion engine is clearly prohibited according to halakhah.
The challenge to the Conservative movement is putting forward a nuanced vision of Judaism while living in a dramatically non-nuanced world. The idea of “Tradition and Change” works well on the Jewish bookshelf, but it hardly gets people very excited about our heritage.
We the Jews are masters of nuance. Rabbinic literature is filled with examples of the subtle parsing of words and concepts. One such example that came across my desk this week, courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, the director of Derekh, relates in particular to the language of the haggadah.
One passage which you really should discuss around your seder table, is a direct quote from the Mishnah of Pesahim, the book of the Mishnah dedicated to all aspects of Passover (10:5). You might miss it if you’re only focused on singing the Four Questions and Dayyenu, and for sure if you’re skipping right to dinner
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג), וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם
… In every generation a person must see him/herself as though s/he [personally] had gone out of Egypt, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).
This is the call to arms of the seder. It is the line that is most important because it connects our history to who we are and how we live today
What does it say? Each of us must see ourselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. How might that guide our actions? If we are truly internalizing that notion, then it should mean that we should let that vision of ourselves guide us in eliminating oppression from our world.
But hold on a minute. Rabbi Markiz pointed me to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides / Rambam, his 12th century halakhic work that gives a thorough snapshot of living Jewishly. And while Rambam sometimes quotes the Talmud directly, here he changes the words somewhat (MT, Hilkhot Hametz uMatzah 7:6)
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ יָצָא עַתָּה מִשִּׁעְבּוּד מִצְרַיִם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ו כג) “וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם” וְגוֹ’. וְעַל דָּבָר זֶה צִוָּה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בַּתּוֹרָה “וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ” כְּלוֹמַר כְּאִלּוּ אַתָּה בְּעַצְמְךָ הָיִיתָ עֶבֶד וְיָצָאתָ לְחֵרוּת וְנִפְדֵּיתָ
In every generation a person must show her/himself that s/he personally had come forth from Egyptian subjugation, as it is stated, “God freed us from there…” (Deut. 6:23). And regarding this, the Holy Blessed One commanded in the Torah, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” (Deut. 5:15, 15:15, 24:22), that is to say, as if you yourself had been a slave, and you came forth into freedom, and you were redeemed.
So here is the nuance:
- Rambam changes the imperative from “see oneself” (lir’ot) to “show oneself” (lehar’ot). The second form is causative (hif’il). Don’t just picture yourself as a former slave, says Rambam. Rather, show yourself. Do something that will bring this understanding home, will make it personal. Go from passive to active.
- Rambam also changes the proof-text. Instead of the verse quoted in the Mishnah, about what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt, he cites an explicit statement of what God did, i.e. freed us from Egypt’s clutches, and then backs it up with an oft-repeated line in the Torah about remembering that we were slaves. The impression with which we are left is stronger. Don’t think of freedom merely as a gift from God for which we should be grateful. Rather, remember that you were a slave, and now you’re free, and you have to act on that.
You can feel free to use Rambam’s words in your seder if you’d like. In fact, I encourage you to print them out and compare them back-to-back one night. But you can’t stop there – the point of the seder is not merely intellectual discussion. It is, rather, a call to action.
Show yourself what it means to be free. Contribute your time to help others – by working in a homeless shelter, or joining a group that is working to prevent gun violence, or reaching out to the local Muslim community, or the local African-American community, to work toward better inter-faith and inter-racial relations, or many other such activities, or speaking up when your own government separates migrant families at our southern border. Don’t just picture yourself as a slave; show yourself what it means to be free. Prove to yourself that your freedom moves you to act on the behalf of those deprived of it.
It is a subtle textual emendation by Maimonides. But it could make a huge difference in this world. We cannot afford NOT to parse the nuance. We cannot reduce ourselves to the Like/Dislike sickness that has afflicted our society. We the Jews have a proud tradition of textual interpretation based on subtlety; let’s put it to work as we show ourselves and others that we understand the value of nuance.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/6/2019.)