Notes on the Wicked Son

The reasons why people initially cared about Allison Benedikt’s essay on … something to do with changing her mind about Israel remain mysterious to me.  Its sentiments were anything but new to this world; that the Village Voice film critic changed her mind about Israel is only slightly more notable than if I changed my mind about Israel; and the most remarkable aspect of the piece was that it was poorly written.

But here we are—and Andrew Sullivan’s reading (I think it’s a mis-reading, but maybe the kind that would intrigue Harold Bloom) of the case of the Wicked Son has moved us into different territory:

I stopped short at the dictum rendered thus by Bachman: “All of Israel (read, “the Jewish people) are responsible for one another”. And not for those outside the faith, including those they may injure or oppress?

That the two examples—the case of the Wicked Son and the four plant species that compose the lulav—discuss only a Jew’s obligation toward other Jews and the obligation of the Jewish community toward all Jews doesn’t at all imply that there are no obligations toward those outside the faith.  Andrew knows this; his posts on Israel and debates with Jeffrey Goldberg have shown that well enough.  Which is why I don’t quite understand why he “stop[s] short” at a rabbi’s discussion of rabbinic interpretations of the four plants we Jews wave around one week a year, mostly hoping no one notices just how ridiculous we look.  It’s possible to have a discussion of a community’s obligations to itself and not mention its obligations to others without implying those obligations don’t exist.  In fact, they clearly do—and recent attempts to erode or deny those obligations are precisely why something must change in Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians.

What the examples themselves make clear also give voice to why the attitude espoused in Benedikt’s essay and subsequent response to Goldberg is, on the one hand, so frustrating—and, on the other, so incredibly saddening.  The case of the Wicked Son explains that his sin is viewing himself as apart from the Jewish people (something broader and truer than the “organized Jewish community” against which Benedikt and her husband are, apparently, a “united front”); the case of the four species (where each, in some commentaries, is likened to either the Wise, Wicked, Simple, or Too-Young-To-Ask child), shows that even though the Wicked Son may view himself apart from the rest of the people—and, more importantly, even though the people may say, “Then you never were one of us”—all Jews, Wicked Sons included, are bound together.  Even though the Wicked Son might look at the rest of the Jewish people and think of them as “they” and “you” and never as “us,” and even though his parents may say in response, “Then you would not have been taken out of Egypt with us,” the lulav is a reminder that his parents can no more excise him and his fate from Israel and its than can the son himself.  All, according to the Jewish tradition, are still obligated toward one another, whether they like it or not.

Excising the Wicked Son excises the sinfulness of saying “you” and “they”—but in doing so it also excises the idea that, say and think what you want, you can’t actually pull yourself away from the “us.”  A Judaism without the idea of the Wicked Son is a Judaism that has become helplessly naïve—but also, and more importantly, a Judaism that has hollowed out its conception of a Jewish community replete with inescapable obligations.

So when Andrew asks the following series of questions—though, as he recognizes, it’s really only one question in different forms,

Moreover, in a world of Diaspora Jews, can there really not be a distinction between being part of the Jewish people and being in favor of the policies of all Israeli governments? Or, more precisely, can there not be a distinction between being part of the Jewish people and being in favor of the policies of a Greater Israel government, an expansionist, occupying force, deliberately designed for the long-term annexation of neighboring territory, with all the attendant compromises of forcing an entire people into subjugation? At what point, in other words, is one expelled from the community because one’s interpretation of a tradition leads one to oppose its current political manifestation?

it’s possible to answer that, yes, there can (and, in my mind, must) be a distinction between being Jewish and supporting the policies of the (any) current Israeli government.  Those who would seek to expel someone from the community simply because they oppose Likud, or the idea of settling a Greater Israel, or because their interpretation of the tradition is different are those who are bent on presenting the future with an ossified, hollowed, deadened Judaism.  They exist, both politically and religiously on the right and on the left and they need to be opposed strenuously.

But the other side to this is that the Jewish tradition teaches that if one objects to the conduct of any portion of the community, one must do something about it.  It is the idea that rests behind the concept of loshn hara (literally “evil speech”; more simply “true gossip)—that one, rather than shame someone by spreading the news of their misdeeds, ought not to talk about it with others but instead confront the individual and try to help them.  And is the idea that rests behind the rabbinic codes that prevent one from being sentenced to a capital offense unless at least two others, seeing the act in progress, warn the perpetrator that he is about to commit a crime.  Maimonides—I think; forgive me if it’s another rabbi—held that, if witnesses do not speak up, they are also liable for the crime.  The community is responsible for itself; all members are responsible for all others.

“Again, I cannot speak to this as a Jew, of course. But I can say that a tug between one’s conscience and the current instantiation of a religion’s authoritative institutions is very much not new to me.”

“I have struggled with it much of my life as a gay Catholic. Am I a “wicked son” for dissenting? Or an essential part of the sensus fidelium for the same reason? Is my position an expression of loyal dissent or am I un-Catholic or even anti-Catholic when I vent about sex abuse, the subjugation of women or the stigmatization of gays? The peril for a Jewish-American dissident seems even more parlous to me. I am not required to defend a sovereign state as part of my religion, and all its attendant moral compromises and evils. Defending a faith from an institution that became a global child-abuse ring was hard enough.”

Dissent requires that one still view themselves as part of a group, and looks toward that group, that people, that nation, that town as an “us” rather than as a “you” or a “they.”  To answer Andrew’s questions, the Jewish tradition—and here, as always, I mean the tradition of Jewish dissent from the norms of present and past as well as the tradition constituted by those very norms and the arguments over them—would require him to become a dissident.  A dissident is a member of the community fulfilling his or her obligation to the community and its members.  Dissent is the opposite of turning one’s back on one’s people: which is precisely why Rabbi Bachman, Goldberg, and myself all seem to have been taken aback by Benedikt’s declaration, “Of course, I do think we all have a responsibility to make the world better – but specifically Israel, because I am Jewish? No.”

Benedikt has taken to asserting her continued Jewishness via Twitter and e-mail (“I am a Jew, you mother fucker.  And I am not unique.”), in part because of some of the distasteful attacks she’s endured from the less polite corners of the internet.  However, when one announces that one is a Jew, but has no responsibility toward Israel or Israelis—it’s the equivalent of saying that one can have a Jewish community that includes only half the world’s Jews.  It is the equivalent of saying “us” of American Jews, but, of Israeli Jews, looking askance and saying, “You people need to get your act together,” then going about your day as if nothing were wrong.

Which brings us back to the Wicked Son with whom this post began.  I am among the many Jews I know who are deeply troubled by the ferocity of the parent’s unconditional response.  But we don’t ignore it.  We object, we offer dissent, we find ways to try to understand it and learn from it—we mitigate it with the lulav; the rabbis of previous eras made excuses for the parent (“He was just trying to scare him back into line,” etc.).  But we don’t excise the tale: to do so is to say it is “your” tradition but not mine, to wave one’s hand and say, “they” might believe it, but I won’t have any of it.

This is the attitude that Benedikt, intentionally or not, is projecting.  And it is the attitude that Philip Weiss and a depressingly growing number within the American Jewish community choose to applaud as the only, or maybe just the best, solution.  It is, in fact, what some on the far-right want to happen: for their most vocal opponents to turn their backs on Israel, to step aside from the people and the tradition, and leave little room in the middle for those of us who, like Jeffrey Goldberg, Peter Beinart, and myself are, in our various ways, trying to hold onto a liberal Zionism and a Judaism that lives simultaneously in the Jewish tradition (and the tradition of Jewish dissent) as well as the modern world.

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4 thoughts on “Notes on the Wicked Son

  1. Nicely put. I emailed a similar clarification to Andrew but this was better, I hope he picks it up. This parable is among my very favorites.

    Like you I was saddened by Benedikt omitting it, as it’s the essence of the Seder in my opinion. Why else would we sit around the table and eat the horrible bread, if not to demonstrate that shared communal experience is our personal responsibility?

    That said, I’m also surprised at the surprise that greeted her over this. In my view, Reform Jews and those further left have made all sorts of changes to the liturgy that are, if not as depressing, nonetheless considerable. I’m thinking particularly of the replacement of “mchayeh hameytim” with “mchayeh hakol” in the Amidah, and the omission of a large section of the full Shma; where the former is a response to a lack of belief in traditional Jewish theology, and the latter is a suspension of law. It seems like the precedent is certainly there.

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    • Changes to liturgy notwithstanding, I do think that the Reform movement, over the last few decades, has more toward a position from which its acts more as a kind of theological dissent than simply an outright rejection. (I think this was why Emil Fackenheim was so adamant that the clergy and laypeople of liberal/Reform Judaism needed an education in the traditional texts.) And the new Reform siddur does, through its presentation of various “alternatives” try to position the individual congregant within a tradition of sorts (as opposed the New Union’s nasty habit of burying the things they didn’t cut but still found distasteful in obscure sections of the book). It’s not traditional Judaism, but it’s presenting a Jewish tradition of which it is a part.

      Even as an extreme example, for completely secular Jews, I think that yiddishkeit alone serves as a kind of binding portion of that tradition.

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