Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Brutality of ...

In one of those interesting temporal juxtapositions we will be noticing throughout this project, here in the middle of the fall holiday cycle we have some aggadot that expand upon material we are familiar with from the spring holiday cycle and specifically, the Passover Haggadah. A good deal of space in the Haggadah is devoted to explaining the various ways in which the few Biblical verses on the enslavement conceal an entire system of oppression, personal and political, sexual, material, cultural, and so on. This section of our book does something similar, and picks out a few dimensions of the enslavement to dwell and expand upon. Since one of my personal methodologies in this project is to be sensitive to connections (however coincidental) between what is going on in my own life (spiritual, personal, professional, etc.) and the particular pieces of aggadah "assigned" to me at a given time, and since my general interest is in the moral-philosophical dimensions of this material, I will try to reflect both of those concerns here.
I'm a divorced parent; this weekend was my high school senior daughter's Homecoming game, she is head cheerleader, and her father came down from Northern California for the event, bringing his wife and 2 1/2-year-old son along. My son also flew in from NYC for the weekend. So what does any of this have to do with the images and ideas in these aggadot about the enslavement in Egypt?
For me, whether the Israelites were actually enslaved in Egypt, under anything like the conditions described in the Bible, is a matter of small historical interest but no spiritual interest at all. By which I mean that I would regard the account as importantly "true" even if it was demonstrated conclusively to me that the events described never took place "in history." So I'm truly indifferent on that latter question. (Not to say it isn't interesting. It's just not "important.") What is important, and true, in the story is what it can illuminate for us about what it means to be enslaved, oppressed, and unfree. Without in any way minimizing the value of the text in analyzing large-scale political oppression, many of us are fortunate enough not to deal with those issues personally and daily -- and so, other things "oppress" us. That is, other features of our biography that have an unchosen character seem to constrain our actions, and choices, and even our character, sometimes putting us in situations in which there appears to be no "right" or "good" way to act.
The first passage, # 42, expands on"the foremen...were flogged," and ennobles the foremen by putting into their mouths the words, "We prefer to submit to the lash, rather than have the people in our charge fall into the hands of the taskmasters." It would be nice to imagine that people who divorce will nevertheless trust one another completely where putting the best interests of their children first, is concerned. But what if that is not so? What does it mean, in this particular way, to "submit to the lash," rather than let harm come to those in one's charge? Paradoxically, it may be the children themselves who see one parent in an unfairly harsh light. For a strongly-motivated person, it may not be so difficult to be a "martyr" in this way for some period of time. The difficult question (which of course does not arise in the Biblical context) is, for how long? For how long should one permit oneself to be "lashed" by the harsh judgments of the very people one has sought to protect, in part by deliberately keeping them in ignorance? When is it self-serving to tell more of the truth, and when is it self-serving not to? The aggadic passage puts the foremen in a flattering light, without any doubt -- but it is does so in part based on a permanent hierarchy between the foremen and those in their charge, with their worthiness to rule legitimized by their moral superiority. If any among the people would preferred to have been flogged themselves (even if for such an unfair offense as coming up short on bricks in impossible circumstances), they were deprived of that form of moral maturity by the foremen's nobility.
As parents, we often wish to do (for noble reasons) precisely what the foremen do here -- stand in between our children and the consequences of their actions or those of another, and take the punishment ourselves (though we don't "deserve" it). This may be a noble impulse, but it is worth reflecting on the point at which it ceases to be a service to the ones so protected, and instead, is a form of domination over them.
Aggadot # 44 presents an equally challenging and multivalent image. The people come to Moses complaining, comparing themselves to "a lamb that a wolf has come to snatch. Though the shepherd runs after the lamb to save it from the mouth of the wolf, the lamb, pulled this way by the shepherd and that way by the wolf, is torn apart. So, too, Israel said, 'Moses, between you and Pharaoh, we are being pulled to death.'" (Exod. 5:21) So, what, exactly, is the nature of their complaint? Certainly, they aren't suggesting that Moses should just stop "pulling" for them, are they? And let them "go to the wolves"? The later sections go on to clarify that the problem is the Pharaoh's reaction to Moses' attempts to intervene and help the Israelites (namely, that things get even worse). This has a first, and obvious, application to the situation of divorced parents. Perhaps everyone will see him- or herself in the role of shepherd/Moses, and the other parent as wolf/Pharaoh. But at least one surprising implication of this passage is that it doesn't actually matter who's the "good guy" and who isn't -- the lamb is pulled apart regardless, as much by wolf and shepherd as by two wolves. It does no good, says this passage, to attempt to defend one's questionable conduct by painting oneself as the shepherd, concerned only to pull the children away from the wolf. The children are pulled apart just the same. What follows from this? In the aggadah, Moses gets fed up with this cycle (God urges him to intervene with Pharaoh, he does so, things get worse, the people complain), complains to God, and is punished for doing so. God also seems to act towards Moses (in # 45) like the worst sort of parent -- "Why can't you be more like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? They didn't complain..." Moses, of course, also has that literal deus ex machina to call upon -- he doesn't have to figure out, with or without the help of the lambs, how to extract them from the wolf's mouth.
The aggadic world, and the Biblical world upon which it comments, were profoundly hierarchical places, in which the first concern was not with the legitimacy of hierarchy itself (which went unquestioned), but rather, with the particular hierarchy in place, and the fitness of those at the top, to rule. The Torah and the Talmud are extraordinarily sensitive on this point, and punctilious almost to a fault about the moral credentials of rulers (see the endless explanations of why Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land). But to my eye, what is lacking is perhaps sufficient acknowledgement of the moral agency of those being led, and how that agency is properly nurtured, so that eventually, one can take the flogging, and jump out of the wolf's mouth, oneself.

No comments: