Levinas and Morgenbesser at the Seder

by Benjamin Shribman

In the telling of the story of the Exodus at the Passover Seder, we not only fulfill the Biblical commandment but allow ourselves to escape into a past in which we can speak easily of  “the Jewish people” without worrying too much about its meaning.  When we look around the table and admire the variety of friends and family at the Seder, however, we recognize and should value this more complex present.  Indeed, if our Seder includes people unfamiliar with Passover (whether Jewish by birth or not), and we take hospitality seriously enough to make them comfortable enough to ask questions, we should be ready to hear something worthy of one of the four sons: “What exactly is Judaism?”

” … it is a vague sensibility made up of various ideas, memories, customs and emotions, together with a feeling of solidarity toward those Jews who were persecuted for being Jews.” Emmanuel Levinas, “Judaism” (1953)

The philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser used to joke that the statement “I’m Jewish” is the only pure performative in the English language. Whether or not one sees and accepts the wisdom in this joke, it’s worth appreciating that “what counts” in such a view is not birth or even community, but individual commitment. Whatever we may think of “Judaism” as a reasonable term for a single religion, a single nation, or even a single civilization, in this new century we already sense that the substance of our commitments is perhaps the only thing that will ultimately distinguish Judaism.

“For a long time Jews thought that every situation in which humanity recognizes its religious progress finds in ethical relations its spiritual meaning — that is to say, its meaning for an adult. They consequently conceived of morality in a very vigorous way, feeling themselves attached to it as though to an inalienable heritage. … In a world where, like material goods, spiritual values were offered to whoever wished to grow rich, morality meant it was worth remaining a poor Jew, even when one ceased to be a Jew who was poor.” Emmanuel Levinas, “Ethics and Spirit” (1952)

This year, as we tell the story of the Exodus and discuss all the issues raised in the Haggadah, we might reflect not only on the human suffering that is part of current events but also on our liberation from the 20th century, from the Bush Administration, and from a period that sadly resembled the roaring 20s. Not in order to cast blame, or even to figure out what exactly has happened — we don’t tell the story of the Exodus in order to write (right?) Pharaoh’s history, after all — but rather to figure out to what and to whom we’re committed now. As Morgenbesser well knew even in making the joke, not just any set of commitments is compatible with Judaism.

“The traumatic experience of my slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched, and the persecuted peoples of the world. … I cannot fail in my duty toward any man, any more than I can have someone else stand in for my death. This leaves the conception of the creature who can be saved without falling into the egotism of grace. Man is therefore indispensable to God’s plan or, to be more exact, man is nothing other than the divine plans within being.” Levinas, “Judaism” (1953)

To what does Judaism commit us? This is the question that might serve as a productive response to the guest who asks “What exactly is Judaism?” And should one of the rebellious sons at the table ask in turn: “How come Jews are always answering questions with other questions?” …. well, you don’t have to be Morgenbesser or Levinas to know the answer to that one.

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