The First Word: The case for epistemological humility

Was the greater disgrace that we were idolaters or that we were slaves?

seder plate 88 (photo credit: )
seder plate 88
(photo credit: )
Was it just me, or did you also have a sense of dissonance in the days leading up to Pessah? On the one hand, pre-Pessah Israel often makes me wonder if redemption is at hand, or has come. On the street by our house are white people and black people, native Israelis and immigrants, religious and not, hurriedly walking by, rushing to get ready. Some are Ethiopian immigrants and others have come from New York or Atlanta. They're speaking English and French, Hebrew and Russian, Amharic and more, but they're all preparing to celebrate, each in their own way, the fact that we've survived, the miracle of our being here. It's for moments like that that we came here. And at moments like that when I wonder … could redemption really be at hand? But these are also post-election days, hardly redemptive in their tenor. As always, we're being treated to the highly divisive rhetoric that accompanies the horse trading of Israeli coalition building. Who will sit with whom? Who will sell out? Who will stand for something? Was this what we yearned for when, for century after century, we sang "Next Year in Jerusalem" at our Seders? And further beneath the surface, a deeper conflict simmers. That disagreement is not about horse trading, but about what is really wrong with this society, and what will save it. It is a debate about what we should care about, about what should keep us awake at night. It is a divide over what will bring us closer to redemption. There are some, mostly on the Right, who see danger lurking just over our (not terribly well defined) borders. Terror. An internationally accepted Hamas. Another disengagement, they insist, will reward terror and invite more. They voted in the hope that the errors of the past summer would not be repeated, desperate to restore (what they see as) rationality to Israel's foreign policy. But most Israelis seem uninterested. Even with Hamas newly in power, more Israelis seem concerned by the content of this country, rather than its contours. Thousands of young people abandoned the large parties and voted for the Pensioners. Labor, led by the first Sephardi man to head the party, didn't get trounced after all. And in not failing, it restored a social agenda to the forefront of Israeli politics. Ehud Olmert's coalition will speak of a future disengagement as a matter of course. The issues to be discussed, it seems, are the social, economic and educational agendas that will be pressed by Labor, the Pensioners and others. I LISTEN to the security and ideological agendas of the (disappointed) people on the Right, and the social agendas of those on the Left, and wonder. Can one nation have such different conceptions of what's wrong with our society and how to fix it, and still call itself a single community? Just when we may be tempted to say "no," to insist that such different visions of redemption cannot work together to fashion one shared society, we sit, all of us, to read the Haggada. Left and Right, security minded and socially conscious, immigrants and natives, liberals and conservatives, we will hear someone ask the four questions, and we will begin to recite our answers. Not an answer, but two answers. One answer that says that we celebrate Pessah because once we were idolaters, and another response that claims that the real miracle is that once we were slaves, but now we're liberated. The two answers, of course, are the product of a longstanding and famous debate in Jewish life. The Mishna says that in discussing the Passover story, we ought to begin with "disgrace" and end with praise. The question is, what is the "disgrace" with which we ought to begin? Rav says that the genut (disgrace) was that we were idolaters. Shmuel disagrees. The disgrace, he insists, was that we were slaves. AND HOW does the tradition respond? We read both. We celebrate our liberation, our survival and our newfound freedom by acknowledging that even in our triumphs, we ought to recall the radically different views of the redemptions that the Jews once needed. For some, the spiritual redemption of abandoning idolatry was key. For others, it was the physical redemption of the liberation from slavery. But those radically different conceptions of human flourishing and Jewish thriving coexist in the Haggada, and we will all, no matter which view might speak to us more, read both of them. As if both are obvious. As if the Haggada wouldn't be whole without each, side by side. Could we get there again? What would it take for this Pessah to bring us one step closer to redemption? What would happen if all of us, those disappointed by the results of last week's election, and those more pleased, tempered our pleasure or despondency with a modicum of epistemological humility? What if we all acknowledged that we might be wrong, that we don't know with certainty what policies will ensure that our grandchildren, and theirs, will still be able to celebrate the Seder in a Jewish Jerusalem? How will we know when redemption has arrived? Perhaps it will be when we imitate the Haggada, instead of just reading it. Perhaps a brighter future for the Jews will begin to dawn when we look across the political and ideological divides that often rend this country asunder, and say to ourselves, "they, too, could be right." Might it be that the State that is the product of one of our people's greatest liberations would be on the verge of yet another redemption if seated around our tables, preparing to read the Haggada, we said to ourselves, and to each other, "Maybe this is not only the moment to sing and to teach, but to ask, and to wonder, and even to begin to listen"? The writer is Vice President of the Mandel Foundation - Israel. His next book, Coming Together, Coming Apart: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel, will be published this summer.