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Thank God for the Haggadah, the Ultimate Non-PC Story

For a generation trained in moral relativism, there’s nothing like a strong tale of faith, fight, and freedom

Liel Leibovitz
April 22, 2016
Wikipedia Commons
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860.Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860.Wikipedia Commons

Maybe it’s petty to complain about words when the entire species seems to be reverting back to pictograms, but there’s a certain expression I really can’t stand. I’m not one of those zoilists who sees any innovation as impurity. On good days, I can stomach even noxious stuff like “pick your brain” or “at the end of the day” or other expressions that, if justice prevailed, would incur a punishment of 30 smacks with the Oxford English Dictionary. But these phrases, like bad oysters, are not likely to cause you any more than a quick and cleansing bout of retching. They may be bad for your stomach, but they can’t touch your soul. “Tell me how you really feel” is different.

You’ve heard the expression, no doubt. Maybe after delivering a long and passionate soliloquy about veggie burgers or federal income tax or the designated hitter rule or other things that are plainly and demonstrably wrong and bad for America? There you are, still panting from all that candor, when some self-styled wit smirks at you stupidly and mutters the offending phrase. If it was just the sheer laziness of this verbal wet blanket, I’d say dayenu. But we so readily accept this coinage because it is pegged to a linguistic value system that sneers at commitment and sees confusion, not conviction, as the rate according to which ideas must be valued. Those who poke you to tell them how you really feel are doing more than merely deflating your specific argument; they’re resisting any worldview that sees decisive arguments as valid. Say something is too complicated to behold, and they’ll applaud you; say something is complicated but you’ve managed to think it through thoroughly enough to form an opinion, and they’ll scoff.

I’ll tell you how I really feel about this turn of phrase and this turn of mind: It’s an intellectual and moral disaster. With apologies to the loafers, the luftmenschen, and other muddle-minded gentlefolk, history, more often than not, is hammered out by men and women who are, well, not afraid to tell us how they really feel. These cats may be thoughtful, they may grapple with complications, but, at some point, they grab onto a banner larger than themselves and wave it around until they’ve no more strength left or until their war is won. Theirs is a tenacity to be celebrated, not dryly ridiculed. And this week, the week of Passover, is all about praising the unreasonable: In a calm sea of relativist ruminations, this story of frogs falling from heaven and skin breaking out in boils and first-borns dying is the angry wave of clear purpose threatening to turn over all idle ships.

Not that you’d know it by breathing in the zeitgeist. Passover, it’s polite to say, is a holiday of liberation, a celebration of breaking out of the house of bondage that lends itself to any and all struggles against any and all oppression. Take this moment, our rabbis and pundits remind us, and think of the discrimination against women or gays, about the plight of refugees, about income inequality, about all the wrongs that need righting in the world. Amen to all that—my own personal Seder will begin this year, as it does every year, with a reading of Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” which—unlike recent baboonish bellows about making America great again—is a reminder of all the imperfections we’ve yet to address in this divinely blessed nation. But that’s not all the Passover story is about. It’s also, quite bluntly, an incantation offered to an all-too-frequently embattled people and an invitation to revel in our bloody victory over those who did us wrong.

I doubt that the bit in the haggadah about pouring out our wrath on the nations that did not know us is anybody’s favorite part of the festive evening. Such vengeful talk—coming so soon after a detailed description of the 10 plagues that tormented the presumably innocent people of Egypt, guilty of nothing but the misfortune of living under an obdurate monarch with a very poor sense of history—is troubling. Those who went to good schools, who consider themselves conscientious and kind, who are likely to say “tell me how you really feel” whenever someone says something too forceful or jarring or definite, may be forgiven for raising troubling questions: Why be wrathful? Why not try and empathize with the doomed followers of Pharaoh? And can peace really prevail before we acknowledge the violence of our actions and decry it?

The haggadah’s answer is simple. We revel in having vanquished our enemies because that’s what normal people do. When attacked, they fight back. When they win, they’re happy. They don’t ask themselves how the other side might feel, or seek a way to problematize the historical narrative, or deconstruct their truth claims to try and find the power structures at play underneath. They merely give thanks, drink a glass or four of wine, and promise to their children that if ever the Pharaoh rises again, there’ll always be plenty of holy wrath to go around and fuel the good fight.

To the enlightened guardians of propriety, this is terrible, terrible stuff. Uri Avnery, for example, the high priest of the increasingly irrelevant Israeli left, has called for a reading of the haggadah that strips it of everything wrathful and maintains nothing but the deracinated decrees for world peace and universal love. That’s not just an intellectual failing, but a spiritual one as well: It assumes, incorrectly, that rage and redemption are incompatible. If you’ve read all the way to the end of the Passover story, you know that, to quote an old Jewish sage, you can’t have one without the other: Without wrath, our capacity for love is nothing but an ephemeral mist of well-being, and without our capacity for love our wrath is nothing but an angry and meaningless outburst. It’s because we’re capable of one that we cherish the other. It’s what makes us complete human beings.

Anyone who asks you to tell them what you really feel doesn’t get that. To them, conviction necessarily means having committed the primal sin of shutting yourself off from all other possibilities and outlooks. They don’t consider for a moment that it’s perfectly possible to have deeply held beliefs and still acknowledge other realities and viewpoints. Had they read their Chesterton—not a big hit on college campuses these days—they would’ve known that real faith isn’t the abnegation of doubt but its constant nurturing, the beautiful struggle to justify to ourselves every day our belief in stories, like the parting of the Red Sea, that we rationally understand to lie beyond anything we can grasp with our meager cognitive faculties.

Thank God, then, for Passover and for the haggadah, that wild and crazy story that instructs us to ready for battle if we are to seriously seek liberty, that commands us to take one night and feel nothing but pride in our past and hope for our future, and that asks us to reaffirm our rich and complicated faith. It’s not a modern story, or a particularly nuanced one, though it does contain quite a lot of segments about rabbis arguing the minutia of this point or another. It’s the record of our national emotional state of being. It is, if you will, the story of how we really feel.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.