Trying to make holidays about everything and anything but what they were meant to be about is such a temptation. When a DC rabbi writes in the Washington Post under the headline “As Jews atone on Yom Kippur, we need to confront our white privilege,” the piece invites many more questions than it answers.
There are fierce debates about what, if anything, is meant by “checking” or “confronting” privilege. Particularly for Jews, whose embrace of the biblical status of “chosen” peoplehood has variously been interpreted with consternation, annoyance, jealousy, or out-and-out violence, privilege appears to be a parallel, or at least perpendicular status. Much wiser people than I can debate how this principle operates, and its precise contours.
Being a journalist has taught me repeatedly and perpetually that I’m very rarely aware of what other people are struggling with and what moves them—just as they are unlikely to know what I believe and feel most deeply. Talking, and more importantly listening, helps mitigate that somewhat.
But if recommendations to confront privilege are being tossed around this High Holiday season, it’s worth adding the exact opposite prescription to the mix. This Yom Kippur, the best thing one can do—if the Jewish High Holidays are important to you—might be to take a break from incessant social media posts that apply a Chicken Little template to this election cycle and from clickbait that plays pin the tail on the donkey with all the buzzwords of the day.
The Difficulties of Applying Historic Instances to Today
One is destined to be a religion reporter, perhaps, when one starts thinking about how critical the Passover Seder is of Egyptians. I still remember wondering how I’d feel about all of the negative associations with Egyptians in the Passover liturgy, albeit Exodus-era Egyptians. Deuteronomy 17:16 charges Jewish kings not to return to Egypt to purchase horses—evidently an Egyptian specialty in the biblical era—and rabbinic commentators have expanded that prohibition to all Jews. Many Orthodox Jews won’t cross the pyramids off their bucket lists today due to that commandment.
Yet that’s not what the Passover Seder is really about. Of course religious practices and texts of every sort are “living” and “breathing” things; their meanings make different kinds of impressions on people from different centuries, places, and cultures. Whether one believes them to be divine or man-made in origin, readers of sacred texts can’t help but bring their milieus with them when they engage those texts. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
In rabbinic tradition, two seemingly contradictory principles operate. On the one hand, the further removed generations are from the revelation at Sinai, the more something is lost in translation—think centuries-long games of Broken Telephone—and the more dilution occurs. How could someone alive today, however ascetic and holy, hope to be as spiritually plugged-in as someone who firsthand experienced the visible thunder and audibly perceptible lightning that accompanied the divine voice at Sinai?
On the other hand, contemporary rabbis have at their disposal countless more sources and responsa than their predecessors. So when determining the law (halakhah), precedence is given to later commentators, despite the exponential dilution.
Given these competing philosophies, it would be impossible to celebrate contemporary holidays as oases that are cut off from what is going on in the world today. For many Jews, the specter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—when he was the Iranian president—and Ali Khamenei and their desire to wipe Israel off the map invited direct correlations with the Persian ruler Haman of the holiday of Purim fame, who sought in the book of “Esther” to destroy the Jewish people.
But with present-day Iran making the news regularly at the time, the comparison seemed to be considerably one-sided. The day devoted to discussing the biblical Mordecai and Esther’s efforts to thwart Haman were being tied into current events, but where was the corresponding effort to seek biblical precedent and guidance when engaging the contemporary?
Our Temptation to Distract Ourselves from Real Matters
As an art critic and arts reporter, I often report on medieval manuscripts, and anyone who has spent much time in the medieval sections of museums will know that these texts—often religious in nature—are often adorned with stunning illuminations of “grotesques.” These demons and other fantastical beings, portrayed in vivid colors and forms that often threaten to literally invade the text, serve dual roles. Of course they are decorative, but they are also distractions, that threaten to tempt the reader away from the sacred text, perhaps a prayer book or book of hours.
In the “Temptation of St. Anthony”—recently upgraded to a work by Hieronymus Bosch—in the collection of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, the saint is tempted by a figure with its hands and feet poking out of a funnel and bearing a sword, by a fish that walks on land, and by a number of other bizarre collages of human and animal forms. How the saint manages to maintain his composure is other-worldly, but perhaps that’s what being a saint is all about.
Yom Kippur is a day of judgment, of course, and of introspection. It’s about being weighed in the balance and perhaps being found wanted; it’s a good time for resolutions and planning for the future. If an individual wants to interrogate his or her “privilege” and how to better appreciate her or his place in the world, that’s a fine thing to do. But it should be a personal decision. And one of the most sacred Jewish days of the year ought to be sufficient to merit headlines and discussions on its own merit. It doesn’t need to be attached to anything incongruous.