The Original Freedom Seder: Response to Commentary's Attack

By Rabbi Balfour Brickner
To the Editor, Commentary Magazine

Most everyone of the “religious type” smiles wryly when he hears the quip, “Converts are the worst kind.” They either know from experience, or have heard, that those born to a religious tradition frequently do not match the zeal with which a convert approaches his new religious identity. In Judaism, it is not uncommon to find the convert. Now the magazine and its to, and involved in, the practices of Jewish life, than one who has lived for a lifetime “within the mishpocha.” And as often, they embrace and express the most fundamental forms of the faith with uncritical ardor.

COMMENTARY, under the aegis of its editor, Norman Podhoretz, is the most glamorous of the latest crop of Jewish converts. After years of supercilious sneering at Judaism and Jewish life in America, after years of condescension toward matters Jewish, after years of deliberately trying to “make it” as a generally intellectual, but decidedly not Jewishly-affirming journal, COMMENTARY has now decided to convert. Now the magazine and its editor pose as the great defenders of Jewish survival, and they do so in such extremely conservative terms that some of us who have been Jewish survivalists for a long, long time can only cry out: “Heaven help us! Preserve us from our new allies.” If Jewish survival in America depends upon the cynical intellectual posturing of those who have only recently discovered the virtues of Jewish ethnicity but who display little if any real awareness of the more complex tensions and balances that Judaism contains at its deeper levels, then we are indeed in great trouble!

COMMENTARY's recent broadside, “Revolutionism and the Jews,” is not simply a critique of Arthur Waskow's Freedom Seder. It is an attempt to destroy for American Jews the options of a perspective which is trying to help Jews, particularly young Jews, live through the shattering crises of Agnewism, My Lai, secret governmental surveillance of its citizens, calculated deceptions from the highest quarters about the war and about SST's and ABM's, and to do so without either losing their sanity, copping out of America, or giving up their tradition of faith. Waskow, and those of us who associate ourselves with him in these efforts to reassert the value of restructuring American-Jewish life, are not the villains in the piece. The real villains, the really wicked sons, are those who fail to see the truly Jewish quality of new (here some would want to read “radical”) acts, thoughts, and reformulations of traditional Jewish modes. They are villains, not because they disagree with the product of these new efforts, but because they seek to deny the validity of the process. They betray an unutterable chutzpah in presuming to judge who among their fellow Jews is “kosher” and who is “treif”—who falls within the pale and who has strayed beyond the COMMENTARY line—who should be tolerated and who should be wiped out. Editor Podhoretz has the litmus paper, and he gives out the new Jewish seal of Good House-broken Approval. An intellectual, pseudo-Jewish McCarthyism, presided over by COMMENTARY, is something new and ugly under the sun! That is what is anti-Jewish, masking in the guise of Jewish affirmation.

Norman Podhoretz and Robert Alter accuse the author of The Freedom Seder, and those who were involved in it either by actual participation or by lending their names, of being Jewish anti-Semites, which is to say “self-haters.” And why? Because 1) the Waskow Haggadah, in their judgment, emphasizes the universal over the particular; and 2) it seeks to use the Jewish historical experience “as a point of departure for political activism.” This latter emphasis seems especially noxious to Mr. Alter who, while describing The Freedom Seder as “a crude political rape of a religious tradition,” at one point also suggests that its authors “lack any sense of humor” when they cast Grayson Kirk or Clark Kerr as pharaohs in the administration building, “harassing the young and breaking their freedom.” This casting, he observes, “reflects a ghastly absence of perspective on the concrete historical meaning of oppression.” But the issue is really joined over whether the tradition of Judaism—its rituals, its words, indeed its message—advocates or seeks to direct its constituents toward a specific societal direction or whether this past of ours has no particular social thrust. If the latter is true, The Freedom Seder, and all other similar attempts to give the present instructive relevancy from the past, is fundamentally wrong. If, however, the former is a true view of what Judaism is all about, then the excesses in The Freedom Seder (and there are some which I pointed out from the beginning), with which Mr. Alter seems to be obsessed, are, while worthy of note for corrective purposes, essentially unimportant. Certainly one cannot brand The Freedom Seder as anti-Semitic, or as a documentary expression of self-hatred, because it emphasizes the universal over the particular, the redemption of humanity over the saving of just the people of Israel.

Does Judaism have a particular social thrust? I believe it does. Do its constituents have an obligation to give this thrust particular, even political, application? I believe they do and I believe Judaism would counsel Jews so to act. That is what “the prophetic message” is all about; “to break every yoke,” “to let the oppressed go free” (see Isaiah 58:6). Throughout our long history, this theology found particular, practical expression by those who embraced the faith. I am sure that the editors of COMMENTARY know enough about Nathan, Amos, Isaiah, Mattathias, and Stephen Wise to know that. None was content with “moral exhortation.” Theirs was “a politics of God” which angered the men of their day precisely because it sought to apply the particular of Judaism to the universal of humanity and to do so in specific ways. They refused to be “religious fuzzies” moralizing in general or applying their message to Jews only. It is only as contemporary exponents of Judaism retreat into the social, religious, and political conservatism represented of late in COMMENTARY by the writings of Earl Raab, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Milton Himmelfarb, and Norman Podhoretz, that they distort this basic universal thrust of Judaism, deceive their readers into thinking that Judaism and separatistic theology are synonymous, and what is perhaps worst of all, turn off many of our best Jewish youth who mercifully, and despite the damnably conservative efforts of too many of their affluent elders, retain a commendable commitment to prophetism and incidentally flock in droves to the Freedom Seders (10,000 at Cornell last Spring and 800 in Washington in 1969 when the Freedom Seder was first celebrated). There they participate with gusto in a Jewish ritual which, in its cry for freedom and liberation from brutal political repression, makes contemporary enslavement seem even more terrible and intolerable than it already is.

The Freedom Seder is an effort which may even be more important than it is new. It represents an attempt by some of our more thoughtful Jewish youth to take the dim, starved, devitaminized awareness of their Jewish past which their parents gave them, and with that poor yerushah mold a useful Jewish identity. At least this way they might not end up hating themselves.

The Freedom Seder is only the first effort. Mr. Alter mentions such others as the Seder of the Los Angeles Radical Jewish Community. Different, equally radical, rituals and rites around other holy days and holidays will undoubtedly emerge from the creative minds of our Jewish young because some of the most thoughtful of them, thank God, are going to persist in using Jewish forms to find themselves—forms about which their parents knew too little, cared too little, and could not transmit to their progeny. To demean these efforts with niggling, nitpicking, snide criticism, or worse, to denigrate these efforts by cynically impugning the motives and the personal intelligence of those who so struggle (note Alter's comments on “Waskow's serious theology, if he has one”), is as tragic as it is ineffective. I would rather spend a Shabbat with the Jews for Urban Justice group in Washington or sit at Arthur Waskow's home Seder table than pass such moments at the tables of the editors of COMMENTARY. One wonders what they, or the members of their editorial board, do on Shabbat or for Seder. For that matter, one wonders where they are on Succot or Shavuot.

The inversion of values becomes completely apparent when one reads on the editorial pages of COMMENTARY, as well as in its articles, that those who embrace the universalistic over the particularistic are the “self-loathers who masquerade as self-affirmers.” With this, COMMENTARY, for all its sophistication, reveals either its ignorance of Judaism (I can't believe that) or a failure in objectivity about Judaism which casts a shadow of suspicion on the validity of its credentials as a true commentator on the Jewish tradition. Surely, those who write for and edit COMMENTARY must know that the universalistic demand in Judaism is as compelling as the particular one. God's reminder to His people, as articulated through the voice of Deutero-Isaiah, is that “My house shall be called a house of God for all people.” The gloss in the ninth chapter of Amos which raises as a rhetorical question, “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me . . .?” and the efforts of the writer of the Book of Ruth to counteract the narrow particularism of Ezra, feature as prominently in biblical writing as any articulation of Hebraic particularism. The truth is that universalism and particularism stand in a polarized tension. A Jew must maintain both his particular appreciation of himself as a Jew, and his universal commitment to the larger community. This is what makes being a Jew an eternal dilemma. It is part of what has always made Jews cry out: “Sliver tzu zein a Yid.” At different times, under varying circumstances, Jews have emphasized one over the other, but the moment any Jewish community sacrifices one for the other, it either assimilates or retreats into a shriveling isolation.

There are some in American-Jewish life—and apparently the circle around COMMENTARY has become the latest to convert to this position—who say that these are times for Jews to concern themselves with Jewish things exclusively; who say that Jews must devote themselves to themselves, citing as justification Christian indifference to the cause of Israel's survival in the Middle East, or the prominence of some black anti-Jewish rhetoric which Jews now equate with a renaissance of anti-Semitism of major proportion, or the general drift to the Right in American thought. In those instances, if I may use similar words in different ways, one can discern a perfect example when one generalizes from the particular. It is a generalization which is already having disastrous consequences. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy and Earl Raab is perhaps its chief proponent, particularly when he writes in the pages of COMMENTARY [“The Deadly Innocences of American Jews,” December 1970]: “The prevailing liberal directions are . . . becoming inhospitable to Jewish life. . . . The fact that so many Jews have actively participated—and still do—in helping to retract that political frontier [is] evidence of a massive and deadly innocence which affects not the Jews alone.” Is the mentality of the JDL, the atmosphere of a Nixon-Agnew-Hoover regime, more “hospitable” to Jews?

In other words, anyone who refuses to see this current in American life and who subsequently refuses to “withdraw from involvement in the struggle to make a civilization out of our jungle” is naive—that is, “a simple son and, worse in some ways, a traitor to his Jewishness and his Judaism.”

1984 has arrived early! For here is as classic a case of double-thinking as any I have read anywhere. It implies that one who sees Jewish survival from the context of human survival, and works out of Jewish motivation, is an assimilationist or worse, a liberal, 1940- style.

As a Jew, I look at everything through the magnifying glass of history. Reference to history is, in the final analysis, at least the first way to define a Jew. Historically, I know that a regressive society is bad for the Jews. I know that an economically unstable society is bad for the Jews. I know that a society in which Jews are either isolated, or in self-isolation from the larger society, is bad for the Jews. I know that a polarized society is bad for the Jews. I know an apartheid society is bad for the Jews.

As these tendencies exist in America, Jews have an obligation to resist them, if only out of the motivation of enlightened self-interest. Characterizing such efforts as naive does not at all change this necessity, for if these forces of drift to the Right and to conservatism continue unchecked, we may become “the first nation in history to go fascistic by democratic vote,” and that would be disastrous for Jews and for everyone else. If the prevention of such a swing requires radical (read: new, different, and more activistic) tactics, then let Jews be in the forefront.

Jews must be more than just frightened by black-Jewish conflicts. It is the failure to think and act beyond the superficialities of that fright which is blindness. One who experiments with new forms in and for a Diaspora Jewish community which he believes must survive coequally with the community of Jews in Israel is not a negator of the tradition, but its preserver. Moreover, Jewish criticism of Israel can never be equated with Jewish treason. We must refuse to be driven into so narrow a mold. Ethnicity is great, but not sufficient for survival. Love of Israel, commitment to the Zionist ideal, never did, and must not now, demand slavish silence, and one's credentials as a Jewish self-affirmer must not be held suspect because he is sometimes pained by what he sees and who, because of this pain, cries out within the bosom of the Jewish family. Candor is often more important than popularity.

It is too bad that COMMENTARY chooses to run with, rather than buck the tide of, Jewish withdrawal from the larger society. By so doing, a journal with COMMENTARY's prestige only strengthens the shortsighted, bellicose, pseudo-leaders in our midst, and confirms a trend among Jews who lack real vision of what is fundamentally our stake in this country. Running back into our Jewish “Hobbit-holes” will not bring the Messiah. We cannot give up our willingness to take risks (that, too, is a very Jewish trait)—for when we do, we insult our heritage of political activism as a device to bring to reality what we consider to be God's will. We need to resist those who would draw us into the exclusivity of isolated particularism, as we need to resist their rhetoric of slander.

Finally, we need to resist the cheap appeals to our emotion which titillate our sense of guilt but which, even if followed, could not bring the messianic age.

There is no salvation in vigilantism, as there is no salvation in Jews copping out of America. The writer of Proverbs is more trenchant today than he was 3,000 years ago when he warned us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”


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