Kingdom of Priests

To my surprise tonight, I returned home from work about 8 pm to discover my two oldest children speaking Yiddish. They are Ezra and Naomi, ages 7 and 6, hereafter to be designated by their accustomed nicknames Ezzie and Noma. They weren’t actually conversing fluently in Yiddish but at their Jewish school, run by Chabad, they have been learning in Yiddish as well as Hebrew the Mah nishtanah part of the Passover Seder.

There, traditionally a little kid will ask in a plaintive, singsongy melody how Passover differs from all other nights of the year. Noma started extravagantly throwing around the word Ongeleynterheit, which she haughtily informed me is Yiddish for “reclining” — or in Hebrew, mesubin.

Passover starts next Wednesday night, when the first Seder is held. The requirement in the Seder liturgy is to recline or lean on your side at certain points, to emphasize our freedom from slavery. Slaves, like soldier, must stand at attention, ready for their human master’s next order. Not so with free men and women.

Passover recalls the liberation and exodus from slavery that the Jews experienced according traditional reckoning in the year 1312 BCE. The law of reclining at the Seder is explained by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik as a way of evoking the rejection of the “authority of man,” of a generalized “defiance” in the face of any authority that claims a right to command us outside the frame of reference defined by the Torah.

As it turns out, I’ve been thinking a lot about this commandment of Haseivah, reclining at the Seder. Somehow, it is a key to freedom. Because Passover is about freedom. Relaxing leads to liberation.

The Biblical source for this may be Exodus 13:18, which describes how, following the exodus from Egypt, “God led the [Jewish] people on a roundabout route through the desert to the Sea of Reeds.” The Hebrew word for leading in this roundabout way (va’yasev) is identical in its root to Haseivah, the practice of leaning at your Seder. The connection concept is curvature — of the route or of the spine.

There is a literal level at which this connection between freedom, on one hand, and escape and slouching relaxedly on the other is clearly true. Harry Houdini apparently was able to perform many of his seemingly magical escapes, which he always denied were at all supernatural in character, by an unusual but not genuinely magical ability to first tense and expand his muscles while being bound by ropes or chains or whatever, and then by relaxing his muscles. 

Presumably, relaxation is also the secret behind his ability to do things like survive in a sealed box underwater in a swimming pool for an hour and a half. He performed that stunt at the Shelton Hotel in New York (49th and Lex, where my parents were later married, coincidentally) in 1926. Relaxing your body greatly reduces the need for oxygen, among other things. You know how when you are tense, you tend to hyperventilate.

But there’s a more interesting, philosophical lesson behind Haseivah. The liberation we seek to experience at Passover isn’t just physical, as in a Houdini trick. (He was, interestingly, the grandson of a rabbi.) It’s philosophical and ideological. We lean, expressing our contempt for authority. But not for any authority. If your rabbi is at the table, you should sit upright unless you have his permission to do otherwise.

Instead, we seek liberation from forms of authority that are not connected by a chain of tradition, or transmission, to the ultimate Authority, to God. That’s why you can and should recline at your Seder even in the company of your parents. We are intended to remind ourselves of our freedom from sources of authority other than Biblical tradition. We can blow them off. Relax in their presence. Kick back.

I contribute to a blog, Evolution News & Views, where this week I’ve been blogging about precisely this issue — namely, our tendency in modern culture to feel enslaved to “expert” opinion. You’ll find my posts herehere, and here.

I point out the irony that political conservatives and Jews, of all people, from whom you’d expect more, seem remarkably docile in the face of certain “experts”:

To follow the experts unthinkingly is simply the prestige path for most people. Such docility also explains the resistance of certain constituencies, from whom you’d expert better, to thinking fresh thoughts about Darwinian evolution.

Sometimes, the temptation to surrender to expert opinion arises from nothing more complicated than laziness. I’m positive that’s the case with many in the politically conservative community of journalists and other intellectuals. Science bores or intimidates these folks, and they haven’t yet perceived the relevance of Darwinism to their other political and cultural concerns. Therefore expert opinion provides a welcome excuse, at least on this issue, to turn their brains off.

In other communities, there’s a tendency to be overly impressed by credentials, titles, honors, and offices. This is surely a big part of what
keeps more Jews from “getting” the Darwin debate. You could call it a case of My Son the Doctor Syndrome. Just as the stereotypical coffee klatch of Jewish mothers will speak in absurdly hushed, reverential tones about the fact that one of them has a son in the medical profession — the technical Yiddish term here is kvelling — so too there’s something in recent Jewish culture that inclines us to revere “experts” to excess, no matter what the context. This is ironic given that Jews spent the previous 2,000 years refusing to defer to the dominant expert views of the culture around them.

My theme for this Passover is that we are indeed free from the thralldom of phony experts and authorities, a freedom we can experience by relaxing, Houdini-style, when they call upon us to respect their authority. Alas, it’s not an easy message to fully assimilate, including for me. Which is why we have Passover.

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