Kingdom of Priests

Newsweek published its list of the 50 most influential rabbis, and the usually entertainingly acerbic Failed Messiah comments blandly, “Star power trumps community influence.” There’s much more that we can say than that. 

This list, which will be the talk of the Jewish community for the next week, along with that comment from the normally ferocious blogger, illustrates the whole problem with our Jewish leadership. There are some wonderful individuals on Newsweek‘s rabbi list. But do you see anyone — apart from the idiosyncratic Shmuley Boteach — whose influence has anything to do with the Jewish mission as Jewish tradition, and this blog, defines it? “Influence” upon our own little “community” is well and good, but it’s not why God made Jews. True, the top rabbi on the list, David Saperstein, exerts an influence on the wider world, but in a direction either tangential or diametrically opposed to Judaism.

Have you seen the new Nicolas Cage movie Knowing? It’s actually pretty effective as science fiction entertainment, but what fascinates me about it is the weird way it raises questions about destiny or predestination that have been bugging me all week, and that are relevant to Passover. 

I put this to you as a question rather than as an answer.
You’ve probably had this experience: In your daily experience over the course of week or so, a certain topic just seems to keep coming up. That’s the way it’s been for me since I saw Knowing last Saturday night after the close of the Jewish Sabbath.
The plot in a nutshell is that 50 years ago, a little girl wrote down a bizarre series of numbers, seemingly random, that in the hands of Nick Cage as an MIT astronomer in the present day are revealed as a prophecy of all the great disasters that have happened across the world, including 9/11. Somehow, the girl foresaw all this, and the Cage character realizes that her prophecy points to imminent apocalypse. Roger Ebert has an entertaining review that spoils the surprise if that doesn’t bother you.

Philo-Semitic Christians often cite God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12:13 — “I will bless those who bless you” — as a big part of the reason for their passionate defense and activism on behalf of the state of Israel. Religiously committed Jews support Israel for reasons that don’t require much explication.

But what if you’re a Christian or Jew who wants to explain to someone unmoved by either faith why defending Israel should matter to Americans on purely secular grounds? Are you forced to rely on trite, unconvincing rationales about how Israel is the bulwark of democracy in the Middle East and so on? As capitalism and technology guru George Gilder remarks in his forthcoming book The Israel Test, Well, “Whoop-de-doo!”
Gilder’s book is a great read and ferociously philo-Semitic. It’s also brilliant. I have a piece in today’s Jerusalem Post explaining his important argument. Please take a look. Excerpt after the jump.

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.