The Wicked Son: following in the tradition of Spinoza, Arendt, and just maybe, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
In the early part of the Passover Haggadah there is a section containing instructions on how to educate four potentially different sons on the story of the Exodus. They are respectively referred to as the wise, the simple, the ignorant, and the wicked sons. The wicked son is quoted as phrasing his question to his father using the pronoun “you.” This is interpreted as meaning he excludes himself from the question; he assumes the answer does not apply to him. It is his self-selected exclusion that is equated with wickedness here. It denies a basic principle of Judaism, which is conformity and joining; that is we are redeemed through enduring unity – with individuality comes the threat of breakage, of fragmentation. What is the only acceptable answer to this wicked son? The Haggadah says to knock out his teeth, implying that to reason with him is hopeless, since individuality, once it takes root, cannot be excised, and the only way to defeat it is to disable its means of expression. If the wicked son had been in Egypt, the father is supposed to say, than he would not have been redeemed.
The Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who pioneered the Jewish enlightenment movement (Haskalah) of the 18th century, was one such wicked son. Born in the 17th century to a family of Portuguese Jewish descent, he was the first Jewish thinker to openly question the validity of the Jewish bible, and the nature of the God described therein. By the time he was twenty-three years old, the Jewish religious authorities had issued the ultimate ban against him, called cherem: a form of ostracism and expulsion so permanent that Jewish law views it as akin to total annihilation of the spirit. In the document recording the official censure and rejection of Spinoza, both his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds” are recorded as reasons for expulsion. This because he dared to postulate that the laws practiced by Jewish communities were not literally given by God, and that they were no longer binding on the Jewish people. What is most fascinating about the story of Spinoza, is that after his vitriolic and irrevocable excommunication from the Jewish world, he did not do what was expected of him, and what had been done by many others who had committed lesser offenses against the Jewish leadership and the institution of its authority – that is, convert to Christianity and be welcomed into a world that had a clear stake in any views that invalidated Judaism. Instead, Spinoza became the first secular Jew of Europe, and the first public example of a wicked son who continued to question even after his “teeth had been knocked out.”
So begins a storied tradition of Jews who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Fast forward three centuries to Hannah Arendt, a secular Jewish thinker and political theorist, whose career was aligned with the likes of Heidegger before WWII tore them apart, both literally and figuratively, after which she emigrated to the States and was left to struggle with the aftermath of the Holocaust in her writings. She felt legitimately torn between her past affiliations with philosophers who were now personas non grata, and the new philosophy of explanation and accusation that became the task of her and peers such as Karl Jaspers. In her seminal work The Banality of Evil, first commissioned by the New Yorker as an analysis of the Eichmann trial, she dared question the black and white views that had been adopted by the Jewish leadership for the entirety of the diaspora, namely that of the monstrous evil of the anti-Semite and the angelic victimhood of the Jew. Portraying the Nazi who had organized massive transports of Jews to death camps as a thoughtless automaton, she also suggested that were it not for the behavior of Jewish councils who cooperated with Nazi policy, the annihilation of European Jewry would not have been nearly as successful. She asserted:
“The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had been really unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and half and six million people.”
It is this unacceptable pointing of fingers at the Jewish elite, in their new seat of power in post-war America, that earned her scathing, venomous criticism and attacks from the Jewish world, the central figures of which accused her of “blaming the victim” or being a self-hating Jew, as a means to distract from her accusation, instead of having a viable and necessary discussion about the possibility of error and culpability within the Jewish community.
I too am a wicked son – or rather, daughter (interestingly the Haggadah wastes no time instructing fathers how to answer their daughters.) First I left the Hasidic Jewish community and wrote a memoir about what life was like in that world, an act of self-selected exclusion in that it violated the unspoken rule of speaking publicly about the problem of fundamentalism within the Jewish community. I was most viciously attacked because I dared to discuss the laws of marital purity – which is the very foundation of the patriarchal oppression of women that plagues Jewish history. Then I wrote another memoir, in which I describe the process of rebuilding my life from scratch once outside the Hasidic world, and in finding the other acceptable norms of Jewish identity insufficient or flawed, I embarked upon a journey to discover my own version of Jewishness that felt honest, compassionate, and real. Because I dared to comment on the prevalence of divisiveness and the practice of prejudice in a Jewish community that preaches unity in public, and because I then chose a form of Jewishness that didn’t comfortably fit into any mainstream or acceptable idea, my critics now claim my Jewishness isn’t real. I am no longer one of them, they say. The possibility that authentic Jewishness can exist outside of their narrow spectrum is anathema to them, as it was to the authorities who expelled Spinoza from their midst so many centuries ago.
Last week, Brandeis University announced that it was revoking the honorary degree it had long since promised Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her work against the abuses of women and children under the name of fundamentalism. Though it had thoroughly researched Ali’s work prior to offering the degree in the first place, it cited requests from faculty members and an online petition that accused Ali of expressing anti-Islamic sentiment for the sudden reversal. Understandably this sparked outrage all over the world. I, too, was infuriated. Coming from a fundamentalist culture myself, albeit a Jewish one, Ali has always been a personal hero for me; she endured much worse in Muslim Somalia than I did in Hasidic Williamsburg, and the criticism and attacks against her make my own experience of ostracism in the Jewish world look mild, yet she continues in that tradition I know so well in my own world – that of the individual questioning “group-think,” or the wicked son who dares exclude himself, and thereby achieve the objectivity necessary for true questioning and thought. She may not be Jewish – which is probably why Brandeis was willing to give her the honor of a degree in the first place, since the Jewish community has never quite been comfortable confronting the threats against humanity inherent in fundamentalism when the presence of it is growing ever stronger in the Jewish world, but her bravery brings to mind the courage of Spinoza in that she has been so thoroughly exiled, and yet has never once sacrificed her integrity.
If Ayaan Hirsi Ali were to have accepted that degree from Brandeis, it would have legitimized them as a Humanist institution, but the truth is, until institutions of Jewish thought are willing to face the fundamentalism in their own backyard, they will not be qualified to participate in a discussion about it anywhere else – Islamic or otherwise. Yet this particular contradiction of criticizing the faults of other communities while bolting the door against one’s own skeletons - this is applicable to the mainstream American-Jewish community at large, and their flawed philosophy is one that Brandeis pays its own allegiance to – so it cannot then rightly call itself humanist or progressive or a force for good in the world while conveniently ignoring this.
Although I think Ali is better off without the patronizing pat-on-the-back that a degree would have represented, it is still absolutely untenable that Brandeis has seen fit to behave in this way, because in doing so it has made a clear statement: it is legitimizing abuse of human rights under the banner of multiculturalism. Too long have we allowed this hypocrisy to continue in our so-called liberal, progressive society – too long has academia, Jewish or not, allowed itself to turn a blind eye to the suffering of innocents in the name of this higher cause – this blind reverence for “culture” even as it implies religious extremism and the evils that come with it. It is not progressive to make exceptions out of women who are born in environments that promote their oppression – it cannot be called “humane” to fight for other women’s rights but ignore the ones who are truly in need of advocacy. The fact that Brandeis was intimidated into rescinding Ali’s degree is blatant proof that our society is dangling at the end of strings held in the hands of fundamentalists and their advocates. It is telling indeed when fingers are pointed at women who have experienced tremendous suffering because of religion, and attempts are made to silence them by calling them “anti-religion.” This cowardly and convenient slur echoes those heaved at Hannah Arendt all those years ago. When has religion become so holy to the secular that it is exempt from criticism and reform?
The actions of Brandeis have shown that no real progress has been made since the day Spinoza was ostracized for having thoughts that contradicted the prevailing authorities of his time. In the end, the only “progressive views” permitted to be expressed in this world of Jews who align themselves with the secular are those that adopt the mainstream ideas being forced on us from on high, while making the leadership look “liberal” in the process. It is a bizarre conundrum indeed, to have reached the moment in time when the authoritative voice would by all means prefer to appear liberal, while at the same time perpetuating those same stifling black and white ideas of our fearful and restrictive past. The leadership of Brandeis may as well be Arendt’s critics, or Spinoza’s enemies. They have participated in that age-old tradition of knocking out the teeth of the wicked son, instead of allowing for productive conversation and progress.
Were the Jewish community to have adopted a different attitude to dissent, perhaps the betrayals of trust and violations of human rights that have systematically occurred within the Jewish world itself could have been mitigated and prevented. It is the belief of the Jews that redemption can only occur when all Jews are united; yet our idea of unity seems to consist of hiding our petty squabbles from view while making a show of being cohesive, as if to fool outsiders is to fool God. It is imperative that we stop prioritizing appearances and conformity and start addressing our own problems. Fundamentalism is a genuine threat to the future of Judaism; divisiveness and hatred continues to poison us in our sleep.
For all the ways in which I have and continue to exclude myself from acceptable Jewish thought, I have been vilified in my own sphere. Yet I have a tradition in which I can find myself, in those golden words of Spinoza, in the raw, courageous honesty of Hannah Arendt. I am not alone in my refusal to be silenced or intimidated. I hereby extend this illustrious tradition to include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, permanently and irrevocably. It may not be a degree, but it is a worthy honor on its own.