The Blame Game: John Kerry versus Pauline Marois

The Blame Game: John Kerry versus Pauline Marois


Howard Adelman


After every important political act, at significant political junctions, one of the first responses is who gets credit and who gets blamed. The peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians may be drawing its last breaths and the corpse of the process is not yet on the coroner’s gurney, yet pundits and ordinary folk alike are already weighing in and assessing blame. The dissection of the Québec election began almost as soon as the election was called.

Seventeen minutes after the results of the Québec election, a chorus that began a week before the end of the Québec election, now began its steep rise to a crescendo over the next three hours. On 9 March 2014, Pauline Marois was to blame for going off message by allowing her new star candidate, media mogul, billionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau, to upstage her, thrust his fist in the air and, like a Black Power revolutionary, shout the equivalent of, “Vive le Québec libre!”. Marois compounded the error when a video caught her shoving Péladeau aside as she once again took centre stage alone before the mike and then further compounded this double message by blabbering at length over the next week about precisely when a referendum would be held with weasel phrases such as “when Québeckers want it” or “when they are ready for it,” and then speculating at length on the currency Québeckers would use afterwards, border controls, etc.

Others blamed the introduction of the Charter of Values for being so divisive, for bringing bigotry out of the woodwork and for misrepresenting what Québeckers stood for. On 10 September 2013, when Bernard Drainville, as the ironically named Minister Responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, introduced the Charter of Values to save secularism from the threat of religion infiltrating state institutions, this imitation of France’s doctrine of laicité and its method of contemporary enforcement did not fit the behaviour and attitude of most Québeckers who came into contact on a daily basis with members of religious minorities who wore the professions of their religion proudly on their heads or around their necks when they came to work in Québec hospitals, schools and government offices

In 1985 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled i that such decisions should be determined by the principle of reasonable accommodation. The Bouchard Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation in its hearings around the province had already demonstrated the enormous amount of latent bigotry around the province when the issue of reasonable accommodation was raised. The Commission also concretely documented that most Québeckers in their daily intercourse with minorities were very accommodating and exemplars of tolerance. The Commission recommended against playing into the sentiments of bigots and for allowing reasonable accommodation to be worked out in practice. The Marois government chose not to follow the lead of the Commission. Their divisive policy to ban the wearing of religious symbols, either as a political ploy to help get re-elected with a majority or as an expression of their own deepest prejudices and fears or a mixture of both, backfired

Further, as the debate on the Charter of Values unfurled, instead of retreating to some degree to deal with the criticism, the exponents dug in their heels and tightened the restrictions. The recent election only permitted the unreasonable nature of the fears to be pronounced by some of the oldest and most respected citizens of the Province from the Francophones (le rattrapage) while, in practice, many Québeckers began to realize it would mean the flight from their province of highly regarded professionals whom the province needed if the economy was to complete its path to modernization and renewed economic growth.

For the first time Marois faced an opposition leader who proudly wore a Maple Leaf pin, who even dared to suggest that all Québeckers should be bilingual, who trusted and supported the strength of the French fact and reality in the province, and who echoed the sentiment of most younger voters who were tired of divisiveness in politics. However, the articulation of this set of competing values threatened the very raison d’être of the PQ party. In reality, the election was a great success, bringing forth in an open manner a fundamental choice for the people of Québec, whether in the future they were to face a series of debates over how to protect the unique character of the French fact in Canada and in North America, a renewed use of the device of a referendum on sovereignty that had become anathema to most Québeckers, a belief that Québeckers were under constant and continuing cultural threat and could not and did not feel secure enough and strong enough to go out into the world and face the competition. Marois may have been very wrong in reading the mood of her constituency but she should perhaps be praised for, even if reluctantly and contradictorily, putting the choice clearly before Québec voters.

In the case of John Kerry, the problem is quite different. He had repeatedly said that, in the end, the choice was up to the Palestinians and the Israelis. “We can’t want peace more than they do” had been his mantra which he repeated once again on 5 April when it was evident that the negotiations were in deep trouble. Further, Kerry had made it known that the prospects for a deal were not high when the latest effort began, but he could not accept evading making a strenuous effort. US Secretary of State John Kerry declared that he owed that as an obligation to the world community, to Americans and especially the millions of Israelis and Palestinians who generally desired an end to the conflict between the two peoples. Nevertheless, he was blamed for giving rise to unachievable expectations, for the inevitable aftermath of disappointment and depression, for the high costs of a diplomatic initiative that ends in failure and for the possible (inevitable?) violence that was likely or sure to arise as a result of that failure and the further erosion of trust between the two parties. Further, if past failures had seriously wounded the peace parties on both sides, this failure would mortally wound them.

It is true that risks have consequences, that the effort does not leave the situation at the status quo ante, that new layers of cynicism and despondency are piled upon a long history of failure. However, failures also bring about clarity, just as the Québec election did. Are negotiations and a peace agreement to be based on the 1967 cease fire lines with reasonable adjustments and equal trade offs from both sides as Kerry had declared? (“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”) Or does the resolution have to go back to the 1948 deal with respect to borders, rights and mutual recognition? Or is there a third option?

Last night on Steve Paikin’s, “The Agenda” on TVO, Steve had as one guest, Diana Buttu, an Israeli-born Palestinian-Canadian lawyer who, in the past, has served as a spokesperson for the PLO and an advisor on international law with respect to the peace negotiations, but who has been outspokenly critical of Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian negotiator. His other guest was Emmanuel Adler a political scientist at U. of T.’s Munk Centre. The two discussed with Steve Paikin the negotiations and their likely immanent failure.

While Emmanuel Adler wanted to cling to a faint hope for the receding prospect of a two-state solution, it seemed clear that Diana wanted to go back and override the original decision on division to resurrect a one state solution with the ideal of Jews and Palestinians as equal citizens in a single state rather than the principle of national self-determination being the basis of the political order in former Palestine, but without acknowledging this would mean the end of the Zionist dream of national self-determination for the Jewish people and that this was a resolution totally unacceptable to the vast majority of Jews in Israel. Supporting her position was the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had not agreed to recognition of the 1967 borders as the basis for the talks with Israel renewed last July.

What seems clear is that who gets blamed depends, in part, on the outcome wanted or expected. If the goal is a single state in which Israel is eliminated, the failure of the talks is simply a proof that the two-state solution is and has always been doomed. Then the blame goes to Kerry for convening the talks and misleading international public opinion, to Israel which refuses to grant Palestinian demands even for the two-state solution, and perhaps a little to Abbas for allowing himself to be drawn once again into such a fruitless process, though he is somewhat excused because he is operating from such a relatively weak position. If the goal is a two-state solution, then the blame could go to Netanyahu a) for not being flexible enough, b) for provocatively approving the building of 700 housing units in Gilo even though discussions had already determined that Gilo in Jerusalem would be part of Israel, and even though Israel had made clear at the beginning of the negotiations that the building freeze would only apply to the West Bank, and c) for a tactical error in not releasing the prisoners at the time originally agreed, even though by that stage of the negotiations Israel had become convinced that the talks could not have any positive results. Or blame could go to Abbas for also lacking flexibility and for taking a step of initiating an application to join various international bodies even before the talks ended.

Who gets blames also depends on the integrity of the person casting blame. Diana Buttu has a record of distorting facts and even outright lying to support arguments and allegations she makes against Israel and to advance the goal of a one state solution, while Emmanuel Adler is a renowned scholar of great integrity and a well-known dove who despairs at Netanyahu’s leadership. So the politics of blame were not balanced.

Notice that, unlike the Québec elections, there is no winner. So the blame largely overlaps with responsibility and is totally congruent with the responsibility allocated to the loser. Explaining why something happened (allocating responsibility) and then blaming someone for that responsibility – that is, adding a negative morally critical judgment to the one responsible – are related but different acts. In the case of the Québec election, the loser comes in for blame for the loss. In the peace talks, everyone loses when talks break down, including the mediator and both sides, except those who wanted the talks to break down because they deplored the two-state solution. The argument then involves how to allocate, spread or diffuse the blame. But if the moral or political reprehensibility is to be added to the judgment, it may be totally inappropriate when applied to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, or, at least, only of use in revealing the position of the person casting judgment rather than whether any of the agents involved deserve to be characterized as morally or politically to be hung out in disgrace.

My own conviction is that understanding the reasons for the breakdown and the responsibility of the different parties is important, but when everyone is a loser, casting blame is not only useless but counter-productive. Instead, the breakdown allows one to recast the problem. A peace agreement based on a two-state solution is NOT possible, at least for the foreseeable future, no more possible than a successful secessionist referendum in Québec. Does that mean you should support a one state solution? Not at all, for that is far more impossible than a two-state solution and, in effect, would doom the victors on the ground to being losers.

So what position should one take as each party takes up positions that will best advance its cause. The Palestinians will attempt to shore up its position as the victim, to shore up its position under international law, to shore up its position in the world of public opinion by working harder on the BDS effort, and the efforts to denigrate and delegitimate Israel. For the only grounds on which the weaker party can advance its cause is through the use of moral arguments, legal arguments and through sentiment. Israel as the stronger party will have to defend itself as best it can on all these fronts, and be limited in any aggressive actions it can take lest its position significantly worsen under international law, dominant international norms and, most of all, public sentiment. At the same time, Israel can try to use its position to both pressure the Palestinians – generally counter-productive – to create partnerships with Palestinians on the ground – generally positive – to get the Palestinians to accept a two-state solution. The dilemma is that using economic pressure and the prerogatives of the powerful, such a real economic sanctions, congruently fits right into the international campaign of the Palestinians. Further, the result can run counter to any Israeli interests. For example, cutting off the rebate of taxes to the Palestinian Authority could cripple it economically, but the result may be the rise of Hamas to power in the West Bank, the initiation of the third intifada, and the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority.

My own position is to advise a fourth strategy. The pursuit of the two-state solution through peace negotiations is as dead for now as the pursuit of self-determination for Québec. The pursuit of a one-state solution is a fraudulent illusion and a mask to cover up the pursuit of the death of Zionism and Israel. The resort by Israel to economic pressure and tightening the screws of oppression are both counter-productive and will only lead to strengthening the Palestinian cause in the long run.

The only position, that I think is viable, is to use only the minimal level of economic and military coercion necessary to defend the state of Israel and its people while pursuing a two-state solution and de facto boundaries on the basis of the agreements that have already been negotiated and agreed upon while enhancing economic, intellectual and political partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. Just as the pursuit of sovereignty has to be aufgehoben in Québec, preserved, raised up to an ideal and put away on a shelf for an unknown and far off future, so too must the goal of reaching an agreement on a two-state solution be preserved, raised up to an ideal and put away on a shelf for the foreseeable future while taking steps on the ground to advance such a goal. The PQ failed because they were impatient while the rest of Canada remained patient with Québec. The Israeli government must act with patience, generosity and forbearance using the behaviour of Ottawa as an example.


Netanyahu, Joseph and Moses


Howard Adelman

Over Saturday night dinner, a close friend bemoaned how badly Netanyahu was handling the fallout from the peace talks. My friend is not a leftist but nevertheless thinks that Netanyahu should have shown a greater interest and willingness to forge a permanent peace agreement – not so much for the sake of the Palestinians as for Israel’s reputation in the world. My friend was not alone in this criticism. It is rather widespread. It became more acute with Netanyahu’s unwillingness to free the remaining Palestinian prisoners on time that he had pledged to free as a condition for the Palestinians resuming the peace talks last year, though reports often conveniently omitted the commitment Netanyahu had made to do so if Abbas agreed to continue the talks past the deadline. The fact that this condition to resume the talks was not part of the original agreement did not seem to matter for the defenders of Netanyahu.

Instead of joining in either the criticism or the defence of Netanyahu, I want to first characterize Netanyahu as a leader using the background on Joseph and Moses as foils of two contrasting types of leaders. For example, Joseph made his name and reputation as a political leader on the basis of a domestic political platform, not as Phillipe Couillard did who won a clear majority for Liberals last night on a program of jobs, jobs, jobs versus a boring repetitive refrain of referendum, referendum and referendum by the Parti Québecois. Joseph won popular acclaim for a program even more fundamental tha Couillard’s stressing food, food and more food. In contrast, Moses was a far less popular leader for he was both a top-down chief magistrate with only ears for a divine voice rather than the pleas of the masses, as well as one whose almost exclusive concern was a unique form of separatism, separating one’s own followers from the body politic within which they had lived for over four hundred years and finding a new land to call home under one’s own jurisdiction and under the rule of law handed down from heaven. Ideals rather than daily domestic concerns would or should motivate the people to vote with their feet was Moses’ belief.

Was domestic or international policy the prime concern of Netanyahu’s leadership, granted that security always had to be the number one concern of any Israeli leader. But had security concerns been pushed into the background? After all, look at the long list of domestic political agenda items for Netanyahu. Whatever was on the list, issues of social justice did not seem to have a high priority among them as it did for Québec Solidaire which increased the number of seats it held in the provincial assembly from 2 to 3. Netanyahu seems to have no or little interest in any of the following issues: discrimination in housing against and anti-discrimination protection with respect to jobs for Israeli Arabs; racial profiling of Israeli Arab citizens undergoing security checks at Ben Gurion airport; fair and equal access to purchasing land, though the Supreme Court of Israel did force the hand of the government on this issue by obligating the Israel Land Authority, which controls over 90% of the land available in Israel, to have a fair representation of Israeli Arab citizens (and women as well) on its board (I was not able to find out whether that included Bedouin and especially Bedouin women); racism against Arab-Israeli citizens in general which two-thirds of Israelis recognize, though Israelis believe the racism against Ethiopian Jews is even more prevalent; fostering anti-racism in sport, particularly in soccer; in general, the Israeli government, again unlike the new Quebec government, is not committed to promoting a shared and inclusive society as distinct from one that fosters divisions; fostering a charter of values based on inclusiveness rather than divisiveness; my own particularly important issue, the problem of refugee claimants and illegal economic migrants in Israel, though once again the Israeli court intervened to ensure that the children of these refugees and migrants, especially those born in Israel, had legal rights; protection for Jewish orthodox women unable to divorce their husbands (agunot) when their husbands refuse them a timely and fair get (divorce); the increasing disparities in salaries experienced in Israel (and around the world) compounded by salary discrimination between Ashkenazi versus Mizrachi, Ethiopian Jews, women and especially Israeli Arabs, though the Netanyahu government did get legislation passed to publish information on gender wage gaps; protection and adequate welfare for the 1,754,700 million Israeli citizens or 430,000 households out of a population of eight million who live below the poverty line, including 180,000 seniors and 817,200 children as documented in the National Insurance agency (according to an OECD Report the poverty rate in Israel went from 15% in 1995 to 21% in 2012), although the government did pass a law that made welfare payments payable jointly to a husband and wife rather than just to a husband; Netanyahu, after much dithering, did finally appoint Karnit Flug as the first woman governor of the Bank of Israel; the court’s order and perhaps surprisingly, Netanyahu’s instructions, for the government to implement Israel’s 1998 Public Housing Act; ignoring the problems of the homeless, though when our television program, Israel Today, did a program on the homeless in Tel Aviv where the majority of homeless are to be found, compared to Toronto, we were surprised at how relatively few homeless there were and even more surprised at the large number of agencies and professionals working on this problem; the government did cancel tax hikes on healthcare and housing; fairness in the treatment of Reform and Jewish rabbis and congregations in comparison to the treatment of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, though on this topic the Netanyahu government has demonstrated a degree of initiative, perhaps because the overseas American Jewish community is so important for the issues Netanyahu does prioritize, so the State Attorney’s office ruled that that the Ministry of Religious Services must allow Reform and Conservative rabbis  movements to serve as community rabbis; the requirement of military service by Haredi, however imperfect, is in process of being implemented.

With some notable exceptions, Netanyahu does not run a social justice government or one committed to social inclusiveness. He fails the Joseph test. What about foreign policy, especially the near-to-home policy of dealing with peace with Palestinians? As everyone knows, I strongly supported the Obama-Kerry peace initiative even though I only had faint hope that it would succeed. But that hope was bolstered by the excellent team Kerry had assembled led by Martin Indyk who was committed unreservedly to Israel and had been a student in Israel when the Yom Kippur War took place, authored U.S. President Clinton’s Middle East strategy, had been active in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).was a former American ambassador to Israel and, as Vice-President at Brookings, the Washington liberal think tank on foreign affairs, led its Middle East program. But the talks are now on life support and most observers seem ready to publish an obituary, though Indyk and Kerry have not thrown in the towel. Just on Sunday, Indyk led serious and evidently sincere talks among Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s personal representative at the talks, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Majed Faraj, the head of Palestinian intelligence services.

Who is to blame for what appears to be an immanent failure? The Palestinians blame Netanyahu for not keeping his promise to release more prisoners. Israelis, especially Lieberman, counter with the argument that why should more prisoners be released if there is no likelihood of the talks continuing past the 30 April deadline let alone any realistic prospect of a deal. Further, while admitting Israel did not release the prisoners, the government had vowed to do so if there was a Palestinian commitment to continue the talks. Instead, the Palestinian Authority, to the surprise of both Israelis and Americans, took unilateral steps to initiate Palestine’s membership in fifteen international bodies in which only states can be members by signing letters of accession, an initiative taken, contrary to the negotiation agreement, without Israel’s permission let alone knowledge. However, the decision to join the International Criminal Court has been held in abeyance. This was a response not only to the non-release of the prisoners but to the Israeli government decision to let a tender for 700 additional residential housing units in Gilo, though the construction ban really only applied to the West Bank and Gilo is virtually an integral part of Jerusalem. Both the Israeli and the Arab negotiators at Sunday’s meeting did ask Indyk to convene another session. But Likud ministers in the government gloated that “the danger of peace had been averted”

Tzipi Livni has come in for particular criticism for being part of an artificial process when the head of the government, Netanyahu, had not truly been committed to the peace process. I believe this criticism is unwarranted and that Netanyahu is committed to a two- state solution, but a commitment not based on a possible deal he can make with the Palestinians. More importantly for an assessment of Netanyahu as a political leader, he was very astute in including Livni in his government, and more astute in appointing an individual with a relatively dovish reputation to be in charge of the negotiations.

The reality is that the negotiations are very painful and complex because Netanyahu and Abbas are totally at odds and equally uncompromising on Jerusalem. Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state can be dealt with through creative ambiguity and indirection by endorsing UN resolutions recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. The issue of Palestinian refugee return, which is so central to Abbas’ history, has witnessed a seismic shift with Abbas’ admission that very few Palestinians would return to Israel, but Abbas remains stubbornly wedded to the principle of the right of return. In the scheme of things, the tractable issue of settlements and borders seem to be the least important issue in these negotiations as everyone seems to recognize the broad outlines and agreement on that policy just as they long ago recognized the deal and discussions over water.  In fact, Netanyahu has initiated steps to demolish illegal building in Yitzhar which has led to clashes between settlers and the Border Police.

So, again, who is to blame? Will the Republican controlled House of Representatives blame the Palestinians and initiate a move to block the half billion dollars of aid America gives the Palestinian Authority?  Abbas has already taken steps to counter such an expected initiative by asking the Arab League to make up for American shortfalls. Most observers sympathetic to the Palestinians place the full blame on Netanyahu. And my friend on Saturday evening who belongs probably to the centre, tends to place the primary blame on Netanyahu. Rabbi Dow Marmur casts equal blame for, as he writes, “the Palestinian and Israeli narratives are irreconcilable”. I do not happen to agree with him. The narratives are reconcilable if both parties give up the claim that, “all of the land is ours and ours only”. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have given up that claim. The issue is not that they are not pragmatists, but their pragmatism has drawn red lines in the sand, now specifically over Jerusalem, that need to be bridged but, given both current governments, no one has been able to build the divide on the ground including the experts and committed members of Kerry’s team.

So though pessimistic, my pessimism is shallow compared to Dow’s. I do not believe that either Abbas or Netanyahu is simple engaged in shadow boxing to keep the Americans entertained and off their respective backs. The fact that Livni has not turned on Netanyahu is but one among many clues. Netanyahu’s problem is that he does not carry a divine magic rod and lacks the backing of a transcendent belief and agent. Abbas and Netanyahu, with all their clever political skills – skills that Moses never mastered – lack a mediating formula which would allow them both to go home discontented with the result but delighted there was a result.

Joseph and Moses

Joseph and Moses Compared


Howard Adelman

Joseph of the multi-coloured coat and Moses the leader of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt are the book ends of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Unfortunately, there is very little narrative between the book ends so the book ends become the story rather than the tale between. In my blog I made a slip and referred to Joseph as the Prime Minister of Israel rather than Egypt. I will use that error to explore how a Prime Minister of Israel should conduct himself and organize Israeli policy given the current impasse in the peace talks with the Palestinians. But I want to begin by comparing and contrasting Joseph’s rule under the Pharaoh of all of Egypt, and Moses as an adoptee of the Egyptian royal family transforming himself into a leader of the Israelite rebellion against the Pharaoh and leader of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

I am assisted enormously in this task because the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s writings on this subject were published posthumously as a collection on vision and leadership that explored precisely this topic with the help of David Shatz (professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University), Joel Wolowelsky (Dean of Faculty at the Yeshiva high school in Flatbush) and Rav. Reuven Ziegler (an expert on Soloveitchik, not to be confused with the expert on refugee issues whom I know who is a law professor at the University of Reading). I am inspired by Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses. However, as much as I am indebted to the great Rav Soloveitchik, I take full responsibility for the idiosyncratic conclusions I have drawn.

Further, though he and I share an immersion in Hegel’s dialectic as a tool to explore such a topic, dialectic, which has been mis-characterized, even by Soloveitchik’s followers, as involving positing a thesis and then an antithesis to forge a synthesis, will not be used in identical ways. However, I will spare the reader any exploration of the differences between Soloveichik’s and my use of dialectic. For me, suffice it to say, dialectic is a process of double negation. Confronting an issue with its opposite in order to negate the lack within each is part of the process, whether it is the positing of mastery emerging out of slavery and a new form of mastery emerging out of slavery, of good out of evil, or prudence and practicality out of imaginative constructions, of universality out of particularity, of presence out of absence.

A very different and much simpler form of dialectic is the use of comparison rather than double negation, taking two items or agents who seems on the surface to be radically different and Other to reveal both surprising similarities which, in turn, point to new otherwise previously ignored differences. It is this latter process which I will use.

Joseph and Moses were both very effeminate men. Joseph is introduced as a seventeen year old who is both immature and relatively child-like compared to his brothers. His brother Reuven referred to him as a child, ha-yeled. Joseph may have been very comely, but he did not seem to have a very attractive personality since he was a snitch and told on his brothers. Moses too when he is a young man does not appear very mature, but in a very different way than Joseph. He was rash letting his temper overtake his prudence ostensibly in the name of social justice. Yet both future leaders played identical roles, though at opposite stages in their lives. Both were shepherds. But Joseph started as a shepherd and rose to become the highest official in the court of Egypt serving the Pharaoh. Moses, in contrast, started as an adopted member of the royal family and when he had to flee became a shepherd in the land of the Midianites.

Both Joseph and Moses experienced rejection, though for very different reasons. Joseph, who was Jacob’s favourite son. Moses was no favourite of any father but remained a moma’s boy. Joseph became the object of his brother’s jealousy and they determined to kill him but, in the end, he was sold into slavery in a heinous act of injustice and his brothers told their father that his favourite son had been killed by a wild animal. They offered his bloodied multi-coloured coat as proof. Moses fled from his adopted grandfather, the Pharaoh, when he himself became the murderer, not driven by jealousy but by a sense of injustice when he intervened when an overseer was observed mistreating a Hebrew slave. Both Joseph and Moses were rejected and forced into exile, in effect, as refugees.

Women play crucial roles in their salvation. The key incident for Joseph takes place when the wife of his master, Potiphar, comes onto him and, when he rejects her, accuses him of trying to rape her. It is not clear why Joseph rejected her – whether it was fear of cuckolding his master or because she was an older woman and perhaps not attractive to him. It was not because he was gay since he later marries and has two sons. Ironically, the injustice committed against him this second time becomes the route by which he comes to the attention of the Pharaoh when he is sent to prison where he earns a reputation a seer and an interpreter of dreams.

In the case of Moses, he not only owes a huge gift of gratitude to his mother for giving birth to him but for having the wisdom first to hide and save him and then to ensure he comes to the attention of an Egyptian princess. Moses, too, must have been a comely child to attract the affections of the princess in such a strong way that she adopts him. Of course, he also owes to the wiles of his sister, Miriam, the clever trick of getting Moses’ own mother to be his nurse-maid. Further, after he fled and encountered the sexual harassment the women were getting at a well and intervened to safeguard the women, he too benefits as he is invited into the household of the Midianite Priest, Jethro. But the debt to women continues. For example, when Moses obeys God’s command to return to his people ad God becomes full of wrath when He learns that Moses failed to circumcise his son Gershom, it is Zipporah who intervenes with God and damps down God’s wrath by agreeing to have Gershom circumcised. The women in Moses’ life are important because he is saved time and time again by female goodwill. In contrast, Joseph benefits, from the intervention of a female, not because the woman was wily, though Potiphar’s wife was certainly a manipulative bitch, but because that manipulation was motivated by bad will. Joseph benefits in spite of women’s bad will and wily character and not because of it.

Their respective families are mirrors of one another. Both marry non-Israelite women (shiksas), Joseph an Egyptian, Asenath, named after the very ancient Egyptian Goddess Neith, a god of primal beginning, of creation and the patron saint of the Egyptian military. Moses married a Midianite, Zipporah, (a little bird) or a sparrow. With respect to the latter, recall the lyrics of an earlier blog by Hargreaves in the song “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” that Angela Lansberry sang in The Picture of Dorian Gray where the sparrow is the one saying goodbye rather than join in the golden and secure life with a handsome man because the sparrow prefers her freedom. In the biblical case, Zipporah marries Moses but retains her feminine strength and independence of spirit. In any case, Moses was then just a shepherd and no golden canary — akin to Joseph who was a canary in both its meanings.

In a Greek midrash, Joseph rejects even a friendly kiss when he is first introduced to Asenath by her father, echoing the rejection of Potiphar’s wife but in a very different context, but this time because he did not want to kiss an idolater. Asenath, who first rejected any desire to meet Joseph because of his reputation of having tried to seduce Potiphar’s wife, and then at the site of him overcome by his splendour, breaks down into tears at her rejection, flees and rejects idolatry. Thus, both wives in effect convert, but Asenath does so because of her love of Joseph while Zipporah does so to defend her husband before his wrathful God. In fact, it is she, not her husband, who cuts off her child’s foreskin with a flint and confronts Moses with the sarcastic and ironic words: “Surely thou art a bloody husband before me.”

Both Joseph’s and Moses’ father-in-laws were priests, in the case of Joseph, Pentephres (also Pitipahara), priest of On, an ancient Egyptian town. In the case of Moses, Jethro was a Midianite priest. Joseph and Moses both have two sons and, therefore, neither is very prolific. Yet Jews are commanded to multiply. Further, between the time of Joseph when, within his father’s whole tribe there were only 70 persons at the beginning, at the end of their sojourn in Egypt over four hundred years later, the Hebrews numbered over 400,000. If you do the math, it works out, 70 becoming over 500 one hundred years later, 500 becoming under 5,000 another century later, that less than five thousand becomes 40,000 at the end of the third century. Only at the end of the whole exercise after four centuries do they become a body of over 400,000 by the time of the exodus. The people do eventually multiply.

But not Joseph or Moses! Joseph has Manasseh and Ephraim and Moses had Gershon and Eliezer. Manassah, from the Hebrew word nasha meaning ‘to forget’, means that, “God has made me forget all my hardships in my father’s house.” Ephraim means that “God has made me fruitful”. This is more a prophetic statement than any indication of the size of his brood. Moses’ children are there but as reflections of himself rather than their personal futures. Joseph too only had two sons but his real children would be the children of Israel who were really profligate in their breeding. It seems clear that Joseph was into his terrific new wife and his new life as the de facto ruler of Egypt who wore the king’s own signet ring with only the de jure ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, above him.

You certainly do not get that sense from Moses’ relationship with Zipporah that it was one of deep romantic love. Zipporah seemed to regard her husband as rather a wimp. Moses names his eldest son to indicate how Moses never felt at home. For his entire life he felt an alien, while living in the Pharaoh’s royal household while never feeling part of it, while leading the Hebrews but never learning to understand them and doing his job as an irascible and temperamental leader. Gershon means a sojourner, a stranger in someone else’s land. In naming his second son, Eliezer, meaning the Lord of my father was my help, Moses at least recognizes that he is just a vehicle and could not have accomplished anything without divine help. In other words, Moses on his own was a totally ineffectual leader, timid and unmanly – a wuss.

Moses was an intercessor and mediator, someone who was saved and drawn out of the water and not an initiator and actor in his own right. True, he practiced magic, but was not that much better a magician than the ones in the Pharaoh’s court. When the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord,” Moses is asked to intercede not only with God but to drive out the demons within them. In contrast, Joseph was an interpreter of dreams and not a magician at all. When the Pharaoh’s cup bearer was in prison with Joseph, he told Joseph of his dream of a vine with three branches that budded and blossomed and turned into grapes which the cup bearer squeezed and turned into wine for the Pharaoh’s cup. Joseph prophesied that it meant that within three days he would be restored to his old job in the royal household. When the Pharaoh’s baker told Joseph his dream of carrying three baskets of bread on his head and the birds eating the fresh bread in those baskets, Joseph said that it meant that in three days the baker would be beheaded and his body impaled on a pole. But the punch line comes when the cup bearer, who promised that he would not forget Joseph for interpreting his dream in such a positive way, just forgot all about Joseph.

Joseph intervenes between the shadows on the walls of the cave and future events which he foresees. He will later intervene on behalf of the Egyptian people to secure their future well-being when he interprets a dream to prophesy a famine in the land. Moses will intervene only on behalf of the Hebrews and between the people and God, but only to lead those people from the hardship of slavery into the wilderness of hardship that made slavery in Egypt look relatively easy. The basic difference is that Joseph is a prophet of physical survival, of life rather than desire, while Moses is the prophet of desire, of becoming whomever you want to be, of the Hebrews forging themselves into the nation as Israelites. Their radically different roles reflect their radically different upbringing.

Joseph at 17 years old was sold into slavery. Moses was brought up as a rich prince. Joseph, when he achieves the pinnacle of success in a relatively short time, “captures” his youngest brother, Benjamin, and holds him as surety that the brothers will return. Moses murders the overseer in a rash and impulsive act upon seeing the foreman mistreat Hebrew slaves. Joseph comes off, not as a traditional hero, a warrior prince willing to stand in battle against anyone as David will stand up against Goliath, but a hero who is willing to come face to face with the Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the land and tell it like it is without hesitation or quivering. Moses, on the other hand, needs his older brother, Aaron to accompany him, even though only he had been a prince in the court, and even then it is Aaron who has to speak because Moses stands before Pharaoh in fear and trembling and can only stutter.

Why does Pharaoh recruit the Hebrews to his government and land and reward Joseph with the highest office? Because, like all authoritarian leaders he needs talent and skills to rule and govern, for how do you collect taxes and rule over the people if they end up hating the king? The Vizier or Prime Minister must be wise and far-sighted and rule for the welfare of the people and not simply to suck them dry for the benefit of Pharaoh. So why does the a future Pharaoh turn against them. Because the Hebrews pose a demographic danger. They were seventy strong at the beginning and, after a century, had become a group of about 400 assuming four generations a century and a doubling in population each generation. Not yet a threat but a long enough time had passed for the new pharaoh to forget the service that the Hebrews had delivered to the Egyptians and the promises Pharaoh had made to Joseph and his people. At the end of the second century, there were over three thousand of them, still not a threat. Even at the end of the third century, there were only 25,000, enough to be noticed but still no threat.

The problem emerged in the fourth century when that 25,000 grew to over 400,000. Pharaoh, like all xenophobes before and after who feel threatened by growing and distinct minorities who are successful saw those increasing numbers as a demographic threat and was determined to embitter their lives and inhibit their future growth, including taking the drastic step of ordering the death of all male children. So the Egyptian saviours of the Israelites became their oppressors and the symbols of blood, sweat and tears took on a new meaning

Blood from an animal had been the false clue Joseph’s brothers had used when they soaked Joseph’s multi-coloured coat in animal blood to convince their old father that his favourite son whom they had sold into slavery was now dead. Blood was the clue that the Hebrews left on their door frames to tell God that the families within that home were Hebrews so that only the eldest of the Egyptians would be stricken and killed. In Exodus 24:6-8, Moses, who has now effectively become the high priest of the Hebrews, orders his assistants to sacrifice animals, divides the drained blood between that used for the altar and the other half which he uses to sprinkle over the people to get them to swear a blood oath that the people would obey God. Just as God shall be who He shall be, they shall become what they promise to become, servants of a divine master rather than slaves of an earthly one.

Bread is also a contrasting symbol. The dream of bread on the baker’s head adumbrates the pharaoh’s own dream about the seven fat and the seven thin sheaves and the forecast of a future famine. Bread becomes a symbol of Joseph’s prowess and his prudence and the people are ordered to put away a portion of their bumper crops for the period when the crops will fail. For Moses, an entirely other-worldly man, a leader not of survival but of forging a nation and realizing a new dream, bread is delivered as manna from heaven and God becomes the new master who rules with an outstretched arm to embrace his people and a mighty hand to convince them to follow while, for the previous four centuries one has the impression that the divine had slipped into the background as each man struggles to survive and feed his family as the glory days, as the Golden Age of living in Egypt, turns into the beholden days, into days of struggle and service and worst of all, Moses, the future leader, becomes an abuser of the law, even though aroused by an unjust act, and commits murder. Moses and the Hebrews will have to learn and discover the core of their creed, that the rule of law is the source of their salvation and not just putting bread on the table.

So Joseph who begins as a young lad full of himself and delighted in his role as his father’s favourite grows up as a source of antipathy and an object of jealousy and hatred by his own brothers. Moses grows up as a prince of the court who feels like an alien, like a stranger who is not accepted in spite of being adopted by a princess. Joseph’s tribe will gradually assume the idolatrous ways of their hosts while Moses will have to forge his people’s identity once again in the battle against idolatry, in the battle against taking any physical object in this world, whether it be a statue or a human said to be divine such as a Pharaoh, as an object of worship. These two prophets of the Hebrews will use prophecy and their roles as priests and political leaders using radically different approaches and for very opposite ends and will serve as judges of the law in totally opposite ways. Because Joseph never stopped being a strict adherent to the law while Moses had to learn the meaning of laws and rituals from scratch and teach them anew to his people.

Whatever their radical differences, both give off a radically different sense than the heroes esteemed by the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. For neither will be a warrior prince of the people.

Freud, Moses and Michelangelo

Freud, Moses and Michelangelo 


Howard Adelman


In response to my last blog on the Two Faces of Moses, one of my readers sent the following:

“I enjoyed your article, and here is another classic one you may enjoy revisiting. I also detected a slip, although not necessarily Freudian, in the first paragraph: Joseph once again meets his brothers face to face, the same brothers who sold him into slavery, but now is the Vizier or Prime Minister of Israel.”

Alex cited Sigmund Freud’s article on Michelangelo’s Moses, a statue produced at the beginning of the sixteenth century during the High Renaissance. I shall write about my not necessarily Freudian slip in tomorrow’s blog on Joseph versus Netanyahu as Vizier or Prime Minister of Israel. This morning I want to write about Freud on Michelangelo’s carrara marble sculpture of Moses that can be found at the entrance of the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. A picture of that sculpture can be found online as can the relevant section of the biblical text in Exodus. Though Freud had drafted his paper first at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was not until before WWI that Sigmund Freud published his paper, “The Moses of Michelangelo” anonymously rather than under his own name. Why? He was obviously obsessed with Moses and his last publication before WWII was Moses and Monotheism. Why before WWI did he want to remain hidden and not lift the disguise until 1924 

I was once asked to serve as an adjudicator on a York exhibition by graduating students of Fine Arts. Like Freud, I was not and remain a non-connoisseur of art even though I love going to galleries, have attended Art Basel in Florida a number of times, my eldest daughter, Shon, is an artist and we will be going to New York later this month to see a number of art shows and galleries, including one in which she is exhibiting. Like Freud, I am unable to really appreciate the techniques in creating art and pay much more attention to the effects, the affects and the meaning I get from observing the art. Thus, at the art show at York University many years ago, it was precisely on those three aspects of the students’ art pieces that I commented. Much to my surprise, the students appreciated that feedback, particularly the interpretive comments, because they said that they rarely got that since most of the feedback they received was about technique 

Freud in his paper, “The Moses of Michelangelo” notes that, perversely, he truly only gets pleasure from art when he can explicate why the piece of art affects him by interpreting the creative work. Further, he is often most intrigued by a work of art when the meaning remains a puzzle, when we are unable to say why the work of art affects us so strongly. Like an historian, Freud believes that the solution is not simply to stand in awe at the ineffability of the work of art, but to understand in the same way we understand the actions of an historical agent in the Dilthey-Collingwood tradition, discerning the intentions of the artist in the artist’s attempt to awaken in us, the viewers, “the same mental constellation as that which in him produced the impetus to create.”

I myself think that this effort at appreciating art by getting inside the artist’s head through close attention to the art object – as simply another version of a dream or a projection on the wall of Plato’s cave – is the grossest conceit, not only with respect to works of art but to the intentions of historical agents or the interpretation of the behaviour of a patient on a psychoanalytic couch. For the effort presumes that the interpreter is an unveiler of the masks and mysteries of life and can act sub specie internitatis like a powerful god who can open the bars to any prison in which the mind finds itself, whether the prison of the personal past, the collective past or the past as delivered in the present through a piece of art on exhibition. On this presumption, the objective of art or historical or psychotherapeutic interpretation is to presume the role of an omniscient god capable of travelling anywhere in the interior mental universe.

So, although like Freud, I approach art (and history) through interpretation, for me the act of interpretation is NOT one of getting inside the artist’s head (or the agent in history or the mixed up neurotic lying on a couch), to recreate the same mental considerations that led to the impetus to create or act in the first place, but to enter into a dialogue between what I experience and see when I look at a piece of art or read an historical account of an agent’s actions. Since I am not engaged in psychotherapy, I am not sure that is analogous, so I will leave that field aside. This major difference aside, Freud and I are akin in approaching art or actions through the interpretation of the objects produced by the artist or the actions initiated by the historical agent even though I do not believe that this is the best way to appreciate art.

Freud offers as his paradigmatic example his own psychoanalytic writing (remember, this essay was published anonymously) in interpreting Hamlet whose behaviour, according to Freud, had previously flummoxed all previous interpreters and left us in the dark as to why the play had such a powerful effect. Without going into the interpretation of Hamlet, I find Freud’s interpretation — in terms of his theory of the Oedipal complex — leaves me cold and throws no light on why I react so powerfully to the power of the play and Hamlet’s existential dithering.

But let us turn to Freud’s interpretation of the statue of Moses by Michelangelo which is the subject of his essay, a statue which I have not laid eyes on in person for almost half a century so I cannot recall how it affected me or what I thought at the time but, unlike Freud’s extravagant claim, I do not recall this statue as having made a stronger impression on me than any other work of art. I do know that, after seeing the film The Great Beauty by means of which I experienced the beauty of Roman statuary in a way I had never before, I resolved to return to Rome to see those statues once again with my own eyes, rather than through the eyes of a camera and a great director, to try to discern why the beauty was so much more apparent in the film than when I experienced it directly.

What does Freud see? He sees “the angry scorn of the hero’s glance”. Further, he sometimes identifies with the mob on whom the glance is fixed, “the mob which can hold fast to no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when its has regained its illusory idols.” I look at the statue – at least at the picture of it – and see nothing of the sort. Moses does not look angry. He looks struck dumb. He is not looking at me but away from me. There is neither scorn nor anger in his face. If anything, Moses is awestruck. Further, though he has the body of a warrior, he is not portrayed with any of the common and recognizable poses or characteristics of a hero. He is seated rather than standing. He carries a tablet under his arm, not a weapon or a fist. His torso leans backwards rather than forwards and even his beard is curled away from whomever he is looking at or forward to seeing or whomever he had seen. His left arm crosses his torso as if in a protective mode. Freud and I do not seem to be staring at the same statue.

Further, Freud goes on in a Platonic condescending mode to characterize the Hebrews as a mob, a mob easily led astray, a mob lacking in conviction and faith, a mob impatient with both Moses and his God, a mob entranced by illusory idols. Since the Israelites are not in the artistic composition but can only come from Freud’s interpretation of the biblical text, I not only do not see the Israelites as Freud suggests, but if they were implied, I would not characterize them as he did and then project that characterization onto the statue. Certainly, God did not see the Israelites as a fickle people; this is a centuries-old stereotype of Christians assumed by Freud. Rather, God described them as a stiffnecked and stubborn population, resistant to both Moses’ authoritarian leadership and submission to God’s ordinances and commandments. They were a people that had to be convinced, that had to be persuaded. And they had neither been intimidated by God’s wrath or Moses’ fit of temper when he first came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law. When Moses saw the Israelites cavorting nude and singing and dancing around a statue of a golden calf, Moses broke the tablets, then broke the idol and crushed it into powder and forced the idolaters to drink up the golden powder. The next day, he ordered his loyal Levites to kill men, women and children among the idolaters and 3,000 died in the slaughter.

The statue has nothing to do with all of this. For the tablets under Moses’ arm are blank. They are the tablets Moses was instructed to bring with him to receive the laws for a second time. That is the only time Moses carried blank tablets. The statute is about Moses’ second coming before God and not his first delivery of the tablets of law to the people. Freud ignored one of the clearest elements of the sculpture and got the historical context of the sculpture all wrong. Freud writes, “There is not the slightest doubt that it represents Moses [OK so far], the Law-giver of the Jews, holding the Tablets of the Ten Commandments.” If that were the case, why are the tablets blank? So when Freud writes, “The descriptions of the figure given by various writers are…curiously inapt. What has not been understood has been inaccurately perceived and reproduced.” I would subscribe to half that statement with respect to Freud – the statue as described by him has been inaccurately perceived.  

Let’s start with the face. Freud writes, “In my opinion we cannot better characterize the facial expression of Moses than in the words of Thode [1908, 205] who reads in it ‘a mixture of wrath, pain and contempt’, – ‘wrath in his threatening contracted brows, pain in his glance, and contempt in his protruded under-lip and in the down-drawn corners of his mouth’. Look at the face. Wrath! Hardly. Pain! Contempt! More like bewilderment. Freud goes on to offer a number of other contrasting descriptions with which he disagrees. An historical aside is necessary. In the latter half of the eighteenth century two new so-called scientific movements emerged, nephrology and physiognomy. In the first, the character of a person was discerned by mapping the bumps on the person’s skull. In the much more popular one, the personality characteristics of an individual could be read by noting a jutting chin (stubbornness), a large crooked nose (greed) or fleshy lips (sensuousness). Many universities had chairs in physiognomy and this became a popular device used by novelists of the nineteenth century.

Freud too believed that the face did not simply reveal the individual’s temperament at the moment but the individual’s underlying and constant character. He asked, “Did Michelangelo intend to create a ‘timeless study of character and mood’ in this Moses, or did he portray him at a particular moment of his life and, if so, at a highly significant one?” After surveying a number of various interpreters, all of whom position Moses in a time just before he rises up in wrath and breaks the tablets rather than in the period when he is waiting to meet God face to face and receive a second inscription on the blank tablets which he was instructed to bring with him, Freud rejects all interpretations that Michelangelo was depicting Moses at a specific moment and, instead, argues that, “Michelangelo has created, not a historical figure, but a character-type, embodying an inexhaustible inner force which tames the recalcitrant world.” In other words, Michelangelo was a neo-Platonist like Freud himself, disinterested in particularities and only fixated on the eternal Forms or universal essences. “This general character of the figure is further heightened by laying stress on the conflict which is bound to arise between such a reforming genius and the rest of mankind. Emotions of anger, contempt and pain are typified in him.” For Freud, psycho-analysis “is accustomed to divine secret and concealed things from despised or unnoticed features, from the rubbish-heap, as it were, of our observations.”  

Here is what Freud observes:

  1. The thumb of the right hand is concealed; the index finger alone is in contact with the beard pressed so hard that the soft masses of hair bulge out both above and below the finger;
  2. In contrast, the other three fingers bent at the upper joints have withdrawn from the beard;
  3. The distinct strands of hair themselves follow different particular courses, the large one at our extreme right coursing across the chest and under the index finger (with the hidden thumb on the other side) and over the next finger, the strand in the middle falling freely on the right and the strand on the left (Moses’ right) from the right side of Moses’ face falling and deformed in its fall by the right hand but cursing beneath it and emerging like a scroll towards the figure’s lap until it and the strand from the right are both caught by the figure’s left hand.

Freud then infers that the right hand had seized the left part of the beard and was retreating from its firm hold suggesting that Moses was startled by the clamour of the people and the spectacle of the Golden Calf, moved by wrath and indignation ready in his rage to punish and annihilate the wrongdoers. Freud then supplies a series of four sketches to retrace the movements of Moses to indicate that the right hand, which had been holding the tablets from beneath, shifted to hold the tablets by his arm as the hand went to grab the beard and then withdrew as the tablets started to slip and were about to crash on the floor and shatter to pieces.

There is much to be said for Freud’s claim that Michelangelo was intent on bringing out Moses’ universal character as historians of art have documented that Michelangelo was heavily influenced by the neo-Platonists of his time who were in turn immersed in Plotinus and his pupils and followers – Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus. “Renaissance Neoplatonism formally began with the founding of the Florentine Academy in 1462 by Cosimo di’ Medici” and the belief that the purpose of art was to express a “kinship with the universal Soul; then, to learn to see intelligible form, reflecting the light of Good, through the medium of physical beauty.” But before we can claim to see the universal we must accurately perceive the particular through which the universal is to shine forth. “What we see before us is not the inception of a violent action but the remains of a movement that has already taken place. In his first transport of fury, Moses desired to act, to spring up and take vengeance and forget the Tables; but he has overcome the temptation, and he will now remain seated and still, in his frozen wrath and in his pain mingled with contempt.” In this interpretation, Moses claimed that Michelangelo had no intention of being faithful to the biblical text. “Michelangelo has placed a different Moses on the tomb of the Pope, one superior to the historical or traditional Moses. He has modified the theme of the broken Tables; he does not let Moses break them in his wrath, but makes him be influenced by the danger that they will be broken and makes him calm that wrath.” In other words, Michelangelo did not depict a Moses out of control but a Moses who is able to contain and control his extreme anger, a universal persona “struggling against an inward passion for the sake of a cause to which he has devoted himself” as a projection of his own personal inner struggle and a warning to himself.

I might suggest, as Ernest Jones does in his biography of Freud, that Freud read into Michelangelo’s statue his own struggle to repress his wrath at the disloyalty of his followers, particularly Carl Jung, even though a reasonable and respectful reading of the statue was not to capture “the passage of a violent gust of passion visible in the signs left behind it in the ensuing calm” resulting from his disciplined self-control. Freud’s misreading, in spite of his detailed attention to some details in the painting, may have resulted from the same neo-Platonic tendency of Michelangelo to prioritize intuition over empirical forms of knowing and his Platonic conviction as embodied in his nude portrayal of David and of Adam to present the perfect male figure naked and unadorned with his perfection revealed to all. Moses, in contrast, was imperfect, but not in the way Freud suggests, but rather a nervous and fraught Moses having to come face to face after he had acted so out of control.

So why did Freud hide that he had authored the paper? Did he want to test the waters because he was unsure of his interpretation? Hardly given Freud’s huge ego. There is very little indication that he felt insecure about his convictions though he pays a nominal stipend at the end of the paper to express his modesty concerning his hypothesis. Or did he not want to reveal his own identification with the portrayal of Moses he read into the statue lest he place on the public stage his own feelings about the emerging conflict with Carl Jung? I have no idea and I have not presented nearly enough evidence to speculate on an approximate explanation. What I do know is that I am uninterested in finding universal heroic virtues in a character like Moses, an interest that both Freud and Michelangelo shared. Further, it is an interest displayed in many Haggadahs influenced by the Greeks not only in holding a symposium but in using the symposium to display the true and permanent virtues of man as embodied in Moses. I prefer to see and read about a Moses with all his flaws on display.

That brings us to the horns (karenim in Hebrew, the radiant beams given off by Moses’ face rather than Satanic horns on his head) on Michelangelo’s Moses which Freud ignores and the fact that the statue was intended to be set opposite to that of Paul who had declared Moses (and Jews who upheld the unnecessary continuing adherence to the law) to be veiled or horned indicating a failure to open themselves fully to accepting Jesus as their messiah and saviour. As the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible in English translates the passage, “And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.” I prefer to read Moses neither through Christian contrasts nor through Greek projections but in terms of the words with which his actions are actually described with all the flaws of his character revealed, including those which Moses himself preferred to hide. Michelangelo may have been trying to portray a petrified arrested moment constricted in marble, though a very different moment than Freud supposed, a moment when the great actor and agent of Jewish history was frozen and awestruck before having to meet face to face with God and deal with God’s wrath that awaited him for his folly in breaking the original tablets, a seriously flawed man of action when contrasted with the much superior and visionary Paul. Or he may have been projecting onto Moses his own frustrations and fears in dealing with his off and on commission by Julius the Magnificent, the Warrior Pope, or as a comment on a Pope who saw himself as a Julius Caesar if not a god who wanted so badly to win the masses over with grand and majestic marvels that would inspire awe, reverence and even fear in his flock.

I have hanging in our hall a framed large drawing made by a former post-doc student of mine, Michael Kigel, who is now a Hasid working in Vienna, an envoy in the Lubavitcher religious army. The portrait depicts a ragged bearded rabbinic figure peering downward and inward, unlike Michelangelo’s Moses with his beautifully coiffed beard. Kigel’s figure is not seated erect, but crumpled and defeated. He occupies the lower half of the picture and the top half is an absence, again, unlike Michelangelo’s which, in pictures of the statue, fills most of the frame. For me, this picture of a Moses who wants to hide from himself let alone God is a far truer portrait of the Moses of Exodus that the one that Michelangelo created and certainly of the one Freud read into Michelangelo’s statue.    

The Two Faces of Moses

The Two Faces of Moses


Howard Adelman

In the Book of Esther, when the heroine is chosen by the Persian King to become a member of his harem of wives, Mordechai tells Esther not to tell anyone that she is an Israelite. Her identity remains hidden for years. When Joseph once again meets his brothers face to face, the same brothers who sold him into slavery, but now is the Vizier or Prime Minister of Israel, he is not recognized. He remains hidden. Years later when the sojourn of the Israelites comes to an end in Egypt, the exodus is led by a man with an Egyptian name raised as a prince of Egypt but born a Levite but saved from the death the Pharaoh ordered for all Hebrew male infants. He is first saved by being hidden for three months and then floated down the Nile in an ark of reeds to be saved by an Egyptian princess, Jochebed, who found and raised him as her own and, unknown to his adoptive mother, is nursed by his own mother. Thus, the political leader of Israel, the one who leads the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom and forges the people as a nation, was hidden to survive, and then hidden in the very midst of the royal family. Moses had a dual identity. He was both Egyptian and Israelite, Moses, one who is from the water delivered or drawn (“mo” in Egyptian from “uses”, water– Exodus 2:10), and Moshe, one who is drawn (משה “to draw”). Whether in Egyptian or Hebrew, he is passive and not an active agent of his own making. He is drawn out.

Exodus not only starts with this strange tale of Moses’ origins but shows modern narrative patterns that boast of succinctness with absolutely no extraneous matter for the story literally leaps from the birth story to a story of murder. The one who was saved from being murdered becomes a murderer of an Egyptian overseer ostensibly because that overseer was treating an Israelite worker cruelly. Instead of standing by his royal prerogatives or pleading for the favour of the Pharaoh who is, after all, his grandfather, he flees.  But only when he realizes that there were witnesses to the murder, two quarreling Israelites. When he tried to intrude in their quarrel, they scoffed at him, treated his intervention as if he wanted to join the quarrel and told him to mind his own business or they would tell the Pharaoh that he was a murderer. Moses was neither capable of covering up his rash deed nor countering the Israelite argumentative temper.  

So the guy who is to become a political leader, a giver of laws, the Jews’ greatest prophet, starts out as a total failure at conflict resolution. It is as if Barack Obama started out as a failed community organizer. But Moses tries a third time when some young women were minding their sheep and watering them at a well, he intervened once again and drove off some males sexually harassing them. Success at last! So he is adopted by the father of one of the girls, Jethro, a Midianite and he is given his daughter, Zipporah, to marry and made head shepherd. He has a son, Gershon, with Zipporah. Then, after the requisite forty years, God calls him, draws him forth from amidst the Midianites, to save his people.

Since when were the Israelites his people? Presumably he was also brought up secretly knowing he was a Hebrew. But why call on Moses, a guy living the life of a quiet shepherd who had exhibited a quality of rashness as a young man to save the Israelites? He was hardly the model of a warrior prince as often portrayed in hagiographical cartoons. He, himself, is almost killed by God enraged when He, God, discovers Gershon had not been circumcised. God clearly did not do his due diligence. Luckily, once again, Moses is saved by a woman, his wife, Zipporah who stays the hand of a wrathful God by the mark of blood and had Gershon circumcised. Would you not say that God had chosen a loser, one who was so uncommitted to the continuity of his own people that he did not have his own son circumcised, one who needed to have his wife intercede for him with God and initiate the action to save him? Moses, more than anyone in the Torah, owes his life to women, to his mother who bore and hid him, to his sister Miriam who helped persuade the Egyptian princess to both adopt him and have her mother raise him, and to a Midianite, Zipporah, who made sure his son was recognized as an Israelite.

Which raises the question of whether Moses himself was circumcised and, if he was, how was that hidden from his adoptive mother or from his Egyptian family and friends? How could he remain hidden from his buddies in the bathhouse if he had been circumcised?

In any case, this “nebish” meets up with his older brother, Aaron – how did Aaron survive? – and the two go to see Pharaoh after they perform a few magic tricks to convince the tribe that they are acting as God’s messengers. When they see Pharaoh, do they say, “Let my people go.” No. They say let my people feast together in the wilderness in celebration of their God. And who says it? Not Moses who presumably knows all the ways of the royal court. Aaron talks because Moses was a stutterer. It is not clear that Moses had even mastered Hebrew or Aramaic. A great pick for a political leader! He wasn’t even a rhetorician.

However, there is no religious freedom in Egypt. The Pharaoh says, “Are you guys crazy? Get outta here.”  They don’t give up. They do get credit for persistence. They return a second time and then perform a number of magic tricks, tricks which Pharaoh’s own shamans can also perform. This failure is repeated a third time. Neither Moses nor Aaron had learned the first art of statecraft – don’t carry a big stick or try to turn the bloody water into wine unless the trick works to awe the opponent. Your credibility just drops.  Unless, of course, you instigate a guerrilla war. For then the goal is not military victory on the battlefield, but the willingness to both deliver and absorb punishment over time. The object is to tire the opposition, not to defeat the Pharaoh’s army in a direct conflict.

Because they exhibited stamina, because they could draw forth and exhaust the might of Egypt, they eventually succeed. But only to a point. Moses’ split character would dog him for the rest of his career. His fits of rage would betray him when the people were found worshiping the golden calf and he smashed the tablets of the laws that God had given him as His gift to the people. Further, he ordered the men of his Levite tribe to wrack revenge on the people and they ravaged the camp killing 3000 men, women and children. This is the Moses, this man clearly guilty of war crimes, who Jews revere as their greatest leader and lawgiver and prophet! Moses certainly had a sense of injustice. He does deliver the laws. But he is too rash. And too ruthless. He lacks the cool solemnity and rational consideration required of a judge to interpret the law – his father-in-law, Jethro, was the one who convinced him to appoint judges to adjudicate disputes under the law. He also lacked the tact and trust of the people to make a good political leader.

As we indicated above, he wasn’t even a warrior leader. Joshua is the commander of the Jewish forces. Moses is the politician behind the scenes to boost the morale of the Israelites. But he is no Churchill. Moses is not a tireless leader. When the Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites, Aaron and Hur had to hold up his arms to signal that Moses still held the rod of freedom aloft, the rod that drew forth water from the rock just as he himself was drawn forth from the waters of the Nile. But he was a good lawgiver. He did deliver constitution of the Israelites in the form of their initial fundamental laws even though he himself was definitely not the exemplar upholding those laws, especially the law commanding: “Thou shalt not kill”.

Let me zero in on Moses’ duality that helps explain how such an incompetent came to be revered as Israel’s greatest lawgiver and prophet. In Exodus 34:30, the skin on Moses’ face is described as sending forth beams, beams which frightened the people as well as himself. So Moses donned a mask, first before Aaron and the Elders, and then before all the Israelites. He wore a veil (masweh) (Exodus 34:33), a hajib, precisely a form of dress Pauline Maurois would ban from any office holder in government from wearing. When Moses finished speaking with the Israelites, he put a veil on his face. Presumably, he took off his mask first or the mask and the veil are just twp words for referring to the same disguise.

Well, is not that akin top our comic book heroes who all wear masks or veil their faces? The New Testament have an explanation for wearing the mask. “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendour.” (2 Corinthians 3:12-13 RSV) The mask is there to hide the old Jew who no longer had the visage to lead. It may be a useful way to put down the Jews and uplift the Christians, but it plays fast and loose with the story. It’s a lousy explanation because Moses never had that splendour to begin with. For many Christians, the mask or veil is necessary for covenantal Jews because they could not get rid of the law and rely on hope and faith in Jesus who had come to save them. Moses and his mask belonged to the old order of the rule of law; Christians belonged to the new order and the rule of pure faith, of surrendering oneself to Jesus.

Though a poor and circular argument, the account is even worse as an exercise in hermeneutics. For the point is used to score points not to understand the text. There is nothing in the text to suggest Moses wore a mask to cover up his fading glory. For one, Moses is not presented as having a great deal of glory in the first place. Secondly, where is there any evidence that Moses was a proponent of transparency? It may be considered a political virtue in our day, but surely the biblical text suggests that inscrutability was then more important.

I suggest that Moses is telling the people all along that he has worn a mask, that he is a cover-up artist, that they should not be fooled by his artistry, by the face he wore. For Moses only was a pretender to the leadership of the Israelites and pretense had, literally, become his second nature. Hypocrisy, playing a part, acting a role for which one does not have a natural gift, was Moses forte. Moses was only a mouthpiece. Moses was then coming out of the closet. Moses wore a mask to tell everyone that he had always worn a mask. Further (Exodus 34:34), Moses put on the mask or veil only after he had delivered the words that God had told him to deliver to the people. Moses donned the mask to tell the people that he was not A GOD, but merely God’s poor and ineffectual messenger.

The explanation is not that he was saving the Israelites from a face that would scare them or, from the opposite perspective, to hide his glory that was fading, to hide from them the transience of his glory period. Rather, Moses wore a veil now because he was finally coming clean. No more magical tricks. This is the true me, an insecure and very inadequate leader of the Jewish people and not a golden calf. Moses could no longer hide behind his wife, his brother, or Joshua. He had been born in hiding and lived through hiding. He was tired of hiding. He had to reveal the truth about himself. What better way than by donning a mask.

I wish all political leaders had the same degree of honesty.  

The Afikomen: The Divided Self

The Afikomen, the Divided and the Hidden Self – an Introduction to the Jewish Soul


Howard Adelman


Last night I watched a panel on autism on Steve Paikin’s show, “Agenda”. The show was very instructive, as his shows generally are. One woman in particular who had a brother, who suffered from autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder – ASD) was particularly instructive since she went on to pioneer in creating a therapeutic app for finding a structured order within which autistic children can orient themselves. They cannot function in environments with chaos and sensory overload. If there ever was an environment with chaos and sensory overload, it is surely the average Jewish seder. Seder means order but a seder is often an exemplar of everything but.

A Passover seder is a festival in which people break bread together, identify with one another and with a common past to forge a better future. Autism is a condition in which interpersonal communion and empathy with another may be very difficult. Its symptoms include failure to make eye contact, resistance to being held or touched, a lack of a sense of proper distance when speaking to another, a failure to share experiences with one another, an inability to grasp symbols and figures of speech, an inability to read body language, an aversion to answering personal questions, a propensity to engage in conversation disconnected from what went before and often to burst into observations unrelated to the social context or what someone else had been saying, and, most of all, an inability or difficulty in connecting with what another person is feeling and, therefore, a propensity to naively trust another and, therefore, easily prone to be victimized by bullies. One way to think of a seder is as an antidote to the propensity to ASD that may be present in all of us, though not to the degree to be noticeable as in individuals diagnosed with ASD.

The Passover seder is modelled on a Greek symposium but the message and the substance of these two different symposia are very different, for, as I have described before, the Passover seder is about communion in the present by communing with and reliving the past. It has a very different purpose than its original intention in ancient Greek culture.

When Plato depicts the self, he offers a number of images, the most well known being the story of the cave followed immediately by its abstract version in terms of the geometrical figure of the divided line that is said to be analogous to the different parts of our cognitive selves, but it is a mistake to think, as we shall see, that the cognitive self constitutes the whole of the psyche.

Let me start with the Divided Line (DL) as depicted in The Republic (509d-510a). A line is divided into two uneven portions, the larger portion representing the comprehension of the intelligible world in terms of its contribution to truth and the smaller portion representing the comprehension of the visible world having a smaller contribution to truth. So if a line is 18” long and is divided, for example, in two uneven parts in a ratio of say 2:1, then the larger section of 12” would represent the comprehension of the intelligible (non-visible world) and 6” would represent the comprehension of the visible world.

Plato then divides both of the sections once again in terms of the same ratio, 2:1.  The intelligible world is then divided into two sections, one 8” and the other 4”. The longer section represents what pure reason can grasp, the pure forms or abstractions free entirely of any residue from the visible world, pure forms which can only be grasped by reason. Einstein’s equation linking energy (E) and matter (M) and where C is the speed of light in the formula E=MC² would be a close example. The shorter section of the upper intelligible realm is represented by understanding rather than reason, that part of intelligence which abstracts and generalizes from the visible world. It is the realm of creating categories or classes and propositions based on hypothetical thought. It lacks the degree of certainty and clarity of reason and the purely intelligible realm of mathematics.

The lower section is divided as well into two sections in the same 2:1 ratio, or 4” and 2” respectively. The larger section belonging to the visible world is about our everyday knowledge of objects in the visible world, the realm of sensibility. The smaller section is about our fantasies, our projections of the visible world on the movie screens of our imagination and deal with likenesses of the visible world that are phantasmagoria, images that come into being and dissolve like the mist. They are shadows which can be taken to be real by the naïve who have no detached perspective about what they are grasping. This is the level of knowledge inculcated by imagery or advertising as we now call it. It is NOT worthless as a degree of knowledge, but, for Plato, it occupies the lowest and least part of the cognitive self. It is the realm of knowledge gained from reading fiction or from watching movies that I write about so often.

A final note re the analogy of the Divided Line (DL). A caption over the door upon entry to Plato’s academy read that knowledge of mathematics geometry was a prerequisite for studying at the academy. Without going into the geometrical theorem, whenever a DL is divided into two unequal portions and the two parts are once again divided by the same ratio, then the two middle sections will always be of the same length. Therefore, in the above example, the section that is analogous to understanding and hypothetical reasoning and the section of the visible world dealing with the direct knowledge of objects, both have the same length, or, in other words, the same degree of clarity and approximation to truth. The benefit of understanding and hypothetical knowledge is its proximity to reason and knowledge of the pure Forms rather than the degree of truth it might possess. So one should not think that Plato was dismissive of empiricism.   

The narrative story of the cave is perhaps a better or richer or more memorable way to portray the different levels of knowledge. At the lowest level, people are tied to a log and watch reflections on the cave wall cast by a light behind those people that they do not see and they take those projections as reality. These are the shadows that captivate us, the ghosts of our imagination, the movies we watch and the novels that come into being in our imaginations. When the people on the log are freed up from their mesmerisation with illusory shadows, they are able to turn their heads and see the objects, the images of which are projected on the cave wall and they can then recognize they were watching phantasms. But the cave is the realm of the visible world. When they escape the cave and go out into the sunlight, they can see reflections of the pure forms of reason initially as a means of abstracting from the visible world in the bowels of the cave. The ideal is, of course, to see pure Forms without any connection with the visible world, to look directly at the Sun in all its glory for that is ultimately the source of all enlightenment.

Before we compare Plato to the sense of the psyche depicted by the three layers of matzah, another narrative by Plato needs to be introduced taken from his dialogue Phaedrus (246a-254e). Plato’s portrayal of the three parts of the soul in terms of an analogy to a chariot where the charioteer is the intelligible part of the soul and the two horses guided by intelligence are the spirited horse (rational desire or prudence?) which can detect the guidelines of the reins that is yoked to another horse, the appetitive part of the soul which has only the instinctive energy to drive ahead but no ability to follow the directions of intelligence. The two horses represent the the spirited part of the soul and the appetitive part of the soul respectively.

Appetite is instinctual and constitutes NO part of the realm of knowledge whether visible or intelligible or the capacity to acquire knowledge. It is about doing not thinking. On the other hand, the spirited part of the soul which is also about doing rather than thinking also does not represent any realm of knowledge but represent emotions or passions that can be linked to rational self-interest, whether those passions be greed or ambition, rage or shame. To link this metaphor up with the theory of the DL and the myth of the cave, the charioteer or intelligence represents all four aspects of the world of knowledge and the faculties associated with it. Neither emotions nor appetites belong to the intelligible part of the soul at all, which, according to the image of the DL and the narrative of the cave is itself divided into four parts.

Notice the following differences with the parts of the psyche as represented by the three layers of matzah. First, matzah, the bottom layer, is not equated with irrational and instinctual behaviour unable to listen. Rather, it is l’chaim, life, the instinct for survival worthy of celebration and joy. To eat, drink and celebrate the sensibilities is the foundation of all ethics rather than simply a realm needing strict controls and yoking to another part of the soul which can control its wild character. Further, unlike in Plato, the appetites when based in sex are a realm of knowledge in their own right, embodied and bodily knowledge as when Adam was said to know Eve after both had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Second, in the three layers of matzah, the top layer is identified with passion and compassion, with empathy with an Other and not with abstract reason. In Plato, these passions can listen to and be guided by reason. They are not guided by identification and understanding the world as perceived by another human being. In Plato, humans experience the world in the same way and are governed by the same instinctual appetites but differ because of different admixtures of the passions and, most of all, by their inherited ability to use intelligence to govern the passions and thence govern the appetites. The passions are best when the listen to intelligence and ignore the temptations of the appetites. In contrast, in the Hebraic cosmos of the psyche, the passions are the source of creativity, or our imagination that reaching beyond the world we experience and can envision a new world, a world of hope, a world that belongs over the rainbow.

Thus, though the seder may be modelled on the outward form of a Greek symposium, its psychic premises are radically different. Further, so is its structure. For a seder follows a particular order to allow us to stage how we can re-enter and relive the past as the present and teach us the stages of redemption to prepare ourselves for the future. It requires entering a world of shadows, of ghosts from the past, of what Plato thinks are just images on the walls of a cave representing reflections of objects in the real world whereas in the Hebrew ceremony they are the true ghosts of the past which it is our job to bring back to life so that we too can be redeemed in the present. Further, whereas the object of the seder is to tell a story of an escape from slavery and towards freedom, Plato offers an apologia for slavery, for repression rather than expression, as it is necessary for reason and the Sun God to rule over the rest of the psyche and to bring harmony to  our internal (and external) conflicts. In contrast, conflict, the asking of questions, is at the heart of the seder, NOT with pre-formed answers as in Plato’s dialogues, and often imitated in many seders, but as a true exploration of questions and queries from a variety of different minds with their own preferences and ways of looking at the world. The aim is not to harmonize thought but to appreciate different perspectives and approaches as we re-enact the Past in the Present.

Thus, for example, the contrarian child should not be envisioned as one who arbitrarily questions authority but one who critically examines the pretensions of reason to have discovered and explicated absolute truth.  The contrary child is the dissident and the critic. At the Hebrew seder, one lives in a radically different world than that of the Greeks, whether we are talking of Plato or Aristotle. First, the appetites are appreciated, particularly the driving force of sex. Second, recapitulation as history is denigrated by Aristotle because it belongs to the realm of the particular rather than the realm of the universal, but in re-enacting the Past as the Present, the universality in the particular is recognized and re-experienced. History becomes the most important part of our repertoire of knowledge and is not banished from the cognitive realm along with poetry and the arts.    

Where does the middle matzah come in, the realm of reason and intelligence that mediates between the passions above rooted most basically in compassion and identification with an Other, and the appetites below which are an independent source of knowledge, knowledge rooted in one body coming to know another body through intercourse? Why is it divided and what is the larger half, the Afikomen, that is hidden and children are sent to find and redeem it? The smaller half is the easier to grasp for it is our practical intelligence that enters into everyday life and mediates between our imagination and creativity rooted in our passions and our instinct for survival and reproduction, for the continuity of ourselves and our DNA and our community. That intelligible self does combine abstract reasoning or pure theory and the sciences based on induction and hypothetical knowledge of the empirical world. That practical reason also involves everyday knowledge acquired through interaction ith the physical world of objects and people as well as the faculty of the imagination that can take those experiences and imagine another world, including the past world when we too were slaves in Egypt and bring that past into the present.

All this practical and scientific knowledge is the smaller half of our intelligence. The Afikomenen is the larger half. It is the part that absents itself from the seder and plays little part in telling the story or enabling the re-enactment but it has at least four characteristics. It is hidden. It is found by innocent children. Third, the children who search for it and the one who fins it are especially rewarded with a prize – usually a coin. Fourth,everyone at the seder table eats a piece of it at the end of the meal. The Afikomen is not just a heuristic device to entertain children while the interminable tale of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom is told in however an abbreviated form. It does symbolize innocence, the Passover lamb, that which is sacrificed so that we can consummate togetherness.

Sephardim have an especially close appreciation of the Afikomen because they regard it as having magic qualities. The ruined and empty synagogue in Košice, Slovakia in which Simon Schama began his documentary segment “Over the Rainbow” in telling the story of the Jewish people, the Jewish temple that was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans and the reason why we no longer sacrifice and eat the Passover lamb, these are all parts of our ghostly past with which the Afikomen is in touch, with that which is hidden and supposedly lost but which we must reclaim. We cannot tell the story of the escape from slavery into freedom without bringing those ghosts back into the present. Unlike progressive views of history, the present is only brought fully to life by reclaiming the past as part of the present.

And that takes magic. That takes, historians. That takes innocence to leave behind the present realism and imagine a past. Our passions may be geared to our hopes for the future. But our hopes for the future must be rooted in a resurrected past. Then why is the larger piece of the broken middle matzah have a Greek name, for “Afikomen” is a Greek word?  And the word has the same meaning as God who pronounces I shall be who I shall be. The Afikomen is associated with the ultimate coming, the coming of the messiah, the hope that drives all hope, the hope for the coming of a world of justice and mercy. And only innocent children can truly believe is this as a world to come. Any ordinary adult has become too jaded to accept this possibility in the light of all they experience. But it is precisely this possibility, this a priori proposition that lies embedded in all our hopes to pursue our dreams over the rainbow. This is why children are and must be at the centre at a Passover seder. For although the seder is a device to teach them, in the end it is they who must teach us the importance of the restoration of innocence.

Why again call this most central part of the seder service by a Greek name? My answer is simple. Because we Jews owe so much to the rest of humanity, but, in this context, especially the Greeks who gave us the form of the symposia. We may have transformed its meaning. We may have transformed the very nature of the conception of order from a pre-fixed organized world in terms of a perfect ideal into a hope for the future linked to a lost and destroyed past, but we owe the Greeks the form that makes this possibility come alive. In Christianity, the Afikomen became the wafer eaten to partake in the body of Christ whom they believe to have been the messiah and the sacrificial lamb. It has been transformed into the sacramental bread, the “host”, the unleavened bread which is the Eucharist. In Judaism, it remains a broken off piece of matzah hidden and left for children to find so that we can, at the end of the seder, all partake in that broken off past so that we can hope for “next year in Jerusalem”.

What do we owe the Egyptians who play a much more obvious part of the story? Were they just tyrants and oppressors, the evil ones always present in the world? Remember that it was an Egyptian princess who saved Moses. Tomorrow I will explore Moses as a divided self to try to bring back what the Hebrews inherited from their Egyptian overseers and that is an integral part of the Passover narrative.

The Visible and the Invisible, the Hidden and the Reveale

The Visible and the Invisible, the Hidden and the Reveale 


Howard Adelman

Simon Schama is the famous British historian now at Columbia University who, when he was at Oxford wrote his famous book on the French Revolution, Patriots and Liberators that won him the Wolfson History Prize and instant recognition. His 1978 second book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel, turned him into the famous historian of the Jewish people. His 1987 volume on the Netherlands of the seventeenth century, The Embarrassment of Riches, though primarily about the golden age of the Dutch republic sewn together into a state of the lowland Protestant cities dominated by a new rising middle class, also gave that Jewish history great depth. The great Dutch thinkers in international studies and politics at the time, such a Hugo Grotius, were readers of Hebrew and were heavily influenced by the ideas of the Hebrew nation-state that so influenced the creation of the modern political order.


Last night on PBS I watched one episode of Simon Schama’s famous BBC series The Story of the Jews that first aired on BBC last year. The episode I saw was called “Over the Rainbow”. It covered the history of Ashkenazi Jews from the shtetls and cities of Europe until their rise in America from the lower east side in New York to become kings of song and music and the dream factories of Hollywood. The title is taken from the 1940 Oscar winning song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the musical, “The Wizard of Oz” with lyrics and music by Edgar Yipsel (E.Y.) “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen, two Jewish boys from New York’s lower east side, the latter the son of a renowned cantor.  Yip wrote the lyrics for such classics as “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” that became the anthem of the American depression and featured in Schama’s documentary. Among other classics, Yip wrote “April in Paris” and “Its Only a Paper Moon”. 

The episode in Schama’s BBC series opens with Schamas standing in an empty and crumbling but once very impressive synagogue in Košice, Slovakia built when Košice was the European capital of culture that competed with Marseille in France. As seen in the documentary, the pews are all gone, the plaster is crumbling and the brilliant reds and blues have all faded – though the exquisite quality of the stained glass windows have remarkably survived. Schama briefly and succinctly tells the story of the once prosperous Jewish citizens of the town, almost all of the over 17,000, who perished in the Holocaust. As Schama says at the very beginning of the episode, they are gone, they are absent, but he can feel and experience their presence by standing in that shell of the synagogue 

For, as Schabas sees it, the meaning of that core moral imperative of Judaism, tzadakah,  does not just mean obligatory charitable giving or even justice, but fairness rooted in a Jewish sense of solidarity with one’s fellow Jews and with the community at large. In Yiddish, according to Schama, there is no word for “individualism” for the Jew is a Jew because he or she is first and foremost a member of a community with obligations to that community. That presence of the community is what Schama experienced in the forlorn emptiness of the Košice synagogue.

Absence and Presence. Schama explored those themes in his earlier work, Landscape & Memory that literally touched on the intimate relationship between one’s physical environment and folk memory. This is why his famous TV documentaries touch us even as they gloss over the historical narrative. But there is another dimension to the foundation of life in the struggle to survive and the tactile relationship with all of that which supports life – earth, air and water. It is ire. It is hope, the dream of a better future, It is desire and the passion to create that future, for oneself and one’s community.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can’t I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?

Simon Schama’s message in the series comes out loud and clear in the episode I watched – Jews retreat inward into Hasidism when they are rejected and, when accepted, embrace the external world and want to be fully a part of it. Schama tells the story of the universality of the Jews while offering the full flavour of their unique particularity. It is a lesson Pauline Marois would do well to learn and perhaps she would abandon her Charter of Values. For instead of celebrating the greatness of the French reality in Canada and in Quebec in particular, that charter attacks the particularism of the various minorities in Quebec and legislates what they cannot wear.

In our Passover Seder, as I mentioned already, for the first time all six of my children will be home for Passover, including all nine grandchildren, two returning all the way from their home in Israel. We will have thirty-six members of our family and friends celebrating this festival of freedom. As is usual, our seder is run as a Greek symposium, the original inspiration for the most famous dinner in the cycle of festivities of the Jewish year. The theme this year is Absence and Presence, the hidden and the revealed, the invisible and the visible. We will explore the meaning of each of the fifteen sections of the seder and all its themes in terms of that dichotomy. Everyone, especially the children, will play a part.

The seder begins with the Kadesh. Kadesh is about presence and bonding, of family and friends, of old and young, of linking past and future. But most of all it is about a call to service to a hidden God, an absence rather than a presence. Further, this is not a tale of progress, of how the present is an improvement on the past, but a tale of resurrection and re-enactment, of remembering and redemption, of reliving the past as if it were the present. We are present; we try to make the Past present; and we experience God’s absence, and it is that absence, that which is missing, that we emphasize when we try to make the past Present.

The ceremony shall be observed throughout the generations for all times. This is a never ending project. Yet the pledge is regarded as a mitzvah, a commandment, but also a mitvah in Schama’s sense, a blessing freely taken up as a duty to be executed to be a moral agent to contribute to the well being of the community. So to celebrate Passover is both to obey an external command of God and, at the same time, to observe a ritual as an expression of freedom as self-legislating for oneself.

God who commands is invisible. He is hidden. Not only are we to accept this hidden and invisible God as the source of our categorical commands, but the God is the ONLY source. Further, that God is One. The Divine is not contained and manifested in the many different spirits that characterize ourselves or that are often equated with animal totems. The Divine Absence is the One and Only source. As the story of the escape from Egypt is told, we are commanded to both love and fear this One and Only Divine absence.  Why both love and fear?

These commandments insist that this is the only way NOT to be governed by either the attractions of our sensibilities OR the passions of our heart. Why obey a source that insists that it will rule over the flesh whether found between your legs or in your breast and heart? Why let an invisible being that gives priority to reason, or thought, or reflection and places the passions, like empathy, and feeling cum sensibilities – like the great tastes we will experience in this meal – possibly in second place? But they are NOT

In second place. Life and sensibilities are the foundation. Desire, passion and compassion are on top. Judgment is sandwiched between them.

If we can come close to understanding our own hiddenness, we might come close to answering the Big Question. Whatever the answer, the extent we get closer to an answer comes in telling the story of when WE went forth from Egypt, from a house of bondage and the story of HOW God delivered US into freedom using a “mighty hand”. Quite a trick for someone who is invisible! Further, note that the arm is outstretched – perhaps for an embrace. The arm is not said to be mighty. The hand is. The hand that writes. The hand that carves. The hand that paints. The hand that cooks. This is where might is to be found. The hand is not there for a mere handshake. That requires an outstretched arm that can embrace you.

So we embrace one another at the Passover table, Jew and gentile guest alike, in one community. And we do so drinking four cups of wine for different stages of redemption. God who pronounces that, “I shall be who I shall be” gives us a sense of absence, of invisibility by taking us back to the place from whence we came, from a place of oppression and impossibly arduous labour, wine as the symbol of blood and physical sacrifice. During the seder we will travel through the rescue from this time of toil and trouble and drink a second cup of wine in gratitude to our escape and physical redemption. We will later in the seder drink a third cup of wine, to remind us how redemption came with an outstretched arm and with great judgment and with the fourth cup of wine how we were knitted together as a people to live with and among the other great peoples of this world. 

In addition to the wine, among the other symbols of the seder is the other great symbol, unleavened bread or matzah, “the bread of affliction”. In the fourth stage of the seder service comes the Yahatz, the important point where three pieces of matzah, one piled on top of another and each separated by a cloth and all three covered. We reach in and break the middle layer. The leader of the seder, takes the larger half, the Afikomen, and hides it. An important part of thee seder is when children twelve and under search for the missing and hidden Afikomen. The rest of us are left to explore the meaning of this hidden half.

For the pile of three matzahs symbolize the different parts of the self, not the id, ego and superego of Freud’s individualistic construction of the self, but the eating and drinking and sleeping that the bottom matzah represents, the basic struggle for survival. The basis of everything is chaim, life, my own Hebrew name. As Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof

Here’s to our prosperity. Our good health and happiness. And most important,
To life, to life, l’chaim
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life
Here’s to the father I’ve tried to be
Here’s to my bride to be
Drink, l’chaim, to life, to life, l’chaim
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life

Life has a way of confusing us
Blessing and bruising us
Drink, l’chaim, to life

God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor
How much more can we be joyful
When there’s really something
To be joyful for
To life, to life, l’chaim

To Tzeitel, my daughter
My wife
It gives you something to think about
Something to drink about
Drink, l’chaim, to life

As Schama shows in his documentary, even in the dismal depths of the pogroms of 2005 in the Pale of Settlement,

It takes a wedding to make us say
Let’s live another day
Drink, l’chaim, to lif

So the seder is a celebration to life, l’chaim, to joy and happiness and the delights of our sensibilities. But there is more to human existence than life and physical joy, the foundation of our being, the bottom matzah. There is desire. There is passion. And mostly there is compassion, that which allows us to understand and empathize with another, that which allows us to feel a part of a community and humanity. It is that top matzah during the seder that will be shared among the guests at the table as each takes the haroset, a mixture of fruits and nuts and wine eaten as a sandwich, but unlike in Plato’s symposia, eaten with the bitter herbs in memory of the arduous and forced labour in erecting monuments to supposedly an after-life. Haroset was the mortar that bound those stones together.

If life is the bottom matzah and desire and passion and compassion is the top matzah, but matzah that must never forget the bitterness of our lives just as the bottom matzah never forgets its joys, what is the middle matzah? As in Freud, and unlike the Greeks where reason sits on top of the passions and the appetites, reason as judgement sits between them, mediating between our sensibilities and our desires. The middle matzah does not govern by repression. It understands both the need and greatness of the sensibilities and the importance of the passions to give flight where troubles melt like lemon drops and bluebirds fly, not to the end of the rainbow for a pot of gold, but over the rainbow. 

But that is the smaller half of the matzah that stays between life and desire. What about the Afikomen that is taken away and hidden? When we find it, we eat it together at the end of the seder. But what is the invisibility of this spirit in which we partake when we truly break unleavened bread together? What is this geist that draws so richly from our past and projects us into the future? Simon Schama finds the presence of that invisible spirit when he visits the Košice synagogue in Slovakia, the glory of the divine presence, the shechina, that we can only find when we search to make the invisible visible rather than to keep it a hidden secret. For we must not become a Dorian Gray. We must rediscover the divine feminine spirit of the world as its quintessential quality even as we use our understanding and judgement to reconcile our survival instincts with our passions and desires 

So have a great seder, everyone, not just Jews, for the Passover seder is a feast which everyone should enjoy and celebrate as we unite l’chaim with a creative and community enterprise in the task of leading reasonable and prosperous lives, but lives that must not lose touch with the hiddenness, the mysterious, the invisible, the quality that will allow us to become more than human. But never gods.


The Picture of Dorian Gray: a review

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Review


Howard Adelman

One of the great benefits of reviewing an old classic movie is that you do not have to announce “spoiler” for  the film is generally so familiar that you reveal nothing in retelling the narrative. But if the reader has not seen the movie, then perhaps the repetition of the tale can so intrigue readers that they might seek to watch an old classic they otherwise missed.

I watched The Picture of Dorian Gray last night after the late night news on television. Before catching a glimpse that this film would be on, I had thought of writing this morning on the theme of our Passover two weeks hence which I had entitled, “Hiddenness: The Deeper and the Apparent Self”, about the presence of family and companionship and the absence of God at the seder, about the meaning of the three matzahs and the significance of hiding the Afikomen, the larger half of the split matzah in the middle of three that the children search for after it is hidden. I decided there and then to watch the film and write this morning about this movie for it had precisely the same theme as our seder will have.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic 1945 black and white Hollywood movie, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890’s gothic novel that begins in 1886 in London.  At least the movie is almost all in black and white, for just as Spielberg used colour in Schindler’s List when Oscar Schindler sees the young girl in her red coat in the ghetto and has his epiphany, so colour is used when we turn to gaze upon the portrait of Dorian Gray.

The film opens with George Sanders dressed impeccably as a rich aristocratic dandy with a carefully groomed beard playing the imperious but witty Lord Henry Wotton, or Harry, the mouthpiece for Oscar Wilde’s pithy aphorisms that articulate Oscar Wilde’s presentation of himself, his public posturing as a mask for the deeper, more sensitive soul underneath his brilliance. Harry is in conversation with Basil Hallward (played by Lowell Gilmore), an artist acquaintance who also belongs to the aristocracy. He is Oscar Wilde’s alter-ego representing his deeper, sensitive and expressive soul. This is altogether too apparent in both the novel and the film and, I believe, Oscar Wilde confirmed it. Dorian Gray was merely the acting out of the results of the conflict between the two in his own soul. The repressed (and biographical) love Basil has for Dorian suggested in the novel is hidden in the movie. Almost the first maxim Harry utters is his declaration to Basil that, “As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to love secrecy” and Basis can be imagined to have responded in his head “to love secretly”.

The two men then get into a discussion about Dorian Gray whose portrait Basil has been finishing. Dorian is said to be incomparably good-looking, intelligent and a fine young man. That is why Basil insists that he does not want Harry to meet him for he fears that Harry would be a corrupting influence. Harry replies that he does not believe in influence at all since, “All influence is immoral” just days before he proceeds to exercise an uncanny influence over Dorian. In a popular interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche, Harry insists that each man must only hue to himself and the making of his own self. Further, in that self-making, the only thing that matters is what is best for the senses. The only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of those senses The only time that matters is now and memory is a great danger and very harmful. For a person true to himself has no time for memory or regrets. Further, because we grow old, only youth can appreciate real happiness. Aging is always dreadful. When one loses youth, one loses everything. What about passion? Harry dismisses passion as caprice that simply lasts a bit longer.

Before Dorian Gray, played by Hurd Hatfield as a rigid but extremely handsome young member of the aristocracy, is introduced into the film, Basil adumbrates the plot by refusing to show Basil the painting because it seems to paint itself (like a true self in Harry’s philosophy) and seems to even change by itself. True to Basil’s fears, when Basil meets Dorian, Basil convinces him that youth and beauty are everything and together can satisfy all one desires. The naïve and innocent Dorian is easily influenced and then makes the fateful Faustian pact with the devil. He wishes that he could trade places with the portrait and stay young forever just as the portrait captures him. The gothic part of the movie is that the wish is granted. Dorian stays young. But the portrait ages and gradually reveals Dorian’s changing character from a naïve, innocent, handsome and wealthy youth to a cold-hearted and horrific-looking killer. The first indication comes right after Dorian makes the wish, for his mouth in the painting suddenly reveals an element of cynicism and cruelty.

In the determination to expose himself to all experiences and all the sensuous life has to offer, Dorian takes himself to the other side of the tracks as it were and goes to a vaudeville tavern, The Two Turtles, where a beautiful singer, Sybil Vane, played by Angela Lansbury in her prime as a Hollywood beauty, is performing. She sings “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird”. There is nothing subtle in this film. For a movie (as was the novel) based on the tension between the hidden versus the revealed life, the art of the movie depends on full and literal disclosure.  The song is about a yellow pet canary – not Sybil but Dorian – who tries to seduce a poor sparrow who is left out in the snow into his golden cage in a mansion, but the sparrow prefers freedom to the comfort and imprisonment of the cage.

The snow was very plentiful
And crumbs were very few
When a weather-beaten sparrow to a mansion window flew
Her eye fell on a golden cage
A sweet love song she heard
Sung by a pet canary there
A handsome yellow bird
He said to her, “Miss Sparrow, I’ve been struck by cupid’s arrow.
Will you share my cage with me?”
She looked up at his castle
With its ribbon and its tassel
And in plaintiff tones said she:
“Goodbye, little yellow bird, 
I’d rather brave the cold
On a leafless tree, 
Than a prisoner be,
In a cage of gold.”

Here is where the movie differs from the novel. I had not read the novel for fifty years – I recall reading it in one setting on the coach of the library in the second floor of Hart House. I was not sure but fortunately I found that section of the text on-line. In both the novel and the movie, Dorian and Sybil fall in love. In the movie, Harry convinces Dorian to test whether Sybil is really as pure and principled as she appears to be by inviting her back to his mansion, asking her to stay, and when she demurs, treating her coldly and asking her to see her own way home.  If she leaves, then Dorian can apologize for his coldness the following day and go ahead and marry her. Sybil starts to leave but does not, returns and stays the night throwing Dorian into deep disillusion. The seqence of events is just barely plausible.

The novel is more profound for what is at stake is Sybil’s commitment to her art – as an actress in the novel – and she throws it over because of her love for Dorian, an action that throws him into a state of deep delusion. The result is the same but the catalyst is very different. In the movie, te trigger is totally inconsistent with the theme but very consistent with the ostensible mores of America in 1945. The disillusioned Dorian rejects Sybil and Dorian learns that she has taken her own life. She in turn was totally disillusioned when Dorian turns out not to be the knight of courage sitting around King Arthur’s table. At the same time, Dorian is stricken by a pang of conscience and is determined to confess and marry Sybil.

This reenactment of Romeo and Juliet is more ironic in the novel since Sybil was acting in a production playing Juliet when Dorian introduced Harry and Basil to her by taking them to the theatre. In either plot device, through his caprice, Dorian had effectively murdered Sybil. The painting changes to reflect the altered character of a man whose insensitivity and narcissism only grows, beginning with his going to the opera with Henry to see Don Giovanni the very evening Sybil dies, much to the dismay of Basil. Of course, Don Giovanni is the archetypal tale of a Don Juan and a cad who is eventually consumed by the flames of hell because of his failure to repent.

Dorian has to commit one other real murder, be responsible for one accidental death and one suicide of an old friend who he had blackmailed to get him to dispose the corpse of none other than Wilde’s alter ego, Basil whom Dorian had stabbed lest he reveal what had happened to the painting and, hence, what had happened to his own soul. There are more twists in the plot to come, including Dorian’s engagement to Basil’s niece who we saw as a young beautiful and precocious child at the beginning of the movie. I will save you from the truly and honestly gothic ending that ties the plot and theme together.

Though the film succeeds in a number of respects, it fails in others, failure that I did not remember or perhaps originally even notice. Dorian’s great concern for his outer image is in the film but is not very convincing. The double life Dorian leads after the death of Sybil is referred but not really experienced let alone the great pleasure Dorian seemingly enjoyed in leading the Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde life of both a murderer and an aesthete. 

Plato tells the story of Gyges’ ring that allows a person to make himself invisible and Socrates’ companions ask him whether one could be both just and invisible at one and the same time. Plato’s answer is that one can never hide the injustices one commits for they reveal themselves in your physical features. In the film, that revelation is transferred to the portrait until Dorian stabs himself in the heart, at least the reified portrait of himself that is the only part that changes. Thus, the novel and film played with this old myth which became fixated into the illusory belief in physiognomy and the conviction that a thrusting chin revealed the inner determination of its owner and the crooked large nose of a Jew revealed his greed.

If you think Passover is just about the escape from slavery into freedom, please think again, or read subsequent blogs. Just as the movie, and far more so, the novel, contains far more than I have hinted at here, including a a running shaggy dog tale periodically quoting from the great Chinese thinker, Tao, and his belief in the transcendent and detachment from all things, so the Passover seder is drenched not only with blood and gore but also with a profusion of levels of meanings that its takes a lifetime of annual dinners to explore.