Monday, April 1, 2013

Pharaoh's hard heart

Commenting on my review last year of the "New American Haggadah," Matthew A. Levine asked c/o Amazon:
I just wonder about the version of the ten plagues that you mention, is the comparison to FDR, Truman, and Lincoln really applicable? Even though I personally don't believe that violent means are ever justified, at least, according to the official version of history, in these cases it was necessary to achieve a good end. According to the Passover story, the Pharaoh was ready to let the Jews go free, and then God "hardened his heart," so in this case liberation could have been achieved without any violence whatsoever. What was the point of that, and how can it possibly be morally justified?
This refers to my statement in the original review: "the Ten Plagues again by [Jeffrey] Goldberg find memorable comparisons. The power of a God who hardened the heart of the evil Pharaoh grows mysterious. Lincoln, FDR, and Truman all are shown as presidents who took the lives of many innocents in their determination to bring about a greater good. If emancipation ends or fascism succumbs, do the ends justify the means?"

I responded: "Matthew, that's precisely the type of question this Haggadah might inspire for a seder, or your own reflection. I recently re-read Nicholson Baker's 'Harper's' essay about the reaction to his own claims in 'Human Smoke' about the folly of violence even in WWII, and his remarks remind me of yours about the hardening of a heart, and how war might have done that to the Allied foes. Perhaps the collective authors strain for relevance and parts of this smack of appealing to a certain demographic, but if its contents can spark a question such as yours (and mine), it's worthwhile."

At the risk of ostracism as a wicked son (if without a Jewish father), this recent exchange stimulated my Pesach planning. My wife wondered if a seder could avoid a mention of "God," and given the spectrum of those attending this year spans secular to atheist, and skeptics with a healthy proportion of lawyers, I figured the timing was perfect for contemplating taking this on tour, if around my table.

(Update: it went well enough, given my own probable or inevitable lapse into professorial mode. After a viewing of the South Park episode, I didn't get into the WWII-Shoah context much which may have been just as well. The youngest son answered many questions from my older son's guest who did not know about the tale much. We skipped the Four Questions, but made up by our Maggid, the narrative we retold--I checked three guests' claim that Moses found out he was Hebrew from a garment shown him by sister Miriam. Not in Exodus; a charming but non-scriptural addition?)

My investigation--as a not-wicked but too-diligent son of my own has waylaid my (admittedly Reform, so perhaps while it may lean towards refuseniks even they may not agree with Baker's pacifism) Torah, detouring me from study of its gleanings--has led me to study Baker's Human Smoke: the Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.  Levine acknowledged by his own glance at its Amazon raters (where my review at that link appears 3/25/13) a massive negative swell of criticism directed at it. I was dimly aware of it when it came out in 2007 but very attentive to "Why I Am a Pacifist" in Harper's for May 2011.

In the book, Baker cites Hitler on January 30, 1941, vowing to fulfill his "prewar threat: If international Jewry pushed Germany into a world war, the Jews would be finished in Europe." (283) Baker does not hold the Allies as free of culpability. The RAF, soon under "Bomber Harris," would continue its remorseless retaliation as retribution (these three terms appear over and over in his sources by late summer of 1941). The defiant British refused to negotiate and the more Hitler bombed their homeland, the more Churchill calculated FDR would send aid and be drawn into global war.

"The bombing offensive fed Hitler's wrath, in direct connection with his concept of the 'Jew's war' against him, and helped unite his nation behind him and justify further Nazi atrocities against the remaining Jews." (qtd. 391) Historian Schlomo Aaronson's assertion supports Baker's cause and effect. Churchill's bellicosity and desire for FDR's lend-lease of weaponry to Britain implies that the Allies were partially responsible by warlust of accelerating the mayhem and backlash of the Shoah.

Civilians displaced by carpet bombing were told the Jews were at fault, and German residences were appropriated by the Nazis who then sent their former occupants off to ghettos. This blame game, as American armaments intensified British raids on innocent Germans, may have hastened the Final Solution. U.S. entry spurred ever more destruction of the Jews, as they lost their hostage status as bargaining chips with the Allies. Death camps emerged, the first readied as it were the day after Pearl Harbor. Analyzing this escalation inspired Baker's Harper's May 2011 essay "Why I Am a Pacifist," which continued the story after the end of 1941, and predictably sparked a firestorm of controversy.

So far, reflecting on Pharaoh's tale, with little commentary--as a fundamentalist might advise-- Exodus makes me wonder about who's to blame. I can't avoid the mention of God, but he may share in the blame game, if not by venerable scholars; Biblical marginalia favor an Augustinian approach. That is, the Pharaoh could have chosen mercy, but he let himself act tough, as this fit a severe ruler in the Middle Eastern model and it showed all the more the comeback of the Hebrews against overwhelming odds and a Memphis home team's martial and mental advantage at Luxor Stadium.

In a 2011 Slate essay, "Sympathy for the Pharaoh," Michael David Lukas considers various rationales advanced by theologians and critics. He notes: "Towards the beginning of the story, Pharaoh hardens his own heart (or it "is hardened" in the passive voice). Following the sixth plague, however, Pharaoh seems to lose his nerve and God steps in, hardening his heart for him." While the likes of Martin Luther King and Erich Fromm aver that the hardening is due to Pharaoh's own defiance of compassion and his decision to use free will to defy Moses' appeal, Lukas reminds us that such apologists for justice and resistance to evil stay mute as to why God steps in to harden the heart that appeared to waver after the infliction upon the recalcitrant Egyptians of boils. (I confess this always impressed or repulsed me as particularly nasty, given my adolescent reaction to skin blemishes.)

My family's search for inspirational fare led to "Jewpacabra," aired March 14, 2012, episode 4, season 16. We join the action as Cartman's dream of being transported back to ancient times leads to why frogs are raining down, God's hand in this curious trajectory, and how that seems unfair to frogs. 

Kyle: It doesn't matter. Because God is going to harden the Pharaoh's heart!
Cartman: What does that mean?
Kyle: It means Jehovah is going to use his powers to keep the Pharaoh from letting us go.
Cartman: Well that doesn't seem very fair, Kyle. I mean, if God is going to make Pharaoh say no, then why would he punish him for saying no?

South Park's script is on to something, as satire snaps. A few minutes it devotes to the depiction of the plagues and Passover: here it hones in on this conundrum. Cartman continues to dream as P's son:

Cartman: Daaad, when's it gonna stop raining frogs?
Pharaoh: It'll be okay, my son. The weather will clear.
Cartman: But my friend Kyle, he says that the reason we've had all these plagues and stuff because you won't let all the Jews leave.
Pharaoh: [sighs] It's a complicated political issue, my son. An economic social issue that needs time. We can't let them leave, but is it really all that different from when the north didn't let the confederate states leave the USA?
Cartman: Wow, that makes sense. Don't think anyone can deny that. [a bloody frog lands over the edge]
Pharaoh: Poor frogs. I feel so badly for them.
Cartman: But dad, my friend Kyle says that if we don't do whatever the Hebrews want us to do, God is gonna kill little Egyptian boys.
Pharaoh: Hah, I don't think God would do such a thing, little one. No matter what happens, we can't let ourselves believe in the Hebrew version of God. We believe in a just Lord who would never murder innocent children.
Cartman: I love you, dad.
Pharaoh: And I love you son. And our love grows.

Speaking of dad, I've mused at DeMille-epic length about my own college-age antiwar stance four years ago at Pax Christi-Passover; the elevation of a pope named Francis may align with this spring's paschal ritual. In that 2009 entry, I raised many of recollections as a child hearing my dad remark "nobody ever wins a war; there are only losers" and my own naming after my mom's only brother dead on the shores of 1944 Saipan lingered. Raised with Vietnam footage on network t.v., I recalled to Niall the "Welcome Home POWs" bracelets worn by my hippie-spawned grade-school classmates from the far more liberal side of town. I credit as an teen my own surprised encounters via Thomas Merton's autobiography and J.F. Powers' incarceration to learn that Catholic Workers and pacifists during even the "good war" and the "greatest generation" existed as fellow communicants next to my presumably unaware mom and dad as they worked day and night in factories for the "war effort."

No, they were no saints, no Franciscans jailed as Fr. Louis Vitale has been (see "Pax Christi"). During the days of the Evil Empire and the contras, I showed my dad an article by L.A.'s Cardinal Timothy Manning decrying the "culture of war" and our local "defense industry." My dad and mom had worked at such factories (as did Layne's--both our dads were turned down for induction due to punctured eardrum and stuttering respectively); my machine shop, further-deafened by tool-and-die, dad looked the prelate's op-ed over with a glance and almost sneered: the Cardinal never had to worry about how his bills were to be paid or where his next meal was coming from.

Yes, I have seen the numbers cut into the arms of the elderly; Leo and I heard Dario Gabbai tell of his fate as a sonderkommando fueling the furnaces of Auschwitz. The more I study Irish republicanism over decades, the more attentive I am to what I didn't notice once upon a time: the perpetuation of "whataboutery." What about Hitler, what about the Battle of the Boyne, what about the Irish Civil War after the one that tried to gain independence, but left in the wake of a cleverly phrased and jerry-rigged treaty dividing the Free State a legacy of bitterness for generations. Baker's allies would insist any treaty brokered ought to be preferable to more death. It's hard not to disagree, despite my clan sympathies. I remain cognizant of perhaps cognitive dissonance here, but I state my case nonetheless.

Teaching PTSD vets, kids with plates in their backs and pins in their knees, wives with babies to care for while their husbands are off in Afghanistan, students called up for reserves, active duty, or desert training in the middle of a term; survivors of firefights in Fallouja who went three months without bathing in over a hundred lbs. of cloth and gear in 140-degrees: what some must undergo to qualify for an education on a GI Bill. I despise a nation and a mindset which rewards only those who may have risked their life and their sanity to cull a few thousand dollars for improving their livelihood and their mentality. I'm not naive enough to acknowledge my own desires lurk for revenge or reprisal; my Fenian blood can run deep. Yet, my maturity demands that I seek and support calmer ways to redress wrongs and right injustices. As Einstein challenged in 1930: "If only 2 percent of the men liable for war service were to refuse, there would not be enough jails in the world to take care of them." (23)


Anonymous said...

Er..just a tiny correction, the bracelets worn during Viet Nam were inscribed with the names of P.O.W.'s and M.I.A's,not so far as I know, the deceased. I still have mine, my guy came home eventually, so I stopped wearing it at that time.


Anonymous said...

Whoops, read an article elsewhere about the bracelets as having the nammes of those K.I.A. and confused it with yours. You are correct. Sorry.

You are also correct in your description of the plight of vets and their families, they have to fight for every penny they were promised and wait an eternity to get them. It is a national disgrace.