Sunday, August 24, 2008

Aggadic Politics

On the eve of the launching of Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, where the nature of aggadah itself will be the first topic for consideration, when it is also the eve of the Democrat's convention, my thoughts naturally drift to the role of aggadah in the shaping of American politics.

What, after all, is aggadah, if not the parable by which the truth is taught to the am haaretz? And what is a presidential election but a struggle to persuade the am haaretz to vote for this one over that one?

Last week we witnessed the spectacle of the presumptive candidates of the two major parties submitting sequentially to questioning by the founder and senior pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. And there is no doubt in my mind that the most important question posed to the two candidates was, "At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?" One said, "I think that whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade." The other said, "At the moment of conception." The latter was met with applause.

I was saddened to be reminded that this is the standard by which our leaders are selected. The decisive issues will not be who can best manage our resources and represent us to the community of nations, but where does each stand on abortion, gay marriage, and evolution. It is as George Lakoff has been insisting for years: our ideas about politics and morality are not ideas at all, but emotional responses. In other words, our political decisions are not rooted in halakhah; they are purely aggadic.

As Lakoff has suggested (using different language), the Republicans have become masters of aggadic argument, while the Democrats have persisted in appealing to reason.

The rabbis take Ecclesiastes 6:2 as a sign-post warning of the danger of becoming a master of aggadot. Such a one "does not have the power to prohibit or permit, to declare unclean or to declare clean." The rich gift from God is the "evil I have observed under the sun" in Ecclesiastes 6:1. It is the nuance and ambiguity that can create a vivid teaching through paradox and in the process teach confusion. Evolution is "junk science"; life begins at conception; homosexual love is unnatural. These masters of aggadot campaign as if they will turn opinion into law and by extension make those they consider to be heretics into criminals.

There are masters of aggadot who lead voters from clear directions such as concern over how they will heat their homes or protect the value of their property or preserve their savings so that they can securely retire; these "masters" prey upon their fears that liberty is on the slippery slope to libertine. Their aggadot come to teach one despicable lesson: to fear freedom.

The rabbis warn us not to master all aggadot, but to study only the exemplary aggadot -- those "which are readily understood and deemed right by all men." I heard such an aggadic text just yesterday: "Tragedy tests us — it tests our fortitude and it tests our faith. Here's how Joe Biden responded. He never moved to Washington. Instead, night after night, week after week, year after year, he returned home to Wilmington on a lonely Amtrak train when his Senate business was done. He raised his boys — first as a single dad, then alongside his wonderful wife Jill, who works as a teacher. He had a beautiful daughter. Now his children are grown, and Joe is blessed with five grandchildren. He instilled in them such a sense of public service that his son Beau, who is now Delaware's attorney general, is getting ready to deploy to Iraq. And he still takes that train back to Wilmington every night. Out of the heartbreak of that unspeakable accident, he did more than become a senator — he raised a family. That is the measure of the man standing next to me. That is the character of Joe Biden."

I would prefer to live in a world where we chose our leaders through a process of rational deliberation. But as this is clearly not the case, I am pleased that I have found a candidate who can construct a teaching that must be readily understood and deemed right by all men. I would far rather be moved to tears by a candidate I can vote for than moved to fury by one who fails to convince me he has the power to prohibit or permit, to declare unclean or to declare clean.