I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
Assignment: Complete this thought -- "I am about to begin a year of study about America..."
This is the final bit of preliminaries, before delving into history and literature. I wanted to put down a few of my own goals in taking a sustained, hopefully deep survey of American history since colonial times.
I used to think of history, sort of, as a series of case studies where people faced social-ethics dilemmas like the ones we do, and we can see various approaches and arguments from the standpoint of completed episodes. In a certain sense, people in the past are like us, minus some technologies and mostly minus the idea that women and men are equal.
I guess that approach owes something to John Dewey's decidedly non-industrial, non-training-only view of education from the Progressive Era. Now I know that every period, even of the history I have lived in my own life, has a texture of its own and you can't easily analogize or extrapolate. If you want to, you have to make a case for the analogy.
I still hope to learn some in that analogy vein. But maybe more so, I want to understand better that we live in a different part of the American story, and I live in a different part of the story than when I had my formative American education. So I should look not just for parallels, but for things that my current experience would otherwise miss. Some of those things may have clues to what I miss about America today.
At the same time, I am looking for a thread of ideals and the story of challenges, stress-tests, and refinements of those ideals. The citizen as "connected critic" that I articulated already on this thread. I have always thought the challenges were about expanding who is included, and the blindnesses that impaired or prevented that. I'm looking to test that idea as well. I want to believe in American ideals -- freedom, equality, pluralism, diversity -- I have a rooting interest. I hope I'll look with a critical spirit and that people here will join me in learning and helping test my own reflections.
On “The Good Place” Chapter 7 is the classic lying episode, and on the podcast Rebecca Rosenthal and I jump off from the Talmud’s analysis of white lies to talk about truth and relationships, how and when we tell people important truths, and how truth emerges between people not just by telling.
Before year 1 of the course, Leslie thought this book would pair well with my Michael Walzer, “connected critic” idea, since Lame Deer was a Native American, an outside observer. I was skeptical but now I’m glad we did it. It got me to thinking about what a “connected critic” does with criticism from the outside or from a group who you would think couldn’t possibly be made integrated into the main American narrative, the way I can. I’m a member of a group persecuted in other lands throughout history and intermittently discriminated against here, but clearly eligible to be an American partner. Much different from a Native American living here.
It’s easy for a connected critic to romanticize a Native American critic – to fantasize about being able to say things one can say without the responsibility of being part of the group. It’s easy to nod at Lame Deer’s anti-Horatio Alger diagnosis of our materialism, our destructive individualism, our superficial approach to learning, which is packaged in this particular book with a smile. But I realize as I write this that I’ve been constructing my own account of a Native American critic, to serve my own critical posture. To make it easier to defend myself to the critics-of-my-criticism by pointing to my own connection. At the same time, reading a Native American critic forces me to take responsibility for my involvement – I don’t have the right to hurl at others or deflect from myself critiques that I am implicated in.
I experienced something really thought-provoking a few months ago, at a community rally called in response to some local hate activities. The first people invited to the stage were Native Americans, and I expected to hear about ethnic cleansing and genocide, and a reminder not to forget about that part of the American story while standing up for Latinos, African-Americans, and Jews. But the representatives welcomed us and blessed us, and invited us to live well and peacefully and with integrity on this land, in the name of the people who were once entrusted with it and the spirits who are still present. It was incredibly gracious, it wasn’t at all cramped, and it did not force any of us to renounce our Americanness, our white-ness for those of us who are white, or our hope. I am still sitting with this.
What motivates Dick when he faces key decisions? Who are his mentors and role models? What kinds of characters come across as "bad guys" and bad influences? Is America a place that really works the way Alger presents?
We started the course at least once with a look at a classic American myth, the self-made man, typified in the original Horatio Alger stories just after the end of the Civil War. Ragged Dick was originally written for children.
I reread the first and last pages of Ragged Dick today, so others correct me if I'm getting the basics wrong. What struck me as good is the appeal to hard work coupled with an acknowledgement that people who don't "rise" aren't to be looked down on unless they are deliberately, willfully thieving or working to keep others down. Ragged Dick himself does not crave high levels of weatlth except to the extent he might pay it forward.
What's not appealing is the entirely instrumental treatment of friends and mentors, and the people you have the good fortune to meet who help you launch economically. The only virtues are within, not between. There's no adult perspective, only a narrow childish view of "success." I'm struck by the move of Dick from shining others' shoes to the counting-house -- moving up means moving away from direct service.
Putting aside whether Alger originally had narrow goals -- to teach children about hard work -- the myth has of course spread way farther and taken on a life of its own. That's the problem, not really anything in Ragged Dick itself.
So does America work like Horatio Alger described? Even if social mobility were only a matter of will, which it certainly isn't, the picture of flourishing is very constricted. I'll be thinking more though about what a more complete philosophy of hard work would be, as we head ahead and back to Benjamin Franklin very soon (who decidedly wrote for adults).