Thursday, January 21, 2010

Oedipus in a Kippa

At the beginning of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, a chorus of elder priests surrounds the oracle at Delphi. They mourn the terrible plagues that have befallen their city, Thebes, lamenting that the gods have abandoned them. Oedipus, who had already saved the city once, and is lauded by the elders as ‘chief of men’ appears, commanding the devout priests: ‘don’t pray to the gods; pray to me. I will grant your prayers!’ Jocasta, his wife (and, as we know too well, his mother), is distraught, skeptical, mocking the oracles of the gods and their supposed involvement in human affairs - ‘come off it Oedipus!’ Oedipus by contrast proclaims his knowledge of divine will, and his ability to enact it: ‘I am Apollo’s champion!’ I know what the gods want; and I will be the one to perform their will!

Imagine an Israeli production of Oedipus - with the chorus as ultraorthodox, the skeptical and secular Jocasta (in a pants suit), and Oedipus wearing a knit kippa. In Sophocles terrifying vision, you can’t know - even when the gods seem to be talking to you, revealing their will. This is what the psychoanalyst, Jonathan Lear, calls ‘the other Oedipus complex’: the belief in the certainty of your knowledge, that you always already know – not only the present, but the future as well. The chorus, who always proclaim their lack of knowledge and powerlessness, are part of a traditional culture that both Oedipus and Jocasta want to push aside. In the end, they are vindicated, but only in the catastrophic defeat of Thebes. The gods do prevail, but not in the way anyone had imagined. Perhaps this is what Aristotle means when he writes of Oedipus’s tragic flaw: he is a victim of his certainty – his belief in his knowledge of the gods, and that he is the one to bring about their will.

The modern public sphere in Israel is filled with versions of the knowing Oedipus –ultraorthodox, national religious, and even secular – all proclaiming their programs for redemption - as they scramble to define the public sphere, and bring the Jewish people to their ‘promised end.’ Even with the shock of the Lebanon War and Gaza, the national religious version of Oedipus still claims to know the divine will, and to be able to enact it – the inheritance of the Six Day War when Israel really did seem to be the divine hand. But the natural religious are not the only ones with their messianic agenda. The secular have their own vision of the public sphere with its own end, if not any more the Zionist state, then at least a state informed by the progressive and liberating forces of enlightenment. And the ultraorthodox – whose skepticism still makes them demur from some of these grandiose visions – have betrayed those skeptical principles by mixing politics and religion as they attempt to fashion the public sphere in their own image. All of these are maximalist, strong and exclusionary visions, betraying another Oedipal fantasy: ' I must rule!'

Perhaps it’s time to forgo this other Oedipus complex, and strive for a public culture stripped of the competing extremist dreams that currently define our lives. Of course, it’s a proposal in which everyone loses something, but may be one, in the end, where everyone wins. Ultraorthodox skepticism about the state means acknowledging Israel as a modern nation state – where one has obligations as well as rights. The national religious give up on their vision of the immediate realization of the divine promise of redemption. While the secular forgo their sometimes exclusionary and intolerant vision of progressive enlightenment. By comparison to the dreams of redemption, the benefits are admittedly more minimal: national religious gain a more inclusive sense of community – of secular and even ultraorthodox – who see themselves as fulfilling a more modest version of the zionist dream (note small case z). The secular gain a public sphere based on principles of genuine inclusion and a universalism generally open to difference. The ultraorthodox gain membership into a State that has divested itself of its messianic aspirations, and the possibility for economic mobility which such membership entails.

What we all gain is a non-coercive public space – for self-reflection and conversation, which in the process may lead us to realize that we have more in common then we had thought. The elders in Sophocles’ play are devoted citizens of Thebes; while Jocasta – the seeming skeptic – sneaks away to pray to the gods. So we might discover that the ultraorthodox – think of the nachal charedi – value the State and citizenship; and as a Haaretz poll recently shows, God’s promise to Abraham has a deep pull on Israel’s secular. When not pursuing the strident vision of exclusive visions, we may find ourselves open to those aspirations which we have secretly harbored, making it easier to identify with those we thought to have despised.

The immature dreams - fantasies perhaps - are discarded, but an admittedly more minimalist and inclusive set of possibilities emerges. As the philosopher Hilary Putnam writes, ‘enough isn't everything, but enough is enough.’ Maybe it's time we all begin to settle with enough.


Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

"Among people who believe that there is only one truth-and they are in possession of it-tolerating other points of view is, by definition, impossible." - Hella Winston (from her book Unchosen The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels)

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

You should start Kibbutz OMT where all Jews are welcome. Preferably on the red sea!

Brian Koffman said...


Nice to meet you in Irvine, CA

I am blissfully naive about the nuances of the political and religious battles for the mind and heart and weapons on Israel.

I look forward to getting an up close look.

Be well

Brian Koffman

Anonymous said...


Tom A. Milstein said...

Why so coy about exactly what part of the traditional national religious program you wish to surrender?

Tom A. Milstein said...

Why so coy about exactly which elements of the traditional national religious program you wish to surrender? Jerusalem? The West Bank? What?

wdk said...

Not being coy, as you put it, Tom. I'm not talking about geo-politics - though there may be consequences to geopolitics - but to attitudes towards Jewish identity.

And I am personally not in the position to 'surrender' - a strange term - anything!