#215: Perfection is a 1980s Game, Not A Goal
A sermon for Parashat Ki Tissa and Shabbat Parah
In the Perfection game from Milton Bradley, the pieces popped when the timer ran out. Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee, CC Attribution 3.0.
Gimme Some Torah #215
Welcome to new subscribers Debi and Alan!
Note: This is a sermon that I gave in 2021—EG
When we start banning books, the troubles arrive.
If you cancel the books, you’re gonna make me cry.
Where does it end, oh what book is next?
When their done with our books, they’ll come for our texts.
You don’t like a book, well that’s fine with me.
So don’t read it, pick something else, go and be free.
But let us read whatever we please, we want freedom of thought
This is why our ancestors died, this is why our soldiers fought.
So at first I thought I was going to write the whole sermon like that, but writing just those eight lines of anapestic tetrameter convinced me I didn’t have time. You may be aware that the Dr. Seuss Enterprises has been bullied and shamed into pulling some beloved books from the American canon of children’s literature.
Listen, I get it, Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was probably a racist at some point in his life. He apparently said the n-word and used it in an illustration. He drew insulting pictures before he became a children’s author, and some of that leaked into his work.
Just a short detour on that point: Of course I think saying the n-word is reprehensible and should be considered beyond the pale of acceptable conversation. But I also think that things have gone too far.
For instance, a senior New York Times writer was fired recently for saying in the n-word while discussing how bad it is to say the n-word. In California, a Chinese language teacher was suspended because he said something in Chinese that sounds like the n-word. Yes, things have gone too far.
Regarding the Dr. Seuss books, I understand that it is disturbing to see a black man in a turban in a cage or Asian kids drawn with slanted eyes. But there is a solution that I don’t hear anybody talking about: Why don’t they just redraw the offensive art and replace it with non-offensive art? Why does the whole book have to thrown down the memory hole?
For crying out loud, the New York Public Library, not exactly a hotbed of right-wingers, said that it will not take any of Dr. Seuss’ books out of circulation because they do not censor books, period. And bravo to them for taking a brave stand. It’s just a terrible shame that standing up against the modern form of book burning is considered brave today.
I am concerned that a certain sector of our population, most of it white and comfortable, has been worshiping a Golden Calf just like our ancestors did in this week’s Torah portion. This generation’s golden calf is social perfection. Every single error, every single shadow of an error in our past, no matter how long ago, no matter how insignificant, must be buffed out with a diamond saw and a laser.
For worshippers of perfection, it is not enough to learn from mistakes. No, we must extirpate and utterly obliterate the mistakes themselves, make it as though they were never made in the first place.
Some would say, “Wait a second, rabbi, would you be saying the same thing if Dr. Seuss had drawn insulting pictures of Jews?” Well, yes I would, because some of the Twitterati claim that Dr. Seuss slandered the Jews with his creation of the Grinch who Stole Christmas.
Now, for the record, I do not think the Grinch is Jewish, and I doubt that Dr. Seuss ever considered that it might hurt some people’s feelings decades in the future. To those who put the Grinch in the same category as Mein Kampf, I say this: Grow up! Do we take Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice out of circulation because we don’t like the Shylock character?
Another objection to what I’m saying might be, “Rabbi, calm down, maybe you should switch to decaf. We’re talking about children’s books. Do you really have to get your knickers in a knot over some silly cartoon books?”
So here’s the thing. I’m not really all that concerned about Dr. Seuss books. There’s a Canadian author named Robert Munsch, he’s the Dr. Seuss of Canada, and those are the books my kids know, and in some ways they’re actually better. Maybe it is time for a new generation to make new books for kids. If that’s what parents want, that is what they will get.
What I’m concerned about is precedent. The mob that bullied the Seuss Foundation into pulling their books off the market does not care about children’s books, either. They care about all books, all media, everything. They do not want anything that fails to live up to their standard of moral perfection to exist.
By killing off a few Dr. Seuss books, the movement behind this censorship is loudly saying, “If we can do this to the vaunted and famous Dr. Seuss, imagine what we can do to your blog, your favorite TV show, your movies, your news.”
I am suspicious of anyone who wants to get rid of books. I agree with what the Jewish-German poet Heinrich Heine said: “Those who burn books will eventually burn human beings.” It’s never enough for the book burners to burn the books because the books are just physical representations of the thoughts that people have.
What will happen when this movement gets its hands on our Torah? There are lots of things in the Torah for our modern day Puritans to get upset about. There’s ethnocentrism, there’s slavery, the death penalty, massive amounts of slaughter, rape, disregard for the disabled, and many other issues.
The Torah is not a comfortable novel for the beach. It challenges us at every corner, and we have two thousand years of tradition to deal with the verses that make us uncomfortable. What happens when someone who doesn’t know any Torah starts saying that it’s having a bad effect on our children?
The pursuit of a perfection is not a good life goal. The pursuit of perfection is a great motto for a German car company, but it’s not a realistic way to live life and it’s a not a good foundation for society. Chasing after perfection means that you’re always chasing, you’re never at rest, society is never good enough.
The concept of perfection is an important one on this Shabbat in particular because this is Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, our ancestors would burn a reddish cow to ashes and then mix those ashes with water and herbs to create a purifying potion.
The cow they used had to be perfectly reddish in color, the shade we call auburn. If there were even two gray hairs, the cow could not be used for the ritual. Now it’s one thing to demand perfection out of the color of cow hair, that’s okay. It’s fine to demand that one’s tefillin be perfectly square.
But to insist that society be 100% clear of racism is unrealistic and pursuing that goal will rip us apart, not bring us together.
Racism is like cancer. We all have cancer inside us all of the time, even when we’re healthy. Cells frequently become cancerous and a healthy immune system is able to recognize the defective cells and eliminate them before they can cause problems. Never having cancer in the body is not normal, it’s not realistic.
Our attitude toward racism should be similar. We should fight racism when it spreads, but preventing its existence is a foolish goal.
Our Puritans want to sanitize the past, present, and future. But the timeline is not a bathroom, it does not need to be sanitized. In fact, in should not be sanitized because how will we learn from it if we take out all the bad parts?
The past is unchangeable, the future is unknowable. All we have to work with is the here and now, the present day. It’s time to stand up to the bullies who want perfection and tell them, “No, you can’t have a perfectly anti-racist society. The effort to create a perfectly anti-racist society will backfire and create more racism.”
What we can have is a society that is both just and merciful. What we have now is neither one. But if COVID has reminded us of anything, it has reminded us that we can rise to a challenge. I hope that is exactly what we will do. Shabbat Shalom.
Shabbat Shalom! GST will return on Sunday morning!
Rabbi Eli Garfinkel is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey. He is the author of The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary.
Oh dear. Is the situation in the US really like that? Is it that which you've been satirizing in #202?
In that case, I gotta apologize for my thumbs down. I simply didn't know...
As for growing up: The Jewish philosopher Susan Neiman has written two interesting books on the subject: "Why grow up? Subversive thoughts for an infantile age" (2016) and "Moral Clarity. A Guide for Grownup Idealists" (2008). https://www.susan-neiman.com/en/buecher/