I.B. Singer and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav both refer to the schlemiel as a “Tam,” which is Hebrew for a simpleton. Tam also means a person who is “complete.” But this doesn’t make sense. How could a simpleton be complete? Isn’t the simpleton lacking intelligence, wit, and independence? How could these “lacks” constitute the simpleton’s – that is, the schlemiel’s – completeness? Isn’t the wise man or the independent individual the ‘complete one’? After all, the simpleton is a “schlemiel.”
This question is given visual form in the Passover Haggadah (namely, the story telling portion of the Haggadah which is called Magid).
In his book, Unheroic Conduct, Daniel Boyarin takes a look at a few Medieval Haggadot to point out the difference between “the simpleton” and the “evil son” (the Rasha). For Boyarin, the point of this comparison is to show that the dominant Jewish male ideal in the Middle Ages was embodied in the character of the simpleton. Extreme humility is his/her trait. In contrast to the simpleton is the Rasha. Boyarin points out that the Rasha is the epitome of what, in Yiddish, is called “goyishe nachas” (the joy of gentiles). According to Boyarin, the Rasha embodies the non-Jewish “male ideal,” which is much more masculine (prideful, angry, overly physical, militant, etc) than the Jewish ideal.
Boyarin’s reading of the Jewish ideal is consistent, in many ways, with Moses Maimonides’ (RAMBAM’s) understanding of the ethical ideal. As David Shatz points out in his essay “Maimonides’ Moral Theory,” Maimonides, like Aristotle, strived to live in accordance with a golden mean. However, when it came to humility and pride, he was in stark contrast to Aristotle. While Aristotle thought extreme humility was a vice, Maimonides believed it was a virtue. And while Aristotle thought it was necessary to be angry and prideful in the face of one’s pride being denigrated, Maimonides taught that such an extreme was a vice not a virtue. Maimonides goes so far as to give an example of extreme humility by way of a story in which a man traveling on a ship is urinated on by an arrogant fellow-passenger. This man, who Maimonides calls a Hasid (since he goes “beyond the letter of the law”) is so humble that he does nothing. He, like Moses, the “most humble man of the land,” doesn’t waste his time with the Rasha. More important for the Hasid, Maimonides tells us, is the honor of God. And this requires extreme non-action in the face of arrogance and violence. Wasting one’s time with pride and anger, making oneself equal to it, is “goyishe nachas.” Extreme humility, a vice for Aristotle, is “Yiddish nachas”(Jewish joy).
Boyarin’s project is to show that the Jewish ideal of the extreme humility was operative throughout the Middle Ages and existed in the Eastern Europe up the early 20th century – before the Holocaust – however, as Jews became accepted into Modern society, this ideal was displaced by a more Aristotelian type of masculine ideal. Boyarin goes so far as to suggest that Zionism was deeply influenced by the ideals of strength and power rather than humility and powerlessness. He cites Max Nordau – the Vice President of the Zionist Congress’ – concept of the “muscle Jew” as the new ideal. In addition, he cites Herzl, Freud, and others who espouse this new ideal which despises the Eastern European ideal of extreme humility – deeming it too feminine and heteronomos.
Strangely enough, in all of Boyarin’s discourse, he doesn’t note that how the simpleton was, for many of the early Zionists, the schlemiel. The simpleton was equated with the powerless Diaspora Jew. To be sure, a pro-Zionist journal by that name was founded with the purpose of criticizing the Diasporic Jew and affirming a ‘new Jew’. The Jewish Renaissance, as Martin Buber put it, looked to reach deep into the roots of a Jewishness that was lost (or as Max Nordau would say, “degenerated”) in the Diaspora. Although Buber didn’t openly degrade the simpleton (after all, he translated Rabbi Nachman’s stories and praised the Simpelton), he, like many Zionists, sought for a “New Jew.”
The question – is the schlemiel a character marred by Exile, a character that was produced by degeneration and powerlessness or was the schlemiel an ideal?
Boyarin’s book prompts these questions and poses them to Jews living outside of Israel. Must we, in North America, contrast ourselves to Israelis? Are we the ‘real Jews’? And is their a real difference between us regarding whether or not we take on or reject an Aristotelian ideal?
Boyarin’s work certainly implies this. His reading of the Haggadot implies that the Rasha, the evil son, is excluding himself from the Jewish community. Which community would that be? Is this the American Jewish community or the community of Modern-Orthodox Jews that Boyarin identifies with?
I would add that Boyarin’s reading of the simpleton as an ideal may also include “the one who doesn’t know how to ask” in the Haggadah. To be sure, the tradition represents both of them in terms of Boyarin’s ideal.
For instance, in a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript from 14th century Prato, Spain, we see Boyarin’s distinction between the Rasha and the Simpleton:
Here, the Rasha is represented as a Warrior of sorts. While the simpleton and the son who doesn’t know how to ask are both represented as small – half his height – and humble:
In fact, they are both very gentle, childlike, and peaceful in their demeanor and in their gesturing.
Boyarin compares Medieval Haggadot to Zionist imagery to suggest that the Medieval Ideal has been abandoned. Moreover, he suggests, by way of his own example as a “feminist-modern-Orthodox-Jew” that we return to this ideal. As I noted above this would imply that Jews take on the schlemiel ideal.
But the ideal is not simply about humility – for the Rabbis, this humility which is based on faith in God’s power to redeem the Jewish people and in God’s place in history. We see this in the two questions and in the answers to them.
The Simple Son asks: “What is this celebration about?”
You shall say to him: “We are commemorating the fact that with a strong hand G‑d took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 13:14).
As for The One Who Knows Not How To Ask—you must open up [the conversation] for him.
As it is written: You shall tell your child on that day: “It is because of this that G‑d acted for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).
So, ultimately, the masculine ideal that Boyarin wants to return to is or at least was based on the Schlemiel’s – that is, the Tam’s – simple faith.
To be sure, the simpleton is complete for this reason, but in the eyes of the world faith is ridiculous and the schlemiel lacks intelligence. That is, at the very least, the perspective of the Rabbis and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. Boyarin, however, redefines this to state that the completeness of the Tam can be found in the fact that he doesn’t enjoy “goyishe nachas” and prefers powerlessness over a masculine kind of power that, for him, corrupts. This is not a matter of faith so much as a matter of whether or not Jews take on a masculine or a masculine-feminine ideal.
This is what I would call “Boyarin’s schlemiel ideal.”
The question for us – the so to speak fifth question of the four questions – is why is the night of Passover different from other nights?
Is it the night that we realize that “we” are all schlemiels? And what would this imply? That we are faithful or that we embody a less masculine Jewish ideal?
(Based on what we have learned from Boyarin, this is a good question to ask. But there are still other questions we can ask – at the Seder table, with the Jewish community – of his old/new ideal and its political import: 1) Is Boyarin right to reinstate a dualism that the early Zionists insisted on in the early 20th century? 2) Can there be schlemiel-Zionists? Or only schlemiel post-Zionists? 3) Can one be a “simpleton” in Israel? 4) Is the new Jew an old Jew – that is a schlemiel? Or is the new Jew a Rasha? Or is the new Jew something else besides these two options? In other words, where does the schlemiel figure, today?)
Regardless of the answers one comes up with, Schlemiel-in-Theory wishes all Jews – on whatever side of the spectrum – a Happy Passover!