"Oedipus Rex" is not an instruction guide for killing your father and sleeping with your mother. It does not come with a consumer warning. Nor is "Medea" a manual for killing your offspring – no "don’t try this at home" label necessary with the shipment from Amazon.
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But according to Israel's minister of education Naftali Bennett, novels merely serve an ideological function, and young readers are just passive recipients of their literal messages. Bennett has upheld the decision of the Education Ministry to take Dorit Rabinyan’s 2014 novel "Borderlife," off the reading list of high schools in Israel. The ministry has ruled that "young people of adolescent age tend to romanticize and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of assimilation." The Orwellian shorthand for the ministerial doublespeak: if you read this, you’ll marry out. And: Big Brother knows better.
Bennett may realize that he’s just scoring cynical political points, but there are troubling conceptions of both literature and the process of reading at the root of the ban, as well as an insidious attempt to close the Israeli mind. The ministry is not wrong for pointing out the relationship between literature and ethics, but when literature becomes just a vehicle for morality – systemic visions – it becomes bad literature, or the opposite of literature, just polemic, political dogma.
To paraphrase the poet John Ashberry, the worse the literature, the easier it is to simplify, and then moralize, the step right before indoctrination. When the Renaissance poet, Phillip Sidney, wrote about poetry providing a golden world, he did not mean a romanticized ideal in the vulgar sense of the education ministry (whose spokesperson would benefit from re-taking freshman composition), but that poetic worlds give an opportunity for reflection, for the appreciation of different perspectives through recourse to imaginative alternatives.
I have not yet read Rabinyan’s "Borderlife," but I gather that the romantic relationship between Liat and Hilmi, the Israeli and Palestinian protagonists, is complicated, even vexed, not a cartoon rendering, but a literary one – requiring the judgement of the reader. As John Stuart Mill wrote in "On Liberty," "Judgement is given to men that they may use it." Mill understood the connection between critical judgment – exercised through reading – and liberty.
Our politicians, however, prefer singular meanings and easily digestible and singular truths, with books that match their cynically impoverished view of their reading electorate, the kind of political subjects who don’t exercise their judgement or liberty. Education – a risky business to be sure – should not inculcate messages, but rather cultivate a sensitivity to complexity, the possibility of different worlds than the ones we daily inhabit.
Indeed, participating in a world of the novelist’s creation – the fantastic gift of the imagination – does not mean just imitating it. If it did, I would have to grab the copy of "Matilda" from my 10 year old for fear that he might follow Roald Dahl’s protagonist, and disrespect his parents in unspeakable ways. But literature requires the ability to straddle worlds, to move between that prosaic realm we call reality and fiction, to understand, accordingly, that within every experience, there are others possible.
Demagogues, however – and they are not good candidates for Education Minister (an Orwellian Minister of Truth, maybe) – are stuck forever in a closed world without imaginative possibility, a literalist ghetto in which they want to keep their constituencies as well. Indeed, with the ministerial condescension towards young Israelis (who are now pushing up Rabinyan’s sales) and the paternalist desire to preserve ethnic identity, why stop with "Borderlife?" Maybe "Romeo and Juliet" – miscegenation! – should be next?
To be sure, serving as Minister of Education of that paradoxical (if not impossible) entity, a Jewish Democracy, is no simple task. Bennett prides himself on knowledge of Jewish values (though there are few books of the Bible that meet up to his puritanical standards, and the rabbinic lessons of diversity and interpretive freedom seem lost to him). To fill in the obvious gaps of the reading list of liberal democracy, he might want to start by coming to a class in the English Department at Bar Ilan where we – Jews and Arabs, secular and religious – are studying "Areopagitica," the 1644 tract against censorship by the author of "Paradise Lost."
John Milton, like Bennett, sought to establish a religious commonwealth, in a comparable age of multiplying perspectives and diversity. But Milton’s imagined ‘Christian Home’ was built on different principles from Bennett’s Jewish parallel. To be sure, Milton had more closed-minded contemporaries, including a 17th century Bennett, who titled his work about heresy, with a long list of books to keep off the reading list, "Gangrena." Diverse opinions, from the perspective of "Gangrena," are a disease to the nation, to be dealt with accordingly, that is, disregarded, banned, infected limbs to be chopped off.
Milton, by contrast, trusted his readers, their ability to distinguish and choose, and saw the conversation and criticism that comes from reading as integral to nationhood. For him, faith and knowledge and national identity, thrive ‘by exercise’ – ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,’ he proclaimed. Milton’s commonwealth, modeled (incidentally) on ancient Israel, requires ‘much arguing, much writing, many opinions.’ For diverse ‘opinion in good men,’ Milton writes, ‘is but knowledge in the making.’
Literary judgement for Milton is bad for authoritarian rulers, those kings and demagogues whose passive subjects hang on to the literal truths they disseminate, but it’s good for democracies. For democracy takes the risk of conversation, cultivating critical minds. Those who read, as Milton writes, ‘diversely,’ make good political subjects, and even – perhaps – better politicians. So a proposition for the minister: Study Milton and Shakespeare, and Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Equip yourself to lead a national conversation – though perhaps my imagination is getting the better of me here – about the tensions between liberal democracy and a Jewish State.
The rumors of the closing of the Israeli mind, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. Naftali, come see (and read) for yourself; you are invited.
William Kolbrener is Professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University, author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and most recently Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is forthcoming from Indiana in the fall. Follow him on Twitter: @OMTorah