12/02/2010

Topsy-Turvy World: On Hannukah, Wikileaks, and Karl Marx's Dreidel

As noted by Benjamin, the dreidel has not fared well in this year's Hannukah news cycle. Howard Jacobson and Marc Tracy justifiably call it a lame game, developing a trope implied by Jon Stewart in a (hilarious) video from last year. Attempts to parlay the lame toy into something cooler, like a Guiness record (note - I was a participant in the event a few years ago when UMD set the record), or invest it with symbolic meaning, end up being the exceptions that prove the rule. The game is inherently boring and skill-less.

And yet.

One of the more interesting symbolisms ascribed to the dreidel is articulated by R. Nachman of Breslov and appears in Sichot Ha-Ran #40, part of a critique of medieval cosmology. Translation appears in Tormented Master, p. 309):
Their books contain questions as to the order of Creation: How is it that a star merited to be a star, or that a constellation deserved to be a constellation? What was the sin of the lower creatures, animals and all the rest, that consigned them to their lowly state? Why not just the opposite? Why is a head a head and a foot a foot?...

This entire pursuit, however, is a vain one. One should not ask such questions of God, who is righteous and upright. For in truth, the entire universe is a spinning top, which is called a dreidel. Everything moves in a circle: angels change into men and men into angels; the head becomes a foot and the foot a head. All things in the world are part of this circular motion, reborn and transformed into one another. That which was above is lowered and that which was below is raised up. For in their root all of them are one.

The thrust of this passage is a critique of Platonic essentialism, a critique that is echoed in a famous passage from Karl Marx (I developed this comparison a few years ago, in a Hannukah post):
All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned...
More broadly speaking, though, the "lesson" of the dreidel is that we live in a topsy-turvy world in which nothing is solid and stable and fixed. The origin of the dreidel that was told to me in my childhood-that when the evil Greeks came to the study hall to see if the Jews were engaged in the forbidden act of Torah study, these brave and studious Jews put away their books and took out the spinning tops- has itself been turned on its head; now, the Jewish army spies on draft dodgers to make sure they're really studying Torah or keeping Shabbat.

We have been treated to an astounding example of this instability with the publication of the Wikileaks documents. Overnight, the distinction between enemy and ally became blurred and entire theories and narratives about foreign affairs collapsed like houses of cards, completely and inexorably altering the world's diplomatic landscape. Julian Assange and Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps there can be no stranger bedfellows (although admittedly R. Nahman and Karl Marx make pretty strange bedfellows), cite each other approvingly.

So keep spinning that dreidel, lest you be caught of guard when the next tremor turns the seemingly solid surface beneath your feet into so much jello - hey, it's a jelly doughnut metaphor, too!
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