Barack Obama’s Revelation

Carl Schmitt famously interrupted the workaday realities of politics with the hierophany of “the political.” Ensconced within the mysterious realm of the definite article, Schmitt’s political offered a stormy rejoinder to the processual sterility of liberal politicking. This Romantic alternative politics has resurfaced in an illiberal post in the Forward which shows a disdain for politics. Jay Michaelson, channeling the POTUS, rises above petty horse trading for the sake of revelation.

Revelation, according to Jewish philosophers Franz Rosenzweig, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Buber, is not a one-time event. It occurs whenever we encounter “the Other” and are changed as a result. Obama’s statement is a record of just such a revelation.

Revelation moves by sacralization. The president has everyday encounters with others. We could call this intersubjectivity, or less technically, talking to people. These encounters transubstantiate through the use of the definite article and suddenly become encounters with “the Other.” How is this mysterious process effected? It works through “the religious nature of Obama’s statement itself.”

What the President said today means little as a statement of public policy since it has little impact “on the ground.” It means more as an expression of personal conviction and conscience. What he said was that, over time, he has seen the truth of same-sex couples: that they are as capable of commitment, love, and sanctity of opposite-sex ones; and that it is an injustice to deny the benefits of marriage to gay people. Those are religious values.

Obama’s statement becomes religious because it represents religious values. These are essential and revelatory, as opposed to transient, text embedded decrees.

the majority of our shared religious values – and in particular, Jewish – values about the importance of love, justice, compassion, and the evolution of religious doctrine support, rather than oppose, equality for LGBT people…

We know that the two obscure and unclear verses in Leviticus may be interpreted in any number of ways. And we know that the core values of our religious and social traditions are upheld, not undermined, by interpreting them narrowly, such that they apply to virtually no LGBT people today.

A stark contrast emerges between the essential, revelatory values and the vicissitudes of text, which are subjects to numerous caveats and interpretations. The hand waving with which Leviticus gets dispatched strikes me as flippant. For Michaelson, President Obama is an authentic expositor of revelation. The Bible, on the other hand, is something to be interpreted narrowly or widely, seriously or jokingly, as revelation “according to Jewish philosophers Franz Rosenzweig, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Buber,” dictates. Even worse, Michaelson doesn’t propose the narrow interpretation. He just gestures that there could be one. The pages of Leviticus just sort of wilt before the possibility of interpreting them.
A similarly stark contrast emerges between the force of Obama’s statement and the world of politics.

There are those in the Orthodox Jewish community who have made deals with this same fundamentalist devil on issues concerning women, contraception, LGBT people, Israel, “intelligent design,” and the funding of religious schools and institutions. Often, they agree with the fundamentalists substantively (as on same-sex marriage), and other times it’s just a marriage of convenience.

So politics qua politics is bad. Politics takes place in a fallen world where the only deals to be done are a “marriage of convenience” or an accommodation to the “fundamentalist devil.” In this incarnation, the tempter has the following agenda.

to Christianize America, support the radical settler-fringe in Israel against Israel’s own best interests (as reflected by the mainstream of Israeli public opinion), and erode the separation of church and state.

In the midst of telling us about how the President has revelations, Michaelson also abjures us that “we must not allow sectarian religious values to dictate public policy. Period.” Contra Dan Savage and Rick Santorum (yes, he went there) the “notion that LGBT battles are a choice between traditional religion and equality…is a dangerous, harmful myth.” LGBT rights are all about religion. But not the other guy’s religion. Thats just sectarian religion!

To me, it seems like we end up in a world where things like the Bible and classical sources of revelation are just sectarian religious values. Similarly, legislating or dealing with people we disagree with is either a shotgun wedding or a conversion to the sitra achrah. But revelation can break through the dross world of politics in the person of charismatic and prophetic leaders. These leaders instantiate the Political, by taking their everyday traffic with others and somehow elevating it to recognition of the Other. It may seem like Michaelson is just adding definite articles. But in his insistence on the religious nature of his project and his delegitimization of others’ religious motives I detect a more sinister strain of thinking. For Michaelson, it seems, certain kinds of experiences can prima facie become sacred. Other kinds of experiences just aren’t destined to rise to that level. Thus, politics, the attempt to work out the differences between my values and narratives and yours, is just a misbegotten project.

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