Arts & Culture

The Case for Hamentaschen

Last week, I had the honor of appearing in the annual Latke-Hammentaschen Debate at UW-Madison.  This event was first held at the University of Chicago in 1946, and has taken place at many locations ever since. My opponent for the … Read More

By / March 5, 2009

Last week, I had the honor of appearing in the annual Latke-Hammentaschen Debate at UW-Madison.  This event was first held at the University of Chicago in 1946, and has taken place at many locations ever since. My opponent for the Madison debate was Prof. Steve Nadler, Chair of Jewish Studies, holder of endowed chairs in both the Jewish Studies and Philosophy Departments, an expert on Spinoza.  Obviously, this was going to be a serious affair.  Here is the argument that I presented on behalf of the Hamentasch: 

The hamentasch is the embodiment of artistic endavor. The hammentasch is a prescribed form that leaves the artist free to imbue its filling with meaning. Like all great art, its liberating potential lies is the wild creativity that expresses itself within the stern confines of technical mastery. To see this truth, let us consider the object in its material and its form.

First, its material essence. The crust is the most demanding of all, and most rarely realized in practice. How often have we cringed at a dry, chalky, cakey shell? Indeed, in a thousand years of efforts, how rare is true mastery of this excruciatingly demanding art form? Yet we as consumers experience each moment of discomfort as a reminder of the aspiration of the culinary artist.  Our very dissatisfaction calls us to exercise our critical faculties and declare that this crust is less than ideal because we are capable of ideals. 

It is precisely in the difficulty of making good hamentaschen, and even more in the all-too-common experience of failure, that we are reminded of the role of Philosophy in its post-Nietzschean phase. Not to discover an underlying reality hidden in the brute objectivity of existence but to create meaning through an assertion of our subjectivity into the world. To make hamentaschen is an act of moral imagination. Each bite of a tasteless, dry, unsatisfying hamentasch is a call to critical reflection on the ideals that the pastry should have contained. Not a reference to some presumed Platonic form; there are no hamentaschen in nature, and we have outgrown our childish faith that inherited myths point toward perfection. To make a hamentaschen is a challenge; in embracing that challenge we enter the Age of Reason.

Beyond the crust there is the filling. The filling of Hamentaschen demonstrates the freedom that creative genius achieves within the constraints of form. The choices are legion: the lascivious intoxication of the poppy, the exotic desert dates and almonds, the pure aesthetic pleasures of sweet fruit jellies.  Moreover, these are complex flavors, each itself  a mixture of many elements that have been cooked and treated and combined by the application of art to matter — in Bacon’s words, it is in "Nature vexed" that the truth of things is revealed to the scientific mind.  To make a hamentasch is thus once again to take on a challenge, to attempt to be a creative artist, to impose one’s will upon the ingredients and cause them to become something that transcends their individual characters. Its ends are human ends deduced from principles, not the inductive taxonomies of Aristotelean observation. The hamentasch is philosophical without being Hellenistic, a Jewish affirmation of the primacy of law and reason over the illusion of the age-old naturalistic fallacy. 

Now, by contrast, consider the latke. The latke is the least demanding of foods, to make or to eat. It is the most lumpen of objects, made from the lumpiest of ingredients.  Fried bits of potatoes – "dirt apples" is an apt translation – with no clear shape, an homogenous blob whose content is always the same and whose form is undefined, is this the stuff of transcendence?  There is no liberty here, only the illusion of freedom that comes with the denial of differences.  The content of a latke is fixed, its flavor bland and unchanging.  Nor do the toppings alter this drab equation:  applesauce or sour cream.  Certainly some of you will say "I used mango chutney," proud of your coy transgressions.   But transgression is not in itself creativity any more than Rousseau’s skulking about in Paris coffee houses in a peasant’s smock challenged the code of bourgeois dress. The true challenge to oppressive tradition comes in the creative effort to achieve greatness in a new way, a way that defines an approach that others might follow and build upon.  The latke does none of these things; instead, it denies the possibility of meaning.  The latke is to cuisine what Andy Warhol’s soup cans were to art; a self-referential denial of the possibility of intrinsic value. 

Worse is the effect that the latke has on the consumer.  The latke infantilizes; like the Dr. Seuss books read by college students, the latke is enjoyed because it makes the eater feel good and supplies needed calories.  The latke is mother love where the hamentaschen aspires to philosophical eros.  Mother love is essential for children so that they can grow to pursue something greater. 

The difference between the latke and the hamentaschen lies not only in the fact of the latter’s form, but also in the specific shape that form is required to take. Let us consider, then, the implications of the shape of hamentaschen in comparison with the shapelessness of the latke. 

The hamentaschen is a stylized triangle, each of its three sides an arc symbolizing movement, together forming three points that indicate opposing directions.  The significance of the shape form is clear:  it indicates the necessity of making a choice among directions.  Not only does the hamentasch imply choices among directions, it specifically uses the number three in its evocation of diversity.  Hamentaschen reject the simplistic Manicheanism of the primitive tribalist as they reject the call to return to the thoughtless unity of the primitive ontology.  But three is more specific than "more-than-two."  The three points of the Archimedean plane, the three elements of Polybius’ mixed government, the three movements of the sonata form and the three parts of Aristotelean drama all reflect the combination of complexity and balance inherent in the tripartite. And we need not appeal to these other sources:  do not the Sages tell us that on three things the world stands? 

Freedom in the act of choosing is the condition of creativity.  As the creation of the hamentasch is creative and artistic, the message of its shape is one of creativity.  We choose our direction.  Moses Mendelssohn, asked to define enlightenment, declared "I posit at all times the destiny of man as the measure and goal of all our striving and efforts."  In this vein he rejected what he called "superficial culture" that is the result of comfort or habit rather than a self-conscious search for enlightenment. Kant put the matter even more strongly:  "Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. . . It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me." 

But Kant only glimpsed the danger that Nietzsche named, the horrifying abyss that is the latke beheld  by the Last Man.  Beyond thinking for one’s self and accepting the dictates of others, there is the danger of not thinking at all.  The latke conveys a comforting sense of undifferentiated unity with all things, an escape from the categories and imperatives of the reasoning mind into the blob-like happinessof the child, the uncritical absolutes of the primitive tribalist, the amoralgratification of the sensualist.  The latke reflects an ill-formed nostalgicyearning for an imagined pagan unity between subject and object.  Freed from the confining strictures of cooking technique and prescribed forms, the latke appeals to a desire to return to animagined age of peace, an expression of rebellion against the separation of mind and crude animal matter. The shape of the latke denies the possibility of meaningful choice, and consequently of the necessity of choosing. It reassuringly calls us back to the primitive and given rhythms of land and harvest, purged of the dreadful fears of divine signification.  The latke’s  primitivism is the Rousseauian myth in which we need not seek direction because of our innate and natural compassion, uncorrupted by art, science, and culture. 

But as Rousseau warns us, there is no going back, there are only the pale and sickly imitative forms spawned by crippled nostalgia for a non-existent prehistory.  Sure enough, the latke is a carefully denatured version of that earlier stage.  Pan is dead; the children of Israel are not wreathed in myrtle, they cavort in plastic garlands sold at Target.  The ancient horror of human sacrifice becomes the rueful satisfaction of the  knuckles skinned on the homely grater – see how I sacrifice!  Envision my reality! – the cheap authenticity of sensationis called upon to justify the mild pleasures of faux frenzy.  Denatured does not mean harmless.  Ideologically, this is the move that can make the most virulent identity politics seem comforting by denying its essence while at the same time claiming its reassurance that we are of the earth and the earth sustains us "that is all you know and all you need to know," a parody of the poem.  

Here, too, the latke reveals itself as pagan rather than Jewish.  Judaism takes its beginning in the ideal of direction:  first from God, in its Hebraic phase, and then through the exercise of Reason in its rabbinic form in which the Talmud displaces the crude barbarism of the early books. The latke promises to relieve us of the burden that demanding tradition, to replace the stern demands of critical questioning with the lazy warmth of a carefully packaged identity.  Yet the Jewish people should heed the warning of Theodor Adorno:  ‘The fear of yawning meaninglessness makes one forget a fear which once upon a timewas no less dreadful: that of the vengeful gods of which Epicurean materialism and the Christian ‘fear not’ wanted to relieve mankind. The only way to accomplish this is through the subject. If it were liquidated rather than sublated in a higher form, the effect would be regression–not just of consciousness, but a regression to real barbarism.’ 

I call upon us all to eschew that reversion to barbarism.  Put aside the camp paganism that promises easy affirmation of thoughtless tribalism!  Abandon the barbarism of subject-less materialism that is embodied in the latke’s mud-food.  Take up the higher, harder challenge of the hamentaschen and let us find our way together!"

At this point, Professor Nadler brought out a banjo.  That’s not a metaphor, he actually brought out a banjo.