Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Eliminating the memshelet zadon


The Jewish High Holiday liturgy includes a plea to God to “eliminate the memshelet zadon from the land.” The phrase memshelet zadon has been translated in a variety of ways. I would translate it as “the regime of arrogance,” but zadon is much more than arrogance. This article provides a closer examination of the term zadon and suggests that we are now in the grips of a memshelet zadon that must be eliminated. 

Full Text:

For many years it has been my duty, honor, pleasure, burden—however one might describe it—to serve as sheliah tsibbur (prayer leader) for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur at my synagogue. As I prepare and as I actually perform, I am always attracted to the three u-vekhen (thus) paragraphs that follow the kedushah.

The first paragraph cites the awe and reverence that impels the human consciousness to recognize the sovereignty of the divine. The second describes the joy of the faithful as we await the utopian days of the Messiah. Finally, in a cantorial crescendo, we experience the ultimate rejoicing as “evil shuts its mouth, when all wickedness disappears like smoke as [the divine] eliminates the memshelet zadon from the land.

There are a number of ways to translate memshelet zadon. I would translate it “the regime of arrogance,” but zadon means much more than arrogance. This paragraph alone strongly suggests that there is an element of evil and wickedness attached to the term.

An ambitious doctoral student could easily devote an entire dissertation to explore the full semantic range of zadon, but I’ll spare my reader and stick to a few revealing references. The term appears again in the liturgy in the twelfth blessing of the weekday Amidah. This section opens with reference to the malshinim, the slanderers, continues with the wicked and the arrogant (zedim, i.e., the purveyors of zadon) and ends by praising ha-shem for shattering the enemy and subduing the zedim.

Moses’ father-in-law Jethro charges that Pharaoh and the Egyptians zadu, behaved with zadon, by defying the divine command to let the people of Israel go (Exodus 18:11). The prophet Jeremiah denounces Babylon, the Temple destroyer, as a zada (one who acts arrogantly) against ha-shem (Jeremiah 50:29). The Book of Deuteronomy insists that difficult legal cases must be brought to the proper authorities, the Levitical priests, at the proper location, the Temple, and that their legal decision must be followed. Arrogantly (be-zadon) defying the authoritative legal decisions is a capital crime. The Babylonia Talmud tractate Shabbat 69a indicates that anyone violating a mitzvah bizedono, in his arrogance, is subject to excommunication (karet)

Zadon is more than arrogance. It is a willful, impudent, impious, betrayal of universal norms and values and the institutions that support those norms and values. It is cosmic in its scope. It is blasphemous, an affront to the divine.

What we are experiencing in our country is a memshelet zadon, a government and a body politic that fits all of the definitions. For the Jewish people, this memshelet zadon has crossed over into a popular canard of anti-Semitism, whereby the president, when speaking to a Jewish audience, refers to Israel as “your country,” as though the United States is not our country. This suggestion of disloyalty historically lies alongside the charge of deicide and the blood libel in its dangerous hate-mongering. How the organized Jewish community does not have its hair on fire over this is inexplicable.

As this year’s yamim nora’im (High Holidays) have revealed to me the memshelet zadon that now infects our country and the world, I have reached a point where I have had enough of preachers, politicians and pundits telling me how important it is to “reach across the aisle.” I live with the hope that we will return to a time when such a state of reconciliation is possible. May it come speedily and in our day. But before that day can arrive, we must utterly eliminate the memshelet zadon from our land.

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