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Shavuot, a Holiday To Celebrate Complexity and Nuance

Shavuot gets no respect. Lacking the colorful observances of Passover and Sukkot, and the gravitas of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s probably the least observed of the major Jewish holidays. Nota bene to atheists who think that religion is about ideas and beliefs rather than myth, culture, ritual and community.

In a certain way, though, Shavuot is the most specifically Jewish of holidays, celebrating text, law and Torah — in addition to the “pagan” agricultural festival over which the holiday was superimposed. It is about substance beneath the surface, complexity beneath the simplicity.

Which, in perhaps a roundabout way, is the political question of our times. Are our collective decisions to be made on the basis of simplicity — immutable values, eternal verities — or on complexity, diversity and nuance? Is it true that moral values like hard work and self-reliance are universally true and are the barometer of our health as a society? Or are the relevant factors, in fact, counterintuitive, subtle, even statistical?

You can’t feel a statistic, after all. We all know what courage and cowardice feel like — not so much the intricacies of global diplomacy. It feels right, courageous and manly to take strong stands against evildoers. Actually crunching the scientific data (on Iranian nuclear enrichment, on the causes of poverty, on the climate) lacks that emotive punch.

Over the years, I’ve come to think of this difference as one of style more than of substance. Spend time in liberal communities and in conservative ones. They feel different. They drink differently, eat differently. Sushi and Starbucks versus burgers and beer. (Of course, everyone likes and dislikes all these things — but I’m speaking of types and trends.)

This leads to all kinds of interesting correlations. Sushi eaters are far more likely to approve of same-sex marriage than non-sushi eaters are, for example. That’s not the tuna talking, but the interest in trying new things, even counterintuitive ones; it’s about difference, complexity and diversity. This is why lattes have become, in the heartland, symbols of effete urban liberalism. Real men drink coffee.

On a recent speaking tour I had the opportunity to visit two very different cultural institutions: the Rothko Chapel, in Houston, and the campus of Pepperdine University, outside Los Angeles. The Rothko chapel, endowed by the de Menil family in 1971, is a beautiful, stark edifice dedicated to contemplation on the one hand, programming on human rights issues on the other. I had a lovely conversation with its executive director, who showed me the building’s main space, a large hexagonal chapel with six enormous Rothko paintings on each of the walls.

The paintings are challenging, even for fans of Rothko, like me. They’re mostly black, confronting the viewer, almost daring one to find meaning. I imagine that a lot of the tourists who visit walk away shaking their heads.

With time and stillness, though, the complexity reveals itself: textures, marks, plays of shadow and light. The Rothko Chapel unfolds itself, and at the same time invites one into a contemplative frame of mind.

I think it’s no coincidence that the aesthetics of the Rothko Chapel are joined to a progressive, internationalist political orientation. And its polar opposite, Pepperdine University, confirmed this. The campus of Pepperdine is, by the standards of the (effete, decadent, liberal) art world, an aesthetic atrocity. Its landscaping is obscene: vast, immaculate green lawns with perfectly trimmed shrubs and trees. (I visited before the California drought; I wonder if they’re still watering the grass now.) Its architecture is full of broad lines and imposing forms. It says, clunkily, “This is an impressive and traditional institution.”

The campus is, in other words, kitsch. Without irony or context, it has photocopied bits of Monticello and plopped them into Southern California. It’s surface, not substance. And while it seems impressive at first, within just a few minutes the whole thing looks cheap, fake.

Other people have different tastes, though — especially conservative people like those who make up most of Pepperdine’s faculty. (It’s where Ken Starr retired after filing the Whitewater report.) In a more patriotic logic, columns equals impressive equals power equals good. There’s none of that namby-pamby artistry. This is a place of traditional values, both political and aesthetic.

Obviously, I have my preference here, but I don’t mean to demean the other side. By Pepperdine’s standards, Rothko’s black paintings are elitist and opaque. He creates the kind of paintings about which unsophisticated people say, “My 5-year-old could do that.” That is a stupid statement, but it does point to how Norman Rockwell can tug on sentimental heartstrings while Mark Rothko cannot.

The art critic Clement Greenberg, in his influential essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” proposed that manipulative, sentimental works of art are a kind of aesthetic fascism. They tell you how to feel, and you feel it. Cute kitten — aw. Imposing white columns —wow. Real art, for Greenberg, does not dictate specific emotion. It requires work on the part of the viewer to engage with the artwork and make meaning out of it. Thus, Rockwell may seem more democratic than Rothko — anyone can get it — but, in Greenberg’s logic, Rockwell is actually anti-democratic, insofar as it triggers specific, predetermined responses. (I’ll leave aside here the view that Rockwell is subversive and ironic, which is partly true.)

I’d like to suggest that Shavuot is the holiday of Rothko, sushi and counterintuitive politics. It is about difference rather than sameness, complexity rather than simplicity, depth rather than surface. To be sure, the rituals of Passover all have deeper meanings, but most of them are univocal. Shavuot is like those black Rothko paintings; the symbols are obscure.

I find the major-key patriotism of Pepperdine’s campus almost nauseating. I can’t believe people believe this stuff — either American exceptionalism or that fake, kitschy columns are impressive. But that’s just a matter of style — I don’t like Michael Bolton, either. To me, simple things invite undermining; in complexity lies the truth. To others, I’m an over-intellectualizing, latte-drinking, Prius-driving, gay Jewish urbanite. To me, patriotism is a cliché. To others, it is a cherished value. To me, conventional values are always to be questioned. To others, they are a way of life. And if the data is right, there are far more “others” than “me’s,” which is why Democrats have to talk Mom and apple pie even if their lived reality is more Rothko than Rockwell.

When I was younger I thought this was a matter of truth and falsehood. Now I think it’s just a matter of style. Have a complex Shavuot.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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