Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Should Dr. Seuss no longer have an honored place on the shelf of children’s literary classics?
Let’s try to get beyond all the political posturing about so-called “Cancel Culture” and get to the crux of the matter at hand: When speaking of a cultural icon like Dr. Seuss, whose books include both important and timeless messages along with some ideas that cannot stand up to moral scrutiny — at a point where we are desperately trying to at long last reverse the toxic tide of racism — can you separate the Green Eggs from the Ham? Can Dr. Seuss still be considered kosher?
I say yes.
For one thing, those who celebrate the blatantly racist motifs of some of his work might want to look twice before leaping. They could be quite uncomfortable with some of his early political cartoons, many of which lambasted the “America First” of his day. Like these.Or this.
As those cartoons show, in his own way, Dr. Seuss was an anti-racist. Except when he wasn’t. And it’s OK to be inconsistent. There I things that I’ve written that I wish I could cancel!
So is it possible to separate the Green Eggs from the Ham? Whitewash as much as we will, the ham can never be kosher. Thosecaricatures of Asians in “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street” may not have offended many people back then, but that does not make them less offensive — now or then — nor will it become less offensive in the future. The darned spot just won’t come out. The group that safeguards Dr. Seuss’s legacy understood that this week. But that doesn’t mean that the offensive work needs to be canceled. It simply needs to be digested.
We learn that from this week’s portion of Ki Tisa, which features the story of the Golden Calf, inExodus 32: 19-20:
As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.
Moses became very destructive after seeing the calf, but this was no hissy fit. It was a planned destruction, like the scheduled demolition of a defunct high-rise hotel in, say, Atlantic City. And as with all such devastation, some of the good needed to be cut out along with the bad. Think of it like chemo for idolatry.
First, the tablets were shattered. According to a Midrash (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 2), Moses did this on God’s instructions. Then in the very next verse in Exodus, the calf itself was pulverized. And the people were forced to drink it.
The people didn’t have to consume the remains of the tablets (so much for those “take two tablets” jokes). The Ten Commandments would be rewritten and inculcated to the generations by word of mouth. But the calf needed to be fully digested — as a powder, so that it would be fully digested and come out as diarrhea. Commentators suggest that the gold would also be rendered impure by that digestive journey, rendering it unfit for future idolatrous escapades. But when all accounts were settled with the digestive system, something of the powder would remain in the body — just as the golden calf would remain in the body politic to this day. Not everything would be expelled. We are, after all, what we eat — and what we drink.
The Golden Calf is part of us. it has literally been absorbed into our system. We’ve swallowed it; we’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of racism and idolatry.
Dr. Seuss’s racist past is part of him, and part of us too. It is so much a part of us that we can’t recognize it. It’s in us. Isabel Wilkerson writes in her bestseller Caste:
Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.
I hate to sound gross, but perhaps whenever we feel we have diarrhea coming on, we should pause to think that maybe just a little of the Golden Calf is about to be expelled from our system. Think about it for a split second. Then run — don’t walk — to the nearest bathroom.
And take a Dr. Seuss book or two in there with you. If you are expelling a golden calf, you might be in there a while.