Remarks delivered at Princeton University’s 2014 Annual Latke-Hamentaschen Debate.
Our semi-official second national motto is
pluribus unum, famously mistranslated by Sarah Palin as “out
of one, many,” but correctly translated as precisely the reverse: “out of many,
(No, wait. That isn’t right. It wasn’t Sarah Palin. It was, ummmm . . . oh yes, I remember now . . . it was Al Gore. Palin is the one who predicted that Putin would invade Ukraine.)
In any event, the problem of the “one” and the “many” is a classic problem in philosophy as it is in political science. How can “many” be one? The humble hamentaschen provides an answer, or at least an example. There are, after all, many fruits. The many fruits can be made into many fillingsprune, apricot, strawberry, raspberry, and on and on. Just like the diversity of Americans, coming from many lands, many faiths, many cultures. But just as we are made one by our common foundation in the American creed, the splendid diversity of fruit fillings are made one in the concept and reality of the hamentaschen. The foundation of their unity is in the luscious and delicate pastrya pastry at once so Jewish that it is named for the pockets (or ears) of the tyrant Haman, and so American that its very shape recalls the tri-cornered hat of the patriots whose revolt against the tyranny of George III gave birth to our great nation.
As Ed Koch would say, “How am I doing so far?”
Now what about the latke? First, let me for the sake of self-preservation and a bed to return to this evening say that nothing I say here today is to be construed as in any way casting so much as the slightest of aspersions on the delectable latkes made by my beloved wife at holiday times; nor on the magnificent latkes made by my esteemed mother-in-law; nor on those made by my sainted grandmother-in-law, may she rest in peace. In fact, I will not today resort to the low and unworthy debaters stratagem of defending the goodness of my side by impugning what it is the task of my friends on the other side to defend.
So I will say nothing negative about the latke. The word “oil,”
will not so much as pass my lips. Or the word “oily.” Nor will I mention any
concerns about obesity or other health issues connected with the consumption of
oily things fried in oil, if that is, I were to mention the words “oil” and “oily,”
which I will not. Nor will I sink so low as to note that we should be doing
everything we can, including on the dietary front, to lessen our dependence of
foreign oilespecially oil from places that I will not mention, since it would
be a low blow to mention them. Places that, were I to mention them, would have
names like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Not that I am mentioning them, mind you.
But let us return to the splendors and wonders of the simple and humble hamentaschen. You may ask, how can something simple and humble be splendid and wonderful? Indeed, it is a mystery. Like the mystery of Moses simply striking a humble rock, and splendidly and wonderfully, out flowed humble waterjust when our ancestors needed it. And what about the simple yet splendid and wonderful miracle of God feeding our ancestors during forty years in the desert with hamentaschen sent from heaven itself.
What? You doubt me? I appeal to the authority of the Bible and to the teachings of the great sage Maimonides on the divine attributes. We are told that God sent hamentaschen from heaven to sustain those sojourning. Of course, the word “hamentaschen” is a translation of the word “manna” which is the word that we generally use in speaking of the miracle of the feeding of the people. Yet, what was manna? Here interpretation is required. And interpretation requires bringing all the relevant knowledge available to us to the interpretative task.
Now, it is generally said that manna was a kind of “bread.” But we must ask: What kind of bread? Surely it wasn’t tasteless plain white bread. Would a loving and merciful God feed his chosen people on Wonder Bread? Heavens no! Interpreted in light of the attributes of God as taught to us by Maimonides, we can only judge that a loving and merciful God would feed his people on a tasteful bread, a sweet bread, a bread adorned with fillings made from the many wonderful fruits of his creationprune, apricot, raspberry, strawberry, and so forth.
Indeed, it would be an offense to the name of God to suppose him to be so stingy and uncaring that he would feed his chosen people with anything less than the sweetness of the hamentaschen. He certainly would not feed them on Wonder Bread, nor would be feed them on oily potatoes. (Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to say the word “oily.” It just slipped out. Please notice that I didn’t say the word “latkes,” though, in speaking of oily potatoes.)
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.