*Because this post is about finger-wagging, I was trying to come up with a title that would be a play on the expression, “wag the dog.” Honestly? “Wag the Rabbi” would make much more sense, given this post’s content, than “Wag the Rabbit.” But, the last thing I want to do is a Lena Dunham. So, instead, I am, fair cop, comparing a dog to a rabbit. Guilty as charged! If you want to cause a frenzy on Twitter about it, that’s your prerogative but, for what it’s worth, I am half-rabbit and would argue that I’m just working in the playfully self-deprecatory vein of the leporid comic tradition.
On Friday, when the younger and I arrived at preschool, it was well past peak drop-off time. It took a long time for someone to buzz us in and there was nobody milling around in the foyer.
At the exact same time that we were walking from the entrance up the stairs into the foyer, the Rabbi was walking down the staircase that leads from the foyer to the second floor. I caught his eye and, as he continued walking down the stairs, he lifted his left hand and waggled his finger at me as you do to a naughty child, while simultaneously shaking his head and smiling slightly.
I smiled warily back at him and slowed slightly but then, after a moment’s hesitation, continued walking on through the foyer to the younger’s classroom. As I did so, and as I kissed the younger goodbye, and then as I walked back through the foyer and down the stairs and out of the building, and then as I began walking home, one question, and one question only, reverberated in my mind:
What was the meaning of the Rabbi’s finger wag?
A finger wag is a powerful gesture, and part of what startled me, in that moment, was how strongly it affected me.
Now, I only have a somewhat cartoonish understanding of French philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation, but, at the precise moment when the Rabbi wagged his finger at me, I felt something (I suppose it was ideology; all I know is that it was sharp and cold) prick my flesh and I flinched and I thought Ouch! The Rabbi just interpellated me!
Really, the only thing I remember from the seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” is the image of the policeman “hailing” the individual, with the “Hey you!” Althusser’s idea is that in the moment of responding to that hail, the person being hailed (Althusser claims, dubiously, I think, that the individual who responds to the hail is almost always the individual that the policeman is in fact hailing) becomes an ideological subject.
Althusser’s image is brilliant but, if you’ll pardon the hubris, I think the Rabbi finger wag is almost (not quite) as good an image of ideological interpellation and its complexities. A finger-wag of this type unmistakably constitutes the interpellated subject as a naughty child. That much is obvious, and it was underscored by my being on the lower staircase and him on the upper. What was not obvious was the significance of the Rabbi’s interpellation of me as a naughty child. Of course, in the moment, and the moments that followed, my mind summoned countless ways in which I was worthy of reprimand. This list looked something like this:
- I was late in dropping off the younger for preschool.
- Not only was I late in dropping off the younger for preschool, but, as the Rabbi could obviously tell, I was also late for therapy. He knew before I myself knew that I had forgotten I had a 9:30am appointment with Dr F, an appointment that I would fail to attend that day.
- I was, come to think of it, possibly inappropriately attired in skimpy running shorts and a tank top.
- Not only was I inappropriately attired, but as the Rabbi could obviously tell, my donning of this sporting garb was purely aspirational. He knew before I myself knew that, my athletic clothes notwithstanding, I would not in fact go running or do any exercise vigorous enough to require the wearing of brightly colored moisture-wicking fabrics that day.
- I walked passed the big sign asking me, “have you signed up yet to walk with us to End Genocide?” and I didn’t think, not even for a millisecond, about signing up.
- Not only did I not even think of signing up, but, as the Rabbi could obviously tell, even if he had entreated me personally, “Duck-rabbit, will you please sign up to walk with me to End Genocide? It would mean a lot to me,” I would have said, without skipping a beat, “Gosh, I totally would because I am 100% against genocide, but I actually already have plans for that Sunday between 9 am and 1pm.” And that last bit would have been a lie (obviously the bit about being against genocide is true, and don’t come at me with some Peter Singer trolley-problem argument about how, if I don’t join the walk to End Genocide, I am, in effect, perpetuating genocide, OK? You can be 100% pro-walking and 100% against genocide without being morally obligated to take part in the walk to End Genocide. Moving on.)
- I was carrying a large stick and large sticks are not allowed at preschool. Here I really thought I deserved a chance to defend myself. Firstly, it was not my stick. I was just holding it for the younger. Secondly, that stick was in fact proof of just how effectively interpellated by his institution the younger was: when she picked it up off the sidewalk and said, “this is my stick!” I said, in a quavery old-person voice, “Oh, are you an old lady?” and she gave me a scornful glance and replied, “Uh, no, I’m Moses!” “Oh, I see,” I replied. “So that’s your staff then?” I asked. “It’s not a starff, it’s a staff,” corrected the younger.
- Not only was I carrying a large stick, but, as the Rabbi could obviously tell, although I had just that moment assured Moses that I would look after her staff while she was at preschool, I would in fact unceremoniously toss it on the grass without really thinking about it moments after exiting the building. He (the Rabbi, not Moses) knew before I myself knew that I would fail to uphold my staff-protecting duties.
All of these reasons (and many more) why I was thoroughly deserving of a finger-wag crossed my mind. But, honestly? I’m quite sure that reprimanding me for this or any of my other sins was not the Rabbi’s intention. No, I think the finger wag was intended quite differently.
It was an ironic finger wag.
It was an ironic finger wag that interpellated me as an ironic subject of the temple community.
I think it was a finger wag that said, “I’m-theatrically-performing-my rabbinical-authority-by-making-this-exaggerated-gesture-of-stern-admonition-which-functions-ironically-because-you-and-I-both-know-that-I’m-so-laid-back-I’m-practically-supine-in-fact-it’s-a-miracle-(or-it-would-be-if-I-believed-in-miracles-but-let’s-be-real-I-barely-believe-in-God) that-I’m-able-to-hold-myself-upright-on-this-staircase.”
And what I hope my wary smile conveyed back to him was “I-know-you-know-I-know-that-there-are-figurative-air-quotes-around-your-finger-wag-figurative-because-you-need-two-hands-to-make-air-quotes-and-one-of-your-hands-is-wagging-its-finger-and-if-you-just-made-air-quotes-with-one-hand-it-would-no-longer-function-as-a-pair-of-inverted-commas-but-rather-now-I-come-to-think-of-it-as-a-rabbit-and-that-would-be-perplexing-because-if-I-thought-you-were-making-a-rabbit-with-one-hand-I-would-then-re-think-my-interpretation-of-the-wagging-finger-and-think-to-myself-why-on-earth-is-the-Rabbi-miming-a-rabbit-wiggling-its ears-in-time-to-a-metronome-that-makes-no-sense-but-I-digress-as-I-was-saying-I-know-you-know-I know-that-there-are-figurative-air-quotes-around-your-finger-wag-and-you-also-know-I-know-you-know-that-I-too-am-slightly-ill-at-ease-in-my role-as-parent-of-child-attending-a-religious-preschool-because-even-though-you’re-super-progressive-the-teachers-do-mention-the-G-word-and-as-I-told-you-that-time-when-you-came-over-for-breakfast-I-don’t-believe-in-God-so-yeah-I-get-it-dude.
Without any exchange of words, we understood each other perfectly. Don’t you just love it when that happens?
Much love &c,
P.S. HEY YOU!!!