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May you be signed up for a good visit.
Today, we begin the countdown. Toward the awe-inspiring Day of Justice, when even museum directors must stand before the ultimate Board of Trustees. Time for cheshbon ha’nefesh, the Accounting of the Soul, when we add up the receipts from our own deceptive and coercive museum admissions policies.
Or maybe not. Because it turns out cheshbon ha’nefesh, no matter what your rabbi tells you (or precisely why he tells you), is a response that’s part of the problem. Cheshbon ha’nefesh is light on soul and heavy on accounting practices, it’s a concept developed out of Enlightened (meaning “scientific”) Judaism and inspired by the moral book-keeping practices of Benjamin Franklin. One imagines it’s the kind of “Being Jewish” (Judentum) that Marx detested, because it existed as a mere parroting of Eurocentric culture, not its overcoming by resistance.
As for the “soul” part: I have a pretty good idea what Marx would have thought of those who think they’re putting soul into the nasty business of making of museum admissions a quantifiable exchange — no matter how hard they try.
And they do try, because there’s a whole literature out there (or rather in there, in the narrow world of Museology), to persuade us our admission charge is not about the money, no, it’s a symbolic exchange, no different from those gift exchanges anthropologists describe, where the Tribe’s strengthened through mutual obligations.
Richard Titmuss, the British architect of the social policy of the Welfare State, will have none of this; neither, it turns out, will the Rambam — short for Maimonides, which is short for Moses, son of Rabbi Maimon of Cordoba (which is pretty long, actually), perhaps the greatest authority of all on Jews’ religious and moral obligations.
With Titmuss, Maimonides agrees that the moral quality of an exchange (like entering a museum, say) depends on one basic factor: do the parties meet each other face-to-face? Because the closer the two parties, the more likely the exchange is a negotiation, not a gift. For a gift to be a gift, truly, the giver should not know the recipient and the recipient should not know the giver. Titmuss calls these “stranger relationships,” and the Rambam rates the act of giving in relation to that idea.
And Titmuss calls these acts “creative altruism,” a term that would very well fit the creative suggestions of Maimonides, to ensure that there’s no indebtedness on either side. The idea behind the Day of Judgement, remember, is not that you pay your own debts, it’s that you forgive the debts of others. It’s a distinction anti-Semites never seem to grasp.
Or museum directors. Not mutually exclusive, necessarily.
September 15, 2023 / 29 Elul 5783
François Mairesse, Le Droit d'entrer au musée (Bruxelles : Éditions Labor, 2005), Marcel Mauss, « Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques ». L'Année sociologique (1896/1897-1924/1925) Nouvelle série, 1ère Année (1923-1924), pp. 30-186 ; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction à l'oeuvre de Marcel Mauss (Paris : Les Presses universitaires de France, 1950 ; Bruno Brulon Soares, Ana Cristina Valentino & Denis Limoeiro, "Waldisa Rússio," in Soares, Bruno Brulon, ed., A History of Museology. Key Authors of Museological Theory. Paris: Ifocom (International Committee for Museology, 2019), 100-109.
Richard M. Titmuss, The Gift Relationship. From Human Blood to Social Policy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971); Maimonides, מִשְׁנֶה תּוֹרָה, 10:7-14