Pizza Night and the Politics of Purity
Jeffrey Israel has taught religion and political philosophy at Northwestern
University and Rutgers University. He currently teaches Jewish history at Eugene
Lang College of The New School in New York City. He has a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago.
In order to avoid destructive consequences, people must have reasonable opportunities to satisfy their desire for purity.
Many horrors have been committed from fear of contamination. What else is “ethnic cleansing”? There is something of this fear, too, in the persecution of heretics, apostates, and nonbelievers. It is also evident in coercive “modernization” policies that seek to eradicate traditional ideas and practices, which are correspondingly stigmatized as superstitious, barbaric, retrograde.
Fear of contamination does not require tremendous clarity about the purity that ought not to be defiled. Indeed, it is usually only the hardened ideologues among the ethnic-cleansers, orthodox, and modernizers, for example, who have clearly articulated the ideals of purity that they so mercilessly defend. The mass of people who engorge anti-contamination with social and political support are often clearer about their aversions than their ideals.
Nevertheless, while not at all as straightforward as it may seem, I assume that an aversion to contamination is always related in some way to a desire for purity.
Following the adage of Terence – “nothing human is alien to me” – I hope to inspect this relationship with a bit of self-reflection. Among my family and friends I have been notorious since my teenage years for flying into a fit of rage when receiving a botched pizza delivery. An apoplexy produced, as I will explain, by the deliveryman's casual defilement of my personal pizza ritual.
When I was in high school a favorite ritual of mine, when my parents would go out for the evening, was to order a large pizza, rent one of a handful of movies that I had seen over and over again, and watch and eat in perfect solitude, in perfect silence, in the perfectly dark, tidied family room. If I remember correctly, some of these movies were: Wall Street, The Mission, The Last Temptation of Christ, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Henry V, Glory, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Crucial to the ritual, but least predictable, was the quality of the pizza. So, what constitutes a botched pizza delivery? The cheese has swirled and shifted, clumping on one side of the pie, leaving the other side cheeseless – even bereft of sauce! Maybe some of the crust is torn, folded, or otherwise deformed. The whole thing is cold. I’ve already given an ample tip to the pizza deliverer before scrutinizing the delivery.
Just thinking about this scenario still gets me agitated. Now, I don’t remember ever actually expressing my rage to a pizza deliveryman. But I certainly remember, after paying him and saying goodbye, putting the box down on the stair landing across from the front door, opening and looking into the box and then flipping out: “that son of bitch!” “god damn it!” “mother fucker!”
I am not proud of these moments. And my loved ones have appropriately ridiculed me about them. Yet, I think it is fair to say that I have very little general propensity to rage or other similar states. In fact, I am more likely to be criticized for being annoyingly imperturbable. So what’s up with the juvenile ranting and raving about a botched pizza delivery?
Here is my hypothesis: it was a response to the contamination of an important ritual in my teenage life and understanding the importance of maintaining the purity of this ritual to me at that time will explain – though not, of course, justify – my tantrums. This understanding will also provide information from which to extrapolate some more general claims about the dangerous human desire for purity (and its correlate, the human aversion to contamination).
While I very much enjoyed high school, I still had to endure the usual complex relationships, romantic woes, and academic pressures. On “movie nights,” however, I was drawn into and inhabited an alternative reality. I released myself to stories rich with moral complexity on a grand scale, exciting stories with inspiring heroes and potent symbols of sanctity. Cyclically, each film re-oriented me with its distinctive pace, music, colors, moods, faces, landscapes, and speeches – each with its own temporality and spatiality.
I suspect that I so enjoyed high school at least in part because the reality where I went to school and socialized was not the only reality in which I lived.
If this is true, then it is no wonder that I went berserk when the pizza deliveryman failed to do his part. Pizza night only works if everything is just right: the solitude, the silence, the darkness … the pizza! By ruining the pizza, the deliveryman irredeemably contaminates pizza night! He shuts the gate to a vital alternative reality! I need to calm down.
My outlandish reaction is actually quite terrifying. What if the stakes were higher? What happens when a person feels like all of the rituals, places, moments, objects, and relationships that have to be just right in order for him to endure the stress and uncertainty of life are genuinely threatened or already overwhelmed by contamination? Imagine the rage, the violence.
Of course, circumstances are easiest when the satisfaction of a person’s desire for purity requires little or nothing of anyone else, impacts others in no significant way, and is generally viewed by others with indifference. But these features do not seem to obtain in most cases.
And, to be sure, some dreams of purity ought never to be realized. In a democratic society, citizens are tasked to decide together which should be denied realization as a matter of law, policy, and moral convention. At the same time, a reasonably just society will always be careful not to encroach on the rituals and other things that are permissible and that people need to be just right. Neither the state, nor society at large can afford too often to be the proverbial inept pizza deliveryman.
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