Haggadah vs. hellfire? In Scalia interview, the devil may be in the (Jewish) details

At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick notes that the Internet is agog at an interview between a journalist for New York Magazine, Jennifer Senior, and Antonin Scalia, the conservative Supreme Court justice.

Lithwick, like others, casts the interview as a paradigm of how blue and red America don’t get one another. (The paradox, of course, is that both antagonists are New Yorkers, but never mind.)

The crux of this analysis is Scalia’s apparent offense when Senior gives the justice an apparently surprised look after he says he believes in the devil:

Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?

You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.


I hope you weren’t sensing contempt from me. It wasn’t your belief that surprised me so much as how boldly you expressed it.

I was offended by that. I really was.

It’s hard to assess how offended Scalia really is — we’d need at least audio to factor in tone, etc.

But the punditocracy is up and running with the unbridgeable-gap narrative. Back to Lithwick:

This may just be Scalia acting out. But it also serves to illuminate the extent to which this interview encapsulates the nearly complete polarization of political discourse. She can’t believe this man (or any man in 2013) has grandchildren who still think homosexuality is morally wrong. He can’t fathom that she’s never met anyone who believes in the devil.

I wonder if that’s all there is to it. There’s another apparent gap between Senior and Scalia, suggested earlier in the interview. Senior is attempting to jive with Scalia, when he explains why he doesn’t attend the State of the Union — it’s too much of a rehearsed show, he says.

Of course, the press has the whole thing, and they’re up in the gallery—you can hear them turning pages as the president is speaking. Why doesn’t he just print it out and send it over?

It’s like the Haggadah.

In the years when I went, we used to take bets on how long the speech would be. Rehnquist loved to have betting pools—on football games, baseball games.

Scalia does not respond to the Haggadah reference, although Senior tells me, via Twitter, that he laughed. Senior, notably, is something of a Jewish navel gazer — albeit, a highly readable one (and I know from Jewish navel-gazing).

And to the degree that Jews have any concept of the devil, it is considerably less specific and less preeminent in theology than the one embraced by Roman Catholics like Scalia. (Senior, in another tweet, says she believes there were knowledge gaps — but on her side.)

Might the gap between these two have less to do with politics than with faith?

Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.