Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not to be clever and brilliant and original. Sometimes the best thing is to give readers words for ideas and conditions they already understand, but may not have quite articulated yet.
Call it: codify the obvious.
And sometimes the best thing a writer can do is reveal a bit of himself, not because he’s unique, but because he isn’t.
Call it: no, we’re not alone. We may not always be comfortable with the company, but we’re not alone.
In the last posting, I mentioned that during a long period of enforced inactivity for medical reasons, I got a lot of reading done. Nothing specialized or focused, just whatever came my way and looked interesting. The local library and used book store provided several dozen volumes from decades long gone, not classics, sometimes not even particularly good, but often evocative.
The books that influence you most, perhaps even change you, need not be masterpieces. All they have to do is reach inside and get you going.
And so it was that I came upon Herman Wouk’s 1959 This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, his personal explanation of Orthodox Judaism and why he chose it.* The book is literate, respectful, genuinely modest, the work of a great novelist, a sincere practicing Jew, and a decent man.
I hated it.
When you have such a seemingly inappropriate reaction, you may not want to inquire too closely into why. It may also take time to figure it out, if you do. I had the curiosity and I had the time. I reread the book. I “reverse engineered” it. Finally, I understood what bothered me so intensely. It was a certain dishonesty, or more aptly a kind of willful self-blinding so ingrained in the Jewish worldview that most of us are probably not even aware of it.
Wouk wrote This Is My God in response to two major issues. The first was the accelerating assimilation of American Jews. As the cliché ran, “The Gentiles don’t want to kill us; they want to marry us.” The second issue, the accelerating growth of ignorance of things Jewish among his and his children’s generations, enabled the first. The two issues coalesced into: why should there continue to be a Jewish people?
Only Jews, among all the world’s civilized peoples, have to ask that question. Incessantly. Only Jews, it seems, are unsatisfied with the simple “Existence confers the right of existence” explanation or the easy acceptance of some higher calling, be it expressed as “American Exceptionalism,” “The Middle Kingdom,” “Mother Russia” or the rest of the catalogue of earthly chosenness. For Jews, there always has to be something more.
There are no doubt many deep reasons why Jews ask it, and ask it so obsessively. Wouk chose not to go there, simply accepted that because we have to ask, we also have to answer. After significant bush-around beating, he concluded, in essence:
We exist because of the Law. We should continue to exist for the sake of the Law, until such time as . . .
Here he trails off, as though in embarrassment. He invokes no messianic expectations, no “Nation of Priests” or “Light unto the Gentiles” imagery or commandments. It all comes down to, “Stay together for the sake of the rules, until something very good happens.”
Not much of an answer from such an articulate man and dedicated Jew.
But then, he slips something in, almost as though he didn’t want to write about it, couldn’t refute it, but had to mention it. He invokes a saying – he gives no source – that “law is the idolatry of the Jews.” He then agrees, sorta kinda, by concluding that the statement contains “a sharp half-truth.” Then he drops the subject entirely.
I didn’t drop the subject. Stay together for the sake of the rules? Stay together for the idolatry of the Jews? What kind of justification is that for a man – for a people – who, except for a small minority, no longer fret the Covenant? They certainly don’t credit the legend that every Jew who ever existed or would exist was present at Mount Sinai, giving free consent to eternal servitude to the divine. What kind of justification for a people who embraced a Zionism that specifically rejected the Jewish mission of enlightenment, along with the notion that the mission could only be performed in the Diaspora?
I took up the matter with a rabbi friend. He responded that every religion has its temptations to idolatry. True. But we weren’t talking about every religion. We were talking about one only, and one people only. The conversation faded. So did several others. And the question of the “sharp half-truth” remained:
Is law (lower-case l) the idolatry of the Jews?
And if so, what does that mean for any attempt to create a 21st century Jewish civilization that the world needs and will respect?
*Wouk subsequently wrote The Will to Live On (2000), The Language God Talks (2010) and a novel, The Lawgiver (2012).