Philip Roth and Orthodox Jewry

Philip Roth, Towering Novelist Who Explored Lust, Jewish Life and America, Dies at 85.  That New York Times obituary has an entire section entitled, Irritating the Rabbis, about his 1959 first collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus. “It won the National Book Award in 1960 but was denounced…by some influential rabbis, … In 1962, while appearing on a panel at Yeshiva University, Mr. Roth was so denounced that he resolved never to write about Jews again. He quickly changed his mind…Gershom Scholem, the great kabbalah scholar, declared that [Portnoy’s Complaint] was more harmful to Jews than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The New York Times – and, in interviews, Philip Roth himself – made it seem as though he was peacefully writing when he was suddenly attacked by rabbis.  Some have pointed out that the truth is that Roth was looking for a fight. For one, he went to Yeshiva University to speak on the panel!  The content of his stories, on their face, also seem like bait for the mainstream Jewish community.  In The Conversion of the Jews, a young boy challenges his rabbi in Cheder to admit that a foundational Christian belief is not irrational: if God could have created the world miraculously in seven days, then, logically, the same God could have impregnated a woman miraculously through non-biological means. The rabbi refuses to concede the point, and eventually the boy threatens to jump off the synagogue roof unless the rabbi and other Jews admit that it’s not illogical.  In the end, to prevent the jump, the people below and the rabbi concede the boy’s point.  That story’s nothing.  Roth’s 1959 story Defender of the Faith, which ran in The New Yorker, was even more incendiary. That story is about a group of Jewish soldiers on a base in Missouri during World War II who get special privileges from their Jewish commanding officer by taking advantage of their shared heritage and preying on his sentimentality.

For publishing that story, he was called a self-hating Jew.  One of the senior rabbinic figures of American Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Rackman, who later became President of Bar Ilan University, criticized Roth fervently for publishing these stories for the general American public. If he wanted to point out problems with the Jewish community, he ought to have published in a Jewish periodical—or better, published in Hebrew. “What is being done to silence this man?” he wrote the Anti-Defamation League, “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”

There is no doubt that Philip Roth is a controversial figure on many levels which have been explored and will continue being explored by literary critics and by the general media. For his language and some of his content, his writings cannot receive rabbinic approbation.  Having stipulated those qualifications, I believe that the growth of our community, the orthodox community in America, both in population size and in general influence, owes a debt to Philip Roth and his critiques of the Jewish community.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Orthodoxy in America was on the decline. In 1955, sociologist Marshall Sklare wrote about Orthodox Jews that “the history of their movement in this country can be written in terms of a case study on institutional decay.” In 1964 Look Magazine ran an article entitled, “The Vanishing American Jew,” which predicted the imminent disappearance of Orthodoxy in America. The joke’s on them, of course: in 2018, we’re still here, bigger than ever, and Look Magazine is defunct.  In fact, the pendulum began swinging shortly after that article appeared.  In the late 1960s and 1970s, the movement saw the beginnings of a population boom. There were more and larger institutions, synagogues and schools, more people who grew up orthodox were remaining such, and more people were joining orthodoxy from outside it.  What changed in the 1960s?

A hundred years before Philip Roth ever put pen to paper and Look Magazine ran sociology articles, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch saw sentiments among the German Jewish community not entirely different from those held by 1950s American Jewry, although they manifested differently. They wanted to pray entirely in German instead of Hebrew. They wished to abolish fasting on Tisha B’av because Germany was the new Promised Land. They wanted to make Sunday the day of rest instead of Saturday in order to have the same church going day as their Christian neighbors.

In his comment on Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly blessing which we read about in the Torah reading this Shabbat, Rabbi Hirsch turns our attention to the last blessing: יישא ה’ פניו אליך וישם לך שלום: “May God lift His Countenance toward you and establish peace for you.” Focusing on the last part, “And establish Peace for you,” he speaks directly to the traditional Torah-observant Jew living among the German Jews of the enlightenment:

“It may appear as if your efforts that are directed toward God and God alone, and the sovereignty of God that seems to be directed solely toward you, will make you out of step with all the others and completely isolate you from them.  But in reality it is only for you that God “establishes peace,” only for you has He assured consummate, imperturbable harmony. If only you will be a true, genuine servant of God with all your body and soul, so that God will be able to see in you the fulfillment of His ultimate purposes, then all those around you who are sensitive and thoughtful will recognize you as that element which makes their own lives whole, spurs them on to good endeavors, and sustains them in existence. Every breath drawn by an individual who truly serves God will elicit a responsive chord from the universe around him.”

In many of his talks and writings, Rav Hirsch emphasized that assimilation was not the answer; it would not help the Jews integrate into German society nor would it encourage acceptance among their Protestant neighbors. Instead, he preached, only if Jews were devoted to Torah observance and hold steadfast to their traditional identities would they gain appreciation and respect—not to mention, bring peace to the world.

The message Rav Hirsch had in the 1860s and 70s in Germany didn’t resonate in America until the 1960s and 70s, and his critique of the 19th century assimilating German Jewish community was echoed by Philip Roth’s critique of the 1950s American one.

After all, who did Roth criticize? Who was the object of his satire? In story after story, novel after novel, Roth satirized postwar, suburban, upper middle class, bourgeois, assimilated American Jewry, Jews whose central life goal was to be accepted by their Protestant neighbors and into their country clubs.  In one story, Eli the Fanatic, a group of Jewish suburbanites are alarmed by the influx of ultra-orthodox Holocaust survivors; they send Eli to represent them before the refugees and try and convince them that building a Yeshiva is against zoning laws in their Westchester town (nowadays, Roth’s example would have been the Eruv).

They write the following, deeply troubling note to the leader of the refugees: “It is only since the war that Jews have been able to buy property here, and for Jews and Gentiles to live beside each other in amity. For this adjustment to be made, both Jews and Gentiles alike have had to give up some of their more extreme practices in order not to threaten or offend one another.” And here is the troubling part which gives me goosebumps each time I read it: “Perhaps if such conditions had existed in prewar Europe, the persecution of the Jewish people…could not have been carried out with such success—in fact, might not have been carried out at all.” They blame the victims of the Shoah for not assimilating enough. This group, who was so very clearly wrong, is the object of Roth’s satire. It’s the very same group and the very same distorted values and moral hypocrisy he criticizes repeatedly in his works.  At the end of that story, by the way, Eli sides with the orthodox refugees, empathizes with them, believes they have a right to live in Westchester, and even becomes one of them.

As early as 1959 Roth voiced a sentiment which would become mainstream among people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s not just in the Jewish community but beyond it. They wanted to transcend what they saw as their parents’ generation’s materialism, superficiality, hypocrisy, vacuousness, and lifestyle shaped by keeping up with the Joneses. People were thirsty for a life filled with greater meaning.  Philip Roth’s criticisms of American Jewish culture reflect ones that are very similar to the criticism Rav Hirsch had and orthodoxy continues to have of that same culture.  A population of people who share those criticisms is one that is more open to turning to traditional values and adopting orthodox Judaism.

Second: what is Roth’s criticism of the rabbis? Think back to the story I shared with you, The Conversion of the Jews. The rabbi in that story seems closed-minded. He refuses to entertain his student’s question and dismisses it. He hits the student. In fact, the climax of the story involves the boy yelling from the synagogue rooftop, “You should never hit anybody about God!” This was the image of the orthodox rabbi in the public sphere, and these kinds of criticisms pushed orthodox rabbis to change their tone.

It’s true there had always been friendly orthodox rabbis, but it became a requirement. In America, if rabbis want to attract followers, they must be open-minded, they should smile, they should be non-judgmental, and they should entertain all sorts of questions. Today, most modern orthodox schools and Yeshivot in America and Israel take pride in publicizing that no question is off limits.  Rav Hirsch was this sort of rabbi in late 19th century Germany. In the late 1960s, rabbis who exhibited these qualities, such as Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and Reb Shlomo Carlebach, emerged as the spokespersons and institution builders of modern orthodoxy.  The rest is history.

Orthodoxy in America could not have grown without these two cultural shifts: (1) a change in perspective and mainstream rejection of 1950s assimilationist Jewish values which in turn can yield an openness to returning to tradition, and (2) a change in attitude among rabbinic leadership so that those very people see a friendly face in the tradition and are actually attracted to it.

I don’t know if Philip Roth inspired these trends, but his writing certainly reflected the need for them and it did come before their mass appeal and adoption. I also don’t know if he was a self-hating Jew or wasn’t or what that necessarily means, and maybe indeed it was wrong for him to air his grievances so publicly. But I do know that to improve, grow, and succeed, one must take good criticism from wherever it comes, and it wasn’t until Orthodoxy internalized the critiques found in Philip Roth’s writing that it was able to thrive.  May our adherence to traditional Jewish values, to Torah and Mitzvot, our identities and our roots, and simultaneous friendliness and openness, indeed bring us, as Rav Hirsch suggested, the Bracha of Shalom: peace for ourselves, peace for our families and communities, and may it indeed also bring us peace with our neighbors.

Originally presented at Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob on Shabbat Naso, May 26, 2018.

About the Author
Roy Feldman is Rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany, New York. Prior to that, he was Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and taught Judaic studies at the Ramaz Upper School. He has studied at and holds degrees from Yeshivat Petach Tikva, Columbia University, and Yeshiva University. Rabbi Feldman believes that a rabbi’s primary role in the twenty-first century is to articulate, embody, and exemplify the reasons why traditional Judaism remains relevant today.
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