Essays Print
Is Literature Kosher by Professor Manfred Weidhorn
Is Literature Kosher by Professor Manfred Weidhorn

Volume 3 , Issue 1

It has long been commonplace among important segments of the Orthodox community to look askance at secular literature. Given the subject matter, the language, and the iconoclasm of many modern classics, such an attitude is not without its plausibility. The virulent attacks on God and religion by the likes of Nietzsche and the later Mark Twain; the obligatory exploration of all forms of sexual activity, often in graphic detail and with prurient zest, in many serious novels; the ubiquity of dialogue that sounds like the language of truck drivers even when the interlocutors are cultivated men and women -- this earns all too well the comprehensive appellation ?shtuss,? not to speak of specific charges like heresy, immorality, obscenity, and ?evil language.? Doing a morally neutral, if mentally inactive, thing like watching a Mets game is probably healthier for the soul than immersing oneself in such corrosive books. How indeed can one justify spending one's limited leisure time on reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy or Lady Chatterly's romp in the woods rather than the proverbial ?blatt Gemorah??

But the Judaic discomfort with secular literature by far antedates the age of modern candor and self‑exposure. Even when writers operated within a consensus about the existence of G‑d, subscribed to a universal (in the West) moral code, and observed decorum in subject matter and language, literature per se was still suspect. What need is there to read Paradise Lost, noble though it might be, if one has mastered Genesis -- text, aggadah, commentaries? Why consort with ?fiction,? i.e., lies, fabrication, imaginary worlds, when one has tales aplenty -- good stories, but also true stories to boot -- in Torah and Judaic lore?

Since no less than six credits in literature are required of students in most colleges, the legitimacy (for Jewishly‑oriented people) of at least a portion of the Liberal Arts curriculum is consequently called into question. Is there here indeed a clash between rabbinic values and academic ones? Increasingly, education in the Liberal Arts, specifically in the Humanities, has been coming under pressure from a society ever more committed to preprofessional and business training. Such courses are dismissed as nugatory because they contribute nothing to the student's future money‑making capacity. Could the objection of the rabbis, when joined to the criticism of the educational pragmatists and bottom‑liners, administer the coup de grace to the idea of Torah U'Mada and confine the observant Jew to the combination of ?Black Hat Yeshiva? by day and purely vocational training by night?

Perhaps not. This is, of course, not a peculiarly Jewish problem. Christian theologians, the pagan, saintly Socrates, and those modern theologians of Satan -- the Nazis and the Communists -- have betrayed a similar anxiety in the face of the irresponsible, amoral, anarchic literary imagination. As one Church Father exclaimed, ?What has Horace to do with the Psalter, Virgil with the Gospel?? Yet maybe, just maybe, only the Jewish tradition offers a dispensation.

Leaving out of account the extreme test case of a Nietzsche, Henry Miller, or Marquis de Sade, let us try to make a case for reading righteous gentiles like Homer and Shakespeare, Dante and Milton, Sophocles and Melville. The case has to rest naturally on the Judaic tradition, and one does find three crucial texts -- one Biblical, one Talmudic, and one Chasidic -- that cry out for an imaginative interpretation.

Nathan Spins a Tale

The Biblical passage is Samuel 2:12. When King David sins and Nathan comes to reprove him, the prophet, instead of being direct and critical, tells a tale. Call it a parable, fable, analogue, hypothetical case, exemplum, historical incident, or what you will -- it is a story, a brief vacation, apparently, from the day's business. In other words, Nathan has invented literature, and the Bible shows in this incident that story telling (not even of a morally uplifting kind) has a socially redeeming value. What with human defense mechanisms and man's reluctance to know himself, a story is a roundabout way to force a sinner to examine his own heart. What looks like an entertaining painting turns out to be a distressing mirror. One relevant tale may be more affecting than a thousand lofty moral exhortations. David soon enough saw nothing ?escapist? about -- no ?shtuss? in -- that particular story.

How is all this relevant? Well, halakha would seem to proscribe cigarette smoking. Yet an occasional Orthodox Jew, even a rabbi, has sometimes been seen smoking. Literature informs us that between the moral imperative and one's own actions lie struggles, frailty, and, above all, rationalization. Read Julius Caesar, Othello, or Macbeth, and you know your own weakness, not only the other fellow's, a little better. The Judaic tradition tells one what to do, and, a little more frequently, what not to do; literature dramatizes some of the evasions and difficulties (and triumphs, too) on the road to fulfillment. Judaica tells what should be, and literature tells what is. To be informed, by means of fiction, of the herculean task involved in going from what is to what should be is realism, not pessimism or defeatism. Sizing up the challenges one faces is education, not escapism.

Telling the Story

The second text is a Chasidic tale. When Jews were overtaken by evil days, the Baal Shem Tov went to a certain part of the forest to meditate, light a fire, and say a prayer in order to overcome the troubles. His disciple did not know how to light the fire, but went to the same place and said the prayer. The disciple of the disciple did not know how to light the fire or even the correct form of the prayer, but at least he knew the place. The next disciple did not even know the place. All he could do was tell the story of what happened.

This anecdote, at once amusing and poignant, suggests that story‑telling is a way of putting together the fragmented nature of human existence in a world which has degenerated. Either because of ejection from Paradise, or because of the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the people, or because of the advent of the cold, dark age of modern secularism and rationalism, the distance between God and man has grown. To keep the faith requires greater effort now than it once did.

Story telling may be a lesser version of the original bracing experience, but it represents a contact with that experience. It is emotion recollected in alienation, but it is also a life‑preserving memory of revelation. To paraphrase Shaw, those who can, do; those who can't, tell stories; those who can't tell stories, read them. In one sense, literature, even at its most profane and irreverent, is about man trying to retrace his steps to some original authentic experience or dispensation, behind which is hidden the face of the divine.

All men have been ejected from Paradise and lost the way to the sacred spot in the forest -- the riddle at the heart of existence. All have to wrestle with suffering and obscurity in place of harmony, unity of being, and clarity. The teiku aspect of existence overwhelms us, and we wait. A way to passing the time is telling tales, tales of woe. One who wakes up with a pain, be it physical, psychological, or spiritual, quickly discovers that the one effective form of relief is not Alka Seltzer or Anacin, but anecdote -- telling others about one's pain. That is ?history.? He will also discover that the therapy works better if his telling makes an impact on his audience and that that in turn requires a certain amount of adornment, of tampering with the facts, of altering emphases. That is ?literature.?

Feelings of Human Kinship

And this strange creature, this anomaly -- telling lies in order to get at the truth -- not only consoles the self for loss of original intense experience, but also forges links with others similarly desolated. Literature is an attempt to endow us with feelings of human kinship, to put us in the other person's shoes and thereby learn -- as the Talmud urges -- not to be so quick to judge others invidiously. That was King David's discovery.

Put differently, Judaica presents the Jew with his obligations towards G‑d and towards the community; literature presents the Jew with the ties that bind him to the rest of the human race, those traits and tendencies, those psychological constants that constitute human nature. Only a Jew must observe the Sabbath with punctiliousness, but both Jew and Gentile know feelings of rebelliousness against all restrictions. To the rabbinic fear that literary portrayal of the rebelliousness may validate it in the eyes of the reader, one may reply that portrayal of the rebelliousness shows it to be a normal universal affliction that can perhaps be mastered by better self‑control and more liberal exercise of free will.

The Judaic tradition, then, suggests that story telling may be a mode of self‑discovery and a mode of therapy or consolation. It also implicitly invites literary discourse to help chart the nature of existence. The main text here is in the Talmud, and it is, frankly, a shocker:

For two and a half years were Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel in dispute, the former asserting that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created. They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created.

Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

This piece of chronicle must, like the chasidic tale, have delighted Kafka. Imagine having a vote not on who would be mayor, but on the wisdom of God's decision! Imagine taking all of -- or only -- two and a half years to ruminate on so esoteric and impractical a question! Summer brings its heat waves and siroccos, winter its cold gusts, ministers rise and fall, caravans move to and from Timbuktu -- and still the sages, magisterially oblivious to the quotidian life around them, carry on their earnest deliberations. ?But, on the other hand, if you consider ?? They were clearly not about to rush into any hasty judgments on the universe. One surmises that the vote must have been close.

The conclusion they reach is a startling one, and it goes against the mainstream of Judaic, indeed monotheistic, cosmic optimism. Nothing less than all literature, secular as well as Judaic, is necessary to help the reader come to terms with it. Certain major literary works force the reader to raise that question in one form or another. Homer: Was the ultimate triumph of the Greeks and the bringing to fruition of the latent nobility in Achilles worth the schism in the Greek camp, with the resulting death of Patroclus and of numerous Greek warriors? Sophocles: Did Oedipus's eventual apotheosis redeem his committing two of the most heinous of acts? Euripides: Did the transgressions of Jason, Hyppolitus, and Pentheus justify the terrible retributions of Medea, Aphrodite, Dionysus? Virgil: Was the establishment of a pax romana a worthy trade off for the trail of bloodshed, of defeated and discarded lives, left first by Aeneas and his band and then by the Roman legions? Machiavelli: Is the suspension of traditional morality balanced by the need to preserve the state? Cervantes: Is an idealistic beneficence a good return for delusion, oversimplification, and incipient madness? Shakespeare: Was Lear's eventual acquisition of wisdom worth ingratitude and irremediable catastrophe? Milton: Was man's supernatural redemption worth all the pain of the original fall from grace? Huxley: Is the advent of a society in which all creature comforts are attended to and all social ills ameliorated worth the elimination of individuality, independent thought, and traditional values? And (in a classic American work still to be written) does the existence of the freest, most prosperous and generous society in history -- that of the U.S. -- justify what was necessary to make it possible: treason, rebellion, genocide, slavery, civil war, and atomic attack?

The Dignity of Man

What all these works have in common is the raising of a question for which there is no easy answer. They share, in fact, define, the tragic view of life. At issue is, simply, the dignity of man. Are -- to confine ourselves to secular matters only -- the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Bach, the paintings of Rembrandt, the findings of Newton and Einstein, are all these worth Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Gulag? Was the human adventure a success; was the game worth the candle? Do the pluses outweigh the minuses? And if people wonder of what possible use is such an insoluble question to an accountant or a dentist, they forget that on it turns the meaning of life and the attendant question of how men are to comport themselves daily. The rabbis articulate the philosophic issue, but literature is necessary to make one feel it, to make its universality palpable.

The Talmudic passage does not reveal the occasion or the content of the discussion. What went on during those two and a half years -- what sort of arguments did the rabbis use? The reader must supply those himself. How will he do so? By studying chemistry, mathematics, sociology, accounting, or computer science? Hardly. By studying history and philosophy? Maybe. From history he will get the raw data and from philosophy he will get occasional formulations of the question, but only in literature will he find the data combined with the formulations and the question posed in concrete rather than abstract terms -- no, not even ?posed? but felt, acted out, portrayed, lived, suffered through. A thorough grounding in literature will give historical and cultural reverberations and depth to the rabbinic question. To understand Torah fully, a sage has said, a man must study everything. ?Everything? is a rather comprehensive word, somewhat hyperbolic, but if it probably excludes the Mickey Spillane and James Bond schlock, it probably includes Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare.

The Talmudic text is meaningful and symbolic even in its datum about time. Two and a half years is just about right. If I were a dictator at an institution of higher learning, I would go so far against current emphases on preprofessional training as to require all undergraduates to devote the whole of their first two and a half years exclusively to the Humanities, and only then free them to pursue scientific and preprofessional studies. The two and a half years so spent would enable any college graduate to audit the rabbinic deliberations on that question. He might not have much to contribute and he still might not agree with the results of the final vote, but he would at least understand the debate.

Manfred Weidhorn is the Guterman Professor of English Literature at Yeshiva University. He holds a doctorate from Columbia University and has authored nine books and numerous articles.



All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011