Gates to the New City by Howard Schwartz
Volume 5 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1991 | Tishrei, 5752)
This is not a book intended to be read; rather its author demands that it be learned. Unlike much of the valuable Torah literature currently becoming available in English, Rabbi Belsky deliberately eschews the discursive narrative style that typifies the Western literary heritage. Instead, this text employs the succinct and compact phraseology exemplified in the Torah itself, as well as throughout the corpus of traditional Torah literature and hermeneutics, texts requiring a specifically Jewish interpretative approach: that meticulous scrutiny of the precise wording of each individual passage is essential for the disclosure of the multifaceted, multilayered teachings the author intends to transmit. Rabbi Belsky insists that, even utilizing so non‑Jewish a medium as modern English, language can still be fashioned now in the mode identical to that employed in such works as the Talmud, the Midrash, and the Rambam's Mishnah Torah in which the author or redactor communicates his meanings to readers only when the latter engages in a process of intensive thoughtful analysis of the specific word choices and order employed in the exposition of any given topic.
Necessarily, therefore, such a text must be sedulously examined if its readers are to discover the complete import of its teachings. That much of the text consists of translations without elaboration of teachings selected from the Pachad Yitzchok of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner further reveals the full significance of Belsky's choice of this difficult but enormously rewarding narrative mode.
As in the first volume of his ?quest for Jewish majesty,? Belsky organizes his teachings topically according to the annual cycle of Jewish festivals. The previous volume includes material on Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot while this one focuses on Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, Tisha B'Av, Chanukah, and Purim. However, as is typical in the Torah literary style, the narrative defined by each festival interweaves a kaleidoscope of themes in such a manner that the nexus of the various festivals and their interconnection with the weekly Shabbat, the monthly Rosh Chodesh and the fundamentals of Torah philosophy become apparent.
This very interconnectedness is an essential element in comprehending all Torah and mitzvot, indeed in grasping all the particulars of Jewish history. For example, among the many themes that emerge from the work is, appropriately, the definition and explication of the notion of kavod, majesty. According to Belsky, Jewish kavod is our own response to Divine Chesed, Kindness, and it is precisely this Chesed itself which creates this relationship. Furthermore as all kavod is rooted in Torah, ultimately it arises from our delight and gratitude in HaShem as experienced through the medium of our observance of His mitzvot.
This understanding of kavod implies a still more profound Torah. For since it is only through the Jewish people's fulfillment of mitzvot that all creation is infused with kavod, it logically ensues that where there is no gratitude for the Divine Chesed, which must be expressed through this adherence of the Jews to Torah and mitzvot, there will be no flow of this Chesed. Thus, in the final analysis, all creation is dependent upon the faithful and on deeds of the receiver of the Divine Chesed, the Jewish people.
Belsky also explains that only where there is gratitude, expressed through proper performance of mitzvot, is the opportunity provided for teshuvah and, in consequence, the eliciting of a further flow of Chesed. Thus the fate of the Jewish people and of all creation depends, ultimately, on the faithful performance of the Divine commandments.
Another constant theme in the book is the traditional Jewish teaching that the beginning is rooted in the end. Thus Pesach is explained as a mashal, an allegory, for Creation, and Purim, as a mashal for the Messianic end of time; accordingly, all redemption is rooted in Pesach. However, both Pesach and Purim ‑ i.e., the beginning, Creation, and the end, the reign of Mashiach ‑ are themselves rooted in Shabbat, the mashal of redemption. For these reasons, necessarily, Pesach is the beginning of the festival cycle, and Purim, the end of it, and the entire cycle revolves around the weekly renewal of redemption through the observance of Shabbat. Furthermore, Belsky argues throughout the work that since all beginnings are rooted in the teleological end of time, not only the festivals and Shabbat, but every event in Jewish history must somehow be connected coherently to this ultimate Messianic end.
Although the constant repetition of the phrase ?in a sense? is often quite distracting, the endeavor invested in learning this work is well worth the effort. For instance in his discussion of Purim, Belsky presents Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner's Torah interpretation of the psychology of human imagination, a faculty often ignored in many otherwise insightful presentations of Torah epistemology. According to Hutner, all human perceptions arise either through the senses or through the intellect, two faculties possessing very disparate characteristics: the intellect abstracts and generalizes while the senses excel in their powers of clarity and impact of recognition. For its part, the imagination functions autonomously as a mediator between these two sources of perception, imbuing intellect with the qualities of the senses and in endowing the latter with the abilities of the former. Thus, the imagination functions as the bridge between the two, allowing movement in both directions: the intellect's abstractions traverse the bridge, imagination, bringing to the senses its freedom to generalize and abstract while the senses cross the bridge of imagination to infuse the abstractions of the mind with their clarity and force of reality.
Hutner explains that when sin is fantasized, the mind becomes engaged through the power of imagination and the fantasy acquires the reality of the senses to create broader dimensions of sin. On the other hand, imagination plays precisely the opposite role with regard to mitzvot; in this case, imagination brings to the mind's abstraction of notions such as kiddush HaShem, martyrdom, ‑ a motif intrinsically involved in the kavannah of the daily recital of Shema Yisrael ‑? the sense's grasp of physical clarity and impact, thus transmuting abstract contemplation into an experiential reality.
Hutner's elaboration of the moral and psychological consequences of these relationships is most rewarding and illustrates so very profoundly how, as with so much else in the mundane world, the human capacity of imagination may be elevated to the level of the sacred or degraded to the opposite.
Citadel and Tower is a most profound explication of the complex interconnections of all Torah teaching and practice. In grappling with this work, the student begins to absorb the wisdom of the teachings of Torah giants such as Rabbi Hutner, the Maharal of Prague and the Ramban, in addition to the insights of Rabbi Belsky himself. The book's narrative style conveys a profusion of teachings from these masters of Torah wisdom when carefully and patiently explored. However, these exertions of the student of this work will be generously rewarded with a new awareness of the majesty of the Divine Chesed and with a renewed commitment to responding to it with the mitzvot of gratitude.
Joseph H. Udelson is a Professor of History at Tennessee State University and a Corresponding Editor of The Jewish Review.
Howard Schwartz's Gates to the New City is an anthology of stories by over one hundred Jewish authors of all nationalities whose source of inspiration may be found in the Jewish religious and literary tradition as it has survived from the Biblical era to the present. The stories are collected in seven sections or ?books? whose titles serve to identify their ancient, medieval or chasidic sources. Stories by Jewish authors as historically separate and as culturally and religiously divergent as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Hayim Nachman Bialik, Cynthia Ozick, Franz Kafka, Martin Buber, Primo Levi, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel appear side by side under chapter headings such as ?Biblical Themes,? ?Apocryphal Themes,? ?Aggadic Themes,? ?Themes of Merkava Mysticism,? ?Kabbalistic Themes,? ?Themes of Folklore? and ?Hasidic Themes.?
When I first received this carefully compiled, eight hundred page anthology of Jewish short stories, my literary instinct was to open to the approximate middle of the book and, with careful disregard for the editor's introduction, randomly read whatever stories had interesting titles.? ?After all,? I reasoned, ?Why not make sure that the stories are enjoyable first before subjecting myself to two hundred pages of scholarly notes and academic apologies??
I began my journey through Gates to the New City by skipping around through the different chapters, determined to read only those short stories whose titles had names of animals in them. By chance, the first short story I read was the humorous account of ?The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster,? by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, retold from the Yiddish and Hebrew sources by Jack Reimer. Fearful that I might actually reread Rabbi Nachman's playful tale about a prince possessed to learn its deeper, allegorical meaning before completing my original task of assessing the story's interest for the common reader, I quickly turned to the following short story, ?Fable of the Goat,? by S.Y. Agnon. In only two and a half pages, Agnon was able to tell a tale both that is haunting and bitter‑sweet. Suddenly, I realized that I was beginning to mull over the the new twist Agnon had put on the familiar Jewish theme of separation between father and son. To make matters worse, I found that I was also returning to ?The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster? to see if the notes collected at the back of Gates to the New City corroborated my own literary interpretations.
There seemed to be only one way to drive out the educational value of stories from my mind: I had to read ?The Animal in the Synagogue? by Franz Kafka. But, here, too, I found myself admiring the brilliant and subtle satire of a master‑storyteller. Where else could I find the creation of a ghostly monster that symbolized ‑ or signified, if you prefer <197> the involuntary sexual tensions caused by, of all things, a synagogue partition?
One of the last stories to have a creature in its title was Bernard Malamud's ?the Jewbird,? a tale of a blackbird that haunts a poor modern‑day Jewish family's apartment ?on First Avenue near the lower East River.? In his ?Notes on the Stories? at the end of Gates to the New City, the editor would have one believe that Bernard Malamud drew the source for his dark comedy from the Genesis‑inspired legend of the argument betwee Noah and the Raven, recorded in the Talmud. (B. Sahn 108b) But, after putting the book down, I found my myself involuntarily turning back to reinterpret a story whose characters had left a deep impression on my mind. With the shock that comes with a sudden revelation, I realized that Malamud's short story might also be a clever parody of Edgar Alan Poe's famous poem, ?The Raven,? <197> this time with a satiric Jewish twist. I mention this only because the presence of a non‑Jewish origin for this story seriously undermines the book's central premise to be an unique anthology of stories drawn exclusively from a Jewish literary tradition.
Finally to escape any further critical literary analysis, I lost myself in Cynthia Ozick's ?The Pagan Rabbi,? a tale about a character who was himself possessed. I found this story to be one of the most profoundly moving and haunting short stories in the anthology.? For days after I read this short story, I awoke with the same eerie feeling I had had as a child after reading certain poems and tales by Hawthorne and Poe. To its credit, the story also inspired me to find out more about Elisha ben Abuyah, the talmudic heretical sage whose character is strongly echoed in Ozick's beautiful, but disturbing tale.
For readers more interested in the more academic,and historic backdrop to the works represented in Gates to the City, Schwartz provides a comprehensive overview of the anthology's Jewish literary traditions in his introduction. Editorial notes on each tale give specific scholarship and are good reading for both the student and the general reader. Schwartz's introduction also provides explanations of methodology, reasons for grouping certain stories together and biographical notes on the authors and their work. With masterful scholarship, he places into historical perspective the entire visionary tradition in Judaism. He demonstrates how some Jewish legends came into being, and how they were embellished and later molded with a conscious literary intent. Finally, he includes indexes of the stories, names of translators and a selected bibliography of books in English.
But, ultimately, the real strength of Gates to the New City remains in the stories themselves and their sensitive presentation in the anthology. While the supportive scholarship helps bring out the more esoteric and allegorical meaning underlying each text, it is the stories themselves, with their evocative power to haunt and inspire each new generation of readers, that makes this a treasury of modern Jewish tales worth keeping.
Pinchas Nuchims is an artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn.
Books in Brief
Hitler's Children. By Gerald L. Posner. Random House, Inc., 1991. 224 incl. bibl. and index. $21.
A series of exclusive interviews with 12 children of highranking Nazi officials, some of whom were the very architects of the Third Reich, like Goring, Hess, Mengele and Donitz. Definitely one of the more interesting Holocaust related books to be published in the last year, if for no other reason than it confirms the idea that post‑Hitler Germany, as a people, still don't understand what the world's fascination with the atrocities of Nazi Germany is all about.
Wartime Lies. By Louis Begley. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991. Fiction. 198pp. $19.
A haunting novel viewed through the eyes of a child as his universe is transformed by the evil of Nazi Germany.
The Rabbinate as Calling and Vocation: Models of Rabbinic Leadership. Edited by Rabbi Basil Herring. Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991. 272pp. $30.
This collection of essays is written by highly regarded members of the Orthodox rabbinate and directed to their rabbinic colleagues. It is designed to help the modern rabbi clarify his role, as well as to provide practical advice for coping with some of the more pressing demands of the job. Includes essays by Rabbis Immanuel Jakobovits, Norman Lamm, Jacob J. Schacter and many more.
Confronting Omnicide: Jewish Reflections of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Edited by Rabbi Daniel Landes. Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991. 296pp. $30.
In the past decades, technological advancement has transformed societies, giving us extraordinary capabilities. Our achievements, however, prove to be a double‑edged sword, for the genius that enables us to enhance the quality and length of life has also put into our hands the means with which to destroy ourselves.
How will we respond to the ultimate and absolute responsibility of preserving humanity? How will countries balance their need for self‑defense and their desire for power? Where will societies turn for guidance as they grapple with the questions of survival.
Drawing on a rich variety of Jewish literary sources, including the Bible, rabbinic literature, and Jewish law and thought, the fifteen contributors to Confronting Omnicide explore different facets of nuclear threat. Essays include: The Dialectics of Power: Reflections in the Light of the Holocaust, by Rabbi Irving Greenberg; Torah and Weapons of Mass Destruction: A View from Israel, by Pinchas H. Peli; and Nuclear War through the Prism of Jewish Law: The Nature of Man and War, by J. David Bleich.
Maimonides on Prophecy: A Commentary of Selected Chapters of The Guide of the Perplexed. By David Bakan. Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991, 304pp. $30.
An analysis of several key sections of the Rambam's influential and historic work. Dr. Bakan is currently Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. He was also the author of Dr. Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition and The Duality of Human Existence.
The Foundations of the Theology of Judaism, Volume 1: God. By Jacob Neusner. Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991. 224pp. $25.
In his first volume of a trilogy, Dr. Neusner presents his systematic account of the self‑revelation of God in the writing of the Oral Torah.
What is a Jewish Joke? An Excursion into Jewish Humor. By Henry Eilbirt. Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991. 304pp. $30.
A thoughtful and engaging analysis of what is characterized as the ?phenomenon? of Jewish humor. Some you've heard, some you'll want to remember, some you'll say ?oy? about as soon as you read them.