BY YAËLLE AZAGURY
NOVEMBER 5, 2017 13:59
Adam Kirsch selects 18 compelling texts from Deuteronomy to ‘Tevye’
ADAM KIRSCH has earned a considerable reputation in the United States as a poet, literary critic and journalist writing for Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture. Just 41 years old, he is a polymath and prolific author whose thoughtful and ubiquitous analyses explore a wide array of topics, from a page of the Talmud to fine points of literary theory. “The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature” is his latest work.
It might not be his most consequential. That is not, however, because of the work’s lack of cleverness, or even discernment.
Kirsch is an attentive reader, exceptionally adept at finding resonances between texts separated by centuries. His prose is limpid, elegant, pedagogic, with each chapter preceded by a helpful synopsis. He is a knowledgeable guide who also makes arcane concepts accessible. Through a cherry- picked selection of 18 “classic” Jewish texts from Deuteronomy to Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” he offers “a panoramic portrait of Jewish thought and experience over the centuries.” His purpose is to sketch an outline of recurrent themes of Judaism, thus allowing the reader “to escape present-mindedness.” And there is a beauty to this endeavor as he identifies four central elements whose iterations over the ages have crystallized Jewish thought: God, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish People.
His comparative method is one of his strong suits. Employing a bird’s-eye view, he surveys authors such as the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Roman Jewish general Flavius Josephus, Maimonides, the diarist Glückel of Hameln, Moses Mendelssohn or Theodor Herzl, and retrieves pointed commonalities between seemingly disparate systems of thought. He demonstrates, for instance, how Philo, living in Roman Egypt in the first century CE, “asked some of the same questions as Maimonides, who lived in Muslim Egypt in the twelfth century CE”; how the Jewish rite of circumcision has ignited Jewish debate through the ages. He shows that the notion of the “chosenness” of the Jewish people perplexed the Spanish Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevy in the 12th century and that the Book of Esther in the Bible, which features the oft-encountered predicament of a Jewish servant to a non-Jewish power, hasn’t lost its relevance in Jewish history, as echoed in the modern charge of “dual loyalty.”
If one is looking for an expeditious overview of Jewish thought, Kirsch’s work will provide an informative, if incomplete, introduction to texts he has read in translation himself. This is a book for the casual reader, not the scholar, and that’s fine.
It is stimulating to read about authors such as Philo or Josephus, typically debated within the Christian canon and reclaimed here as a central contribution to the Jewish world they belonged to (I, for one, learned about both for the Western curriculum of my French Lycée with little awareness of their Jewishness). Kirsch finely clarifies how they cloaked central Jewish concepts in the language of the Greco-Roman world in which they lived.
However, some of his conclusions are sketchy, partial and one-sided. For instance, he ultimately construes Philo as a philosopher torn between the “respect owed to inheritance” and “the respect owed to reason,” one who interpreted sacred texts “against the grain.” “Philo of Alexandria was one of the first Jewish intellectuals to feel the pull of these competing demands; he would certainly not be the last.” He, thus, oddly offsets the very point made initially. Incongruously, Philo emerges no longer as a part of the Hellenistic Jewish universe of his time, but instead as a kind of rebel against it.
The trope of the Jewish intellectual caught between two worlds, and ever striving to make them converge, unwittingly transpires as the red thread of Kirsch’s book. Most praiseworthy in his eyes are precisely those figures, perennially pulled in two different directions, who finally adhere wholeheartedly to the secular path.
There is the first-century historian and general Flavius Josephus, a privileged witness and actor in the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire in 66 CE. Leading to the destruction of the Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, the war presented Josephus with the following dilemma: “rush headlong into glorious death” with the Jewish rebels or “see reason and live” by ending the fighting against the overpowering battalions of the Roman army. He chose the latter ‒ an alternative Kirsch obviously favors ‒ moving to Rome as part of the imperial entourage and spending the rest of his life “explaining the Jews to their conquerors.”
There is Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher of Sephardi origin, who was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656 for his heretical views. Living in free-thinking Amsterdam where philosophical and scientific thought blossomed, he is a vexing figure for the classic rabbinical tradition. In the “Theologico-Political Treatise,” one of his most famous works, Spinoza exposed the inability to reconcile our intellectual and scientific knowledge about the universe with our religious beliefs. In Kirsch’s perspective, Spinoza’s predicament transposed Josephus’s choice in philosophical terms: “How much of Judaism could, and should, be preserved in the face of other ways of thinking ‒ above all the rationalism of the philosophers?” Opting out of Judaism, his pantheistic views affirmed instead the “absolute necessity of everything that exists, in the same intuitive way that we affirm the truths of mathematics.” For Kirsch, when Spinoza relinquished tradition, he became a thinker for the modern world.
At the same time in Eastern Europe, the Tzenarena, a Yiddish retelling of the Torah, mostly aimed at a female audience, solidified similar ideas on a more popular plane, according to Kirsch. A compilation of practical sayings, maxims, advice and folk wisdom especially agreeable to a Yiddish-speaking public of laypeople, the Tzenarena was a widely read work, present in most Jewish households “that did [the] most to shape Jewish women’s lives.” Once again, Kirsch draws an implicit line between Orthodoxy sensu stricto and what he commends as “real life.” His sympathies clearly align with the latter, but are they mutually exclusive?
Tellingly, Kirsch views the haskala ‒ the Jewish Enlightenment that began at the end of the 18th-century in Germany ‒ and the subsequent tension between Orthodoxy and modernity as a losing proposition for Orthodox Judaism. And there is the rub. He often exhibits an ethnocentric view of Jewish history, gauged through his anachronistic 21st century lenses. His perspective is teleological, in as much as it steers us inexorably toward the religious attitudes of the majority of today’s American Jews (his primary readership) ‒ refractory to an Orthodox practice for the modern world and secular, for the most part.
Often, he extrapolates contemporary modes of thinking retroactively onto the texts he is seeking to elucidate. The “good” Jew, in his view, is one less grounded in his beliefs than in his skepticism. The central paradox underlying his vision is provocative: the less literal-minded a Jew is, the more Jewish he or she might be. This is an engaging contention, but, at a minimum, it necessitates more vindication than he affords it.
In highlighting the struggle between Orthodoxy and modernity as the defining debate of Judaism past and present, he leaves large swaths of it in the dark. It is true that Orthodoxy has suffered from the assaults of the modern world, but it is an oversimplification to brush it away as irrelevant. Kirsch’s Judaism is oddly reduced to a shell, an empty container for a set of rules at once sterile, austere and outmoded.
In a work about literary criticism, he might have summoned The Song of Songs, one of the Bible’s most poetical texts, which can be read as an allegory of the love between God and Israel, and marveled at its complex sexual imagery, which deftly weaves the lay and the religious. Or, instead of delving into the Book of Esther, which stresses for Kirsch “the movement outward into dispersion, exile and assimilation” of the Jewish people, he might have favored the bewildering Book of Job, whose majestic darkness plunges us into the most perplexing recesses of faith and the problem of theodicy.
But Kirsch’s thesis decidedly rises against such endeavors, in as much as they translate “a movement inward into tradition, Orthodoxy, and nationhood.” Modernity, in his eyes, is exclusively validated in a Eurocentric perspective, and celebrated in the tidy narrative of an unstoppable march toward a secular society.
Might there be more than one modernity, perhaps? Postcolonial theory has long ago certainly shown so, but Kirsch is unimpressed by it. Jewish modernity to him is firmly rooted in an Eastern European tradition that rejected the narrow religious confines of the shtetl, which was severed from society at large. Therefore, there is no mention of the classical Sephardi heritage, which is grounded in a tradition of religious humanism and cultural pluralism accustomed to engage in unabated dialogue with the outside world.
Glaringly absent from his explorations are the theological writings of such figures as Elijah Benamozegh (1823-1900), the Livornese rabbi of Maghrebi descent (his family was from Morocco), who wrote about religious universalism at the end of the 19th century in Israel and Humanity, his most famous work. Confronted with the process of assimilation he witnessed as a consequence of the haskala, he famously made a plea to combine religion with modernity by highlighting the humanistic and moral characteristics of halacha. In his view, these principles must guide Jews in their dealings with Gentiles. Nonetheless, Benamozegh is ignored by Kirsch as he was by his German contemporaries.
The Other, as a dimension to engage with rather than to emulate or lose oneself in, is equally unaccounted for in Kirsch’s opening set of four main Jewish preoccupations (listed in the first paragraph). So, it is regrettable not to read here the writings of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a French philosopher of Lithuanian origin who underscored the primacy of ethics in Judaism. Teaching young North African pupils at the École Normale Israelite Orientale (ENIO) in Paris, Levinas was also steeped in the Sephardi tradition of religious humanism. For him, it is paramount to consider what he called “the face of another” and to examine Judaism’s call for moral responsibility, which starkly differs from the Christian notions of love and charity. Levinas’s Judaism is most compelling because it is positive, replete with substance, compared to Kirsch’s solipsistic view of Judaism as a negative, vacant receptacle.
No wonder the book closes with a chapter on Sholem Aleichem titled “On the Brink,” when European Jewry is about to be wiped out by the somber forces of Nazism and the Final Solution. Kirsch’s nihilistic thesis (the choice of life and secularism at the peril of Orthodoxy, particularity and, ultimately, identity) is like a wounded phoenix rising out of the ashes of disaster. It settles, it compromises.
But I wonder if, instead of going for the mere survival of Judaism, we ought to turn elsewhere, both backwards into a Jewish past ‒ at once more imaginative, complex, diverse, multilayered and still pertinent today ‒ and ahead into a Jewish future, because it is the only one that might propel us, as Jews, forward.
Yaëlle Azagury is a frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Report. Her work has also appeared in Lilith, The New York Times Book Review’and The Washington Post