Who Is Aharon Lichtenstein?

Introducing the extraordinary rabbi who next week will receive Israel’s highest honor.
Who Is Aharon Lichtenstein?
 
Observation
Elli Fischer
April 30 2014 4:00PM

Among this year’s recipients of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, is the eminent thinker and educator Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. To those many Jews in Israel and elsewhere who are acquainted with or have been touched by his life and work, this award, to be conferred on May 6, Independence Day, will signify one of those rare instances when government committees get things right.

In America, where he was raised and educated, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s name is bound to resonate much more faintly. Within the Orthodox community, it may be familiarly known that he is the leading sage of “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy; that he holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard; that he is clean-shaven; and that he is the son-in-law of Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the towering figure widely regarded as the founder of modern Orthodoxy. In other Jewish circles, most will have never even heard of him. In mentioning his name a few years ago, the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg cited “Orthodox informants” to the effect that the rabbi was “quite the genius of Jewish law” and a “great dude of halakhah.”

With this in mind, my goal here is less to summarize his achievement, a daunting and ultimately futile task, than to offer a portrait of the man sufficient to motivate readers to learn more. (A place to begin might be the online bibliography of his myriad published essays, books, and lectures.)

 

Aharon Lichtenstein was born in Paris in 1933. Eight years later, his family fled Vichy France to the United States on visas arranged by the courageous American diplomat Hiram Bingham, Jr. After brief stops in Baltimore, where the young boy was already recognized as a prodigy of traditional learning, and then Chicago, they settled in New York in 1945. There he entered a yeshiva before his bar mitzvah and subsequently went on to undergraduate studies and rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University (YU). The following years, spent studying English literature at Harvard, were crucial to the development of his particular strain of religious humanism; Boston also afforded the opportunity to study closely with his future father-in-law.

Upon returning to YU in a teaching capacity, Rabbi Lichtenstein oversaw the rabbinical school’s program for its most advanced students. Then, in 1971, he accepted an offer to join with Rabbi Yehuda Amital in heading a new yeshiva south of Jerusalem in the Etzion Bloc (in Hebrew, Gush Etzion, with Gush pronounced goosh as in “push”). He has been there ever since. Formally known as Yeshivat Har Etzion but universally called “the Gush,” the school represents his (and Rabbi Amital’s) vision for the role of the yeshiva as a unique educational institution within Jewish society; it is perhaps his greatest legacy.

Increasing in stature and influence over the decades, the Gush and its satellite initiatives are famous for providing an open, intellectually curious, and non-dogmatic alternative to other Israeli yeshivas. This is no accident; having spent virtually his entire adult life within the yeshiva world, Rabbi Lichtenstein believes that, properly conceived and managed, these schools can be places not only for single-minded devotion to talmudic excellence but also for the development of moral character and leadership. In his holistic vision, the moral goal is not self-mastery or ascetic self-discipline (as in some yeshivas of old) but, to the contrary, well-roundedness and other-directedness.

The same moral vision explains Rabbi Lichtenstein’s readiness to cite sources outside the Jewish tradition that, even as they complement and support the uniquely Jewish system of values and virtues, are reminders that immersion in Torah must not come at the expense of universal responsibilities. The thinkers to whom he regularly returns—Matthew Arnold, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and F. H. Bradley, to name only a few—are precisely those who best articulate how to combine a life of devotion with fruitful engagement in the outside world, an alien and sometimes problematic reality.

Of course, this is not to say that moral and religious development takes priority in his mind over his students’ intellectual growth and erudition. For one thing, he views the two spheres not as distinct but as interrelated. For another and more important thing, Rabbi Lichtenstein is staunchly within the Lithuanian rabbinic tradition that views Talmud study as the ultimate religious act, a merging of the minds of God and man.

As a talmudist, Rabbi Lichtenstein is a proponent of the “Brisker” method, for which his wife’s family is renowned. In this pedagogical approach, legal disputes or contradictions within the Talmud may be understood by analyzing the logical or “conceptual” underpinnings that account for the divergent rabbinic rulings under examination. In Rabbi Lichtenstein’s hands, the method has been further abstracted so that it can be employed at the very outset of any exercise in talmudic analysis.

Brisker-type interrogations thus become hermeneutical keys, to be tested in a variety of settings. Does a given rule require the attainment of a particular result, or does it mandate a specific act? Is a particular rabbinic enactment an expansion of a biblical law, or a separate institution? Does a speech-act hinge on the technical or the commonsense meaning of the words uttered? Taking the metaphor of “key” questions still further, Rabbi Lichtenstein has spoken of developing a “key ring”: the more keys on a student’s ring, the more talmudic “locks” can be opened, and the larger and more complex become the conceptual structures within which one assimilates talmudic data.

This mode of discourse can be discerned in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s non-legal thinking as well. His treatment of “The Universal Duties of Mankind,” for example, begins with Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it (l’ovdah) and to guard it (l’shomrah).” He then abstracts these two verbal charges as fundamental yet distinct and often competing categories of mankind’s duties toward the world, to which the remainder of the essay is devoted:

Here we have two distinct tasks. One, “l’shomrah,” is largely conservative, aimed at preserving nature. It means to guard the world, to watch it—and watching is essentially a static occupation, seeing to it that things do not change, that they remain as they are. This is what Adam was expected to do, and part of our task in the world is indeed to guard that which we have been given: our natural environment, our social setting, our religious heritage. . . .

At the same time, there is the task of “l’ovdah” (to cultivate it), which is essentially creative: to develop, to work, to innovate.

I think that we would not be stretching things too far if we were to understand that this mandate applies far beyond that particular little corner of the Garden where Adam and Eve were placed. What we have here is a definition of how man is to be perceived in general.

This example also typifies another salient feature of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s oeuvre: a frank acknowledgment of the tension and equivocation between competing claims. Numerous demands are made on one devoted to the path of Torah, demands that must be ordered within a hierarchy of values and then implemented in life. Neglect of even a trivial demand can denote failure to maintain proper balance, a flaw in one’s discharge of his duties. In an essay in this vein, Rabbi Lichtenstein articulates the desired ordering of study of Torah with the duty to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

 

Clearly, the resulting approach to life is itself very demanding. But it can also be characterized as both moderate and balanced: moderate not because it shuns extremes, but because it embraces competing extremes; balanced not because it stands on many legs at once but because it seeks a subtle equilibrium that will allow one to remain upright amid the swirl of external forces.

It is also an approach that countless students have found inspiring and life-changing. And that is because Rabbi Lichtenstein, in addition to being its master exponent, is also its greatest role model. Far from flamboyant or charismatic, he is shy and unpretentious to the point of sometimes seeming aloof. But that impression is deceptive: a video produced in honor of his 80th birthday includes footage in which he is pictured doing the dishes, in a rowboat, playing with his children and grandchildren. The canonical stories about him do not recount his genius or erudition but his humility: answering the yeshiva’s public phone with a simple “Aaron speaking,” or, after students in an army classroom have all fallen asleep, continuing an involved talmudic lecture so as to allow them to get some much-needed rest.

Such stories abound. They may help to explain why, in the end, his many disciples can only describe him by speaking personally of what he has meant to them. And so I will now proceed to do.

In recent years, the Orthodox spirit in Israel and the U.S. has suffered shock after shock. Leading and respected rabbis have been exposed as frauds, bigots, or manipulators entangled in political jockeying for plum appointments. Other renowned figures have been revealed as racists, plagiarists, protectors of sexual predators, abusers of power. Intellectual and moral lightweights have promoted themselves as Orthodoxy’s exponents and arbiters, influencers and opinion-makers.

All this has had a traumatic effect. Every saint who turns out to be a sinner further erodes the bulwarks of religious commitment. Was it, we wonder, only ever thus? Were our revered rabbis and sages always so petty, self-absorbed, and power-hungry?

On May 10, 2013, among the 1,500-some students who gathered to celebrate Rabbi Lichtenstein’s 80th birthday with him, I experienced a powerful restorative of my faith in God and in the Torah transmitted to us through the generations. To adapt a Shakespearean tag favored by Rabbi Lichtenstein (though never to describe himself), I was reminded that one figure doth bestride this phalanx of fallen saints and discredited chief rabbis like a colossus, his erudition fully matched by his humility and humanity, and by the harmonious balance and wholesomeness of his life. Such multifaceted greatness is wholly unattainable by me, but acquaintance with it helps me believe that such paragons of service to the Almighty have existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future.

This may seem a strange basis for faith. Can one’s faith in God and in the halakhic tradition really be rooted in love and reverence for a human being? Is it appropriate for a fellow human to be treated as an object of reverence in the first place?

According to the Talmud (Pesahim 22b), the answer is yes: reverence for Torah scholars is indeed an extension of reverence for God, their greatness being a reflection and refraction of His. The same idea is developed in a 1996 article by Rabbi Lichtenstein himself.

The article is about his mentors, and he begins by quoting the first line of Matthew Arnold’s sonnet “To a Friend”: “Who prop, thou ask’st in these bad days, my mind?” About this formulation of Arnold’s he comments that, “In my case, at least, the critical factor is indeed ‘who’ rather than ‘what,’” and he proceeds to describe how three men—Rabbis Aharon Soloveichik, Yitzhak Hutner, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik—constitute, in part, the source and grounding of his faith in God and the Jewish tradition.

As for my own feelings of gratitude toward Rabbi Lichtenstein, they are well expressed in another passage in Arnold’s poem:

But be his/ My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul/ . . . saw life steadily, and saw it whole.

The same feelings are expressed, most beautifully, in words of the Psalms (84:6) that in the original are clearly addressed to God. In singing them, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students are altogether right to have in mind, as well, their peerless guide and mentor:

Ashrei adam oz lo bakh

Fortunate the person who finds strength through you. 

______________________

Elli Fischer lives in Israel. A writer and translator, he can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.  From 1998 20 2002, he studied for rabbinical ordination in Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s institutions. 

More about: Aharon Lichtenstein, Har Etzion, Israel Prize, Rabbi, Yeshiva University

 

A Woman Who Fired the Torches

Why Jewish girls are named after the fierce prophetess Deborah.

A Woman Who Fired the Torches
An engraving of Deborah by the French artist Gustave Doré. Wikiart.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Jan. 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


Most epics involve heroic men leaving women to pursue adventure, victory, and conquest. Odysseus leaves his wife Penelope and the enchantress Circe, Aeneas leaves Dido, Homer’s Iliad is set in motion first by the theft of a woman, Helen, and then by an argument over the female spoils of war that erupts between the warlord Agamemnon and his mercenary Achilles, the poem’s hero.

But what does any of this have to do with Torah? It has to do with the haftarah for this week’s portion of Beshalah (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16), which concerns the military exploits of the prophetess Deborah. The story appears in the biblical book of Judges, a peculiar work that I often think of as a collection of absurdist parables. But this particular reading (Judges 4:4 – 5:31) is different. It strikes me as a mock-epic, and it never ceases to amaze me with its command of that form—and with its fine savagery.

The climax of the Iliad, the greatest heroic story ever told, is the confrontation between Achilles and the opposing general Hector. Having finally tracked him down, Achilles pursues Hector in Homeric lines thrillingly translated by Christopher Logue:

And Achilles went for him, fast, sure of his speed
as the wild mountain hawk, the quickest thing on wings,
launching smoothly, swooping down on a cringing dove
and the dove flits out from under, the hawk screaming
over the quarry, plunging over and over, his fury
driving him down to beak and tear his kill—

And then, in the translation by Robert Fitzgerald,

The two men ran, pursuer and pursued
And he who fled was noble, he behind
A greater man by far. They ran full speed
And not for bull’s hide or a ritual beast
Or any prize that men compete for: no,
But for the life of Hector, tamer of horses.

That’s the sort of story—a story about men in battle, and about horses—that we have reason to think we’re going to be getting here in the book of Judges. But not this time:

And Deborah was a prophet woman,
A woman who fired the torches,
She judged over Israel at that time:
And she sat under a date tree, Deborah,
From the heights to Beit El at Mount Ephraim
And the children of Israel went up to her for judgment.

And she sent and called for Barak son of Avinoam
From Kedesh in Naftali and said to him,
Did not the Lord God of Israel command,
Go and draw men from Mount Tabor
And take with you ten-thousand men
From the sons of Naftali and sons of Zebulun?
And I will draw for you to the river Kishon
Sisrah, the warlord of Yavin, and his chariots
With his multitude and put him in the palm of your hand.

And Barak said to her, If you go with me I’ll go
And if you don’t go with me I won’t go.
And she said, Go I shall indeed go with you
But your fame will not be found on the path you’re set on,
For in a woman’s hand the Lord will deliver Sisrah.
And Deborah rose and went with Barak to Kedesh
And Barak called up Zebulun and Naftali at Kedesh
And he went up with ten-thousand men at his heels
And Deborah went up with him.

This haftarah plays with your expectations by carrying on about Barak and his ten-thousand men. True, you’re told upfront that this is an odd sort of epic: the prophet is a woman, and the hero whom she summons hasn’t the guts to make a move without her. And then she tells him that a woman will be the one who does in Sisrah, which makes you think Deborah herself, who’s leading the action, will be the vanquisher. In  just a few lines we’ll be in the heat of battle, but first there’s a lull as the focus returns to Barak and his ten-thousand men, whom he marches up the hill and promptly marches down again (rather like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme). Finally the battle starts and—surprise—this isn’t a war story after all:

And they told Sisrah that Barak son of Avinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor:
And Sisrah called up all his infantry,
nine-hundred steel chariots,
And all the people who were with him from Haroshet Goyim
To the river Kishon. And Deborah said to Barak, now rise
For this is the day the Lord has put Sisrah in your hand
Will not the Lord go out before you!

And Barak came down from Mount Tabor
With ten-thousand men behind him,
And God stampeded Sisrah and all his chariots and all his camp
At sword point before Barak
And Sisrah got down off his chariot and fled on foot.
And Barak chased after the chariots and the camp up to Haroshet Hagoyim
And the entire camp of Sisrah fell at sword point, there was not a single one left.

Who’s doing the fighting here isn’t Barak; it’s the Lord, and the fight is over before you know it. Bang! The mighty host is routed and wiped out to the last man. Sisrah is fleeing, and Barak is after him, and now we devotees of the epic are waiting for the climax, the heroic confrontation, Achilles and Hector, the sweaty clinch as two superwarriors go at it mano a mano. Instead, as befits a mock-epic, we have a war waged by women against women.

And Sisrah fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Haver the Kenite
For there was peace between Yavin king of Hatzor
And the house of Haver the Kenite.

And Yael went out to face Sisrah
And said to him, Turn my lord, turn to my house, don’t be afraid
And he turned to her into the tent
And she covered him with a blanket.
And he said to her, Please let me drink
A little water, for I’ve been thirsty,
And she opened the sack of milk
And let him drink and covered him over.
And he said to her, Stand at the tent opening
And should a man come and ask you, saying, Is anyone there?
You can say there is no one.

And Yael the wife of Haver took the tent peg
And put the hammer in her hand
And she came to him softly
And stuck the peg in his brow
Till it went through to the ground,
And he’d been dozing and weary and he died.
And here Barak was chasing after Sisrah
And Yael came out to face him
And she said to him, Go
and I’ll show you the man you seek.
And he came to her and here was Sisrah
Dropped dead with the peg in his brow

Deborah has called up the charge. Sisrah in his abject flight has stumbled across the tent of Yael who, echoing Abraham’s words to the angels in Genesis (18:2-5) and acting the perfect hostess, not to mention a wicked witch in a fairy tale, entreats him to come inside. He asks for water and she gives him milk—which, the rabbis note in their commentary, is a soporific and which to my ear has a maternal ring; she gives him a glass of milk and covers him up, as if putting a baby to sleep. You can almost see her switching off the nightlight as she creeps out of the room. Then she’s back with the tent peg—has there ever been a phallic object less heroic?—and she puts it through his brow so far that it goes into the ground.

What I always find at once the most barbaric and most refined touch is the song at the end, which moves from praising the heroic glories of the Lord, to Sisrah’s dramatic encounter with Yael,  to the homely details of a domestic scene in which Sisrah’s mother is depicted waiting impatiently for her son’s triumphal return from battle.

Blessed of all women be Yael
Wife of Haver the Kenite,
Blessed of all women of the tent:
He asked for water, she gave him milk,
In the cup for great guests she offered him cream.
Her hand to the tent peg she reached
And her right hand to the workman’s blow
And battered Sisrah, wiped out his head,
And crushed and went through his brow.
Between her legs he knelt and fell
Where he knelt, there he fell, lost.

Through the window spying and wailing
Sisrah’s mother at the lintel,
Why does his chariot dally and not come,
Why does the rattle of his chariots tarry?
The wisest of her ladies will console
And even she repeats what they prattle.
For will they not find and divide spoils,
A maidenhead or two for each fellow?
The trove of the colors shall go to Sisrah
The trove of colors that are embroidered,
Colors embroidered on both sides for their necks in spoils.

So shall all your foes be lost, Lord,
And His adorers as the sun coming out in full force.
And the land was quiet for forty years.

This song, sung by Deborah herself, is the triumphant cry of one woman over another. You think your son is sharing our daughters with his men, you think he’s getting the best of our needlework? Think again, honey! And then, from the wrenching close-up of Sisrah’s mother and her ladies-in-waiting, fantasizing about Sisrah’s expected haul of pretty baubles, the song abruptly shifts register, the camera pulls back, and we’re given a panoramic shot of the Lord’s armies rising like the sun itself.

I always look forward to this haftarah, and I always find it stomach-churning. David rejoicing over the fall of Goliath is as nothing compared with Deborah exalting Yael and jeering at Sisrah’s mother. Besides, when David beheads the giant Goliath, you take comfort in the victory of a lean and ascetic youth armed only with his slingshot over the gargantuan and heavily armored professional warrior. Where in this story is the moral uplift? The Lord doesn’t need armies, He doesn’t need swords, He doesn’t even need Jews. If He’s decided against you, He’ll find some friendly lady of another tribe to offer you a drink of water, and while you’re wiping the milk from your upper lip, there’ll be a tiny pain at your temple and so long, Achilles.

And there’s just the point. As this mock-epic shows most graphically, the Lord of hosts doesn’t need heroes. And a horse, as Psalm 33 puts it, is a vain thing for deliverance. That is the moral of this tale: it’s not about the horses. Deborah knows that, Barak does not. That’s why Jewish girls are named after her, and Jewish boys are named after prophets, not warriors.

More about: Book of Judges, Deborah, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?

Is the tech term, as in computer hacker, connected with the verb hakn, meaning to chop?

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?
Members of Anonymous, the internet hacking collective. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
Jan. 28 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be addressed to philologos AT mosaicmagazine.com.


Mosaic reader Max J. Katz writes:

I am interested in the etymology of “hacker” as it is used in computer technology to mean variously an expert, gamester, or someone who maliciously intrudes upon someone else’s computer to change or manipulate it. In particular, I wonder whether there is a connection with the Yiddish verb hakn, meaning to chop.

There is an extensive literature on the history of “hacker”—and also extensive disagreement. One thing there is no argument about is that the term was first used for computer buffs in the early 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally, it seems, a hacker at MIT was not specifically a lover of computers and their programs; rather, he was anyone who was more passionate about an extra-curricular hobby than about his academic studies. The earliest documentation of the word denoting such students dates to the late 1950s, when members of an MIT model-railroad club used it for themselves.

From this point on, the questions take over. Were the first program hackers out from the start to gain control of other people’s computers for nefarious purposes, or were they simply digital fun-lovers whose pranks meant no harm? If the latter, should the meaning of “hacker” be revised to rid it of the negative connotations that have colored it strongly since the 1980s, so that it once again refers to all programming enthusiasts and not just the criminally minded? And if so, what should criminal hackers be called? (Among the terms suggested have been “computer vandals,” “crackers,” and “white-hat hackers” as opposed to “black-hat hackers.”)

And finally: what is the etymology of “hacker”?

The dominant theory is that the word came from “to hack” in its sense of to cut or to chop. According to University of California computer scientist Brian Harvey, a member of the first hacker generation:

Popular opinion at MIT posited that there are two kinds of students, tools and hackers. A “tool” is someone who attends class regularly, is always to be found in the library when no class is meeting, and gets straight A’s. A “hacker” is the opposite: someone who never goes to class, who sleeps all day, and who spends the night pursing recreational activities rather than studying. There was thought to be no middle ground.

The hacker, in other words, has no patience for the traditional ways of doing things, such as using tools in an accepted manner. He takes what comes to hand and chops away with it. The only connection with Yiddish would be that “to hack” and hakn are close cognates, belonging to a group of words that also includes German hacken, to cut, chop, or cleave, and Dutch hakke, a hoe. Some of us know the Yiddish verb hakn from the Yinglish idiom “to hock a cheinik,” that is, “to bang a teakettle” or rattle away verbally at someone.

The problem with this is that both “hack” and “hacker” have numerous other meanings in American slang that could equally have influenced students at MIT. Many of these also stem from hack in its meaning of chop, while others go back to hackney, a 14th-century English word that originally designated an old nag or worn-out horse, and subsequently, shortened to hack, came to refer to a dilapidated old car or carriage, a cab, a driver earning his livelihood from such a vehicle, or anyone making a living from dull or unworthy work.

Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a given meaning of “to hack,” “hack,” or “hacker” derives from the hack=chop or hackney line of words or has been produced by an interaction between them. Here are a few of these meanings:

Hack: Someone working at a job for which he is insufficiently skilled, trained, or motivated.

Hack it: To cope successfully with a difficult situation, often by improvised means.

Hacker: An amateur tennis or golf player with a clumsy swing, and by extension, any inept beginner or practitioner.

 Hack:  An athlete who routinely fouls other athletes. Also, an unfair play in football or other sports.

Hack:   Someone who spoils someone else’s art work by drawing on it.

 Hack:   An ugly or nasty solution to a problem.

Hack:    To cut off another driver and speed away.

Hack: To steal a joke from a comedian.

To complicate matters further, while any of these usages might have contributed to MIT’s “hacker,” it is also possible, the date of first appearance being uncertain, that some were the results of it. It’s one of those etymological questions that will probably never have a clear answer. And just to add, for Mr. Katz’s benefit, one more unlikely possibility with a Yiddish angle, consider this:

In the debate over whether computer hackers are or are not intrinsically objectionable figures, those who claim they are not have had recourse to the analogy of a locksmith. Just as picking locks, they contend, can be used for both bad ends like burglary and good ones like letting someone into a house he is locked out of, so computer hacking has its positive sides, too.

A lock in Yiddish is a shlisl. And what’s a lock pick? I won’t ask you to hold your breaths. It’s a hakshlisl. 

More about: Arts & Culture, Language, Philologos, Yiddish

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women

What drove the great writer to employ a “harem” of translators? A new film tells much, but not all.

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women
Courtesy The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
 
Observation
Jan. 21 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


Writers have their way with the world until they depart from it, and then they are at the mercy of those who interpret them. This mischievous turnabout would have appealed to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), possibly the most prolific and certainly the most famous Yiddish writer of the 20th century, whose reputation is now in the hands of types he once turned into fiction. But if The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a new documentary movie by the Israeli directors Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser, is any portent, the afterlife of this particular writer may be graced by the same improbable good fortune he enjoyed on earth.

In explaining the genesis of his project, Galay tells us that, as a devoted reader of Singer in Hebrew and English, he was struck by the sheer number of the master’s translators. He counted 48 names before stopping—a figure high enough to tweak his imagination, especially since almost all were women. Among these women are the several “muses” featured in Galay’s movie as talking heads and/or in vintage footage. As it happens, notoriety had long since attached itself to those whom Singer called “his harem,” implying that his lady translators were also at his sexual behest. Interviewing some of these women, Galay found them perfectly ready to embroider the legend, if not to clarify which of the harem’s two parties was at the mercy of the other.

Isaac Singer came to New York from Warsaw in 1936, armed with a freshly published copy of his debut novel, Satan in Goray, but clueless in English and still in the literary shadow of his older brother Israel Joshua, who had sponsored his passage. It was to distinguish himself from the already famous I.J. that Isaac adopted the pen-name Bashevis, after his mother. But sibling rivalry wasn’t the only obstacle in his path. He also suffered from the loss of his natural readership, most of which had been left behind in Europe—an artistic challenge that would become still greater after World War II erased Polish Jewry almost in its entirety. Although he had steady work at the Yiddish daily Forverts (“Forward”), it could not make up for the loss of his formative world and consumer base. For a time, he considered himself “lost in America”—the English title of his fictionalized accounts of this period in his life.

Indeed, language was more important to Bashevis than to any Yiddish prose writer since Sholem Aleichem, whom he resembled in his command of the monologue and first-person narrative forms. Whereas others sought to prove that they could write in Yiddish about anything under the sun—and did—Bashevis felt that true literature was organically bound to its sources. On the rare occasion when he theorized about the literary process, he would make fun of the notion that Yiddish writers could evoke a milieu from which Yiddish itself was absent. How could they describe work in an American engineering firm, or the experience of shopping in an American department store, if the language was not actually spoken in those places?

This take on the relation of language to literature meant that he would have to confine his own writing either to the European past or to those immigrant Jewish enclaves of New York or Miami where Yiddish was still in use. In fact, his fiction never strayed from the world with which he was most intimately familiar.

All the more strange, then, that he came to be known mostly in translation—and that he himself would recruit translators wholesale, the way Microsoft recruits programmers. If his art lay in the specificities of Yiddish, he would regularly and incongruously instruct later translators to work off of earlier English translations—and told at least one of them not to bother learning Yiddish in the first place. In the movie, Janet Hadda, one of his biographers, explains this nonchalance as stemming from his raw desire for fame, his wish to be read globally, just the way he himself was able to devour fiction originating in many languages other than his own.

Indeed, Muses is most valuable in exploring this connection between Singer’s seduction of translators and his seduction of a worldwide readership.

 

On the former seduction, thankfully, the movie resists the temptation to reduce Singer to a lecherous predator, or to play his unsuccessful flirtations strictly for laughs, or, even more obviously, to transform itself into a feminist tract. At its New York premiere two weeks ago, an invited panelist suggested that the “muses” may have lent themselves to exploitation. To this, Galay responded that none had voiced any such complaint; to the contrary, all spoke of Singer with affection.

Interviewed for the film, some of the now-mature women who once worked with him express puzzlement at the suggestion that their younger selves would have agreed to sexual relations with this elderly man. Others insist on discretion, or are frankly amused, as if to say, “Me, exploited? By this pixie?” The film owes much of its buoyancy and humor to these interviewees, who are as idiosyncratic as many a character in Singer’s fiction; some of them inspired it.

Still, although for the most part Muses skirts the darker themes with which modern Yiddish literature is often associated—breakup and cultural dislocation, persecution, destruction—its fairly lighthearted treatment does not extend to the author’s relations with his family, including his son Israel, who became one of his Hebrew translators, and his granddaughter Meirav, who has taken partial charge of his legacy. But no one at all familiar with Singer’s fiction, much of it drawn from biographical and autobiographical material, could be surprised by the devastation that he left in his wake.

In the novel Enemies, the protagonist’s dilemmas with his several wives bear a striking resemblance to the dilemmas of his creator. When Isaac married Alma Haimann in 1940, both were already married: in leaving Poland for America, he had abandoned his common-law wife Runya and their young son. Though the couple had separated earlier, the wife clearly expected him to sponsor their immigration to the States; after mother and son moved to Palestine, she expected him to join her there. He did neither.

As for Alma, in marrying Isaac she abandoned not only her husband but their two children; in the film, her niece’s account of this episode is told without rancor, but a haunting photograph of the young children may be the documentary’s most disturbing moment. In transferring her loyalty to Isaac, Alma also bore his infidelities, which included a regular mistress and a number of casual ones. The documentary treats this couple and their situation with greater sympathy than the author extends to analogous characters in his work.

 

Intentionally or not, Muses seems to draw a distinction between those who depended on Isaac materially or emotionally and others who simply enjoyed the frisson of closeness with a great writer. The former suffered and felt betrayed; the latter were mainly unscarred. But the focus on his translators lets us in on more than how this writer affected the people around him. It invites us to consider whether, and how, his attitude toward the women he shuffled about, exchanging one for the next in succession, corresponded to his indifference to precise translation, and perhaps to something deeper as well.

With colleagues and students, and with my brother David Roskies, who also teaches Yiddish literature, I’ve often joined in the exercise of comparing the Yiddish original of a Bashevis story or novel with its English translation, just to see how the alteration affects the outcome. Occasionally we speculate about the reasons for a specific change: simplification for a non-Jewish readership?; the felt need to replace an optimistic ending with a tragic one? But the testimony of his translators in Muses hints at something else—that he was almost spiteful in his resistance to the idea of a perfectly finished work. Just as the conflicted male protagonist of a typical Bashevis work is left dangling at the end of his story, arbitrariness seems a principle of the art itself. The spirit of the author stands behind those endings as though he were saying, “Really, what difference does it make?”

And there is still more to be said. One of Bashevis’s tales of childhood (from the series In My Father’s Court) describes him, as a still-traditional Jewish boy in long caftan and earlocks, on a visit to his older brother I.J. in an artists’ atelier. There he comes upon nude models and other young women who smile condescendingly at his covered head and sidecurls—for they, too, have recently crossed over to impiety from the observant Jewish homes of their parents.

In real life, many of Bashevis’s fellow Jews who traversed this same divide would try in various ways and by various means to reconcile the two sides. But the young man who emerged from that boy in the Warsaw atelier never believed in the negotiation. For him, leaving the world of Jewish religious containment, known today as haredi, meant consignment to a world of moral indifference in which a man might just as well give in to his lusts: for women, for fame, and for stories that take their own direction or none. Even as his distrust of a binding love between man and woman finds a correlative in his suspicion of perfectly realized works of art, his unfaithfulness to both his women and his works seems like a surrender to the moral arbitrariness of life itself. If one no longer believed in the Perfect God and His Torah, what reason to seek perfection elsewhere?

Not that Muses makes any of this explicit. But its cheerful, generous tone does finally give way to a certain anxiety about its subject. The primary cause of anxiety is Isaac’s treatment of the people who relied on him, especially his family; next comes his treatment of the translators, none of whom he ever wanted to hold on to; ultimately, though, there is his distrust of, or disdain for, the artistic endeavor itself, and what that might signify. If he clowned a little for his American interviewers and for Swedish royalty when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was as if to let them know, and to remind himself, that in becoming a Yiddish writer in a world without Yiddish, he had lost faith in the ultimate value of the word, or the Word. For all his thirst for acclaim and veneration, his negligent indifference to translation affirmed that the modern writer was to be trusted no more than, and perhaps less than, modern man.

More about: Arts & Culture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature

 

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?

The liberal way of life is remarkably fragile. Is the West willing to fight for it?

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?
Mourners carry the coffin of Franck Brinsolaro, one of two French police officers killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. AP Photo/Francois Mori.
 
Observation
Jan. 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Simon Gordon, a former Tikvah Fellow, is a policy adviser at the embassy of Israel in London. The views expressed here are his own.


Last week, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were not the only journalists targeted for affronting Muslim doctrine. Raif Badawi, founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, who was convicted of blasphemy by a Saudi court in 2012 and later resentenced, more harshly, to ten years’ imprisonment, a fine of 1 million riyals, and 1,000 lashes, received his first flogging two days after the massacre in Paris. Although the Saudi regime joined the worldwide condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French cartoonists wouldn’t have fared much better had they made the Gulf state their publishing base. The only difference was the lack of official imprimatur on their execution: they were murdered by Islamist vigilantes, not an Islamist judiciary.

Neither the criminalization of blasphemy in Muslim countries nor the murder of blasphemers in Europe by Islamists is a new phenomenon. On the contrary: from Pakistan to Algeria via Iran and Egypt, blasphemy laws are rigorously enforced. Even in free countries, ever since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, dissenters have had to fear for their lives. But the coincidence of last week’s events is noteworthy for what it reveals not only about the state of Islamism in the world today but about the state of liberal democracy. Briefly: rather than the West exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East, as many had fantasized during the late lamented “Arab Spring,” it is the Middle East that is exporting Islamism to the free world.

The brutal reach of Islamism is now global. In the last four weeks alone, we have seen a lone jihadist take ten hostages in Sydney, Australia, leaving three dead; Taliban gunmen slaughter 132 children in a Pakistani school; and, at the same time as the attacks in France, Boko Haram massacre perhaps as many as 2,000 in the Nigerian city of Baga. This is to say nothing of the ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Islamic State; or the continued persecution of Christians in not only Syria and Iraq but Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Libya—all at the hands of Islamist terror groups or acquiescent governments.

With depressing predictability, the rise in Islamism has also intensified terror against Jews. The attack on the HyperCacher supermarket in Vincennes, in which four Jews were murdered, was merely the latest in a long series of such assaults, amidst a climate of anti-Semitism that is contributing to the slow exodus of Europe’s largest Jewish community.

A month ago, three assailants broke into the home of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Créteil and raped the nineteen-year old wife, telling them, “It’s because you’re Jewish.” During Israel’s war with Hamas over the summer, Jewish shops were smashed and firebombed in Sarcelles, Jewish worshippers were besieged in a synagogue in Paris’s 11th district, and pro-Palestinian rallies were punctuated by cries of “Mort aux juifs,” death to the Jews. Three years ago, Mohamed Merah murdered four, including three children, in a killing spree at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse. According to France’s Ministry of the Interior, French Jews, who make up 1 percent of the population, were the victims of 40 percent of the terror attacks in 2013.

French Jews have not been the sole victims. Across the border in Belgium, the situation is little better, with Mehdi Nemmouche shooting four dead in an attack six months ago on Brussels’ Jewish Museum. Nor is the problem unique to Jews in the Diaspora—as November’s vicious knife murders of Jews at prayer in Jerusalem testify. As even the British Guardian, no friend of Israel, noted at the time, the prospect of synagogues in the Jewish state needing to be protected by armed guards in the manner of so many synagogues in the Diaspora is “a bleak thought for a country established to be a safe haven.”

 

The ascendancy of Islamism, affecting different continents and countries of profoundly different cultures, and taking place in spite of—or as a result of—the withdrawal of Western troops from the Middle East, gives the lie to axioms that have undergirded much of the discourse on terrorism over the past decade. Above all, the prevalent idea that Islamist attacks are a response to Western interference or military adventurism is now revealed as supremely narcissistic—a hubristic exaggeration of the influence of the West and underestimation of its attackers. As both the rise of IS and the attacks in Paris attest, the free world is not dictating events but reacting to them: the agenda is being set by the Islamists.

No less highlighted by the terror attacks is the extent to which Islamism is a unified ideology, seeking to impose its principles no matter the cultural or religious surroundings in which it finds itself. It is not merely the terror networks themselves, or their funding networks, that are global—although the Kouachi brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders were graduates of a study-abroad program on murder in Yemen, and al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, Hamas, and others continue to find willing sponsors in oil-rich Gulf states and clandestine donors in Europe. Rather, it is the ideology represented by groups like IS—the commitment to exclusionary, imperialist theocracy—that is attracting adherents from Sydney to East London and providing the base of doctrine and belief on which the attacks are predicated.

In embedding itself as a cultural phenomenon within liberal democracies, Islamism has already succeeded in limiting the liberties that citizens of free countries take for granted and subtly changing their way of life. For all of the Je Suis Charlie hashtags and rallies, writers, politicians, and contributors to social media will remain much more reluctant openly to criticize or satirize Islam or Muslim figures than they are to lampoon those of other faiths.

Indeed, after the Paris attacks and the firebombing of  the Hamburger Morgenpost four days later for daring to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the likely prospect is for an even greater degree of caution about causing offense to Muslims. For their part, Jews in France and elsewhere in Europe will continue to fear to wear kippot and other religious symbols openly, and may well feel more compelled to conceal their identities. In this respect, the Islamists have already attained a victory.

 

The spread of Islamism into the heartland of liberal democracy, and its influence on liberal culture, thus demand a thorough recalibration of attitudes. The notion that changing foreign policy, or redoubling domestic efforts to integrate the marginalized, or frankly appeasing Islamist demands will end the reign of terror is misguided not only because it underestimates the appeal of the Islamist worldview and the determination of its adherents. It is misguided because it overestimates the strength of liberal democracy.

The encroachment on civil liberties through anti-terror legislation is often said—not without reason—to threaten the very liberal ideals that it seeks to protect. But at the same time, the consequences of abandoning intrusive intelligence-gathering could well be worse—in terms of the potential loss not just of human life but of the liberal way of life. If politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens have already modified their behavior in response to terror attacks and the threat of violence on the street, how would they react if the scale of terrorism were increased ten or twentyfold? Would they still be tweeting #JeSuisCharlie?

Indeed, the low-level surveillance state already implemented by governments around the world signals an implicit repudiation of the complacent idea that Islamism is a fringe issue, that the West is so dominant as to be essentially impregnable, or that the progressivist vision of liberal democracy must endure because any regress is unthinkable. The truth, as millions have discovered to their cost in recent years, is that progress toward liberal democracy is far from assured, and that states can quite easily fail.

The fragility of liberal democracy, and the price of losing it, are perhaps most appreciated in France. As a people who have been through two monarchies, two empires, two foreign occupations (including one home-grown fascist government), in addition to five republics in the centuries following a much-celebrated but immensely bloody revolution, the French are more conscious than most Western nations of how easy it is for systems of government to change or fall, and more convinced that liberty is something that must be maintained and fought for rather than taken for granted or bargained slowly away.

Does this mean that, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France will seize the opportunity to lead a reawakening of the liberal democratic West? Will a country long depressed by persistent economic malaise, deeply disillusioned with its leadership, and troubled by the disconnection between its self-perceived geopolitical importance and its actual, peripheral profile take the lead in shaping the Western world’s response to terror and confidence in its ideals?

Unfortunately, there are reasons for doubt. But time will tell, and there’s precious little of it.

More about: Charlie Hebdo, European Jewry, France, Islamism, liberal democracy