Return and Repentance in Modern Jewish Literature

Nov. 16 2018

Best known for such novels as The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, both which tell about defectors from Ḥasidism, Chaim Potok was also the author of a number of plays. Most of these, in Sarah Rindner’s estimation, have little merit, except for one that puts something of a twist on Potok’s favorite theme:

Out of the Depths . . . depicts the life of the great turn-of-the-century Yiddish writer S. An-sky. Born Shloyme-Zaynvl Rappaport, An-sky authored the iconic and [supernatural] play The Dybbuk, [alternatively titled Between Two Worlds]. An-sky’s journey from traditional Jew to radical socialist and ultimately back toward affiliation with, and advocacy on behalf of, the Jews of his native Russia has been told before, but Potok turned it into the stuff of a Potok novel: an account of the unresolvable tension between traditional Judaism and something else—in this case, not art, psychology, historical scholarship, or East Asian religion, but [revolutionary-socialist] concern for the suffering of the Russian peasantry.

Yet, unlike [the comparable characters in Potok’s novels], this Potok protagonist does not teeter painfully between two irreconcilable worlds. Disgusted by the hypocrisy of the Bolsheviks and horrified by their persecution of the Jews despite their universalist rhetoric, An-sky comes back to the fold—decisively. To drive the point home, Potok depicts An-sky dying alone in a decrepit Warsaw lodging house, wrapped in a tallis. . . .

The word for repentance in Judaism, t’shuvah, translates literally as “return.” A secular Jew who becomes observant is deemed a ba’al t’shuvah, literally a “master of return.” Or, in modern Israeli parlance, a ḥozer bi-tshuvah, which we might translate as a “returner to returning.” (His Christian equivalent is described as undergoing conversion or, in certain circles, as being “born again”—both of which suggest something more radical than returning.) The word t’shuvah implies that no great break is needed on the way to spiritual renewal. Rather, moving forward is a process of getting back in touch with what was there, in some sense,  all along. . . . Return need not to be to any discernible prior place at all. The Talmud writes that God created the possibility for t’shuvah before creating the world. Return is a state of mind. . . .

Rindner points out that the sort of return to Judaism experienced by An-Sky—not a literal return to halakhic observance or to traditional belief, but a return to identification with the Jewish people and Judaism broadly construed—has become a motif of contemporary Jewish fiction. And in contrast to the standard homecoming narrative that has as its archetype in the Odyssey, the Jewish idea of t’shuvah “offers the idea that the home to which one returns is endlessly dynamic, a source of vibrancy and depth.”

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Arts & Culture, baalei teshuvah, Chaim Potok, Jewish literature, Judaism, S. An-sky


Hizballah Prepares for War, and UN Peacekeepers Do Nothing

Dec. 10 2018

According to last year’s UN Security Council Resolution 2373, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)—the peacekeeping force created after the Second Lebanon War to keep both Israel and Hizballah out of southern Lebanon—is authorized “to take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces, and as it deems within its capabilities, to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind.” If anything ought to rouse UNIFIL to action, writes Elliott Abrams, it should be the IDF’s recent discovery and destruction of tunnels dug by Hizballah to move troops into the Galilee:

The existence of these tunnels, dug from precisely the area of southern Lebanon that UNIFIL is meant to patrol, means that this area is indeed “utilized for hostile activities.” What, then, is the meaning of [UNIFIL’s statement in] response that it “will communicate its preliminary findings to the appropriate authorities in Lebanon”? The meaning is that UNIFIL will likely do nothing.

UNIFIL is not supposed to be merely a means of communication, or the Security Council would have bought cell phones instead of paying for a military force. Moreover, there are no “appropriate authorities” in Lebanon; if there were, Hizballah would never have been able to dig its tunnels.

The tunnels are hardly the only brazen Hizballah violation of the Security Council resolutions undertaken right under UNIFIL’s nose. Consider this: Hizballah is blocking roads in southern Lebanon to smooth the path of missiles it is moving into the area. . . . Then there is the village of Gila, just north of the Israeli border, where there is a Hizballah headquarters and according to the Israelis about twenty warehouses with weapons, combat positions, lookout points, and dozens of underground positions. All this was built in an area supposedly patrolled by UNIFIL. . . .

This is a test of UNIFIL and its new commander, [Stefan Del Col, who took over in August]. “Communicating” to “appropriate authorities” is a euphemism for doing nothing at all. Hizballah is preparing for war. UNIFIL is supposed to get in its way. If it cannot hinder Hizballah’s war preparations in any way, and is even ignorant of them, UNIFIL is a waste of time and money.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Lebanon, United Nations