Return and Repentance in Modern Jewish Literature

November 16, 2018 | Sarah Rindner
About the author: Sarah Rindner is a writer and educator. She lives in Israel.

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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