American Jewry produced many great literary figures in the 20th century, but only one, notes Meir Soloveichik, remained a devoutly observant Jew for his entire life except for a brief interval in his youth. This was Herman Wouk, who died last month at the age of one-hundred-three. In addition to numerous novels, Wouk also wrote a bold—and best-selling—apologia for Orthodox Judaism, This Is My God. Reflecting on what Wouk himself termed the “mystery” of the Jewish people, Soloveichik writes:
To journalists and literati, [Wouk’s piety] was a paradox. Wouk, Time magazine argued, “seems like an enigmatic character in search of an author. He is a devout Orthodox Jew who has achieved worldly success in worldly-wise Manhattan while adhering to the dietary prohibitions and traditional rituals which many of his fellow Jews find embarrassing.” But it is not a paradox at all. A novelist like Wouk knew a great story when he saw one, and he was surely struck by the fact that those very same American Jews who avidly read his novels seemed to ignore the most interesting plot of all.
Wouk’s own countercultural observance . . . heralded the resurgence of Orthodoxy in America, one that few in the 1950s would have predicted. But Wouk also offers an example of what American Orthodoxy so sorely needs today: those with the ambition and ability to defend, passionately and eloquently, Judaism’s vision to the world. Should they emerge, they may find an audience far surpassing Wouk’s, hungering for truth in an age of rank relativism and cultural decay, waiting for a gifted writer to fulfill once again words uttered by Moses millennia ago: “This is my God and I will beautify Him; the God of my father that I shall glorify.”
For decades, Wouk seemed superhuman, living to be over one-hundred years of age and writing lucidly late into his nineties. In this he appeared to embody the immortality of the people that he so exquisitely described. . . . Now his own remarkable story has come to an end. . . . But it hasn’t, not really.
Individually, every man is mortal; Herman Wouk was a man, and even he would ultimately die. But precisely because of his faith, a faith that seemed paradoxical but which actually made so much sense, Wouk will achieve an immortality unlike any other Jewish cultural figure of his time. He will live, first and foremost, not in his movies, or novels, but in the extraordinary endurance of Orthodoxy in America, and through the eternal people who cling stubbornly, with love, to Herman Wouk’s God.