Chaim Potok’s Insights into the Place of Faith in an Age of Faithlessness

Aug. 13 2020

In such books as The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, the American novelist Chaim Potok (1929-2002), explores the lives and struggles of young men from the ḥasidic world as they find themselves drawn away from it. Wesley Hill, who left the devout evangelical Christian milieu of his childhood while maintaining his commitment to the Christian religion, has found that “Potok’s characters” have helped him “to understand [his] complicated feelings.”

But Hill finds particular relevance in Potok’s lesser-known Davita’s Harp, which is not a tale of the rejection of and return to religion, but of coming to religion from outside it. The eponymous heroine is the child of a secular Gentile father and a Jewish Communist mother, and finds herself anything but at home in a synagogue:

Yet in 1937, . . . after learning of her father’s death in the bombing of Guernica, where he had been working as a journalist, . . . Davita goes back to a synagogue and, finding herself in a kind of daze, says softly aloud the kaddish, the traditional doxology that asks for the sanctification of God’s name. Davita mouths the words in memory of her father. She can see the men’s side of the synagogue through the curtain. She watches the men rise.

Maybe it is because I think about [the French philosopher] Paul Ricoeur’s diagnosis of modern readers of the Bible and would-be believers in its God—“Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again”—that I am tempted to regard Davita’s budding curiosity about Judaism as one of the most immediately relatable entries into Chaim Potok’s work as a whole. A religiously observant life is less and less accessible or intelligible to modern Westerners, yet many of us remain haunted by its possibility. Even the demographic designation “nones” invokes religious sensibility by naming its absence, tacitly acknowledging that, even in the desert, faith’s echo can be heard. Davita’s halting entry into an observant life dramatizes a journey we too might take. Her story makes the prospect of finding a home within a religious tradition, even in a secular age, a live, beguiling one.

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More about: American Jewish literature, Chaim Potok, Religion

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform