An Immortal Character in Jewish History

Hersh Rasseyner is inescapable. The guy-yelling-at-you figure reappears in each generation, going back to when even Moses pulled a “Hersh” for the entire book of Deuteronomy.


Response
Dec. 21 2020
About the author

Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

I first met Hersh Rasseyner in Jerusalem in 1994. (Of course that wasn’t his name, but that hardly matters. A Hersh Rasseyner is a Hersh Rasseyner.) He and I were both students in the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, a Jewish text study program for teenagers that, like the Novaredok yeshiva of old, gave special importance to ethical elements of Judaism—in particular the idea of maḥloket leshem shamayim, argument for the sake of heaven. Students, selected for their passion for Jewish study and their divergent religious outlooks, were encouraged to hone their middot, character traits such as humility and patience, by debating their theological differences with profound respect. We did, like the Lithuanian Musarnik Hersh Rasseyner in Chaim Grade’s story, at all hours.

The Hersh I met back in 1994 was one of the program’s more rigidly religious participants. In class discussions and outside of them, he constantly reaffirmed the most pedantic interpretations of every text, insisting that his view was the authentic one. This supposed authenticity gave him what every seventeen-year-old craves: an identity. He was popular. I was not, and was suspicious of popular people. But the purpose of the program was to listen to others, to keep an open mind, and at seventeen I was not cynical. So I heard him out one Friday night when a group gathered in my dark dorm room to continue the debates of the day.

The argument escalated until Hersh commandeered it, giving a long and angry soliloquy in the dark about how everyone who mattered for the past several thousand years could attest that he was right. I can’t remember now what we argued about. What I do remember was how he concluded his speech, in this educational setting whose chief goal was open-ended, pluralistic dialogue: “I’ve said my piece, and now I’m leaving.” He then walked out of my room. I met that Hersh Rasseyner again in 1996, when we were both students at Harvard—and where he had become an outspoken atheist. This surprised me, though it shouldn’t have.

He was hardly my last Hersh Rasseyner. By that time I was dating a different Hersh Rasseyner, this one a young man who’d grown up secular but who had recently been ignited by the fire of the Torah, and who enjoyed telling me about it. I didn’t enjoy hearing about it, so when he left Harvard for a yeshiva in Israel, we broke up. But you never really free yourself from Hersh Rasseyners. That’s not because any specific one of them follows you. (Of course they don’t. You think you’re their Chaim Vilner, but you’re actually one of those interchangeable market women.) It’s because new Hersh Rasseyners always pop up in their place, in a dialectical game of whack-a-mole. I couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a Hersh Rasseyner, which frankly was often tempting.

 

So when I enrolled in Ruth Wisse’s undergraduate Jewish literature seminar the following year and met the original Hersh Rasseyner prototype in Chaim Grade’s story, I was startled, then delighted. I knew exactly what that guy was going to say, and he didn’t disappoint. Hersh Rasseyner never does.

What was most fascinating to me about studying this story with Ruth Wisse was witnessing how much Wisse clearly loved it. Wisse was a literature professor, and I was accustomed to thinking of people who loved literature as people who were drawn to its irreducible qualities—its density of detail, its unique characters, its knotty situations, its inherent ambiguity. But “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” it seemed, had very little of that. And Wisse did not seem to care. True, the situation of the two opponents meeting repeatedly by chance over the years was intriguing, almost funny, and was clearly animated by what Aristotle memorably calls a “probable impossibility,” which is superior in literature to the “impossible probability” of real-life events. And my own experience had demonstrated just how probable it was to run into Hersh Rasseyner over and over again.

But that brilliant artistic setup was dwarfed in the story by Hersh’s monologue. He says his piece, and now he’s leaving—only to show up again, in even more persistent form, yelling for pages on end. In her thoughts on translating the story, Wisse wonders how Hersh Rasseyner wound up sounding so much like Chaim Grade. But what I noticed on first reading was rather how much Chaim sounded like . . . Hersh Rasseyner, just one more guy yelling at somebody about why he was right. As Wisse said both then and now, she sees “My Quarrel” as a story, not an essay. But it was obviously its essay-like nature, the content of its argument, that excited her. To me, that wasn’t literature. Was it?

I say I found it delightful. I did, but not for the reasons Wisse was so enamored. Instead, I was enchanted by how well Grade captured this character whom I knew so intimately. In her seminar, Wisse emphasized the eternal quality of the argument, how the Holocaust, while testing its claims, barely mattered to the immortality of the debate. And Wisse is absolutely right that the longevity of the argument remains the source of the story’s enduring power. But I understood that insight as a literary one. Instead of focusing on the immortal argument in Jewish history against other value systems, which felt obvious to me as a public-school graduate studying Jewish languages, Grade’s story helped me recognize an immortal character in Jewish history. Through Grade’s artistry, I saw how persistent this guy-yelling-at-you figure really was, how unavoidable, how fundamental—going back to every Hebrew prophet including Moses, who pulls a Hersh Rasseyner for the entire book of Deuteronomy. As I had suspected, Hersh Rasseyner had always been there, and would also never go away.

This ought to have been a frustrating realization, given how much I disliked his company. But I don’t read literature to make friends. Knowing that he was a character helped me to make peace with him. It wasn’t necessary to argue with him, since he actually didn’t want to hear what I had to say. What was valuable was knowing he would always be there, allowing me to put down my whack-a-mole mallet and simply appreciate his predictability, to take comfort and warmth from the fire of his eternal presence. I suspected that this was not what Wisse wanted her students to get out of this story. But I didn’t need Ruth Wisse to be my Hersh Rasseyner. I warmed myself by her fire, and took the story with me.

I met Hersh Rasseyner again eight years later, when I brought him to the first Yiddish literature class I ever taught—after completing my doctorate in literature with Wisse as my adviser, since Wisse turned out to be far more generous than Hersh Rasseyner. I thought I’d end my brand-new course with this story as a kind of capstone, since its argument really does epitomize the divide in modern Jewish life. My students that semester were fantastic. They were all in on Yiddish literature, spending hours parsing the most difficult literary works—complicated stories, both religious and secular, that sometimes tossed realism and even narrative out the window in favor of a creativity that challenged the idea of storytelling itself. The argument animating Grade’s story was something we’d discussed at length the previous week, when I’d introduced them to Yankev Glatshteyn’s notorious 1938 poem “Goodnight, World,” an angry rejection of Western civilization and an angry claim for Judaism, as Wisse has memorably put it, as “an alternative to the civilization that produced Hitler.” For these readers, I figured, Hersh Rasseyner would be a refreshingly direct conclusion to a course that had repeatedly questioned the purpose of art.

To my shock, they hated it. Our class discussion fell dead. “How is this a story?” one student challenged me. “This is just a guy yelling at you for 30 pages.” I could have argued, but being no Hersh Rasseyner, I agreed. Instead, I pointed out that the original story was actually even longer. The students laughed. I later realized that I had encountered the story so early in my studies that I had never actually read it in the original Yiddish. But by then I had no desire to spend more time with Hersh Rasseyner. I never taught the story again.

 

But Hersh Rasseyner never goes away. So here I am in 2020, reading Ruth Wisse’s magisterial new translation, and meeting Hersh Rasseyner once more. Hersh hasn’t changed a bit, but Chaim Vilner has. Through Wisse’s work restoring the story’s long-excised passages, I now see that the story is less asymmetrical than it first appeared. For me, the restored sixth chapter, featuring Hersh Rasseyner’s obnoxious disciple Yehoshua, changes the entire nature of the argument.

In the old translation, the argument’s asymmetry came less from Hersh Rasseyner’s inability to shut up than from the unfortunate fact that Chaim Vilner made no valid points. His “Great Men of Western Civilization” argument always felt as absurd to me as it does to Hersh. After all, Chaim is a Yiddish writer. Why was he arguing for the genius of irrelevant anti-Semites like Voltaire, instead of arguing that Yiddish literature was just as much an heir to the Jewish tradition as Hersh’s Musar? In the restored chapter, Chaim finally makes this point, and it is glorious.

In a diatribe worthy of Hersh, he deflates Hersh’s pupil, who snidely asks him whether he would risk his life for Yiddish writings as Hersh did for a Torah scroll, by responding: “My friends saved Jewish sacred texts, rare volumes, with the same devotion as they saved Herzl’s diary and a letter from Maxim Gorky.” (Gorky, the rare Russian writer who was an outspoken defender of the Jews, maintained an important friendship and correspondence with the Yiddish literary giant Sholem Aleichem.) What Chaim describes here, though he elides the details, is absolutely real. It is the Vilna Ghetto’s Paper Brigade, an effort spearheaded by the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever to rescue the archives of YIVO, which included both sacred and non-sacred Jewish texts. Sutzkever and his colleagues had been forced by the Nazis to loot YIVO for a future Nazi museum of an extinguished Jewish culture. They used the opportunity to risk their lives to save what they could from this priceless repository. Chaim moves on from there to point out how Hersh’s brand of Judaism once rejected not only supposedly “secular” Jews, but even figures as pivotal as Maimonides.

Here at last was a true refutation of Hersh’s blinkered vision of Jewish life, an affirmation that a Judaism that contained nothing but the narrowest definition of Torah was a Judaism drained of all vitality and potential, one in which even the Hersh Rasseyners of the Talmud would have been impossible. In this argument, the only cogent one Chaim Vilner makes, I find the shining wonder of what Wisse gave me, for it is only due to her that I have spent my days and years reading these writers’ works, sitting at their feet and drinking in their words.

Reflecting on how Hersh Rasseyner’s brand of Judaism has persisted beyond Chaim Vilner’s secular Yiddish one, Wisse makes a far broader claim: “Hersh Rasseyner has no need of Chaim Vilner.” This often seemed true of my old nemesis, who inevitably said his piece and left the room. But as I read the story today, I see that Hersh Rasseyner absolutely needs Chaim Vilner. He defines himself through him. Hersh’s energy comes less from Torah than from Chaim—or as Hersh puts it, “I have to talk to you.” One could dismiss this as Chaim Grade’s fantasy, but it is actually a practical fact of Jewish history. Jewish artists like Chaim Vilner clearly require the tradition Hersh is protecting, but self-isolating Jews like Hersh Rasseyner could not have thrived into our current century without the commitments of less self-isolating Jews who have undertaken the projects of state-building in Israel and protecting civil rights of religious communities elsewhere. And Hersh Rasseyner also needs Chaim Vilner for a more basic human reason. As Wisse’s translation puts it, “He was unburdening himself of anger choked off for too long.”

That anger is what gives me my compassion for Hersh Rasseyner. The content of Hersh’s argument feels only more obvious to me as years pass, almost childishly so—to the point where my own children have made Hersh’s points. (As my daughter put it at age eleven, “In school we keep learning about great civilizations like Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. But at home, for each one of the great civilizations, we have a different holiday about how they tried to kill us.”) But now as I read, I feel Hersh’s anger, and remember it. I hear my first Hersh Rasseyner’s voice yelling at me in the dark, and I think of how uncertain he must have actually been, how unsettled, how unlucky, a storm playing itself out within him. I simply hadn’t been unlucky enough, or alive long enough, to feel that unsettled myself.

I feel that passion and urgency, too, in so much of Wisse’s teaching, then and now, emanating from a fire that is not terribly different from the fire of the Torah that animates so many others. That emotional and intellectual urgency, the overwhelming “I have to talk to you,” powers the double helix of trauma and wonder at the core of Jewish history, the responses to the whack-a-mole efforts of the Jews’ pursuers, the khurbn and resurrection that repeat again and again, the dry bones rising from the ground, the eternal dialogue with the Eternal. Hersh Rasseyner is on the Paris metro, in the dorm room in Jerusalem, in the classroom in Cambridge, in the comments section, in your mind. Hersh Rasseyner is still there, as he always is, making his argument for the sake of heaven. He never disappoints. He’s waiting, forever, for you.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Chaim Grade, Yiddish literature