Chaim Grade’s Eternal Argument

The intimate, internal quarrel shows Jews doing what they have always done—but while they’re standing among people who have been dedicated to their murder.

A Talmud Torah in Russia in 1937. Wikipedia.

A Talmud Torah in Russia in 1937. Wikipedia.

Ruth R. Wisse
response
Jan. 20 2021
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

A people’s culture is made up not of the entire body of literature it has produced but of that part of its legacy that is being continually absorbed by later generations. For centuries, Jews have masterfully transmitted the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, have incorporated poems into the liturgy, and have selectively studied philosophic and esoteric texts. But have most modern Jews found a way of incorporating the best of modern Jewish writing into their cultural bloodstream?

In Israel, yes: there the process takes place in just the way that a nation-state naturally–if selectively—absorbs new work through its schools, its media, its cultural institutions and, most powerfully, in the give-and-take of its citizenry. In North America, the task requires special effort.

As part of that effort, Mosaic’s founding editor Neal Kozodoy and its current editor Jonathan Silver brought back into circulation Chaim Grade’s translated Yiddish story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” along with my accompanying essay. Mosaic also underwrote a live video reading of the work, directed by Jonathan Leaf and performed by Michael Cuomo (Chaim Vilner) and Christopher Tocco (Hersh Rasseyner), which animated the tense interplay of argument between the two men and the sheer power of the words themselves. I would also encourage those who like the story to see the film The Quarrel by Joseph Telushkin and David Brandes, which invites emotional catharsis through added background and dramatic action.

The story itself, however, is a more highly concentrated battle of ideas. In that respect, Mosaic’s two published responses to the story and to my essay show vividly that this debate was never meant to end.

Dara Horn, superb novelist, pioneers in her response a new approach to Grade’s story by seeing Hersh not simply as a spokesman for a certain position in the encounter of Judaism with modernity but as a real, hard-wired type of personality. “A Hersh Rasseyner is a Hersh Rasseyner,” she writes, recalling that she herself met the first version of the type in a context of Jewish debate not unlike the one in this story but stressing that he is to be found in other encounters all around us. He is rigid and dogmatic, and, not surprisingly, when he sets up a school, at least one of his students (in the story, a boy named Yehoshua) is bound to emulate if not to exceed him in the display of these same qualities.

In thus identifying and delineating the character of Hersh, Horn also highlights the drama of his confrontation with his old classmate, Chaim Vilner, who is also the story’s narrator. These two men need each other not only as interlocutors but in the way that a dogmatic husband may do well with a flexible wife. Hersh’s abrasive personality, his self-punishing severity, and his fierce, self-isolating dismissal of the surrounding society benefit from the presence of a listener whom he can trust and try to win over.

True, as Horn valuably reminds us, the safety and the sustenance of Jews who choose Hersh’s insular way of life depend critically on the fellow-feeling of those “less self-isolating Jews who have undertaken the projects of state-building in Israel and protecting the civil rights of religious communities elsewhere.” But we should not forget the reality of the post-World War II years in Europe, the place and time of Grade’s story, when Jewish survival itself might be said to have hinged on the maintenance of an unyielding, Hersh-like zealotry.

Germany had been the cultural jewel of Europe in the century preceding the Third Reich, and an enviable model for many Jews within and beyond its borders. More than any Pharaoh or Haman before him, Hitler exposed the underlying rot of that mighty civilization, whose genocidal war against the Jews magnified the chasm between the two cultures and the utterly disparate ways of life that each had adhered to. Hersh makes this point in relation to his halakhic observance: to repudiate the world’s more pronounced barbarism, he must take on an even stricter self-discipline. His intense disdain for “Paris” also expresses his contempt for liberalism that, in response to anti-Semitic hatred, took refuge in inaction or silent complicity.

Grade’s wartime and immediate post-war poetry (almost none of which has been translated into English) voices some of the angriest, most explicit attacks on Europe ever heard in Yiddish literature—that is, before he invested his anger in the character of Hersh Rasseyner. That part of his writing is riddled with guilt—survivor’s guilt for having (blamelessly) abandoned his wife and mother, but also for having overestimated the surrounding societies. If Jews were once justified in defining themselves as a people apart, they had now to reckon not only with what their apartness had cost them but also with the infinitely greater merit of their own differentiated way of life. Had Hersh been any less extreme, he could not have savaged liberalism and liberal Judaism as mercilessly, or as convincingly, as he does—thanks to his forcefully brilliant impersonation by the “secular” and “liberal” prose writer that Chaim Grade would subsequently become.

 

Eli Spitzer is less troubled by Hersh Rasseyner’s dogmatism than by the unfairness of Grade’s making him the face of the Musar movement and of Orthodoxy in general. As one deeply familiar with the author’s work and his milieu, Spitzer is all the more unsettled since Grade knew better than to equate Judaism with Musar or to represent Musar by its Novaredok variety. Indeed, in his subsequent works Grade would present stirring, nuanced, and affirmative portrayals of traditional Judaism. Spitzer cites the character recognizably based on the beloved Rabbi Avraham Yeshaye Karelitz, known as the Ḥazon Ish, in the epic novel, The Yeshiva. An even more remarkable portrayal in this vein is Grade’s slice of fictional autobiography, My Mother’s Sabbath Days, that portrays his mother, the fruit-seller in a Vilna courtyard, as the quintessence of Jewish moral refinement.

I am grateful to Spitzer for explaining something I’ve experienced as well, namely, the disappointment and confusion voiced by many practicing Jews about a story whose content otherwise excites and attracts them. Why could Grade not have made Rasseyner more truly representative, they ask? Some fear lest this Musar extremist be mistaken for the model of Orthodoxy itself, as though Scrooge (excuse the comparison) were to be mistaken for the typical Christian.

Spitzer rightly points out that Grade is here hammering at the qualities in Jewish practice that had made him leave the Musar yeshiva of Novaredok. But let’s understand what is at stake here. In contrast to most of Grade’s later fiction, written in historical tribute to his formative world, this verbal duel is a post-war reckoning. As Hersh insists, it is a demand for an accounting—a ḥeshbon ha-nefesh—for the Gentile world that will not conduct any such soul-searching on its own. It is not there to make the case for Judaism.

In fact, neither side in the story puts its best face forward. Each does far better at exposing the shortcomings of the other than in proposing how to live as a Jew. Just think of what Chaim Vilner might have advanced as a positive debating point by bringing up the homeland that the yishuv in Palestine was creating for the ingathering of this battered people. The story does not offer that kind of healing example.

Instead, the argument throbs with the tremors of its time. These two men in their late thirties are standing on the ground of Europe that is still heaving with Jewish blood. Their stifled anguish among the Parisians so casually going about their affairs makes them the only conscience left on the continent. That is also the crux of the story: after Europe has done its worst, they have not been eliminated, and they pick up their thread where they had left it dangling. The contrast between them is smaller than the contrast between them and the best of Paris.

The song written by the poet Hirsh Glick in the Vilna ghetto, known and still sung as the Partisan Hymn, ends with Jewish marchers vowing, “We are here! Mir zaynen do!” Grade the child of Vilna makes the same avowal. The body and soul of Lithuanian Jewry reaffirms its presence, and will knowingly continue to live among the nations. But it must now reconsider on what terms. In defensive isolation or trusting engagement? This intimate, internal quarrel over which is the better approach shows Jews doing what they have always done—but now, at this moment, they are standing among people who have been at worst dedicated and at best indifferent to their murder. That is why Grade had to portray Hersh Rasseyner as harsh as he is.

I can’t sign off without thanking Dara Horn for her generous account of my teaching. She was always more colleague than student, and has long since been an actual colleague in teaching Jewish literature, both in the academy and at the Tikvah Fund. We are blessed to have these opportunities to share our enthusiasms, always, let us hope, under milder circumstances than those governing this story.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Chaim Grade, Yiddish