What Drove Chaim Grade Away from Religion

The author of “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” was alienated from traditional religion not because of Orthodoxy in general but because of his yeshiva’s misanthropic separatism.

The yeshiva in Novaredok, May 9, 1920. Wikipedia.

The yeshiva in Novaredok, May 9, 1920. Wikipedia.

Jan. 20 2021
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at elispitzer.com.

Ever since Chaim Grade’s short story “Mayn krig mit Hersh Rasseyner” was first translated into English in 1953, it has been widely viewed as a microcosm of the battle for the modern Jewish soul, revolving around the familiar polarities of observance vs. freedom, belief vs. skepticism, and particularism vs. universalism. Even the most casual reader of the story notices that Hersh Rasseyner, the representative of the religious worldview, is given at least as much space as Grade’s alter-ego to air his views, and must recognize therefore that the author continued to long for the traditional observance he left behind. The story is admired, as much as for anything else, for the way Grade gives a fair account not just of his reasons for leaving Orthodoxy, but of the perspective of those he left behind.

If, however, Hersh Rasseyner is supposed to be Grade’s standard-bearer for Orthodoxy, a biographical problem presents itself. For many years after he left the Novaredok yeshiva, Grade, while already developing his poetic talents, remained both religiously observant and deeply immersed in Torah study. For seven years, he was practically living in the house of, and learning directly from, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaye Karelitz, better known as the Ḥazon Ish, a titan of Orthodoxy renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Talmud, for his halakhic stringencies, and for pioneering the kolel system of full-time Torah study for married men. The influence and renown of the Ḥazon Ish by 1952 far exceeded that of the Novaredok yeshiva where Grade spent his adolescent years, and which he left at the age of twenty-two.

Long after forsaking traditional observance and belief, Grade retained his admiration for the Ḥazon Ish and saw in him an emblem of everything good in religious Judaism. Indeed, Grade lovingly fictionalizes Karelitz in the character of Reb Avraham Shaye in his magnum opus, The Yeshiva, a vivid two-volume portrait of pre-war Lithuanian Orthodoxy. When “Hersh Rasseyner” was published, the pair were still in epistolary contact, often making heartfelt declarations of affection for one another. By contrast, the Novaredok approach was a major theme of The Yeshiva and other writings, in which Grade portrays it as fundamentally warped and damaging. If, then, Grade was determined to give the voice of traditional East European Judaism a fair crack, why did he give the role to a fellow student of the late and, in his eyes, unlamented, Novaredok yeshiva instead of someone more representative of traditional Judaism, perhaps even the Ḥazon Ish himself?

This question is not just about Grade’s personal experiences within the world of Orthodoxy, but one of simple fairness. The Musar movement, founded by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter in the mid-19th century, won widespread support and retains near-universal respect among Orthodox Jews. The same absolutely cannot be said, however, of Novaredok, an extreme third-generation mutation of the Musar movement, opposed, sometimes harshly, by the majority of rabbis who encountered it, which distorted Rabbi Salanter’s call for a society-wide revival of back-to-the-basics morality by turning it into a misanthropic separatism.

Inspired by this ascetic vision, the Novaredok yeshiva set about establishing local branches throughout Eastern Europe, using movement-building techniques not so different from those employed by Scientology. In these institutions, teachers psychologically terrorized their students with the aim of creating a cadre of disciples fanatically dedicated to an ideal of pure Judaism divorced from the wickedness of the surrounding world. Though it spread rapidly in the pressure cooker of the early 20th century, this movement died out after the Holocaust, remembered in some circles with a degree of wry fondness, but not as something ever to be attempted again.


In 1952, it is true, the story of post-war Orthodoxy had yet to unfold, but an observer of Grade’s astuteness knew very well that the communities being built in New York, Jerusalem, and Bnei Brak by Orthodox leaders like Rabbis Yoel Teitelbaum, Moshe Feinstein, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and his personal hero, the Ḥazon Ish, were opposed both in principle and practice to the Novaredok model. Before the Holocaust, Hersh Rasseyner was a scion of an extreme movement within pre-war Orthodoxy; by the time Grade put Rasseyner’s arguments before the eyes of his readers, the self-appointed Jewish elite he represented was scarcely more than a memory.

If we bear this in mind, and follow the back and forth between Chaim Vilner (the stand-in for the author) and Rasseyner with careful attention, a more interesting pattern emerges. At a low level of resolution, the quarrel looks like a hard-fought draw between the pair, with Vilner perhaps winning on points, if only by virtue of speaking last. When we apply a microscope, however, we see that their hits and misses are not evenly distributed. Hersh Rasseyner scores his wins whenever he can position himself as a representative of Orthodox observance arguing against the acculturated, “worldly” Jew; Vilner leaps ahead whenever he can successfully focus the conversation on Rasseyner himself and the Novaredok philosophy he represents.

Take, for instance, one of Rasseyner’s greatest moments, where he mercilessly slays the sacred cows of 200 years of Jewish reform movements. In Ruth Wisse’s new translation we can fully appreciate his caustic rhetoric:

Still, not all of your secularists wanted to cast off the yoke of the Torah altogether. Some grumbled that Judaism kept getting heavier all the time: the commentary of the Gemara on the Mishnah, Alfasi on the Gemara, one commentary on another, and commentaries on the commentaries. Lighten the load a little, they said, so that we can carry the rest more easily. But the more they lightened the burden, the heavier the remainder seemed to them. . . . Devout Jews cover a boy’s head with a yarmulke when he’s one year old in order to accustom him to fulfilling the commandments. But when a worldly father suddenly asks his grown son to cover his head with a paper yarmulke on a Friday evening and to make kiddush, the young man rightly thinks the whole thing is absurd.

This is savage stuff, all the more so for how true it must ring to anyone familiar with the persistent failures of the most high-minded and serious Jewish reformers to demonstrate that religious modernization need not be a slippery slope to the extinction of religion. Unlike many of Rasseyner’s arguments, it is not diminished by hyperbole or non-sequiturs. Note, however, that this argument has nothing to do with Novaredok, nor even really with Musar at all. Rasseyner’s point is that Orthodoxy succeeds by turning Jewish law into an all-encompassing environment, so that each generation finds in its constraints not restriction, but comfort and safety. This ethos, so central to the ḥaredi Judaism that developed after World War II, stands in contrast to Novaredok’s insistence on placing its recruits in a constant state of psychological discomfort.

One of Vilner’s strongest moments—omitted from earlier translations—is when he turns on Rasseyner after being accosted by his student Yehoshua. “Is this what you teach?!” he demands of his friend, “Hatred and scorn for the whole world?!’—closing with the astute observation that “You’ve appealed to him more with this than with the Torah scroll.” In the original, Vilner asks, “Is this your chinukh?,” using a word typically translated as “education” but in fact connoting the molding of the individual in all aspects of life. To accuse Rasseyner of a failure of chinukh, which for him is a religious obligation as essential as Shabbat or prayer, is to strike a devastating blow. Yehoshua’s boorish behavior and fundamental inhumanity demonstrate that Novaredok’s chinukh is worthless at best. Rasseyner’s admirable qualities, which lead Vilner to declare that he loves him “with all my soul,” are not a product of his Novaredok training; they exist in spite of it, and he has no way of passing them on to a new generation of students.

By contrast, Vilner’s defense of his pursuit of secular knowledge, encapsulated by his pointing to a statue of Galileo, is strikingly lame, as if intended for no other purpose than to have Rasseyner methodically rip it to shreds. He is on much stronger ground, and summons up much greater passion, in his defense of ordinary Gentiles moved to perform acts of simple goodness for their own sake under the most impossible of circumstances. Here Vilner decisively shows not just the cruelty, but the falsehood of Rasseyner’s account of mankind, thus fundamentally undercutting his pretensions to being the sole repository of truth in a world of lies. Where Vilner is at his very best, however, is in his defense of the “exhausted women,” too busy working themselves to the bone to worry much about questions of Jewish identity, to whom the self-righteous Rasseyner has long ago sold his share of the world to come.


What is perhaps most revealing, however, are the arguments that Grade does not put into Vilner’s mouth. Completely absent from the story is any mention of the historicity of the Torah, the age of the universe, evolution, or any of the other standard arguments that one would expect to arise, at least in passing, in a debate between faith and doubt. Vilner’s passionate invocations of the Holocaust at first seem to be leading to the familiar argument that no just God could allow such evil in His world, but, as Wisse notes, he pointedly does not make that claim. Instead he upbraids Rasseyner for the cold, inhuman, and thus “trivial” quality of his faith. Vilner’s ultimate demand is that Rasseyner become more like Job, but Job was a pious and obedient believer, not a maskil (adherent to the Jewish enlightenment), still less a secularist—and certainly no Chaim Grade.

In short, what Vilner palpably fails to do is mount a convincing defense of the secular Jew against the claims of Orthodoxy, and what he does exceedingly well is attack Rasseyner himself. He accomplishes this by turning the conversation from the present to the past. By 1952, Rasseyner is ostensibly advocating a synthesis in which Mussar is used pragmatically alongside once-opposing philosophical approaches like Ḥasidism. Vilner, however, is not taken in by appearances and insists on unveiling Rasseyner as a “Novaredok Musarist.” In these sections, Vilner’s demand for compassion, warmth, and ahavat Yisrael (love of one’s fellow Jew) are not so far from Orthodox critiques of the Novaredok movement made by the Ḥazon Ish and others. Once identified, this pattern must modify our understanding of what “Hersh Rasseyner” is really about. It is, without doubt, about the battle for Grade’s soul, but we should see this battle as something distinctly personal and particular, and not at all a stand-in for the modern Jewish experience.

The quarrel between Vilner and Rasseyner revolves around who is a good Jew—not in the sense of “a Jew who is a good person,” but rather one who is good at being a Jew. Vilner fervently and honestly hopes that when the pair meet again he will be “as Jewish then as I am today,” but by 1952 Grade knew precisely where his choices had led him. The dreams of his Yiddishist circle in Vilna lay quite literally dead and buried, and Grade had a new American audience largely oblivious to the web of Jewish allusions that permeate his writing. He could not seriously claim to have solved the riddle of being a good Jew without religion. The real question is why he couldn’t be a good Jew the old-fashioned way, and the answer to that is the real subject of the debate, at least from Vilner’s perspective: not Judaism, but Novaredok.

Vilner cannot offer a convincing portrait of secular Jewish identity, but he can make a stunning indictment of those who, in his opinion, had forced him out of Orthodoxy, one Grade subsequently developed further through the character of Tsemakh Atlas in The Yeshiva. For Grade, Judaism had been irrevocably ruined by his experiences in a torture chamber doubling as a yeshiva where he was subject to “butchers of the soul” who “talk themselves into believing that human beings can tear their lower urges out of themselves and lop them off.” When Vilner demands an apology, telling Rasseyner, “It’s your fault that we moved too far away from Jewish tradition!” Grade really means it. Or as he later put it in a revealing interview, “what made me a poet was the fact that I was a coward, since I didn’t have the strengths to become what I believe a person should become. And this is also thanks to the Musarniks.”

For this reason, I believe attempts to find in Rasseyner an eternal or recurring character misconstrue the true nature of Grade’s internal conflict. From time to time, all of us will come across the prig and the bully, but few of us, thank God, will ever know what it is like to meet a real Hersh Rasseyner, for the same reason we won’t know what it feels like to be a real Chaim Vilner, because we have never been members of an anti-human cult. Grade was, and he suffered for it until the end of his life. Right at the beginning of the story Rasseyner confidently affirms what he believes to be an indictment of Vilner, but is unavoidably an indictment of himself:

You surely know the saying among us: whoever has learned Musar can have no enjoyment in his life. Chaim Vilner, you will remain a cripple. You will be deformed for the rest of your life.

But, in truth, this is not Rasseyner talking, it is Grade himself, and he knew only too well how true it was.

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