To the Editor:
I would like to express my appreciation of Robert Alter’s essay on me [“Maurice Samuel & Jewish Letters,” March]. To be sure, it made me tired, confronting me as it did with the ghastly amount of work I have done over the years; but it was a thoughtful essay, well grounded in reading, and on the generous side. The author picked out for censure some of my most wretched sentences, and for commendation some that still give me pleasure.
Mr. Alter made a number of just observations. I would like to comment on one of them dealing with a phenomenon to which, as he correctly says, I have not paid enough attention. “. . . it is reasonable to suppose that ignorance is in fact a major cause of self-alienation in vast numbers of Jews. But for others, even for many who have long been immersed in Jewish life and thought, there has simply been no alternative to alienation.” When no alternative exists for such persons, and the motivation is not base, the phenomenon may be compared to unforced emigration-even to the founding of new colonies. The colonies will ultimately be alienated from the mother country, but there is a gain. (The analogy is not on all fours, but it will serve.)
Alienation is ugly when it is attended by ignorance allied to a sense of superiority. This is the kind of alienation that I want to see diminished. It is, of course, the process which is ugly; in later generations the result may be acceptable or even fine. Another analogy (also imperfect) is the emergence of new languages from old ones. The beginnings are repellent, the completion may be inspiring. It was so with the Romance languages and with Yiddish. The turning point is a matter for debate.
As long as Jewish self-alienation is confined to informed persons with creditable motives, Jewish continuity is not threatened. I am anxious to make this point because of the panic about self-alienating Jewish intellectuals. The cry is: “Why can’t we hold them?” The answer is: “Their reasons may be valid for themselves.” There is something undignified, not to say ludicrous, in the repeated appeal: “Don’t go away, we need you.” The proper task of intellectuals who remain within is the lifting of the internal standard of knowledge and response.
New York City