To the Editor:
Nothing I have read on the vexed problem of Jewish identity since Sartre’s famous essay seems to me as honest and intelligent as Daniel Bell’s article in your June issue [“Reflections on Jewish Identity”].
Perhaps I can add a footnote.
Bell analyzes the problem of ambivalent or diminishing identity from the point of view of the Jew in America and in American society. The American Jew who came from Europe during the Nazi period—in the late 1930′s and any time during the 1940′s—seems to me to offer a special and illuminating case. He knows that his survival is a miracle, an eccentricity of circumstance, a kind of minute error of statistics. His name and number were destined to figure on the rolls of extermination. He will always carry with him the taste of near catastrophe and, in my case at least, a certain touch of bad conscience. No one who has seen his own community or intellectual world wiped out in the gas ovens can think back on the event without feeling that his own survival is, in some manner, cheating. One should have been there or gone back for the roll call. The fact that one got away is a marvel of good fortune; but it carries with it a badge of evasion. How would one have behaved at Buchenwald? As well as some of one’s friends and relatives, or as badly? Not to know the answer is both a blessing and a torment.
Thus the American Jew of recent European background brings to the problem of identity and assimilation a particular awareness, a kind of bone-deep intimation of constant danger which the native Jew will often find hard to understand. . . . [Yet] such fantastic decimation should create in all of us a certain lesion or sense of mutilation. Nerves continue to ache long after a limb has been severed. I feel deeply that this is a crucial part of the problem of identity, yet it has received little attention. When I mentioned it as a possible theme to as acute a writer as Philip Roth, he said that it had little realness for anyone born and brought up in a genuine American context.
I can understand the psychological reasons for this, but I wonder whether they do not involve a measure of blindness. American Jewish life seems to me to display numerous symptoms of the tensions, of the spurious adjustments, of the cowardice, which so ghastly a mutilation is bound to provoke even among those who have not been directly menaced. Let me cite a few characteristic examples drawn from very different spheres of action.
In the queer, pseudo-scientific world of “strategic studies” and para-military research, a number of Jews are playing a leading part (this is in itself a curious fact in view of the traditional Jewish distaste for the military establishment). Some of them have put forward much publicized “models” of warfare involving the calculated risks of thirty to sixty million casualties. They juggle such figures with an air of rational mathematical sobriety. Surely there is a complex but real connection between such models of argument and the nearly inconceivable fact that six million Jews were themselves reduced to figures in the columns of German ledgers. Or consider the recent case of a large gang of thieves made up of young middle-class Jewish boys who felt that they “needed a wall to knock their heads against.” Just the week before, captured Nazi films were being shown on television including a sequence in which Jewish children were being thrashed for having tried to steal some rotten potatoes near the entrance of the Warsaw Ghetto. Is there no inward relation between the two events?
A final example: the New York Times is a paper in whose production Jews play a senior and prominent role. Yet nowhere in its front-page obituary of Jung was there any reference to Jung’s notorious flirtations with the Nazis and to his treatment of German Jewish psychologists. Indeed, the piece would have led one to believe that in the break between Freud and Jung, the fault lay somehow with Freud’s “harshness” or narrow orthodoxy. What is at work here is a kind of neurosis of “impartiality,” an attempt by solidly established American Jews to “lean over backward” in their presentation of events.
These are petty examples, but they have a larger relevance. A community that does not use its special gifts and economic position to defend and articulate its values and heritage is always in danger. This danger is increased when the immediate past of that community is so terrible that most people can hardly bear to think about it. Tell an American Jew who is thinking of changing his name or who dreams of the Unitarian church around the corner that the Nazis sought out even those who had been baptized thirty years, and he will look at you as if you were speaking of another planet.
Perhaps it was. But there are strong anti-Semitic forces in every complex society and anti-Semites now know that a “final solution” of the Jewish problem is possible. Millions anywhere can be rounded up and gassed like lice. That knowledge and its implications shadow the life of every Jew wherever he may be. It shadows the very existence of every Jew wherever he may be. It shadows the very existence of his children. This, I submit, is the tragic core of our identity. It unites in a common bond of danger the Orthodox Jew and the agnostic, the traditionalist and the assimilationist. It is our universal passport.
Princeton, N. J.
To the Editor:
Let me register a sharp dissent from some of the more general assumptions in Daniel Bell’s nostalgic and brilliant article.
Mr. Bell suggests first that sensibility and experience are new resources in the formation of spiritual values, somehow distinctively modern and far removed from the criteria of value recognized by Hellenistic Jews and other Jews of the past. In my judgment, on the contrary, Hillel and Koheleth and Jeremiah were all men who relied very heavily upon sensibility and experience in developing their values and their views of the human world. They too inherited a fragmented tradition and a break with the immediate past. I feel, therefore, that Mr. Bell’s projection against the whole Jewish past of his alienation from traditions of “faith” and “reason” sets up one more blockage against the kind of awareness which may enable us to find a confirmation in the past while avoiding the repetition of historic mistakes.
Mr. Bell speaks also of the individual’s responsibility for moral evaluations, as though this requirement had not been recognized in other generations and as though moral crisis were a special burden of moderns who have broken with Orthodoxy. But this awareness of individual spiritual responsibility is precisely what members of our generation are most likely to have in common with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. . . .
Finally, let me voice my dissent from Mr. Bell’s overly neat categorization of the American Jewish generations. In this and in his final statement about the ambiguous relationship between the American and Jewish aspects of his own identity, I feel that he squeezes his Jewish affiliation into a parochial corner of his urbane life of experience, sensibility, and responsibility.
Washington, D. C.
To the Editor:
Allow me to comment on Mr. Daniel Bell’s interesting article from the point of view of one who is both an Israeli and a Zionist in the original, genuine, “Ben-Gurionic” sense of the term. Discussing the dangers of Jewish identity in the American Diaspora, Mr. Bell mentions Israel only once, in passing. He says: “The problem is spiritual, not territorial. Israel is no answer.” With this brief remark, he seems to dispense with a whole tradition of thought which maintains that precisely by returning to their historical homeland will the Diaspora Jews also regain their disintegrating spiritual identity. . . . An Israeli Jew—or, for that matter, any Jew who would settle in Israel—has no more “identity problems” than an Italian in Italy or a Greek in Greece. Mr. Bell’s omission of this most important historical solution to the problem of identity of Diaspora Jews—especially the non-Orthodox ones—is a limitation of his otherwise perceptive analysis.
To the Editor:
. . . Daniel Bell’s representation of Orthodox Judaism is a complete distortion. . . .
Bell invokes Maimonides as the authority for his statement that according to Orthodoxy, “one does not have to believe in God to be a good Jew, one merely has to follow Halakhah.” Yet in his codification of the Halakhah, Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states that the Halakhah requires us to believe in God; and in his Sepher Ha-Mitzvot, Maimonides reckons belief in God as the first of the positive Commandments (the first of the famous Ten Commandments, in fact).
Bell quotes the Guide to the Perplexed that man should not “fall into the error of believing that the universe exists only because of him,” and counters: “A modern man wants to believe that some portion of the universe does exist for him, in the here and now. The Orthodox view of Judaism is too constricted for such a man to feel at home in.” It is a far cry from wanting “some portion” to “believing that the universe exists only because of him.”
Like so many others, Bell is disturbed by the passivity of the Nazis’ victims in the concentration camps, and is only too ready to point to Orthodoxy as the source of quietism and fatalism. But not all of Hitler’s victims were Orthodox—or even Jewish, for that matter. Besides the thousands of non-Jews from occupied countries, the camps contained thousands of Reform, and agnostic, and atheistic, and even converted Jews, who were impartially rounded up for extermination. Where was their fighting spirit? And how did religious, Orthodox Jews in Israel find it in themselves to join in the fight against the Arabs? . . .
(Rabbi) Jacob Bassan
B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation
Kingston, Ontario, Canada
To the Editor:
Daniel Bell states that Orthodoxy advocates the belief in fatalism. Though there may exist Orthodox persons who believe that everything is determined, I would like to suggest that this is not the teaching of the Jewish religion. Free will is a cardinal principle of Judaism.
In discussing the five theories of providence in his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides writes: “The theory of man’s perfectly free will is one of the fundamental principles of the Law of our teacher Moses.” He rejects the view that “each leaf falls according to the Divine decree.”
David B. Morris
Rochester, New York
Mr. Bell writes:
(1) Mr. Frank’s reading of the Prophets and the Fathers is through “modern” eyes, and blurs what is the essential distinction between them and “us”: belief in Revelation. If Revelation is the source of truth, of God’s word, then any test by experience becomes meaningless, if not sacrilegious. One aspect of the modern consciousness is the justification of truth through experience or sensibility—the fruits of pragmatism and existentialism. The pious Jew accepts the word of God, and performs the mitzvot; claims of faith take precedence over claims of doubt.
(2) Mr. Sarell may feel that the Israeli has no more problem of identity than an Italian in Italy or a Greek in Greece. Yet one hears voices, within Israel and without, that lament the “amnesia” among the young regarding the nineteen-hundred-year history of the Diaspora. Be that as it may; I have not been in Israel or studied its problems. My essay was a personal one, for any sense of identity is a tension of parochial experiences with both tradition and universal values. My experiences were in the cosmopolitan ghettos of New York, and it is with that past that I have to come to terms.
(3) Regarding the interpretations of Maimonides: I said that there was an esoteric tradition—and one that I had read during a year-long study of the Mishneh Torah—that the question whether or not a man really believes in God is less relevant than the necessity to fulfill all the ritual commandments, one of which is public avowal of God. The crucial problem for the Rambam was how to keep the Jewish community together in the midst of an alien environment, and for him—as for all Orthodox rabbis—the binding power of law and ritual was the means. Private belief, or disbelief, was irrelevant, so long as Halakhah was obeyed. (And, as I pointed out, there is even the further interpretation—of sod?—that Maimonides was motivated to stress this point in order to seduce the apikorsim to public avowals of belief.)
But ultimately (as expressed in the Moreh Nebukhim) the world is not created for man, and man cannot judge the world and its evils; only God can. And while man has a free will, regarding his own decisions to do good or evil, he does not know God’s ways or God’s will. (See the discussion of the freedom of will from the Mishneh Torah in the Jewish reader edited by Nahum Glatzer, In Time and Eternity, p. 68.) And this is the source of quietism. Rabbi Bassan does me a discourtesy in his stridency. I was not “top ready” to point to Orthodoxy alone as the source of passivity. I said that “we know about the ways in which hunger, fright, privation can depersonalize an individual.” But Orthodoxy does accept the view that “suffering is the badge, [and] one accepts it as a mark of fate,”
(4) I agree with much of what Mr. Steiner writes, though I doubt the justice of his remarks concerning (among others) Herman Kahn. (It may well be that the wartime death of six million Jews—and over thirty million Russians—has led some tough-minded individuals to seek the survival of some persons in the event that the madness of nuclear holocaust erupts.) For the modern Jew, self-emancipation—one facet of identity—is a “twice-born” process: once for “the race,” once for himself. The crucial point is that for many young Jews, particularly the young Jewish intellectuals, the “idea” of “the race” becomes increasingly “unreal”—as the recent COMMENTARY symposium demonstrated. And some rude jolt may be in store for them. I believe, with Mr. Steiner, that the daemon of anti-Semitism lies thinly sub specie aeternitatis; more particularly, the conditions of American life in the next decade—the rebuffs abroad, the tensions of waiting (Americans prefer “action” to the sweating out of political disaster), and the cracks in the armor of American omnipotence—may bring it to the surface. But that is another, and sadder, essay.