Commentary Magazine


Jewish Writing

To the Editor:

On reading Cynthia Ozick’s “Bialik’s Hint” [February], which, if I have successfully penetrated the thicket of her prose, calls for a fusion of Greek and Hebrew cultural ideals as a “new alternative” for the Jewish writer, I was afflicted with an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. After a quick race through my mind, the answer came to me—why, of course, Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy.

I took the book, which I had last read over a half-century ago, off the shelf and spent two delightful hours rummaging through Arnold’s ruminations on the Hellenism-Hebraism dichotomy in English culture and its ultimate resolution. Here is the gist of his ideas, inadequately summarized (the genius is as much in the exposition as in the conclusions).

Arnold identifies Hebraism with doing and Hellenism with knowing and thinking:

We may regard this energy driving at practice, this paramount sense of the obligation of duty, self-control, and work, this earnestness in going manfully with the best light we have, as one force [Hebraism]. And we may regard the intelligence driving at those ideas which are, after all, the basis of right practice, the ardent sense for all the new and changing combinations of them which man’s development brings with it, the indomitable impulse to know and adjust them perfectly, as another force [Hellenism]. . . . Hebraism and Hellenism—between these two points of influence moves our world. . . . Still, they pursue this aim [man's perfection] by very different courses. The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience. . . . The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience. . . . Hellenism, and human life in the hands of Hellenism, is invested with a kind of aerial ease, clearness, and radiancy; they are full of what we call sweetness and light. Difficulties are kept out of view, and the beauty and rationalness of the ideal have all our thoughts. [Emphasis in original]

Arnold laments that whereas the Renaissance (the Enlightenment) produced in continental Europe a revival of the Greek spirit, its counterpart in England, the Reformation, perversely produced a revival of Hebraism (Puritanism). It was time, he argued, for a renewal of the Greek spirit. He concluded that in time a balance will be restored: “And thus man’s two great natural forces, Hebraism and Hellenism, will no longer be dissociated and rival, but will be a joint force of right thinking and strong doing to carry him on to perfection. This is what the lovers of culture may perhaps dare to augur for such a nation as ours.”

Bialik’s hint (“the value of Aggadah is that it issues in Halakhah,” etc.) may have given Miss Ozick a pregnant idea for a “new alternative,” but Matthew Arnold has given us the whole baby in his still-timely book. Only a shift of emphasis to incorporate the unique Jewish experience is needed to provide a contemporary guide for the perplexed Jewish writer.

Elias M. Schwarzbart
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Cynthia Ozick’s article on post-Enlightenment Jewish consciousness is very welcome. The collapse of the traditional Jewish world view in the past two centuries has indeed left us with a dilemma. How are we to remain connected to the particularistic, idiosyncratic view of the classic Jewish world and yet retain the creativity which we presume the more individualistic modern West confers?

Miss Ozick, while she acknowledges a tendency toward the fanciful, the aggadic, the midrashic in the tradition, nevertheless chooses to define the essence of Judaism by its capacity for “moral seriousness,” that is, the “Sinaitic challenge of distinctive restraint and responsibility.” Additionally she posits a tension between the text-centered, circumscribed Jewish world, a world of “uniqueness” and “religio,” and the modern world of multiplicity and proliferation. . . . But doesn’t the tradition . . . already contain within it the fusion which Miss Ozick desires: unity and multiplicity, restraint and imagination?

If Gershom Scholem’s work suggests anything, it is that the classical Jewish world was in a state of dialectical tension between rationalism and profoundly irrational mythic elements, each, at the times of greatest creativity, informing the other. With the destruction of that world, these forces of myth and fancy found a variety of new expressions, one, as she notes, in literature.

I would suggest that another post-Enlightenment secularized expression of these mythic forces was in the development of psychoanalysis. . . . There is in addition both structural and symbolic evidence of homology between the tasks and language of the Kabbalah and those of psychoanalysis. It is in the kabbalistic willingness to confront the forces of the “other side,” that is, the forces of evil, of the irrational within oneself, that the greatest transformation can occur. In other words, the task is to bring the “sparks hidden there” under more conscious, direct, liberated control. . . .

What I am arguing in no way negates the fundamental thrust of Miss Ozick’s argument. Indeed, I stand with her in the belief that the reclamation of the Sinaitic world view in terms that are comprehensible to us is among the most urgent tasks of the contemporary Jewish world. I simply suggest both another classic confluence between reason and imagination and another modern arena where contact and fusion might fruitfully occur.

Paul Summergrad
Brookline, Massachusetts

_____________

 

To the Editor:

In her interesting article . . . Cynthia Ozick seems to ignore the idea of Zionism. Zionism, although a rebellion against both the Enlightenment and shtetl views of the Jew, chose to take the middle road by synthesizing the values of both into a new, higher culture. Zionism calls neither for the cultural ghetto of the shtetl nor for the Enlightenment dictum, “be a man abroad, a Jew at home”—or, as in most cases, be a Jew nowhere.

Zionism attempts to satisfy both of Miss Ozick’s demands for a new Jewish literature and culture: the fusion of modernity with Judaism and the establishment of a “New Yiddish.” . . . This process can only be completed, however, as Miss Ozick rightly points out, with a language. Her call for a “New Yiddish,” though, would seem to insist on the eternal supremacy of the Diaspora in the development of a new Jewish culture. Miss Ozick would no doubt love to be a part of this revival, not minding if English could in the process be “Judaized” a bit. But the coming of Zionism and the state of Israel demand that this culture be based on Hebrew. For Miss Ozick, Hebrew cannot express certain ideas, notably those of modernity. And she is correct if she insists on using biblical or even mishnaic Hebrew, but Zionism, and Bialik himself, started Hebrew on the road to modernity. The revived Hebrew can create novels, essays, and modern poetry. . . .

A closer look at Zionism can give Miss Ozick the answers she wants.

Ira Slomowitz
Baltimore, Maryland

_____________

 

Cynthia Ozick writes:

It is good of Elias M. Schwarzbart to remind us of some of the actual language of Matthew Arnold’s seminal reflections on Hellenism and Hebraism—especially the much-lampooned phrase “sweetness and light” in its original setting. Arnold’s formulation continues to stand back of most questions concerning Western cultural expression, but that very phrase, “sweetness and light,” as well as its halo of “aerial ease, clearness, and radiancy,” shows how much of Arnold’s notion of Hellenism came from conventional Victorian idealization of Greek ideas and society. Plato is Greek, but there is little in Plato that is sweet. The mystery religions are Greek, and there is little in their obfuscations that casts light. And Arnold’s definition of Hebraism is limited by his sense of the English Bible, surely a grand and vital service road, but hardly, for Jews, the main highway; moreover, it was the English Bible strained through the sieve of Puritanism. Nor did Arnold appear to have any inkling of the Aggadah side of Hebraism.

So it isn’t enough—though it is surely useful—for Arnold to have declared that “between these two points of influence moves our world,” if the two influences are not sufficiently delineated. That is why I cannot agree with Mr. Schwarzbart that “Matthew Arnold has given us the whole baby”—the baby is deformed, with too many parts missing. And even if the Arnoldian baby were whole, it is a mistake to suppose that “only a shift in emphasis” would offer a “contemporary guide for the perplexed Jewish writer.” What a world of innovative rethinking is needed to fill out that potent “only”—the “shift in emphasis” being not quite so easy as turning a dial to sharpen the tuning.

In reply to Paul Summergrad’s artful and eloquent remarks: in turning to Bialik’s essay, I did more than merely acknowledge “a tendency toward the fanciful, the aggadic, the midrashic in the tradition”—Bialik’s essay, after all, is as much about Aggadah as it is about Halakhah, and is in itself, of course, an imaginative midrash about the elasticity of the imagination. But it seems to me that the underlying grain of the Jewish impulse does ask for a brake on the irrational, as even the earliest proscriptions against astrology and divination demonstrate.

Gershom Scholem himself called Kabbalah “Jewish Gnosticism,” a recognition of its source outside the central Jewish grain (though he would surely have quarreled with the notion of “central”). His case for the Jewishness of the Gnosticism that came into Jewish hands in the form of Kabbalah was simply that Jews were practicing it and were to some extent Judaizing it. It is not a watertight case, however dazzling the ingenious scholarship that reclaimed Kabbalah for our marveling attention and access. One might ask: if most of the Jews are dancing around a Golden Calf, does that make the Golden Calf a manifestation of the Jewish idea? (The example is admittedly coarse and reductive, as, it goes without saying, the imaginative splendors of Kabbalah are not.) Hence, “if Gershom Scholem’s work suggests anything,” it is that “fusion” must be exercised with huge care lest fusion become a mere devouring. Scholem’s rediscovery of Kabbalah shows how the Jewish proclivity for proliferative distinction-making (its first creative model being God’s own distinction-making, beginning with Genesis, Chapter One, Verse Four) was elaborately put in the service of blurring the Jewish distinction between Creator and created. Versions, in short, of dualism, polytheism, pantheism, paganism. That is something a bit more metaphysically alarming than Mr. Summergrad’s summing-up of “a state of dialectical tension between rationalism and profoundly irrational mythic elements, each . . . informing the other.”

Kabbalah, with all its brilliant structures and insights, nevertheless veers toward mystery religion—a conclusion I suspect Mr. Summer-grad, in the light of his finding a “homology between the tasks and language of the Kabbalah and those of psychoanalysis,” would perhaps not wish to accept. Or perhaps would: the tenets of Gnosticism (and mystery religion) make the claim that the unknown can be made manifest. Isn’t that one of the goals of psychoanalysis? But here my problem is personal, and will irritate. Psychoanalysis as a “modern arena” makes me yawn. Coarse and reductive again, yes; but, looking for a “classic confluence between reason and imagination,” I choose literature.

Ira Slomowitz overlooks the fact that my essay explicitly repudiates my old “call for a New Yiddish,” on the ground that “language is the wineskin, thought the wine,” and that any language, after all, can carry Jewish ideas. But by the same token, even an indisputably Jewish language can reject Jewish ideas. The socialist-speaking Yiddish that attempted to equate Shabbes merely with Saturday—one day like any other in the week—emptying it of its Jewish content, did that. There is much in contemporary Hebrew literature that aims at the same result: the use of Hebrew not as a carrier of Jewish values, but as simply another language in a world of many languages. This wholly secularized and modernized employment of Hebrew is specifically a Zionist construction.

When Mr. Slomowitz remarks that, for me, “Hebrew cannot express certain ideas, notably those of modernity,” he is attributing to me a view that is exactly the opposite of the one I expressed. Allow me to call to Mr. Slomowitz’s attention once more what my essay hoped, in part, to explore: that “Zionism as an Emancipation movement was itself cradled in the Enlightenment, and only provides a new arena for the problem of Jewish cultural allegiance.” Against this larger horizon of cultural perplexity, there is not much difference between the Diaspora and a Hebrew-speaking Israel; indeed, with regard to the infusions of modernism, both are under equal pressure.

Though it is true, as Mr. Slomowitz says, that “Bialik . . . started Hebrew on the road to modernity,” many of the new Israeli poets, writing in Hebrew, scoff at Bialik’s legacy and court the vision and style of, say, Ted Hughes or Robert Bly or Denise Levertov. Nothing very Jewish there, though the dream of a Zionist state is realized.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.