Commentary Magazine


Man and God, by Victor Gollancz

Religion as Mood
Man and God: Passages Chosen and Arranged to Express a Mood about the Human and Divine.
by Victor Gollancz.
Houghton Mifflin. 576 pp. $3.75.

 

It is noteworthy, it seems to me, that the spirit of the heralded modern’s return to religion continues to be cast in the keys of tentativeness and nostalgia. There is a craving for myths and pieties in which “tradition” was presumably much richer than our time is—a craving, incidentally, for the very idiom and behavior which during the 20′s and most of the 30′s we enjoyed either caricaturing or ignoring. But there is little sign of readiness, indeed an extreme reluctance, to commit oneself to any pattern of conduct, let alone belief.

We have come to fear total commitment because of our experiences in the past two to three decades. Like Uliva in Silone’s Bread and Wine, our latter-day modern discovered that the regenerating passion driving him to revolt against tyranny became in its turn “an ideology, a network of fixed ideas,” and that “every new idea invariably ends by becoming fixed . . . and reactionary”; like Spina in the same novel, he began to suspect that in rebelling against tradition he had “escaped from the opportunism of a decadent Church only to fall into bondage to the opportunism of a party.”

There must therefore be no whole hearted identification of self with any movement or teaching (is the feeling); on the other hand, a revival of curiosity and sympathy has been taking place, a desire for the vocabulary and charm, and even for the grotesque, of the religion which one cannot personally accept. Consider, for example, Isaac Rosenfeld’s reflections in the Partisan Review symposium on “Religion and the Intellectuals”; he writes, “The reason I cannot accept any of the current religious philosophies is that they are all crazy in . . . their denial of nature and attempt to push man out of nature. . . . I call this crazy. . . . One might as well say of fish that their real life lies in a realm outside water.” This reason, however, in no way prevents him from confessing, “ . . . though I stated at the outset that I find all such separations of man from nature repugnant, at times I am myself drawn to this view” (see indeed the remainder of his essay, or his short story “Bazaar of the Senses”). If the word ambivalent hadn’t been worked almost to death, it might perhaps serve to characterize the response reflected here. But on second thought, even that word will not quite do: for, if we look at much of the writing of our contemporary intellectuals, the paradox experienced seems to be not merely the result of conflicting ideas, or conflicting emotions, or a conflict of some idea with some emotion. This it may be. But it is also the result of active and cultivated recollection of having been once betrayed; and along with that, deliberate though convalescent exploration of an earlier world whose real nature is often hardly remembered and whose imperatives have become more interesting again but still remain optional.

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Now, Victor Gollancz’s conception of religion is anything but Isaac Rosenfeld’s; yet Man and God, the Gollancz anthology, belongs to the spiritual climate of our time, and in some features may even be prototypical. In the first place, note carefully the two major terms of the title—but especially their order. While it is true that no uniformity of view prevails in all the passages in the volume (in his foreword Gollancz tells us to expect contradictions), yet the following quotation from Crescas is a fair statement of the editor’s emphasis on man (or is it Man?) over transcendent God, and the divine in relation to this-worldly action: “Salvation is attained not by subscription to metaphysical dogmas, but solely by love of God that fulfils itself in action. This is a cardinal truth in Judaism.” See also the charming story quoted from Chuang Tzu on page 292 which is too long to reproduce. Or again, this quotation from Goethe: “This preoccupation with immortality is for people of rank, and especially ladies, who have nothing to do. But an able man, who has something regular to do here, and must toil and struggle to produce day by day, leaves the future world to itself, and is active and useful in this.” Or finally this from a long passage by Erich Fromm: “ . . . positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.”

In no way do I wish to imply that Mr. Gollancz is under obligation to represent every variety of religious expression. He did not undertake to compile an anthology of religions; he wanted to draw up a religious anthology; and, as he himself informs us, this work is meant to be a polemic against the current “anti-religious humanism and anti-humanistic religion.” Since he hopes that his anthology will be used for more than pleasure, will be used, that is, as a source of courage and hopeful living, he is not called upon to quote from Calvin, let us say, or Barth or Freud or writers with an uncharitable estimate of man, or from scriptures which do not lend themselves as easily to psychological allegorizing as do those included in the anthology. But we must not fail to recognize what is being underscored; and the title of the work therefore may be taken not only as a description of its contents but as a declaration of its emphasis: not system but man must we cherish; religion is not religion if it demands the secession of man from nature. Mr. Gollancz is surely speaking here not only for himself or a small circle—even Isaac Rosenfeld is somewhere in the neighborhood.

In the second place, there is significance in the subtitle, which reads: “Passages chosen and arranged to express a mood about the human and divine.” Moreover, Gollancz, fearing lest his subtitle be overlooked or treated casually, insists upon calling attention to its content, and then re-emphasizing it, to make clear beyond all doubt that he is expressing a “mood, not doctrine.” An age in terror of the doctrinaire is bound to be uncomfortable with doctrine; and perhaps mood is about the most we dare create.

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Yet one wonders whether mood can be sufficient to our needs; whether mood alone could have produced the many striking passages the editor was able to assemble for his anthology; whether mood alone does not ultimately defeat the effect it hopes for. What can be the impact of the following selections, cascading one upon another?

“He who gives a penny to a poor man receives six blessings: he who shows his sympathy with the poor man receives eleven blessings.”

“An opponent of Rabbi Shmelke wished to shame him in public. He sent him a flask of very old and strong wine on the day before the Day of Atonement in the hope that he would become drunk from it. The Rabbi tasted a little and perceived the sender’s intention. When he was reciting Psalms after the Services, he repeated several times the verse: ‘By this I know that Thou delightest in me, that mine enemy does not triumph over me,’ and translated it thus: ‘By this I shall know that Thou art pleased with me, that those who wished to disgrace me receive no harm because of me.’”

“A father complained to the Baalshem that his son had forsaken God. ‘What, Rabbi, shall I do?’ ‘Love him more than ever,’ was the Baalshem’s reply.”

“To sin against a fellow-man is worse than to sin against the Creator. The man you harmed may have gone to an unknown place, and you may lose the opportunity to beg his forgiveness. The Lord, however, is everywhere and you can always find Him when you seek Him.”

“Rabbi Shmelke once had no money to give a beggar. He ransacked his wife’s drawer, took from it a ring and gave it to the destitute man. His wife returned, saw that the drawer was open and that her ring was missing. She raised a hue and cry, and when her husband explained his action she asked him to run after the beggar, since the ring was worth fifty thalers.

“The Rabbi ran swiftly in pursuit, and catching up with the begger, said: ‘I have just learned that the ring is worth fifty dialers. Let no one cheat you by giving you less than its value.’ ”

By this time, one begins to feel sorry for the wife.

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The danger of reliance on mood threatens not only Mr. Gollancz; none of us can escape it so long as we are unable to accept a halachah, law,—as I should like to put it—which would give substance to our life of aggadah, legendary wisdom. That is why, like Victor Gollancz, all of us take refuge in eclecticism which we identify with universalism: we quote many sources, familiar and unfamiliar; our ancestors, on the other hand, frequently incorporated what came from other cultures into their own active lives, for the most part even remaining unaware of the origin of such teachings and practices. That is why we may read on and on for more than five hundred pages and seldom feel that we have progressed beyond parable and the hortatory to specific injunction, some commandment requiring and deserving faithful consent.

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Withal, despite being too long, despite the silliness of an occasional (actually very rare) passage, this volume is a work of independent judgment and genuine reflection, which in no small measure explains why its contents help make vivid the relevance of the insights of saints to our dilemmas and desires. No collection of literary scavenging could have achieved this—as is evident, by the way, in the few selections our editor derived from mediocre anthologies.

Perhaps, as Mr. Gollancz believes, the mood of his volume is unfashionable. My own hunch is that while the particular mood Gollancz wishes to encourage and fortify may not be as forcefully—and profoundly—represented as he feels it should be (I think he is overestimating the influence of certain theologians, and is reading more than is there out of the literary tributes of our intellectuals to the past or to the picturesque), it is not so rare as he imagines. In the way he has sought to recall the dignity of man, to appropriate what many religions and literatures have to say of man’s divine affiliation; in the way he has sought to avoid indoctrination, welcome traditional concepts and reinterpret them in psychological and figurative terms, he may yet prove to be expressing, along with his own protest, the sentiments and operative (if unacknowledged) principles of our times, under the newest dispensation.

One final word. The bulkiness of this volume is probably due to Mr. Gollancz’s eagerness to defend man’s soul by all the literature at his command. By quoting so much I think he weakened his case, because he sounds as though he were protesting too much. But one must respect him enormously for that ambition and undertaking.

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