Commentary Magazine


On "The Jewish Catalog"

To the Editor:

In the course of Marshall Sklare’s critical article on The Jewish Catalog [The Greening of Judaism,” December 1974], he juxtaposes two quotations from my own and my wife Blu’s writing. One quotation is presented as trumpeting the fear of erosion of Jewish loyalty by the college experience in the 60’s; the other implies that we hailed the Catalog in the 70’s as a reassurance that Jewish youth were, after all, with us. The further implication is that those who view the Catalog with favor do so out of meretricious youth worship and out of a self-deluding contrast of the purity and relevance of the Catalog and its subgroup with organized Jewish life. (We do not agree that youth worship and cheap put-downs of establishments are a problem in the Jewish community.)

Contrary to the impression in Mr. Sklare’s essay, my article on the . . . colleges was not simply a response to the topical problems he cites, such as the “New Left, the counterculture, drugs, Eastern mysticism.” The article suggested a broader theoretical framework: namely, that the negative impact of the university on Jewish identity grew out of structural problems such as the excessive dominance of contemporary values in Jewish life. . . . I still believe . . . that in the university arena, a significant erosion of Jewish loyalty continues to take place in many cases. The cure, if indeed there ever will be a cure, will take a cultural renewal and development on both the Jewish and general cultural side that is a matter of generations, time, and a massive, complex effort beyond any one group or development.

Any implication, then, that I hailed the Catalog because it gave easy (and self-deceiving) reassurance on the problem of Jewish youth is as unfair to the Catalog as it is a misleading and unfair representation of my own thought.

Blu and I reviewed the Catalog favorably because, among other things, it puts the entire range of Jewish ritual back on the agenda of many Jews; it creatively adapts contemporary culture to a wide range of neglected Jewish religious and aesthetic experiences; it overcomes the excessively rational, modernistic canons of judgment that bowdlerize many contemporary Jewish presentations of the tradition; and it does all this with “great charm, saving humor, and a very human dimension.” That is contribution enough for one book. The accusation that the Catalog neglects “the ‘commandments between man and his fellow man’” is unfair since a second volume of the Catalog devoted to just those topics was planned and is in execution at this time.

Mr. Sklare seems out to score points. Example: the Catalog includes a treatment of mikveh. Mikveh is the most neglected of the central personal rituals of the traditional system; it is abandoned by all but a hard core of Orthodoxy; it is hardly ever presented because it violates the rules of “modern,” progressive, rational Judaism; it is in double jeopardy because the very notion of impurity as applying to women runs afoul of women’s-liberation values and is seen by many as ipso facto sexist. Defying all these regnant norms (and women’s-liberation values, in doctrinaire form, are particularly strong in their own group), the editors include a presentation of mikveh which is a sophisticated, religiously sensitive attempt to see significance in it by an observant Jewess who could not simply answer that God’s command makes this observance so. For this presentation, the Catalog is faulted for “subordination to the youth culture” and “downplaying of the family.”

“The resurgence of interest by Jews in living Jewishly” that Blu and I refer to . . . had no youth referent at all. It grew out of our encounter, through our work in the newly-founded National Jewish Conference Center, with hundreds, indeed thousands, of young married couples, many of them leaders in Jewish communities, who have moved toward a new Jewish practice and content in their lives in recent years. . . . We were impressed by how useful these people found The Jewish Catalog to be, and it influenced our own appreciation of the Catalog in no small measure.

I have enormous respect for Mr. Sklare, both personally and as the foremost sociologist of American Jewry. I equally appreciate and have often cited the extraordinary contribution COMMENTARY has made in providing a searching, fundamental critique of the counterculture-liberation movements of recent years. When the combination of Zeitgeist, media coverage, and the exploitation of the bad world situation made these movements appear overwhelmingly persuasive and almost irresistible, COMMENTARY offered an independent, often devastating judgment. I am persuaded that this saved us from the triumph of trends and tendencies which were bad for Israel and the Jews specifically, and for culture and values generally. Although I have disagreed with a number of specific positions taken by COMMENTARY’s writers, my own thinking has been deeply influenced by the magazine, and I hope that it has saved me from some really bad errors of judgment.

Still, I must raise the question whether COMMENTARY has lost its sense of proportion. It appears determined to extirpate any phenomenon associated with or influenced by countercultural trends, root and branch. It would appear that in COMMENTARY’s judgment such association ipso facto cancels out the good in any aspect of such phenomena. . . . Mr. Sklare’s article manages to take a creative attempt to make a new encounter with Jewish tradition possible, hangs the albatross of the Ramah camp in Palmer, Massachusetts, and marijuana around its neck, twists its experiential emphasis into a snobbish obsession with candles, and dismisses it as vacuous.

The article has one central and important point to make—a critique of the excessive influence of youth-cultural standards on the Catalog. However, an important warning of the distortion that subordination to these values can cause is wrongly generalized into a denial to the Catalog of any overall validity. Moreover, the arguments are presented with such intellectual overkill that the basic picture is ultimately distorted. Ironically enough, this seems to me to be the very criticism that COMMENTARY has been offering on the judgments which the counterculture has been making on American society itself.

As a friend of COMMENTARY who wishes it further influence and success, I would suggest that it is time to stop and consider this tendency and to try to regain a sense of proportion and a sense of humor in this struggle. Such a sense would have yielded a far greater appreciation of the contribution which The Jewish Catalog has to make.

Irving Greenberg
Department of Jewish Studies
City College of CUNY
New York City

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To the Editor:

Marshall Sklare’s “The Greening of Judaism” made me wonder whether the copy of The Jewish Catalog he perused is a different book from The Jewish Catalog in front of me. But since the information on authors and publisher he cites is identical with the data in my copy, I must conclude that he has not given the volume a careful reading. Otherwise he would not have made assertions contrary to the facts. For example, he writes: “The Catalog devotes an entire section to wine-making,” when only one-and-a-half pages of the “Kashrut” chapter are on wine-making. He states that “the Catalog is in fact infatuated with candle-making, devoting an entire chapter to the subject.” In my copy of the Catalog only two pages deal with candle-making. Mr. Sklare also imputes to the Catalog the intention of transforming the ner tamid into a “light-show,” omitting to inform the reader that the Catalog refers to the suggested “colored lights on a random-flashing sequence chain” as a “mesmerizing, intricate, and unorthodox ner tamid.”

He writes that the authors of the Catalog “consistently place the emphasis on the primitive and ritualistic as opposed to the abstract and intellectual.” Even a cursory examination of the Catalog proves that this is not so. As for “the abstract and intellectual,” . . . there are few pages in the Catalog without explications of Jewish ideas and ideals, interwoven with the fabric of Jewish life. . . .

Mr. Sklare charges that “the Catalog has almost nothing to say about the entire social and ethical fabric of Judaism.” This is a canard. True, the Catalog does not adopt the standard pattern of textbooks on Jewish life and ideas, which devote special chapters to “Laws of Charity,” etc., but it does state when and how to give charity and it tells how to ask for forgiveness and forgive during the ten days of turning. . . .

Mr. Sklare may be right when he says that Jewish interest never waned “in the segment of American Jewry for which the Catalog speaks.” But the essential feature of the Catalog is that it does not speak for but speak to. It speaks to those who did not and do not apply to Camp Ramah. It addresses itself to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lack the very rudiments of Jewish knowledge. As of December 1974, 125,000 copies of the Catalog had been sold (Mr. Sklare quotes last July’s 95,000), and it continues to sell and sell and sell. Its publisher, the Jewish Publication Society of America . . . is proud of the Catalog, as well it should be. I cannot think of another book that has done so much for American Jewish life. At a time when the American Jewish community is casting about for panaceas of “Jewish identification” by means of such costly and thus far unsuccessful projects as the “Institute for Jewish Life,” one should be grateful to Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld who—with a grant of $1,000 and a loan of $3,500—and an abundance of youthful enthusiasm . . . accomplished what all Jewish organizations are striving for: to present Jewish life and teachings in a manner that will inspire Jews to live Jewishly. . . .

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin
The Jewish Spectator
New York City

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To the Editor:

I was very pleased to see that COMMENTARY deemed The Jewish Catalog worthy enough to be the subject of Marshall Sklare’s stupid and misleading criticisms. . . . To be the subject of a COMMENTARY assault is an honor that every self-respecting individual, book, or movement should covet.

Certainly it is jealousy that generates such venom and hostility. Destroying reputations seems to be COMMENTARY’s favorite pastime. Unable to present an image of positive Jewish values and of a satisfying Jewish life style, it is forever falling into empty negativity. . . .

The havurah movement and The Jewish Catalog definitely deserve constructive criticism. It is unfortunate, however, that Mr. Sklare’s name-calling and his facile generalizations do not provide it. His stress on the Ramah connection is totally beside the point. One wonders why he makes so much of this matter. Only one of the three editors of the Catalog had a Conservative-movement education, and it is not at all clear how important this fact is to him; it was Havurat Shalom which “turned him on” to Judaism at a point in his life when he had completely strayed from the path. . . . The other two editors have Orthodox backgrounds—one modern and liberal and the other Lubavitch. An even greater mixture of past Jewish experiences can be found among the contributors. . . .

Mr. Sklare’s misinformation obviously arises from the fact that he has never visited Havurat Shalom or talked to a representative sample of its members. His perceptions are the impressions of an observer far removed from the scene. The Jewish Catalog and the havurah movement are not the illegitimate children of American Conservatism. They represent a totally new brand of Judaism which has incorporated aspects of the other elements but has not found a home in any of their traditions. The book and the movement transcend the old distinctions. That is the source both of their weaknesses and strengths, their superficiality and their authenticity. An honest and perceptive critic would have to begin with a recognition of this fact. Mr. Sklare is not such a critic. His remarks are spiteful and misleading. A more sensitive observer will have to arise to set the record straight.

Alfred Marcus
Response
Somerville, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

In “The Greening of Judaism” Marshall Sklare displays his usual fine ability to organize and present the facts, but his interpretations are so wide of the mark that I am compelled to respond. My own perspective, admittedly, is different, since I have been intimately involved in all three of the projects which Mr. Sklare discusses (Ramah, the havurot, and The Jewish Catalog). Perhaps my experience has resulted in a certain lack of distance, but I have written elsewhere about each of these phenomena with what I hope is a certain objectivity and understanding.

I have few qualms about the historical part of Mr. Sklare’s section on Ramah, but I am less comfortable with the undertone of contentiousness and sarcasm which punctuates his discussion, and which continues throughout the article. He never really explains the reason for his bitterness, and, in fact, we sense that he concurs in the judgment that Ramah does very well what it has set out to accomplish. Perhaps that’s the rub. Perhaps what really upsets Mr. Sklare is that Ramah and The Jewish Catalog have been, above all, successful. One appreciates a certain amount of skepticism about popular culture, but to judge every success as guilty is surely unfair. . . .

On a broader level, there is another problem with Mr. Sklare’s analysis. He is perfectly right to point to Ramah as an important antecedent to The Jewish Catalog, and he is among the first to explore that relationship. . . . But his emphasis on Ramah gives the reader the erroneous impression that Ramah was the significant determinant of the Catalog. . . .

Where Ramah was crucial, as Mr. Sklare notes, is in the havurah movement, and especially in the New York Havurah and Boston’s Havurat Shalom community. The leadership of both groups has been heavily drawn from Ramah people. . . .

It is unfortunate that Mr. Sklare devotes only two paragraphs to the havurot, which are far more significant than Ramah as a source for The Jewish Catalog. He has researched this section less well. . . .

The bulk of Mr. Sklare’s article concerns The Jewish Catalog, and here the problems are more serious, as he apparently misunderstands both its purpose and execution. Despite the editors’ intentions, the book in fact bears little resemblance either to Living on the Earth or The Whole Earth Catalog. Nor, as Mr. Sklare seems to believe, is it meant as a prescription for living the right life. It is not a prescription for anything, but a compendium of alternative possibilities, some of which will hopefully be practical and appealing for some people. The Orthodox housewife whom Mr. Sklare drags in as a witness for the prosecution may well have to shop at a supermarket to prepare Friday night dinner, but to imply that the Catalog is contemptuous of her is ridiculous. If anything, the Catalog is envious; she presumably lives a whole and somewhat authentic Jewish life which has been virtally unavailable to those American Jews who do not accept Orthodoxy. And so the Catalog attempts to formulate a kind of Judaism which is authentic or traditional without necessarily being Orthodox. Therefore, it regards halacha seriously but cannot accept it as binding. Mr. Sklare finds this incomprehensible; I find it admirable and necessary.

The Catalog‘s intended audience are those American Jews who have been alienated from their religious and cultural institutions, but whose interest in and responsiveness to Jewishness has not been snuffed out. But what the Catalog offers them Mr. Sklare has missed. All too aware of the book’s contemporaneity and lightness of tone, he is unaware of its continual and inherent bias toward traditionalism. The Jewish Catalog, without advocating retreat to a previous age, wants to make possible some degree of access to a Judaism which existed before we had thousand-member synagogues, priestly rabbis, mechanized services, and mass-produced religious articles. The idea of an eternal light in one’s home, which Mr. Sklare condescendingly calls a “pietistic gesture,” is symbolic of the Catalog‘s desire to return the bulk of Judaism to the home and the organic community, arid to make it less dependent upon the centralized organizations and institutions which presume to speak for Jewish life in our time.

At the same time, and Mr. Sklare obviously senses this, the Catalog is also a subversive document, because it threatens to undermine the way in which most of American Judaism is practiced. And judging by its reception, a significant segment of American Jewry is ready to help make this revolution. The book’s various chapters have been written against the background of the harsh and angry critiques of the Jewish student movement and its allies in the Jewish community. The Catalog, however, goes beyond the critique, transforming mere dissent and dissatisfaction with plastic values into a program of alternative, positive, precise, and eminently feasible actions that will bring American Jews closer to their tradition, culture, community, and religion. The Catalog‘s suggestions are subversive because they address a Jewish public unaccustomed to thinking about Jewish life in physical, concrete, personal, and joyful terms.

William Novak
Somerville, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

I can hardly believe that COMMENTARY actually published an article praising a project of the counterculture, and the Jewish counterculture at that. It wasn’t all praise, of course, there was criticism as well, but overall, “The Greening of Judaism” was sympathetic. The last time COMMENTARY had an article on the Jewish counterculture (Robert Alter’s “Appropriating the Religious Tradition,” February 1971, which dealt with Arthur Waskow’s The Freedom Seder), the attack was devastating. . . .

The Freedom Seder was “bad” in COMMENTARY’s view, so it demolished it; The Jewish Catalog is “good,” so it publicizes it. What it fails to realize is that the Jewish student movement has two sides, like two sides of a coin, but it is really one coin—the radical-political side and the religious-countercultural side. If we look at the books and projects of this movement, we see the two sides working in tandem. . . . In 1971, we find an anthology of religious-communal writings, edited by James Sleeper and Alan Mintz, The New Jews. In the same year, we see Arthur Waskow’s The Freedom Seder and The Bush is Burning, radical politics welded to religious messianism. Three years later, we have another pair of books: Jewish Radicalism: A Selected Anthology, edited by Jack Nusan Porter and Peter Dreier, and The Jewish Catalog. Both were published at the same time, but it is the Catalog which is the synthesis, the distillation of the political and the cultural—it is also less threatening.

I am not denying that there is some tension between the political and the religious-cultural elements in the Jewish student movement; this only reflects the tension in the general student movement—between the so-called “hippies” and the Marxists—but there has also been some merging of the two. The contributors to the Catalog also contributed to Jewish Radicalism. . . .

In retrospect, it appears that COMMENTARY’s criticism of Jewish radicalism, of black power, of feminism, in fact, of most of the 60’s movements, both liberal and radical, was necessary. We needed that kind of critique, but now there is a new world out there; many new problems face world Jewry, from Israel’s survival to Jewish survival, and there really aren’t very many of us, on both sides of the Jewish counterculture, to man (or woman) the gates. . . . The time is ripe for building bridges. The ecstasies and excesses of the 60’s are over. The 70’s are a time for cooperation. We need each other. But, are people ready for this reconciliation? . . .

Jack Nusan Porter
Brookline, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Here at Havurat Shalom, we all got a good laugh from Marshall Sklare’s article, “The Greening of Judaism,” in which he displays all the faults which he imputes to The Jewish Catalog. He certainly attacks with a vengeance, and chooses to criticize only those aspects of the book, and of the Jewish counterculture in general, which conflict with his own cultural predilections. His logic, too, is questionable, although it does have its charm. (Why does he mention the fact that the Catalog‘s picture of Havurat Shalom shows the prayer room empty? I can assure Mr. Sklare that we never have trouble getting a minyan for our services.) One wonders why he is so vehement in reducing the Catalog to a mere . . . outgrowth of the Conservative movement, until one realizes that Mr. Sklare has made his reputation pinpointing the trends of Conservative Judaism, and so, of course, he must not let any new developments escape him. But obviously, the developments of counterculture Judaism have escaped him entirely. Let us merely look at a few points he makes.

Mr. Sklare scolds the Catalog for discussing ritual and ritual objects in a way which emphasizes “the primitive and ritualistic, as opposed to the abstract and the intellectual.” He cites specifically a description of the shofar. In turn, he himself describes the mezuza as “the small reticule containing parchment inscribed with verses from Deuteronomy that observant Jews affix to the doorposts of the home.” Abstract and intellectual, yes, but also a totally meaningless and inaccessible definition. (Also misleading—one does not have to be observant to have a mezuza.) Mr. Sklare also raises objections to the Catalog‘s discussion of mikveh, contradicting its connotative richness by saying, “The concept of mikveh has evolved over the ages; in contemporary life mikveh is centered on the question of the promotion of family purity.” At one moment he says that the concept itself is open to evolution, while in the very next breath he attempts to fix it according to his definition. (How many people observe mikveh according to the way he defines it?) Must Judaism evolve only to the point of Mr. Sklare’s perspective on it, and no further? It seems throughout that Mr. Sklare is afraid of the evolution that counterculture Judaism may bring, because then his grasp on it will no longer be up to date. He must realize that the positive evolution in Judaism must be made by people with a love and friendliness toward the culture, rather than through a jealous guarding of one’s own territory, in which a cold sociologist’s eye replaces the visionary’s aspirations. Mr. Sklare seems to tie everything back to Camp Ramah and to Conservative Judaism of the 50’s and 60’s, and fails to realize that although there may be some truth to this (though not total), things do grow away from their original source, without, one hopes, incurring such a painfully reluctant separation—and also without forcing the issue into such polarization, as his article has so gratuitously done.

David Kronfeld
Somerville, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

. . . Although it is by no means perfect—and what in American Jewish life is?—The Jewish Catalog is far more informed by the essence of authentic Judaism than Marshall Sklare believes. He consistently misinterprets, often in a seemingly perverse manner, what the Catalog actually says.

An example: Mr. Sklare says the Catalog is “contemptuous of such innovations as the Meal Mart chain of kosher prepared-food stores.” If it were, it would indeed be slighting, in an elitist fashion, the daily life of thousands of committed Jews; but the book does not even mention Meal Mart, or indeed any other kosher prepared-food establishment. . . .

Another example: Mr. Sklare seems to feel that members of Havurat Shalom sit on the floor during services “because it is the way man sat before civilization imposed its constraints upon him.” This is another misinterpretation, a rather ludicrous one to anyone who knows any havurah members. In fact, people sit on the floor simply because their personal styles are informal—or because the havurah cannot afford to buy chairs. . . .

In the aggregate, many small points like these create the image . . . that the book—and the Jewish student movement—have nothing new to say which is Jewish. “In the segment of American Jewry for which the Catalog speaks, interest never waned,” Mr. Sklare declares. But in the far larger segment of American Jewry who have bought the Catalog, . . . interest has been consistently waning. . . . It is precisely the growth of an alternative, informal Jewish culture, as exemplified by the Catalog, which has begun to reverse this alarming decline.

Jonathan Groner
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Marshall Sklare . . . does not mention that before Ramah there were two Jewish summer camps in existence—Camp Mesifta and Camp Agudah. . . . I had the distinct pleasure of serving for many years as head counselor of Camp Agudah, which was responsible for training hundreds of youths from all over the United States who have subsequently taken their places in Jewish communities throughout the world as rabbinic or lay leaders. . . . Camp Agudah—which is still in existence—combined the very best of summer camping . . . with a pleasurable but very intense orientation to strict, uncompromising Torah-true Judaism. . . .

Sidney Greenwald
Monsey, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . Marshall Sklare’s discussion of the relationship between Camp Ramah and The Jewish Catalog raises some interesting questions about the long-term influence of the Ramah camps. Mr. Sklare is perfectly correct about the intellectual seriousness of Ramah—among other things, it was there that I first learned about classical music, Thomas Mann, and radical politics (I mean the very existence of radical politics; I was living in Texas at the time). He is also correct about the desire of campers to live in Ramah all year ‘round, and their subsequent disillusionment with their communities, both Jewish and secular, back home. Yet adolescence—and adolescents are the core of Ramah, though younger children are present—is notoriously prone to religious enthusiasms, group solidarity, and distaste for the living style of one’s parents’ communities.

Why, one wonders, has the Jewish Theological Seminary never conducted a thoughtful survey of all Ramah alumni to ascertain how these emotions survive the passing of adolescence? Such a survey would inquire about the alumnus’s present feelings about Judaism, his association with the Jewish community, his activities therein, his interest in Jewish scholarship, his opinions about intermarriage for himself and his children, and his judgment about how greatly the Ramah experience influenced his later choices. . . .

Judith M. Amory
Brookline, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

. . . Marshall Sklare is quite perceptive in his comment that for the editors of The Jewish Catalog tradition seems to be a life aesthetic rather than a halachic position. However, I was quite surprised to read a halachic critique of the Catalog in COMMENTARY. I thought for a moment that I had opened the pages of Tradition or some other Orthodox journal. . . . When the source of halachic authority is lost, as indeed it has been to most Jews of our time, then tradition can only be approached as a life aesthetic. Such is the character of our times for better or for worse. Tradition as a life aesthetic loses much of its authority, for it cannot maintain that the consistency of behavioral patterns is divinely ordained. Instead, the aesthetically-minded Jew is left to confront the tradition and to choose those rituals and acts which substantively add to the quality of his life . . .

I concurred with much of Mr. Sklare’s critcism of the Catalog, though I do wish to differ with his tone of disdain (if that is an apt characterization). I salute the Catalog despite its faults and gaps.

Michael Berenbaum
Wesleyan University
Middletown, Connecticut

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Marshall Sklare writes:

In “The Greening of Judaism” I attempted to examine The Jewish Catalog as a phenomenon—to analyze the book’s contents, place it in its appropriate social and cultural landscape, and subject it to the normal canons of critical scholarship. My tone, I believe, was dispassionate and objective; I set out intending neither to praise nor to condemn, but to arrive at a reasoned, balanced, judgment. Some of my correspondents, I note with gratitude, appreciated the attempt and, whatever their objections to individual points or even to the overall argument of the essay, are at least ready to concede the validity of the enterprise. Others, however (notably Irving Greenberg, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Alfred Marcus, David Kronfeld, etc.), are so provoked by my simple effort at critical analysis that they feel called upon to rebuke me publicly for daring to question the Catalog‘s own opinion of itself. Instead of addressing themselves to the points I raise in my piece, they attack my motives in writing, and COMMENTARY’s motives in publishing, it. Indeed, their hostility and anger suggest that the Catalog has become a holy book not only for the young but for adults as well, a work that is to be exempt from criticism of any kind. I am both mystified and distressed by the sacralization of the Catalog evident in the responses of some of my critics. We may not all be able to agree on the contribution made by the Catalog, but I would have thought we could at least agree that it is not Revealed Truth. Evidently even this is still in contention.

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Correction

A printer’s error occurred on page 69 of Sonya Rudikoff’s article, “Visiting the Hirshhorn” (February). Line 8, column 2 should read: “Le Corbusier a concrete slab. . . .”

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