Commentary Magazine


"The Agunah"

To the Editor:

I have just re-read The Agunah, wondering if perhaps in my translation of Chaim Grade’s text I missed something that David Stern [Books in Review, November 1974] thought he saw. . . . Mr. Stern is to be faulted on two counts: interpretative and factual. First, he has misinterpreted a central attitude of Grade to his craft. Second . . . Mr. Stern has given readers the wrong impression of the character of The Agunah. . . .

Mr. Stern contends that the true protagonist of the novel is halacha (religious law) and not the two rabbis, the strict Reb Levi Hurvitz and the compassionate Reb David Zelver. If Mr. Stern is as familiar with Grade’s Yiddish works as he claims to be . . . he would have seen the obvious: human beings in conflict are the protagonists of Grade’s works. Kafka and his mytho-symbolic configurations of abstract struggles in a dream/nightmare ambience are a world removed from the down-to-earth realistic milieu of Chaim Grade. In Grade’s novels, for example in Tsemakh Atlas, or in his most recent collection, Di Kloys un di Gass (Synagogue and Street), it is always people who struggle and are torn between their physical and metaphysical frailties and secular temptations. That other levels can be extrapolated from Grade’s work is an additional bonus, as it always is in any author of the realist school. Comparing Grade to Kafka, then, is as ludicrous as trying to yoke a bee and a bull. Abstract concepts have never interested Grade; his only concern is how discrete human beings interact in Jewish society. In The Agunah Chaim Grade wants to show how the halacha is interpreted by two equally sincere, believing rabbis, who happen to be antagonists. Their views of halacha stem from their uniqueness as persons. . . .

To demonstrate how careless is Mr. Stern’s reading of The Agunah, one need only cite two phrases from his review: “. . . an epidemic of murders that culminates in the agunah‘s suicide” and “the violence which, at the narrative’s end, consumes the town. . . .” One might get the impression from this that we’re dealing with some murder mystery that ends in Armageddon. In fact, there is not even one murder in the novel. Merl, the agunah, dies a suicide, and there are some blows and shoves exchanged . . . but, in line with the deep-rooted Jewishness of the novel, there is only a threat of violence, a gathering storm of shouts and anger that soon dissipates. Indeed, calm, not violence, consumes the town at the narrative’s end.

Another instance of careless reading is evidenced in Mr. Stern’s use of quotation marks when he talks of the “compassion” of the “good” David Zelver, punctuation that would seem to derogate those qualities. There is nothing in the novel to indicate Zelver’s lack of compassion. On the contrary, everything in the book points to his kindliness. . . . The entire confrontation in the rabbinic court between Zelver and the strict Levi Hurvitz centers around the former’s compassion. Even prior to the agunah affair, it was compassion for the starving Russian-Jewish children that made David Zelver order his congregants to go home on the Sabbath and bring money back to the synagogue. This decision, where compassion overruled the dictates of halacha, shocked Vilna’s religious establishment and earned Zelver their enmity. . . .

Any attempt to make of Grade a theoretical symbolist who manipulates his characters to mouth abstract viewpoints, or to personify abstractions, is to betray an ignorance of Grade’s works, and of his place in the mainstream of a people-centered Yiddish literature. In Grade’s novels, human beings act under the cross-influence of pressure, ambition, religiosity, familial situation, personal woes, and inter-institutional rivalry—in other words, the entire complex fabric of humanly-determined situations. . . .

And finally, Grade’s attitude to the halacha is not “complex” at all. He has no attitude to the halacha, but only to the individuals who interpret it. For Grade, the “sole content of Judaism” is not halacha, as Mr. Stern believes; rather, Judaism is the sum total of the feelings and attitudes of the hundreds of men and women we meet in his works, who cover the entire spectrum from heresy to religiosity.

Curt Leviant
Edison, New Jersey

_____________

 

David Stern writes:

Curt Leviant accuses me in his letter of both factual and interpretative errors, but his remarks leave me more puzzled than convinced. First, concerning the factual errors: there are, in fact, two deaths at the close of the novel and at least three attempted murders; Grade never quite makes it clear how many of them are successful. While I certainly never intended to give the impression that The Agunah was “a murder mystery that ends in Armageddon,” this evidence nevertheless suggests that the end of the novel is rather violent, more than merely “a gathering storm of shouts and anger,” and that the calm which follows it is somewhat more complex and ambivalent than the one Mr. Leviant would see in accord with his notion of the “deep-rooted Jewishness of the novel.”

As for Mr. Leviant’s interpretative criticism of my review, I find it difficult to respond to the contradictions of his own position: in one sentence, he refers to “the down-to-earth realistic milieu of Chaim Grade” but describes Grade’s characters, several lines later, as “people . . . torn between their physical and metaphysical frailties and secular temptations.” In fact, I never attempted to make Grade “a theoretical symbolist”—or an un-theoretical one—nor did I suggest that “he manipulates his characters to mouth abstract viewpoints.” I simply compared Grade’s attitude toward the halacha with Kafka’s attitude toward the Law, and nothing in Mr. Leviant’s letter disputes my contention: the issue of the novel is not the correctness of either David Zelver’s or his opponent’s juridical rulings, but the way in which all Vilna is entangled and overcome by the fate which the halachic dilemma of the agunah brings to the town. Mr. Leviant, however, seems to take my comparison of Grade with Kafka as some kind of slight to Grade’s own aesthetic achievement; this could not have been further from my mind. Along with Mr. Leviant, I would certainly agree that The Agunah is, in its Yiddish original, a unique, remarkable novel, and would be in English, too—if its present translation were not so wanting.

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