Commentary Magazine


The Faith Defended

To the Editor:

Philip Roth's answer to his critics [“Writing About Jews,” December '63] is a long overdue assessment of Jewish bourgeois gentility in American life. Jewish community relations and pulpit oratory seem not too distant from my mother's ancient lament, “. . . a shande far die goyim.” . . .

A “good” Jew in the American community is a good soldier. He waits for his superiors to give orders to advance or retreat. When an anti-Semitic incident occurs in his community, he is instructed not to act, but to wait until the experts hear of it. Apparently there is an expert way of crying “Gevalt!” . . . .Italians, Irish, Negroes, Poles, etc. may be roughly handled in popular American literature and in our daily news stories, but it has yet to occur to these groups to institutionalize a collective squeamishness. On close analysis the attacks on Philip Roth are as shameful as they are sick.

Charles Ansel
Sherman Oaks, California

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . I would like to applaud Philip Roth's eloquent and incisive defense of his right to work. Roth recognizes . . . that he was attacked for violating a powerful though unwritten commandment of Jewish life: “Thou shalt not reveal in-group secrets to the goyim.” In his brilliant story, “Defender of the Faith,” he discloses a characteristic tendency of Jews in a Gentile world, to exploit one another's shared Jewishness. . . . It is surely not the falsity but the truth of his portrayal that readers found objectionable.

Through the ages, Jews have developed a number of characteristic responses to their status as a minority group in an alien environment. One is to divide the world into two categories, Jewish and non-Jewish, and to respond to each with a different set of principles. . . . Another is to see all events in terms of their relationship to Jewish well-being. So, in social science, it is “good” to document the low rate of Jewish intermarriage, since this shows how proud a people Jews are, but it is “bad” to probe the deep-seated causes of their opposition to intermarriage since in-group secrets may be exposed.

Still another defensive trait . . . is the propensity to deny social realities about themselves, especially their capacity for the full range of human response. . . . Jews can't decide whether they want to be like, or different from, everyone else, while they secretly believe themselves to be superior to Gentiles. I have heard rabbis and other Jewish leaders claim that the range of Jewish political preference, scholastic achievement, and economic standing is basically similar to that of the general population—this in the face of evidence that Jews are disproportionately inclined toward radical politics, disproportionately industrious as college students, and disproportionately concentrated in the wealthier segments of the middle classes. Furthermore, these facts have often been suppressed when “embarrassingly” discovered by Jewish organizations conducting studies of Jews. It would seem more profitable, both practically and theoretically, to recognize the differences and explain them than to deny their existence. . . .

When Children of the Gilded Ghetto (of which I am co-author) was published, it was generally attacked from pulpits, in Jewish publications, and the English-language Jewish press not only as misrepresentative but as potentially “anti-Semitic.” (It was favorably received in the professional journals, COMMENTARY, and the Yiddish-language Jewish Day.) Negative criticism of the book . . . never touched on the real weaknesses of the study. Instead, the objections focused on the revelations that there really are rich Jews, that Jewish fund-raising may have prestige as well as charitable motives, and that Jews organize in-group patterns of status discrimination. . . . In fact, when the study on which the book is based was first conceived, financial subsidy was sought from Jewish organizations, but these groups were not willing to support disclosure of certain realities of Jewish life. . . .

In speaking to various Jewish groups and organizations . . . I have been called “anti-Semitic,” “self-hating,” and “smug.” It is an ancient trick to avoid the facts by condemning the one who presents them. In the course of lecturing to predominantly Jewish students on the Jewish family in America, I am regularly asked questions like “Why can't you say something good about the Jewish family?” Explaining the nature and purpose of sociological analysis does not satisfy such a questioner. In a lecture to an all-Jewish group, one lady even objected to my use of “chosen people” since she felt it might be “misinterpreted.” . . . How pathetic to summon up the specter of anti-Semitism as an excuse for ignorance of one's own history.

I take these reactions seriously because of my commitment to my work and my concern over matters of Jewish identity. And I have become increasingly disillusioned and even somewhat bitter over the recent growth of “know-nothingism” in the group whose intellectual achievements were a source of such great satisfaction for so many for so long. Perhaps this is my way of learning Jews are only human after all.

Seymour Leventman
Dept. of Sociology
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

_____________

To the Editor:

Since Mr. Roth's article includes his reactions to some very brief excerpts of my sermon on “Our Jewish Intellectuals” (which appeared in the New York Times last August), I regret that he did not request a copy of the sermon in its entirety. . . . To offer a complete thesis on my religious or cultural motivations, to assert what I would, or would not, include in Jewish history, to engage in a verbal witch-hunt on the basis of some garbled references in the Times, is unworthy of Mr. Roth. Nowhere in my sermon did I refer to his writings in Goodbye, Columbus or elsewhere as “dangerous, dishonest or irresponsible.” There must be some internal irritant in Roth's “psychological shell” which . . . accounts for his sensitivity to honest criticism.

May I submit, also, that his reading public and lecture audiences among Jews (who are really quite proud of him) deserve better than this churlish, distempered attack. He is surely aware by this time (in very tangible terms) that he has a wide following among the very people whose identity he disavows as an historical and cultural fact.

Mr. Roth has made no secret of the fact . . . that he is completely innocent of any basic Jewish knowledge, and burdened with a Jewish identity which is devoid of Jewish content. In fact, “the biggest concern and passion in [his] life is to write fiction, not to be a Jew.”

. . . Roth has every right to create within a universal frame of reference, but the accident of his birth does not make him a Jewish writer. I repeat my regret that he has not been able to find in the great literature of our people and in its millennial history what John Steinbeck has found in the American saga—but that is the difference between Steinbeck and Roth.

(Rabbi) David J. Seligson
New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

I'm afraid Philip Roth takes himself too seriously. All the books written in this century by a Jew, about a Jew, or on a Jewish subject, have been greeted by some Jewish critics with the statement, “He shouldn't have written it,” or, “It's not nice” . . . .

I am certain that many writers, reading Roth's defense against his critics, will smile at the minor-league stuff Roth complains about. The rabbis who have criticized Roth are decent gentlemen who at least sign their names to their letters, sermons, and articles. How would he feel if he had to send half his mail to the FBI to check for fingerprints? . . . Roth explains in his article why he found it necessary to use a Jewish character as his fictional neurotic adulterer. I, for one, never needed such explanations. What intrigues me more, however, is another article he wrote on the same subject in American Judaism (Spring 1962), in which he charged that Leon Uris and Harry Golden had created “new Jewish stereotypes.” The “heroism” portrayed by Uris and the “optimism” . . . portrayed by Golden, Roth wrote, merely “help alleviate the guilt of the Gentiles.” What Roth is saying now in COMMENTARY is that he has a perfect right to write about an adulterer, “who happens to be a Jew,” but that Uris and Golden are corrupt for having written about a hero “who happens to be a Jew,” and about a poor-settlement-house-boy-become-great-surgeon, “who happens to be a Jew.”

I do not see how Roth expects to add to “the guilt of the Gentiles” by writing about an unsavory Jew, if that is his purpose. It would seem that if Uris and Golden “helped to dissipate that guilt,” to use his own words, then Roth with his own Jewish characters is trying to absolve them of it altogether. . . . Roth's terrible problem is his desperate drive to escape toward mankind. (. . . I, myself, gave up that struggle long ago, and so I am tolerant of Roth who is still young enough to keep trying.) In his writing he appears to be saying to the Gentile onlookers: “Look, folks, no hands; I'm one of you; look how uninhibitedly I can write of Jewish bums, just like you would like to do but haven't the guts. . . .”

In Jerusalem Roth said that he did not want to be a “Jewish writer,” he wanted to be a “writer,” but the Milwaukee Journal (March 9, 1962) in commenting on the above-mentioned article in American Judaism, used this lead: “Philip Roth, a Jewish author, charged in the article that the appeal of Uris and Golden was that they helped to dissipate guilt. . . .”

Note the irony: Uris and Golden; Jews, “with both feet,” as my mother used to say, were referred to without that tell-tale adjective, but Roth wasn't. I am reminded of what the English novelist, Brian Glanville, whose name was once Goldberg, said to me after he had described his own Rothian attempt to blend into the anonymous mass: “You can't resign, you know.”

Harry Golden
Charlotte, North Carolina

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . . I would like to offer the opinion that many Jews underestimate non-Jews and are overly timid about letting themselves be known, as real people with faults as well as virtues.

I worked for two years as Religious Education Director of a Unitarian Church in the Southwest, and during that time I encountered a tremendous eagerness on the part of both adults and children in the church to get to know Jews as people. We showed the ADL film, American Girl, and the almost universal reaction was one of disappointment because “There were no Jews in the movie!” People had come to learn about Jews and had learned only about bigoted non-Jews! . . . It seems to be a sort of semi-official policy (and I think an unfortunate one) among Jewish organizations to present an image of the Jew as a person slightly better than normal. This policy continually frustrates the desire of liberal non-Jews to know and relate to Jews as people. . . . So Philip Roth has done the Jews a real service in presenting them as fallible human beings. The first step in understanding is an ability to identify, and no one can identify with a saint.

Lois Santalo
Tucson, Arizona

_____________

To the Editor:

I agree with Mr. Roth that his “heroes” can't hurt the Jewish image in Gentile eyes because it is already despoiled. Where Mr. Roth unfortunately succeeds in degrading our public image further is not through his fictional characters—but by his own existence as a writer . . . . The Jews' lack of self-discipline in dealing with their own affairs has long been the main argument of anti-Semites. Men like Roth “prove” that the Jews are incapable of forming a government of their own and a lasting society. In the eyes of the bystander, they inform upon one another because they do not think much of themselves, and that explains their misfortunes throughout the last few thousands of years. Even Gentile friends of Judaism point this out. Sinclair Lewis, for instance, took special pains to describe “a Jewish comedian who makes vicious fun of the Jews” in Cass Timberlane and mentioned similar characters in two other novels of his . . .

(Dr.) Gerhard S. Schwarz
New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . . Philip Roth makes a number of telling points which should, but won't, end the vitriolic attacks on him by those who equate literature with public relations . . . . What is especially ironic about these attacks—although the irony is perhaps irrelevant to any defense of his position—is the fact that his stories are so consistently, even painfully, “affirmative.” Neil Klugman of “Goodbye, Columbus” refuses to accept the values of Patimkin Kitchen Sinks. Eli Peck strides toward self-identity after learning that the heart is the law. Sergeant Marx accepts his fate, recognizing his guilt for betraying his grandmother's belief that mercy overrides justice. And Ozzie Freedman of “The Conversion of the Jews” seeks to tell us (under duress) that in the arid formalism of our relationship with God we forget that He is nothing if not omnipotent. Are these the themes of the anti-Jew and the self-hater? Nonsense!

Irwin Stark
Bronxville, New York

_____________

To the Editor:

Do those who attack writers like Philip Roth honestly believe that except for their telling them so, Gentiles would not know that Jews were not perfect? Or that a thinking person might actually think less of Jews because Jewish authors depicted their people's human failings? Or that reading of Jews with failings might fan the fires of anti-Semitism in the Gentile heart? On the contrary, I would say that thinking Gentiles might be inclined to favor and be refreshed by a Jewish author's attempt to make his people understandably human, and the more sympathetic because they were . . . .

“What will the goyim think?” I can understand the fear that prompts the question in the minds of some Jews. To them I would say only that the Philip Roths deserve something better than the flick of the guilt-provoking whip of ghetto-psychology you strike them with, that they are helping to make your people more accessible to the consciousness of Gentiles, that one goy at least thinks the Philip Roths are on the side of the angels.

Joseph Tanda
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . There is a misunderstanding between Roth and the rabbis who criticize his work. The rabbis seem to feel that Roth is intentionally distorting Jewish values and assuming the mantle of leadership for Judaism. Roth rightfully disclaims any such pretensions, . . . affirming that he is simply a writer who uses Jewish characters to express universal ideas. And if Jews are not always presented favorably, they are only people like anyone else. . . .

My criticism of his work, therefore, is not that he is not true to himself or his people. It is more basic; something over which he has no control. He seems to lack that background and perspective which would give him a different approach to Jews and Jewish values, for we are molded by our entire past training and education.

Roth rightfully feels, “What do they want of me?” for describing life as he sees it. . . . But if the Jewish people are to continue to exist, there is need of a different kind of “Defender of the Faith”: one who is positively oriented. This criticism applies also to a number of others who write in the same vein. . . .

Ben Sharpe
Brooklyn, New York

_____________

To the Editor:

As a writer whose last book was concerned with Jewish characters, I wholeheartedly concur with Philip Roth's point of view. To let fear of anti-Semitism dictate how one is to handle the Jew in fiction is to surrender to the anti-Semite.

Following the reasoning . . . that any effect or blemish in a Jewish character may be “fuel” for the Jew-hater, the logical course would be to remove all such taints, all. suggestions of wrong, weakness, wickedness . . . . Or better, on second thought, not to write about Jews at all. Why raise problems? If we keep quiet, the anti-Semite may even forget we exist.

As for me, I'll take Roth and Malamud, who write with fascinating compassion of the frailties and failings of their characters. It's comforting to know that to be a Jew is to be human.

George Sklar
New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

It should not seem surprising to the author of “Defender of the Faith” that Jews would take stories written about other Jews very personally. Sergeant Marx, the protagonist of “Defender of the Faith,” found himself drawn into unwilling relationship with Grossbart, a man he despised. Surely Mr. Roth should sympathize with the plight of the self-respecting Jewish reader who is drawn into a similarly uncomfortable relationship with the equally unpleasant characters in “Goodbye, Columbus” and Letting Go. . . .

Talking about “Epstein,” Mr. Roth has written:

I write the story of a man who is adulterous to reveal the condition of such a man. If the adulterous man is a Jew, then I am revealing the condition of an adulterous man who is a Jew . .

. . . [But] “Epstein” is not a successful characterization of the modern Jew, because his Jewishness contributes nothing to a deeper understanding of a man of his motivations. And he is not just a man who happens to be Jewish, because then the unpleasant details are not only unnecessary, but distracting. . . . It is this use of Jewishness to shock rather than to motivate that offends many of Mr. Roth's readers. . . . Very well. A caricature cannot provide the inner motivations that give substance to conflict and moral crisis. Mr. Roth is certainly a talented writer. But the segment of life he chooses to portray is shallow and limited, and he substitutes the bizarre and the sensational for depth. . . . When he applies his talents to the deeper levels of human experience, . . . I venture to say his portrait of the Jew, flattering or unflattering, will offend no one.

Hazel S. Stix
Princeton, New Jersey

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . In exposing the sins and weaknesses of his characters, Roth . . . leaves the impression that they are characteristics somehow arising out of Jewishness. It is this implication that his correspondent from Detroit is protesting when he asks if Epstein's actions represent “Jewish traits.” The shame of the Jewish reader is felt for his slandered Jewishness, and the bitter taste left in the mouth is due to Roth's intimation that his characters, as Jews who remain Jews, are unredeemable.

Flawed Jews have always been the favorite subject of Jewish writers, but it is this unredeemability that distinguishes Philip Roth's writing. . . .

Sig Altman
New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

Although I have nothing to add to Philip Roth's fine dissection of the flat-minded Jewish response to his books, as a fellow writer I want to be counted unequivocally on his side.

Michael Blankfort
Los Angeles, California

_____________

To the Editor:

Were Philip Roth simply reporting about a people who had not suffered persecution, perhaps he would have no responsibility. However, in the case of the Jews, I do not see how a writer can neglect to consider the impact of his writing. Obviously, Roth will not create anti-Semites. But for those who are looking for evidence there is no question that he provides juicy morsels.

Not too long ago a study conducted on our campus indicated that in characterizing different peoples, all those polled seemed to think the Jew was “least fair in business.” This would indicate that there is a certain feeling in the air and writers choosing to consider Jewish subjects have a certain responsibility to avoid contributing to it. . . .

(Rabbi) Gerald Engei.
Bnai Brith Hillel Foundation at Purdue University West Lafayette, Indiana

_____________

To the Editor:

It is not surprising that those who accuse Philip Roth of anti-Semitism are unable to see the author's compassion for his often unpleasant characters. They judge a work of art by an irrelevant criterion: does it present a good picture of us to them? How like Stalinist criticism which evaluates art in terms of the current task! Nor is it surprising that these critics choose a cowardly approach to anti-Semitism. Their psychology leaves them unable to see the real situation and powerless to act.

If Roth should stop writing about Jews as he knows them to avoid feeding the anti-Semitic imaginations of the Gentiles, perhaps we should all go a little farther in giving them only good, clean things to think about us. Maybe we should press the Forward to cease publication and become a part of the New York Post. And shouldn't we urge those troublesome Hasidim to go someplace, where the goyim can't see them? . . .

Jack Goldstein
Brentwood, New York

_____________

To the Editor:

Reading Philip Roth's able defense of his fiction, I was reminded of my Southern mother's condemnation of Gone With the Wind. “Is your objection,” I asked, “to the fact that the story is not true?” “Heavens, no,” she replied, “I just don't want those Yankees to know about it.” Selah.

Wyatt Jones
New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . . The fact that nobody is going to start a pogrom or keep a Jew out of medical school as a result of Philip Roth's stories has no bearing on the case. Why does Mr. Roth think he was invited by the American Jewish Congress to speak in Israel? It was because he is Jewish and writes about Jewish people. With this in mind, he does have an obligation, whether he likes it or not. It doesn't mean that he is to disregard deficiencies and defects in his Jewish characters, but he can't convince me that his characters as he presents them are representative . . . .

In the past twenty years of attending synagogue services in Boston, Buffalo, and New York, I have very rarely heard rabbis concentrate on “self-congratulation and self-pity,” as he implies. On the contrary, they annoy their congregants because they hold up to ridicule and question many of the current practices of our people and challenge them to take stock of their ethical, behavior. Roth's . . . remark [about rabbis] is not worthy of an author who probably has very rarely been in a synagogue or knows what rabbis discuss from the pulpit. . . .

David M. Kleinstein
Brooklyn, New York

_____________

To the Editor:

Can Mr. Roth be so blind as to see no difference between tales about a Mr. Epstein and similar fiction about a man named, let us say, Thomas? Is he unaware of our “climate” in which when a Jew does something wrong, he is identified as a Jew, but when a non-Jew perpetrates the same misdeed it is merely an anonymous secular crime? His defense of stereotyping the Jew in order to prove the untruth of the stereotype is a grotesque rationalization . . . . Does he seriously contend that a stereotype—a false and damaging caricature—may be used as the basis of an honest and credible work of fiction?

S. Jay Levin
New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

The title of Philip Roth's defense is deceptive and misleading. Roth never writes about Jews—about their specifically Jewish problems, yearnings, hopes, and frustrations. He writes about more exciting and lucrative themes—adultery, licentiousness, infidelity, lechery . . . .

It is not “timidity' which fills me and others with disgust and loathing for his writing. What I cannot tolerate are his caricatures of the Jew, his distortions, his traducing of the people I love. . . . Obviously he is driven by a hatred for the Jewish people, and above all, for himself.

That his books are more popular than the sermons of rabbis is to be expected. When has filth not been popular and profitable?

(Rabbi) Theodore N. Lewis
Progressive Synagogue
Brooklyn, New York

_____________

To the Editor:

Mr. Roth is not altogether correct when he says that in reading fiction we suspend our judgment of the characters and “cease to be upright citizens.” For the author leads us in a certain direction and indicates to us what our judgment must be within the context of the world he has created.

Epstein and Grossbart are not just people who happen to be Jews. There is something defective in them which Mr. Roth ascribes to their Jewishness . . . . This could be the starting point of a modern prophet. . . . an artist who promises to scourge us, to cleanse us . . . . But his stories do no more than state facts about nasty people. Where did Jewishness contribute to Epstein's self-delusion and Grossbart's lack of integrity? Mr. Roth says Epstein is “too valuable [to Jewish history] to forget or dismiss.” Why? Just because he is so repulsive?

Mr. Roth concentrates on inadequacies but does not, in any way, indicate the gap between human nature and Jewish ideals . . . . If he limited his purpose to telling a story, as he claims, this would be acceptable, but . . . he is also doing more. . . . He is attempting to make a significant contribution to Jewish history. Therefore, he must accept the characterization of his work as destructive, incomplete, and lacking in balance.

(Dr.) Jonathan H. Pincus
New Haven, Connecticut

_____________

To the Editor:

Basically, I agree with Mr. Roth's defense. I think we as Jews show strength by writing about ourselves in what might appear to be a critical manner. . . .

Leonard Kirschenbaum
New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

Philip Roth's . . . article is good, but too innocent, and Jews cannot afford to be so. I say this with an awareness of my own ultra-sensitive and careful relations with my Christian neighbors . . . . Roth writes what he knows, his people are real, you can almost reach out and touch them. But, the question must be asked, has the time yet come when Jews can be like everyone else? . . . . Philip Roth, unfortunately, is not just a writer, he is a Jewish writer, writing for a primarily Christian world and he must recognize his responsibility. This world knows only too well the stereotyped Jew . . . . What of those other positive qualities. . . .? Why cannot they be championed?

Mateel Rieger Rubin
Ardsley, New York

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . The proper task of the American-Jewish writer is to reveal the man as Jew, aspiring to live up to his people's religious ideals, and the man as man aspiring and no doubt failing to live up to human ideals. . . . In a small but accurate way, Philip Roth (like Malamud and Bellow) is fulfilling this twofold task.

The serious writer has a touch of the prophet in him, and the rabbi and the prophet have been at odds since the time of Moses and the priestly class of Levites. . . . But what rabbi dares silence the right of the prophet to speak? . . .

Mel Silverman
Venice, California

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . I consult my Jewish Almanac and find that Mr. Roth lives in a college-oriented, cultured environment where there are 343,900 Jews (or 5½ per cent of the population). Where I live there are 6,700 Jews (or ¼ of 1 per cent of the population) . Perhaps if Mr. Roth were to spend just one week of his life in my city and experience what Jews here experience daily year in and year out in deed and words, he would become less aggressive and more sympathetic toward some of the less cultured types who have been writing him unflattering letters. I guess that I and my friends qualify as plain ignorant Jews from “way out in the sticks.” But our daily lives here teach us something that Mr. Roth at Princeton will never know.

Sidney Milton Sisk
Columbia, South Carolina

_____________

To the Editor:

. . . I wish I had a way to get Mr. Roth to restrain his emotion and to address himself dispassionately to the one ethical question I have been addressing to him. Instead he . . . distorts the words of his critics to create arguments and innuendoes that are the product of his imagination. What is that question? . . .

We were taught by sages of the Talmud, and their disciples, that not all that one thinks may one say; not all that one says may one commit to writing; not all that one writes may one publish; and not all that is published may one read. Is this wisdom passé? Or is it applicable to everyone but artists, film producers, authors? Many a scientist is ruing the day that he made a particular discovery available to the world and is resolving to be more circumspect in the future. . . . Are other creative spirits exempt from such considerations?

I ask this question of myself as a writer. As a former Jewish chaplain I have dealt personally with more villains like the one described in “Defender of the Faith” than Mr. Roth ever dreamed of meeting. All of us were hard put to explain to commanding officers why they should continue giving three-day passes to Jewish soldiers for holiday observances when they had the experience, for example, of picking up Jewish soldiers excused for the holidays in brothels on the day of the holiday.

If I were to tell such stories in popular magazines which commanding officers were likely to read, would I be helping Jewish chaplains hereafter to acquire for their decent and loyal charges the passes that should be forthcoming for the holidays? . . . Perhaps I am exaggerating the consequences in my mind. But I cannot feel that I am impoverishing humanity with my restraint and I would rather not risk even the remotest evil. . . .

It was an answer to questions like these that I sought to elicit from Mr. Roth in my letter of May 8, 1959. . . . But my question remains unanswered. Are no restraints warranted? And are artists and authors to be spared ethical judgments because art can tolerate no such restrictions? If Mr. Roth agrees with me that there are limitations, then we differ only on whether I have exaggerated the consequences that might flow from his publishing “Defender of the Faith” in a magazine widely read by non-Jews. . . . However, if he maintains . . . that the ethical considerations to which artists are subject differ from those of other men, and there are no “subjects [which] must not be written about, or brought to public attention,” then I must reiterate my dissent.

In any event, here is the text of my original letter. I leave it to the reader to decide whether I have accused him of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater or of “killing six million.”

“May 8th, 1959

_____________

Dear Mr. Roth:

So we have censured each other and thus verbalized our sense of outrage. It would be unfortunate, however, if the innuendoes and ad hominems of both our letters, as well as the peripheral issues introduced, distracted our attention from the principal problem—the ethical character of the publication of your story in the New Yorker.

I do not regard freedom of expression as the issue. Need I cite Justice Holmes's well-known cliché about shouting “fire” in a crowded theater?

Nor is the pursuit of truth involved. Even those doctors who argue for the patient's right to know the truth admit that it is sometimes unethical to tell the truth.

The question is rather whether having written a good story about a decent Jew and an indecent one, one should have sought its publication irrespective of its consequences for harm in the particular milieu in which the publication would take place? It is this question that courts must often resolve when libels are admitted to be true but malicious.

The same question Pasternak might have asked himself. At least he courageously answered it by risking the ire of Soviet authorities. His Jewish self-hatred may have warranted the criticism of Jewish reviewers but to have published the book where he did was a courageous act. Had he written also with a philo-Semitic point of view in a country where anti-Semitism is government-inspired (I was there), he would have proven himself more courageous. But perhaps he didn't feel that way and we must respect him for having risked as much as he did. He must have taken into account the harm he might do to Communism and the Soviet Union, as well as the good he might do, and he must also have considered the good and evil consequences for his person. Most people with ethical awareness would highly esteem his conclusion. Needless to say, a similar decision to criticize Communism, if made in the U.S.A., would hardly be as praiseworthy.

Now I try to project myself into your position to make the same calculus of ethical pluses and minuses. The courage you made manifest was to risk the displeasure of Jews like myself who have neither the economic, political, nor social power, to do anything other than scream, and for this you earned the gratitude of all who sustain their anti-Semitism on such conceptions of Jews as ultimately led to the murder of six million in our time.

I believe it was Mr. Belth who urged me not to be alarmed because the New Yorker is read only by intelligent people. I demurred because the vendors of the venom exploit most effectively the evidence we ourselves provide. Your story—in Hebrew—in an Israeli magazine or newspaper—would have been judged exclusively from a literary point of view. Publishing it as you did, where you did, created the ethical question which you ought reconsider even if it is suggested by one whom you have never met, do not now know, nor ever care to behold.

Your success as an author I am told is now assured. I do not begrudge it to you. I can only pray for you as I pray for myself that our words will do good and not harm. That the fine characters both of us portray do not inspire respect for our people as the evil ones inspire disrespect is just a fact with which we must reckon as we ponder ethical situations.”

_____________

* * *

As for the so-called “dialogue” in Israel of which I was critical, I did not have to be present. The full text of the lectures was published by the American Jewish Congress; this was the subject of my criticism. Again, Mr. Roth's sensitivity is showing.

(Rabbi) Emanuel Rackman
Congregation Shaaray Tefila
Far Rockaway, New York

_____________

Mr. Roth writes:

I should like to clarify certain matters of fact that have been raised by three correspondents.

Dr. Seligson. (1) After comparing the New York Times report of Dr. Seligson's sermon with the sermon itself, I cannot agree that the newspaper version is “garbled.” It is a competent piece of reporting which conveys accurately the essential spirit and content of Dr. Seligson's two-page sermon entitled “Judaism and the Intellectual” (which is available through the rabbi's synagogue). Nothing is misquoted, nor is an emphasis given his remarks by virtue of excision that is not inherent in the sermon itself. Dr. Seligson is correct to suggest that I would have been less likely to distort his sense had I read the sermon in its entirety beforehand, which I did not. I relied upon two separate accounts, the one in the Times (which appeared June 30, 1963, and not in August, as Dr. Seligson says), and another from the July 5, 1963 issue of the Jewish News, a community newspaper of Essex County, New Jersey. What I understood of his ideas from these two reports, and what I was led to conjecture about his sense of fiction, I find only further corroborated by a reading of the entire sermon.

(2) It is true Dr. Seligson did not call my work “dangerous, dishonest, or irresponsible,” but then he is not quoted as having said that. He is mistakenly attributing to himself adjectives used by me in my opening sentence to describe both the kind and the extent of the charges made against my first book.

Rabbi Rackman. (1) I still read paragraph two of his May 8 letter as having something specifically to do with the publication of “Defender of the Faith.” How else is one to understand that interrogative sentence, “Need I cite . . . etc?” That there is ambiguity as to the direction of the rabbi's argument here, I would agree; it was just this ambiguity, or vagueness, that led me—as I said in my piece—“to complete the analogy myself.”

(2) I went to considerable length to point out that Rabbi Rackman did not accuse me of “‘killing six million.’” It is hard for me to understand how he could have missed the very point of my analysis of paragraph six of his May 8 letter, and so I refer him and any interested reader back to page 450 of the December 1963 COMMENTARY, the last paragraph of column one and the first three paragraphs of column two.

(3) As for the Dialogue in Israel: Rabbi Rackman indicates in the last paragraph of his letter to the editor that his criticism of the Dialogue was based on a text of the proceedings which was published by the American Jewish Congress. Such a text was published by the Congress in the Congress Bi-Weekly, but not until September 16, 1963. Rabbi Rackman's remarks were made at a convention of the Rabbinical Council of America on June 24, 1963, only four days after the Dialogue in Israel had ended. I have checked with Mr. Samuel Caplan, the editor of the Bi-Weekly, and he assures me that no text of the Dialogue was in print before late August or early September 1963.

(4) Having debated at great length with Rabbi Rackman, both in our private correspondence and in my article, I see no point in going around the same track again with him. As for the larger questions of the Jewish writer's responsibilities, I plan to discuss them again from a fresh and more pertinent perspective in a forthcoming exchange in these pages with Professor Melvin Tumin.

Harry Golden. (1) My essay entitled “The New Jewish Stereotypes” did not appear in the Spring 1962 issue of American Judaism, but in the Winter 1961 number (Vol. XI, No. 2).

(2) “The New Jewish Stereotypes” is not “on the same subject” as “Writing About Jews,” and the argument presented there is hardly communicated by Mr. Golden, whose letter is predictably careless in matters of fact, evidence, and logic, and reveals him to be devoid of the slightest ability to make a distinction or a definition.

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.