"Therefore Choose Life"-- An Exchange
To the Editor:
I should like to say the following directly to the pseudonymous Mrs. Rossman:
Much as I sympathize (in the German sense of mitfühlen) with your plight as you describe it in “The Community and I” (November 1954), I cannot excuse you. . . . For the logical reasons of your predicament lie in the illogical, albeit ardent, wish to reconcile irreconcilables. . . .
Let us start with the rudiments of the problem. You are candid enough to admit by implication that you do not uphold the religious tenets around which the whole problem revolves, at least you do not maintain them in their outward manifestations. Why? One can understand. You (thought you) had unlearned at high school and at Hunter, in your studies of geology and physics and even psychology, your blind subservience to those dogmas your Rebbe had drilled into you. So far so good. But no sooner did you come to this realization than you chucked the whole business overboard.
Now you are tortured by the impossibility of making your children submit to a discipline whose object is to inculcate doctrines (you think) you yourself reject. But why, my dear lady, should you want them to submit to them? I’ll tell you why. Your innermost self is avenging itself on that reckless self we saw above chucking the whole business overboard. It knows better. It is (dimly) animated by that compulsive, immanent truth which requires no proof, because it is all-pervading and eternal.
Have you thought about, did you know anything at all of the content of that admittedly mystifying cargo your good mother sought so unquestioningly to entrust and transmit to you? It is not very prudent or intelligent to discard so indifferently something we have learned we do not know anything about. The supreme values of life reside in objects we must learn to realize and appreciate.
And now you blame your rabbi for failing to “inspire” you and help you achieve that realization. Offhand, one may admit all the negative qualities you ascribe to your rabbi: Is there any solid reason why the rabbi chosen by the congregation (admittedly, a cake-eating, card-playing, bingoing, book-reviewing, and other like edifying busyness-center) should in traits and character be different from his congregants? He is merely the approved, more or less glorified, image of his congregation. But you may be right in your complaint that the rabbi and teacher are stand-offish in their response to most of their congregants’ intellectual quests. The point is that intellectual understanding is not analogous to vitamin injection. The rabbi cannot be religious for you, no more than he can be pious or have faith for you. . . . The priests in some churches may seek to intoxicate you; Judaism is not out after such easy conquest, nor is, conversely, the quest for it as simple as that. You have to do the wrestling and ruminating, and if you do he can at best guide you and throw some light on your pursuits. When you studied to understand your geometry or Shakespeare, or James or Dewey, or Mill or Bentham, you had to ruminate and toil and drudge through an infinitude of obscure, often occluded, mental pathways to arrive at a possible meaning. How much more is this imperative in an endeavor to penetrate to existence’s profoundest truths. You did a great deal for the cultivation of your intellect. How much more do you owe to the infinite quest of your soul!
Of your intellect. . . . The laws of conduct your father and mother lived by, who were much wiser than you are inclined to acknowledge, and for which and by which alone a people has gone through history fifty hundred years and endured a million incredible ordeals and survived peoples mightier and much more numerous than they—these laws were not good enough for you. You wanted broader vistas, and you embarked on the high road of Rationalism (not realizing that you thereby only circumscribed and narrowed your vista). You shut yourself off to anything above and beyond its sphere, and thus succumbed entirely to it. And now you lament when your children follow out your mute but all too manifest direction. But Judaism—and that is what you strive for and aspire after—is nothing less than total and scrupulous adherence to and observance of the Jewish Law. I want to emphasize it: nothing less and nothing more. If you wish to put it so: the ghetto Judaism of your and my Russian or Polish parents. We know of no other. Anything else is surrogate, spurious. Long ago our Torah and our prophets warned us: you live by them, or you cease, you perish. Of paramount significance in your case and for us all today is the admonition: “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil, in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances; then thou shalt live and multiply. . . . But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but shalt fee drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I declare unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish. . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against thee this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”
New York City
Dear Karl Reiss:
I imagined that you had misread my piece, “The Community and I,” when I read your letter. Perhaps I invited such a misreading. Evelyn Rossman is not a pseudonym in the usual sense. She is almost a fictitious character, invented so that I could tell about the town of Northrup without hurting the town’s right to privacy. It was not intended that she should be more important than the town. Though Evelyn Rossman and the writer have shared similar experiences, they are not identical personalities. I am sorry therefore that she has caused you so much agmas nefesh.
The author of the article does not long for inspiration, nor does she worry about what to teach her children. If you reread the piece you will notice that these questions were not raised by Evelyn Rossman, but by her neighbors. The writer happens to live a vital Jewish life, more difficult yet possibly as satisfying to her as that of her parents was to them.
But let’s think of Evelyn Rossman’s parents, whom you are so eager to defend. I think that she would defend them too, though they lived their Judaism simply, without questioning, sometimes without understanding. Torah and superstition, wisdom and foolishness, and a hard narrow life made them as they are. Their daughter, however, needs to question, to weigh, and to choose where you believe there is no choice. She does not accept their faith, not out of perversity, but because she cannot. Faith, like love, cannot be forced. If it does not come spontaneously, where is it to come from?
You insist that faith and understanding come out of the observance of the Law. Or perhaps you do not ask for understanding. Is it just survival that is important? Evelyn Rossman would feel that her observance must come out of understanding. She would wonder what you mean by the Law. Do you refer to a Jewish life according to the Shulchan Aruch? Do you mean all of the Law or some of the Law? Who decides which? For whom? Do you believe that Jews should only live in ghettos where the Law can be maintained, or all go to Israel?
Evelyn Rossman’s heresies are not those of a person eager to throw a valuable heritage overboard, but rather of one who is examining her heritage and trying to discover the greatest meaning it can have for her. What Judaism she accepts is truly hers, because of all the possibilities in the world she chose it uncoerced. She worries and she studies and it would be better not to have too much contempt for her if she does not trouble to salt and soak her meat, but is concerned with learning what the prophets have written and what the Law she is not yet prepared to follow actually says. Though she may yet find that she can some day follow more of the Law than she does now, the acceptance will come through her intellect that you respect so little. Her concern for her community is a Jewish one. She respects Jewish virtues and values, though she feels that the details of Orthodox ritual are the frosting on the cake, not the cake itself. Perhaps she suffers from a diet of too much frosting. She is even aware that Jewish Law concerns itself with the good of the community, more than that of the individual. In her town, however, she sees that Judaism survives or dies with individuals and it is the reactions of ordinary individuals to their Jewish heritage that interests her. The fate of the community depends on these individuals.
You caution Evelyn Rossman on the imprudence of throwing a valuable “cargo” overboard. Yet her concern for her community should make it plain that she has not thrown anything overboard. Few people who received a heritage can throw it away easily if at all. Those who live as if they were the first people in the world received no heritage or received it from parents who did not learn enough in the ghetto to explain it to their children or who were so dissatisfied with their ghetto that they urged their children to fly from it and everything in it. For this you can take the parents, America, or the time to task, but not Evelyn Rossman. She is hardly responsible.
Thank you for writing me. Try to forgive me if I believe that my intellect and soul are inseparable, each worthless without the other.