Commentary Magazine


Writing Jewish

In his 1913 essay “The Hebrew Book,” the prominent Hebrew poet and literary figure Chaim Nachman Bialik elaborated on an idea that had been preoccupying him for several years. Termed by him kinus, literally a “gathering” or “bringing together,” this was to select, edit, and publish in attractively affordable editions a large number of classical, nonsacred Jewish texts hitherto inaccessible to the general reader. The project was ambitious because, unlike the sacred component of Jewish literature, which had always circulated widely, much of the material Bialik was thinking of (ancient religious poetry, medieval prose romances, medieval and postmedieval Hebrew verse, works of Jewish philosophy, and so forth) was out of print or had never been in it.

Bialik conceived of this undertaking, which today we would call establishing and promulgating a secular Jewish canon, as part of the cultural program of Zionism, a national effort to recover a Jewish literary tradition that, far from having been restricted to the religious sphere alone, had embraced the full range of human experience. In setting forth a practical proposal for kinus, he divided the texts in question into seven categories: the apocryphal books of the Bible, the medieval corpus of Judeo-Arabic literature, writing in modern Jewish vernaculars like Yiddish, and so on. Concerning the sixth of these categories, which he described as “[modern] works of a universal nature written by Jewish writers in non-Jewish languages,” Bialik observed:

For the moment, I propose that [this] category be omitted, since its inclusion in the project of kinus is premature. This is not because it lacks national importance—on the contrary!—but because of the special problems it involves.

Bialik did not dwell on these “problems,” even though they may not have been obvious to his readers, who in 1913 could have named but a few of the prominent “Jewish writers of a universal nature in non-Jewish languages” familiar to us today. There was, of course, the seminal case of Spinoza. And Heine, if one overlooked or forgave his conversion to Christianity. Likewise, Disraeli. And a small number of contemporary Jewish authors writing for predominantly non-Jewish audiences, including Lev Shestov in Russian, Max Nordau and Arthur Schnitzler in German, and Ferenc Molnar in Hungarian. Perhaps a handful of Bialik’s readers had even heard of such new talents as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam or the half-Jewish Marcel Proust, the first volume of whose Remembrance of Things Past appeared in the same year as Bialik’s essay. But it would have taken a degree of prescience even then to foresee that this still thin trickle of Jewish literary talent into the languages of Europe was about to become a major deluge.

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Franz Kafka, Italo Svevo, Isaac Babel, Elias Canetti, Albert Cohen, Joseph Roth, Julian Tuwim, Antoni Slonimski, Ilya Ehrenburg, Elsa Lasker-Schüler, Hermann Broch, Bruno Schulz, Walter Benjamin, Nelli Sachs, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Vasily Grossman, Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer, Joseph Brodsky, Philip Roth: even a partial list of major Jewish writers of our times amply illustrates the problems Bialik had in mind. Some of these authors were born to two Jewish parents, some to one, some to parents baptized before their birth. Some converted to Christianity themselves. Some were raised as Jews and others were not. Some dealt explicitly with Jewish themes in their writing, some inferentially, some to all appearances not at all. Some felt comfortable with their Jewishness. Some did not. Some were ambivalent or indifferent.

Moreover, although these distinctions sometimes form consistent patterns—a strong Jewish identity, for instance, often goes together with clear Jewish concerns in the work—this is not always the case. Kafka, intensely involved with being a Jew, never used the word in his fiction, whereas Proust made Jews into key characters in his seven-volume masterpiece while never coming forth as one himself. Slonimsky, born a Polish Catholic to converted parents, came to value a Jewish heritage that Joseph Roth, raised in a Galician shtetl, repudiated. Primo Levi, sent to Auschwitz as a Jew, appears to have considered his Jewishness as a fact of life that was to be neither regretted nor overly valued.

Who of these writers belongs in a Jewish canon? Bialik’s reluctance to enter such a conceptual thicket is understandable.

And not only Bialik’s. The subject continued to be shied away from long after him. In the United States, as Ruth Wisse points out in her important new book, The Modern Jewish Canon1 the notion of a multilingual corpus of 20th-century writing usefully considered Jewish was still regarded as outlandish even when she was a graduate student at Columbia in the 1960′s. Books, articles, and academic courses on a modern Hebrew or Yiddish literature that transcended national boundaries, yes: such disciplines were no different from English, Spanish, or German literature, which were likewise not confined to a single country. But a modern Jewish literature, defined neither by the religious beliefs, nationality, nor language of its authors but by a nebulous assumption of secular Jewish character or peoplehood (which many of these authors would have rejected), hardly seemed a serious proposition.

Even at the height of acclaim in the 1960′s and early 70′s for the “American Jewish fictional renaissance,” when writers like Bellow, Roth, Bernard Malamud, and others were being freshly hailed for their contribution to American culture, it was that culture to which they were seen, and saw themselves, as belonging—a judgment acceded to by an American Jewry that often tended to view them less as an asset than as a threat to its carefully nurtured image. In Europe, countries struggling to disown a legacy of totalitarianism and anti-Semitism were even more anxious to claim leading Jewish writers as their own. A Kafka, Babel, or Schulz (Babel murdered by the Communists, Schulz by the Nazis) was a monument to a “different” Germany, Russia, or Poland only if his achievements could be attributed to a native culture.

In Israel, where Bialik’s project of kinus, though never systematically implemented, was carried out ad hoc on a book-by-book basis, the situation was similar for different reasons. Though secular Jewish peoplehood was a Zionist axiom, its literary expression was taken to be Hebrew, the “national language” of the Jews. It was thus only, or at least predominantly, in Hebrew that Jewish literature was to be sought. Works written in other languages were either a tragic miscalculation—as was the case with Yiddish literature, many of whose authors had known Hebrew well and even started their careers in it before switching to the doomed East-European Jewish vernacular—or a consequence of Jewish cultural unraveling in modern times, as was the case with writers who, deprived of a traditional Jewish education, never had Hebrew as an option. And although the Sholom Aleichems and I.L. Peretzes could be regained for high Jewish culture by translation from the “low” medium of Yiddish into Hebrew (just as Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed or Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, originally written in Judeo-Arabic, had been rescued by their Hebraization in medieval Spain), modern writers operating entirely beyond Jewish linguistic bounds were viewed as marginal. At best, they could await their turn.

This turn, it would seem, has now come at last. Wisse’s book is one formidable indication of an upsurge of interest over the last decade in the Jewishness of 20th-century writers. Though it far surpasses them in ambition and achievement, it joins books like Leslie Fiedler’s Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity (1991), Alice Stone Nakhimovsky’s Russian-Jewish Literature and Identity (1992), Eugenia Prokop-Janiec’s Interwar Polish-Jewish Literature as a Cultural and Artistic Phenomenon (1992), Hana Wirth-Nesher’s What Is Jewish Literature? (1994), and Giuliano Baioni’s Kafka, Literature, and Judaism (1994). Recent years have also seen a host of articles in literary journals and anthologies on such diverse subjects as “Identity and Diaspora: A Cross-Cultural Subversion and Redefinition of Nationhood” and “The Marrano Epic in the Literary Sephardism of Argentina”; university courses like “Diaspora and Jewish Fiction” and “Literature and Politics: The Case of Zionism”; and even the introduction into the curricula of Jewish secondary schools of authors like Philip Roth and Primo Levi. Suddenly, “Jewish writers on universal themes in non-Jewish languages” are “in.”

Some of the reasons for this may be obvious. One is the gradual discovery and dissemination by literary critics of once-esoteric Jewish authors like Kafka, Babel, Schulz, Celan, and Walter Benjamin, who today have become de rigueur. Another is the influence of multiculturalism, with its interest in hybrid identities cutting across clear ethnic and national lines. The spread in Israel of post-Zionism, for which the primacy of Hebrew is no longer an issue, is also a contributing factor, as is the growth of a “neo-Diasporism” in America that is on the lookout for reformulations of Jewish identity within the framework of minority status. Concomitantly, a decreased fear of anti-Semitism has made Jews less defensive toward Jewish writing critical of Jewish life. And finally, the postmodernist assault on the “Western canon,” which it has demanded be “opened” to allegedly excluded groups like women and minorities, has made canon-formation itself a hotly debated issue.

As if to put an official stamp of cultural entrepreneurship on all this activity, the well-funded and well-publicized National Yiddish Book Center of Amherst, Massachusetts, significantly expanding its activities beyond its original mandate, has now announced a “Great Jewish Books Program,” culminating in an international panel of seven judges that will pick “the 100 great Jewish books of modern times in all languages.” Once the selection process is completed, declares a recent press release, the program will turn to “reissuing out-of-print Jewish books, commissioning new English translations, and developing educational initiatives based on the list”—in other words, systematically introducing this vast body of material into the consciousness of American Jews. Ironically, it is in English rather than Hebrew that the sixth category of Bialik’s kinus has at last found a willing sponsor.

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2.

As one of the judges selected to serve on the panel of the Great Jewish Books Program, I have in my possession a shortlist from which the 100 winners are to be chosen. Drawn up in consultation with Jewish critics and teachers of literature from all over the world, it is in fact a dauntingly long list. Alphabetically arranged in it are 445 authors from Pearl Abraham, Hermann Adler, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and Woody Allen to Herman Wouk, Louis Zukofsky, Arnold Zweig, and Stefan Zweig, and close to 2,500 individual titles. Of these, I have perhaps read 150, and while the batting average of other panelists may be better, one book in five would be an impressive achievement for anyone.

Looking at the columns of titles, in which appear such entries as two books in Spanish by Alcina Lubitch Domecq, six books in Russian by Osip Dymov, eight books in French by Armand Lunel, and twenty-eight books in English by Marge Piercy, all authors that in my ignorance I have never heard of, I wonder what is to be gained from even attempting the task of picking the lucky few. Agreeing as I do with Harold Bloom, who argues in his The Western Canon that great books are made by authors, not by committees or hegemonic power structures, I can think of no other qualified judge of literary greatness than Time. Since Time will not be a significant participant in the National Yiddish Book Center’s panel, whose final decisions are due next year, what will those decisions be worth?

Just why we often have to wait a generation or two (though rarely more) after an author’s death to arrive at a reliable judgment of his work is a puzzling question. Perhaps this has to do with the background noise of contemporary culture, which must fade before the solo authorial voice can be heard with sufficient clarity. In any event, while cultivated readers and even professional critics may overlook great works of their age while being taken in by more mediocre competitors—not to mention those most tragic of ultimately forgotten books, the very good but not uniquely outstanding ones—this rarely happens when going back in time. There, we have more perfect pitch; though literary taste has its fashions, and Byron will sometimes be preferred to Wordsworth and Wordsworth sometimes to Byron for as long as Romantic poetry is read, the remarkable thing about the literature of the past, as opposed to that of the present, is how little disagreement there is regarding it. The Latin poet Persius complained that “thick-headed Rome” preferred one Attius Labeo to his contemporary Juvenal, but who would take up cudgels for Attius today? And for all the voguish talk about unfairly neglected women, blacks, and “minor-literature” authors of the past, can one point to a single deserving representative of such groups who was not seated with the immortals long ago?

No doubt the skittishness of still new reputations troubled Bialik, too. The contemporary books whose ratings we fight over will one day fall into rank by themselves; why not then rely on the literary marketplace—that is, on the slowly stabilizing preferences of readers, critics, publishers, and educators—to tell the distance runners from the sprinters? Give Homer enough time and, mysteriously enough, he will outsell even Harry Potter.

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Indeed, long-term popularity has always made canons, which, conspiracy theory notwithstanding, tend to be little more than after-the-fact recognitions of a literary tradition’s favorite works. Even the Hebrew Bible, the first and arguably the most important body of canonically defined literature in history, appears to have been consolidated on such a basis. Although we are ignorant of the exact process of its formation, we do know that its books were widely read, copied, and taught long before the final rabbinic seal of approval was put on them in the early years of the Common Era—far more widely than texts not included in holy writ, such as the Apocrypha or the Dead Sea Scrolls. While there is every indication, for example, that the Dead Sea sectaries knew and revered the same biblical books that the rabbis did, there is no sign that their own literature was read or appreciated by anyone but themselves.

Thus, while much of what failed to enter the Bible was unacceptably heterodox in any case, Robert Alter is surely correct to observe in his newly published Canon and Creativity2 that “it seems plausible that there were Hebrew texts excluded from the canon not for doctrinal reasons but because they were inferior as literature.” If one takes even the most verbally accomplished of the Dead Sea writings, the poems of the “Scroll of Thanksgiving,” and compares them with the biblical Psalms they were modeled on, this inferiority is evident at a glance. The same is true of the Apocrypha. The Book of Tobit has its charms, but these do not compare with Esther’s or Ruth’s; Jubilees is a dull and windy retelling of Genesis; next to the compiler of Proverbs, Ben-Sira is priggish and trite; Isaiah glows from its collision with a transcendent reality while 1 Enoch is flaccid with self-spun fantasy. In every case, it is the stronger book that ended up in the canon.

Alter is also just to remark on the converse—namely, that some books of the Bible, such as Job and the Song of Songs, presented doctrinal problems themselves and were canonized not because of their contents but in spite of them and by virtue of their literary power. The Song of Songs is a particularly good example because of the extravagant lengths to which the rabbis’ reading of it went in order to justify its inclusion in the Bible, turning a highly sensual love poem into a religious allegory; and while it was their allegorization of the poem that made its canonization possible, it was their determination to canonize it, one feels, that (unconsciously, it may be) led to its allegorization. For a man like Rabbi Akiva, who held that “If all the Bible is holy, the Song of Songs is the holy of holies,” the prospect of losing its rare beauty must have been, if not sufficient reason for admitting it to the protective sanctuary of Scripture, sufficient reason for finding a reason.

But is the situation different with modern authors like Kafka and Proust? Although, three-quarters of a century after their deaths, their greatness is beyond question, might we not be reading them extravagantly, too, when we interpret this greatness as singularly Jewish? Are we seeking to appropriate them for a tradition to which they do not intrinsically belong? And how is one to establish their relationship to this tradition? Using what criteria? We are back to the entanglements of Bialik’s sixth category.

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3.

Yes to Kafka, no to Proust: such is Ruth Wisse’s verdict in her The Modern Jewish Canon.

Wisse, who teaches Yiddish literature at Harvard and is well known to COMMENTARY readers for her superb essays on Jewish culture and politics, begins her brief dismissal of Proust with an even briefer one of the American Jewish literary critic Lionel Trilling, whom she quotes as having remarked when a young man: “Being a Jew is like walking in the wind or swimming: you are touched at all points and conscious everywhere.” Wisse then declares, “Had this insight informed [Trilling's] fiction, he would have secured a place of honor in the modern Jewish canon.” But, she points out, Trilling’s only novel, The Middle of the Journey, despite being set in a world of left-wing New York intellectuals that was in reality heavily Jewish, has not a Jew in it. Whether because Trilling “neutered” his main characters “to make [them] more purely American or because he could not find an aesthetic means of integrating Jewishness into his story, its consideration as a Jewish book,” Wisse writes with genuine regret, “is precluded.” And she goes on:

If it hurts to omit Trilling, it aches to leave out Proust. Some critics consider Proust a Jewish writer despite the fact that he was baptized a Catholic and received communion when he was twelve. They may do so because Proust’s mother, Jeanne Weil, came from a Jewish family in Metz in northeastern France, whose members he stayed in touch with all his life. Proust was deeply influenced by his mother and, through her, by his Jewishness. The social matrix of his work owes much to his firsthand knowledge of French Jewry. . . . [But] though Proust derives from the Jews and shows sympathy with their condition, he is at pains in his writing to show that he does not share in their fate. . . . [His] first-person narrator emphasizes his own exclusion from [the Jewish people]. . . . Though the narrator is also detached from the French majority . . . he is much more sorrowfully and explicitly estranged from the Jews. Proust’s familiarity and sympathy do not translate into a novel of Jewish experience, however deep and persuasive its knowledge of the subject.

For Wisse, then, Trilling and Proust have stepped out of bounds by crossing opposite sidelines. The first does not belong in a Jewish canon because, while possessing a Jewish identity, he did not write about Jews; the second because, while writing about Jews, he did not possess a Jewish identity. Each represents a class in which other Jewish writers can be placed.

But what, then, of Kafka, who felt Jewish like Trilling but like Trilling kept Jews out of his fiction? Where is the logic in including him?

The logic, Wisse might reply, begins with Kafka’s having kept many things out of his fiction, the “abstractness” of which has been frequently commented on. Since there are practically no Christians in it, either, or Czechs, Germans, names of countries, cities, or streets, or references to contemporary events, the lack of Jews merely follows a general rule. Jews must be looked for in Kafka symbolically—but when they are, one finds them everywhere.

Thus, Wisse contends in a chapter on Kafka’s novel The Trial, the book’s protagonist Joseph K., finding himself unreasonably and powerlessly under arrest one day, is in the typical situation of the “liberal Jew, who, having come to trust that reason was power, had forfeited the protection of God without shoring up any political alternative.” In fact, Joseph K’s basic guilt is being Jewish, or, more precisely, a Jew amid a German culture and language in which (like Kafka) he feels himself an intruder, so that his being put to death at the novel’s end with the self-loathing knowledge that “the shame of it must outlive him” is, Wisse writes, “the price [he] pays for living in German, and the shame will outlive him because he has acquiesced in its terms.”

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There are other possible “Jewish” interpretations of The Trial, too, starting with the fact that “the Law” (Das Gesetz), the mysterious presence before which Joseph K. stands accused, is a term commonly used in German no less than in English for the Mosaic commandments—commandments that, according to Christian theology, are so beyond the human capacity for obedience that they render all men guilty by their very existence. Yet in a climactic section of the novel often reprinted separately as “the Parable of the Law,” it is suggested to Joseph K that the rigors of “the Law” are in reality accessible to everyone and even uniquely tailored to our individual needs, the difficulty being not their pitiless remoteness but a false illusion of this that deters us from approaching their “inextinguishable radiance.” Read this way, The Trial is indeed a deeply Jewish book.

This raises a problem, however. “The Law” in The Trial can also be read, and has been read by most critics, as standing for other things, such as the bureaucratic apparatus of the modern state, the ruthless pseudojustice of 20th-century totalitarianism, the guilt-inducing operations of the superego, and so forth. This overdetermination is part of the brilliance of the novel, the various interpretations of which, far from canceling each other out, are mutually enriching. Certainly, therefore, there is no bar to construing The Trial in terms of Jewish themes as well, especially as we know from Kafka’s letters and journals that these absorbed him greatly. Yet since doing so means choosing one set of possibilities out of many, and sometimes (as with other interpretations) reading against the grain (the “Parable of the Law” is related to Joseph K. by a Catholic priest, one of the few characters in Kafka’s fiction whose religion is made explicit), can we not do this with other authors, too?

Why not with Proust, for example? Taken at face value, the many passages about Jews in Remembrance of Things Past do confirm Wisse’s judgment that the novel’s narrator is “at pains to show that he does not share their fate.” But the same can be said of the many passages dealing with sexual inversion, a condition gradually revealed in the novel’s course to affect more and more of its characters but never—though Proust’s homosexuality was common knowledge in his lifetime—the narrator himself. Since no sophisticated reader would point to this as proof that Proust did not identify himself as a homosexual, why should the narrator’s distancing himself from Jews demonstrate Proust’s nonidentification as a Jew? There is even a lengthy passage in Remembrance of Things Past in which Jews are compared with homosexuals as social outcasts forced to choose between desperately concealing their true selves in order to “pass” or clannishly flaunting them in defensive self-segregation. What is to prevent one from pushing this analogy a step further, as some literary critics have done, by assuming the writer of this passage to have been not only Proust the homosexual, but also Proust the Jew?

Wisse herself is clearly aware of the fragility of resting the case for Jewish canonicity on the twin supports of Jewish subject matter and Jewish identity, each of which can be coaxed from the other, for much of her book is an argument for a standard that is stricter if also vaguer—namely, the insistence that both these aspects of a writer’s Jewishness be, in some sense, enhancing of Jewish life. Not only, one suspects, would the failure to meet this standard be her fallback position on Proust, it is her express reason for excluding other writers—the seemingly arch-Jewish Bernard Malamud, for example, to whom she ascribes a caricaturized version of the Jew, ever doomed to be either the hapless shlemiel or the Christ-like sufferer.

This too is problematic, however. It is not that Wisse is unsubtle in her discriminations. Far from it; her discussions of the writers on her far-ranging list are both delicate and wonderfully penetrating, and taken together they make a strong case for the multilingual Jewish literature whose existence she sets out to prove. (Among these writers are Sholom Aleichem; Mendele; Kafka; Babel; Grossman; Primo Levi; the Polish novelist Henryk Grynberg; the Hebrew authors Yosef Haim Brenner, S.Y. Agnon, and Aharon Appelfeld; the Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish poets Yakov Glatstein and Moshe Kulbak; the Canadian poet I.M. Klein; and the Americans Abraham Cahan, Henry and Philip Roth, Bellow, and Cynthia Ozick.) She can take a novelist like Brenner, accused by some Hebrew critics of “Jewish self-hatred” despite his practical commitment to Zionism, and explain why, by having “clear[ed] away the detritus of sickly guilt” clogging the Jewish soul, he qualifies for inclusion. And, writing against her own conservative political views, she can admiringly explicate the short stories in Babel’s Red Cavalry, written by a committed Bolshevik, and demonstrate how well they probe this same soul.

In the final analysis, though, one doubts whether her criteria, while they work well for her, are generally applicable. Although it may seem reasonable to expect a Jewish canon to serve Jewish needs, it is less reasonable to make it contingent on them; for even were it possible to agree on what those needs are, it makes little sense to demand recognition for “modern Jewish literature” on a basis of parity with other literatures while judging it by standards uniquely its own. What English critic would bar D.H. Lawrence from the English canon because he despised England and wanted nothing to do with it, or argue that, because Joyce refused to step on Irish soil for the entirety of his adult life, only a close examination of the attitudes toward Ireland in his fiction can determine whether he belongs to Irish literature?

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Shall we then abandon this line of approach and look for another—perhaps a more formal one, like that taken by Alter in his Canon and Creativity? This slim volume is a study of how, even in modern times, the ancient Jewish canon of the Bible has gone on exerting its influence on major writers. For his purposes, Alter has chosen three very different texts: one, Bialik’s long narrative Hebrew poem “The Dead of the Desert,” written by a man raised and educated in the world of East-European Jewish Orthodoxy; a second, Kafka’s Amerika, whose author was the product of a partially assimilated Jewish home in Central Europe; and a third, Joyce’s Ulysses, the work of a renegade Irish Catholic with a polymath’s knowledge of European culture. While the question of a modern Jewish canon is not explicitly raised by him, Alter’s project is relevant to Wisse’s because, by tracing the ways in which the Bible has remained productive in modern authors, it seems to suggest a solution to our dilemma.

Predictably, Alter’s analysis of “The Dead of the Desert” is the least surprising, for not only is Bialik’s immersion in the Bible evident in all he wrote, the poem itself takes off from a rabbinic legend based on the Bible. More illuminating is the chapter on Kafka’s Amerika, the plot of which, Alter shows, contains numerous parallels with the books of Genesis and Exodus. But most intriguing is the section on Ulysses, a novel famous for being patterned on Homer’s Odyssey even though its main character, Leopold Bloom, is a Jew. By dissecting key images, Alter demonstrates that the Bible is “a necessary complement to Homer in Joyce’s literary scheme,” the two working together to enable Joyce “to take stock of the literary origins of the Western tradition,” so that “in the extraordinarily supple and varied uses to which the Bible is put in Ulysses, it is converted into a secular literary text, but perhaps not entirely secular, after all, because it is reasserted as a source of value and vision.”

As Alter observes, canonicity sets in motion a self-reinforcing dynamic. Originally conferred on certain books because they are more resonant than others, it compels us to pay them a different kind of attention—one which teases out their riches in the form of new books that become the objects of further creative exegesis, and so on and so forth. Why not base our modern Jewish canon, then, on books that form a link in this chain, of which the Bible is forever the prime mover?

A promising idea—but no more than that; for the fact that we find a voice like Joyce’s taking part in this collective conversation (there are even allusions to rabbinic literature in Ulysses) shows how unsatisfactory a diagnostic tool it is. Surely Joyce does not belong in a modern Jewish canon because of this, any more than he does because Leopold Bloom is a Jew.

This suggests an interesting thought experiment. Suppose a biographer were to unearth the fact that, unbeknownst to him, Joyce had had a Jewish grandparent who died before he was born: would this win him a place in a Jewish canon? If yes, why should a trivial biographical fact make a difference? If no, how many Jewish grandparents would it take? And suppose the reverse were true, and Joyce had written Ulysses under the mistaken impression that a grandparent of his was Jewish—what then? Or suppose Ulysses had been published anonymously and we did not know who its author was?

Such questions are absurd. They are a sign that something is wrong with our thinking.

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4.

Let us try another experiment, this time by going back to the biblical book of Job. A curious thing about this book is that there is nothing in it to prove that its author was an Israelite or even particularly familiar with biblical religion, some of the premises of which he sharply calls into question. Indeed, one theory about him (now rather discredited) has been that he was not a Jew and did not write his book in Hebrew, a language into which it was later translated. Suppose that a new archeological or textual find were to prove that this theory was correct. Would Jews have to excise Job from the Hebrew canon?

Obviously not The book of Job, even if it turns out to have originally been “a work of universal nature written in a non-Jewish language,” is an integral part of Jewish literary tradition. The issue of its provenance is irrelevant to its place in this tradition, just as irrelevant as is the fact that, Christian and Western culture having appropriated Job for themselves, most non-Jews would not consider it a Jewish book.

This should be our answer. We have in a sense been barking up the wrong tree. The question of provenance—who wrote a given text, with what personal background, motives, and opinions—cannot ultimately determine a modern Jewish canon, any more than it can determine a text’s worth. What matters is less where a book is coming from than where it is going: to, or not to, a lasting engagement with other Jewish books.

Of course, provenance matters. Kafka stands a better chance of entering such an engagement than Proust because he wrestled with Jewish issues more strenuously. And if, despite its literary greatness and Jewish subject matter, Jews do not feel that Ulysses is a book they must address as Jews, this may indeed be because Joyce was raised as an Irish Catholic, or because, as Wisse remarks in unfavorably comparing the novel with George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, there is nothing Jewishly enhancing about it. But although Ulysses will probably never become a Jewish book, that is not something that can be determined a priori: one can, after all, conceive of a future in which Ulysses would be so widely read and responded to by Jews that it would be considered a necessary part of a Jewish education. Time, the one arbiter of literary greatness, will decide whether to capture such greatness for a Jewish orbit—which is all the more reason to give Time a prod on behalf of the books we most care about.

There are Jews who might ask who needs a modern Jewish canon at all. I can imagine one such Jew regarding me right now, his hand resting on an open Talmud. “So!” he says with an ironic gleam. “The Bible you already know! The Mishnah and Gemara you’ve learned by heart! Would that all Jews had studied as much and had time for your Kafka and your Proust!”

I do not make light of this man. He pricks a sore conscience. But that is neither here nor there: Bialik heard similar words from his teachers at the yeshiva of Volozhin in Lithuania over a hundred years ago, and bis conscience, to judge from his poetry, was in a worse state than ours. It is too late in the day to reopen that old argument. All that needs to be observed is that, since all Jewish arguments that are, as the rabbis put it, “for the sake of heaven” are in some sense over books, it is better for them to be over the same books.

If one looks at the great schisms in Jewish history, the breaking point has always been textual: writings accepted as canonical by one side but not by the other. To some, this may be a reason for not seeking to expand the Jewish canon beyond its traditional bounds. But if modern Jews are going to converse with each other and not only with tradition, they will need common great books of their own. Otherwise, they will be talking to the wall.

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Footnotes

1 Free Press, 395 pp., $28.00.

2 Yale, 198 pp., $18.50.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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