Commentary Magazine

Responses and Reactions III

This is the third in a bi-monthly series of personal commentaries by the distinguished novelist Norman Mailer on selections from Martin Buber’s two-volume collection, Tales of the Hasidim (Vol. I, The Early Masters; Vol. II, The Later Masters).



Before the Coming of the Messiah1

The Baal Shem said:

Before the coming of the Messiah there will be great abundance in the world. The Jews will get rich. They will become accustomed to running their houses in the grand style and moderation will be cast to the winds. Then the lean years will come; want and a meager livelihood, and the world will be full of poverty. The Jews will not be able to satisfy their needs, grown beyond rhyme or reason. And then the labor which will bring forth the Messiah, will begin.

Yet to our knowledge, no Messiah was brought forth from the concentration camps. Or were a hundred delivered to die with the victims, secret Angels of Death?

It is possible the Jews will never recover from the woe that no miracle visited the world in that time. Perhaps that is why we are now so interested in housing, in social planning, interfaith councils, and improvement of the PTA in the suburbs. Perhaps that is why half of the American Jews have fallen in love with a super delicatessen called Miami, and much of the other half have developed a subtly overbearing and all but totalitarian passion for the particular sallow doctor who is their analyst. Perhaps that is why we have lost the root. And have the lust to build a world of plastic surfaces whose historic root is urea.



From the Look-out of Heaven2

At a time of great anguish for Israel, Rabbi Elimelekh brooded more and more on his griefs. Then his dead master, the maggid of Mezritch, appeared to him. Rabbi Elimelekh cried out: “Why are you silent in such dreadful need?” He answered: “In Heaven we see that all that seems evil to you is a work of mercy.”

To die before one’s time in a gas chamber may offer the good fortune that one does not have to live beyond one’s time and be kept alive by medicines which do not reach the disease but only deaden the pain. In a gas chamber one loses one’s life and conceivably saves one’s death. If there is eternity, and we possess a soul which can either carry through life into death, or perish in life and never reach eternity, then the real need for a Messiah would appear in that part of the world, or history, where souls are becoming dead rather than lives being lost. By this logic, there would be more unconscious demand for the Messiah in a country at peace than a city at war.

The logic is unassailable if God has no need of Time and merely studies the way we save our souls or lose them. But if there is any urgency in God’s intent, if we are not actors working out a play for our salvation, but rather soldiers in an army which seeks to carry some noble conception of Being out across the stars, or back into the protoplasm of life, then a portion of God’s creative power was extinguished in the camps of extermination. If God is not all-powerful but existential, discovering the possibilities and limitations of His creative powers in the form of the history which is made by His creatures, then one must postulate an existential equal to God, an antagonist, the Devil, a principle of Evil whose signature was the concentration camps, whose joy is to waste substance, whose intent is to prevent God’s conception of Being from reaching its mysterious goal. If one considers the hypothesis that God is not all-powerful, indeed not the architect of Destiny, but rather, the creator of Nature, then evil becomes a record of the Devil’s victories over God. It is not so comforting a postulation as the notion of God Omnipotent able to give us Eternal Rest, but it must also be seen that if God is all-powerful, the Jews cannot escape the bitter recognition that He considered one of His inscrutable purposes to be worth more than the lives of half His chosen people. Indeed this recognition may have paralyzed the organized religious spirit of the American Jews. The Catholic Church becomes more powerful every year, the American Protestants have produced several existential philosophers of importance—who have come to a consideration of the mysteries of anxiety—but the conventional Jews in America, which is to say the ones who are formally attached to the religion, build new synagogues which look like recreation centers and go to them because it would make their mothers happy. Angst is left to the mechanical formulations of the analyst who now leans less on Freud and more on Equanil.



The Teaching of the Soul3

Rabbi Pinhas often cited the words: “‘A man’s soul will teach him’,” and emphasized them by adding: “There is no man who is not incessantly being taught by his soul.”

One of his disciples asked: “If this is so, why don’t men obey their souls?”

“The soul teaches incessantly” Rabbi Pinhas explained, “but it never repeats.”

If God and the Devil are locked in an implacable war, it might not be excessive to assume their powers are separate, God the lord of inspiration, the Devil a monumental bureaucrat of repetition. To learn from an inner voice the first time it speaks to us is a small bold existential act, for it depends upon following one’s instinct which must derive, in no matter how distorted a fashion, from God, whereas institutional knowledge is appropriated by the Devil. The soul speaks once and chooses not to repeat itself, because to repeat a message is to give the Devil in one’s psyche a chance to prepare a trap. People repeat the same message over and over in order to employ a Satanic principle—the audience before them must be deadened by the monotony of making the same response, or must reveal—by the separate ways in which the question is answered—some protected corner of their nature.



For the Sake of Renewal4

Rabbi Pinhas said: “Solomon, the preacher, says: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,’ because he wants to destroy the world, so that it may receive new life.”

Not all destruction destroys. Not all construction creates. If the world, seen through the eyes of Marx, is the palpable embodiment of a vast collective theft—the labor which was stolen from men by other men over the centuries—then one need not retire in terror from the idea that the power of the world belongs to the Devil, and God needs men to overthrow him.

The entrance of the Devil into aesthetics is visible in a new airline terminal, a luxury hotel, a housing project, or a civic center. Their flat surfaces speak of power without vision, their plastic materials suggest flesh without the unmanageable details of blood.



The Secret of Sleep5

Rabbi Zusya’s younger son said:

The zaddikim who, in order to serve, keep going from sanctuary to sanctuary, and from world to world, must cast their life from them, time and again, so that they may receive a new spirit, that over and over, a new revelation may float above them. This is the secret of sleep.

Can it be that insomnia is the rage of the Devil determined not to let us sleep long enough to receive a new spirit and thus be curious enough to defy our pact with him again? Or can insomnia also be the anger of the Lord who knows that the new spirit he provides in sleep will be handed over to the Devil in the morning? On those occasions when we do not know if it is God or the Devil we must fear, do we not have insomnia with Angst, does not madness insinuate itself? There is a suggestion to go out on the street and look for the adventure One or the Other is demanding. Most of us stay home. All right then, so we die of cancer, goes the sigh in the wind of our small depleted courage.



With the Evil Urge6

Once, when Rabbi Pinhas entered the House of Study, he saw that his disciples, who had been talking busily, stopped and started at his coming. He asked them: “What were you talking about?”

“Rabbi,” they said, “we were saying how afraid we are that the Evil Urge will pursue us.”

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “You have not gotten high enough for it to pursue you. For the time being, you are still pursuing it.”




1 The Early Masters, Schocken Books, p. 82.

2 The Early Masters, p. 112.

3 The Early Masters, p. 121.

4 The Early Masters, p. 124.

5 The Early Masters, p. 252.

6 The Early Masters, p. 132.

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