Commentary Magazine

Responses & Reactions

Martin Buber’s two-volume collection, Tales of the Hasidim,1 has probably had a greater impact on non-Jewish writers—whether theologically inclined or theologically indifferent—than any other Jewish book of recent times. But the Tales have perhaps worked an even more powerful fascination on Jewish writers and intellectuals, and particularly on those who stand outside the organized Jewish community. Prominent among the latter group is Norman Mailer, whose informal bimonthly column on the Tales appears for the first time in this issue.

The tradition of the Hasidim is naturally and passionately existential. It is a tradition which lives apart from the regular, grave, solemn, aspects of Judaism, which are the ground and tablet of the essentialist. Disraeli once made a speech in Commons to the effect that the most damaging mistake a conservative party could make was to persecute the Jews, since they were naturally conservative and turned to radical ideas only when they were deprived of an organic place in society. The statement is certainly not without interest, but may grasp no more than a part of the truth. It is more likely the instinct of the Jews to be attracted to large whole detailed views of society, to seek intellectual specifications of the social machine, and to enter precisely those occupations which subtly can offer institutional, personal, and legislative possibilities to a man of quick wit and sensible cohesive culture. The precise need of the essentialist, the authoritarian, or the progressive is to have a social machine upon which one can apply oneself. Later, having earned sufficient and satisfactory power, one may tinker with the machine. It is small wonder that the four corners of modern Protestantism are pegged on Judaistic notions, upon a set of social ideas given bulk and mass only by a most determinedly circumscribed conception of heaven, hell, divine compassion, and eternal punishment. For modern man, Judaeo-Christian man, the social world before him tends to become all of existence.

Yet if the Jews have a greatness, an irreducible greatness, I wonder if it is not to be found in the devil of their dialectic, which places madness next to practicality, illumination side by side with duty, and arrogance in bed with humility. The Jews first saw God in the desert—that dramatic terrain of the present tense stripped of the past, blind to the future. The desert is a land where man may feel insignificant or feel enormous. On the desert can perish the last of one’s sensitivities; one’s end can wither in the dwarf’s law of a bleak nature. Or to the contrary, left alone and in fever, a solitary witness, no animal or vegetable close to him, man may come to feel immensely alive, more portentous in his own psychic presence than any manifest of nature. In the desert, man may flee before God, in terror of the apocalyptic voice of His lightning, His thunder; or, as dramatically, in a style that no Christian would ever attempt, man dares to speak directly to God, bargains with Him, upbraids Him, rises to scold Him, stares into God’s eye like a proud furious stony-eyed child. It may be the anguish of the Jew that he lives closer to God and farther away than men of other religions; certainly it must be true that the Jewish ritual leads one closer to the family, the community, to one’s duty, but does not encourage a transcendent vault into the presence of any Power or Divine. It is even possible the Orthodox ritual may have evolved out of some sense in the Community that the Jews had better not dare a rhapsodic and personal communion with God, not by themselves, not divorced from ritual, not alone, precisely not alone because they had such voracious instincts and such passionate desires for ecstatic union that they might burn with madness and destroy the race. Given their sober gloomy estimate of reality, they would find malaise and nausea in any communion with God which was too private. It would seem a condition somewhat obscene. This tension may even have helped to create their humor. “What of the kinder if I dance naked in the streets?”



These remarks are to offer background for a venture. Every other month in this magazine, a short story, or two, or possibly three, all very short, from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim will be printed, followed by a terse commentary by me. Since the gravamen of my own most special ignorance may well be, “Do you dare?” I rush to provide an explanation, a capsule of biography. Seven years ago, riding the electric rail of long nights on marijuana, I used to dip into The Early Masters and The Later Masters and find some peculiar consolation—these pieces were the first bits of Jewish devotional prose I read which were not deadening to me. Out of the cave of history came a thin filament of the past, the first to which I paid attention.

But I break the capsule to offer the salt of quick detail. I had, of course, grown up in Brooklyn, my parents were modestly Orthodox, then Conservative. I went to a Hebrew School. The melamed had a yellow skin, yellow as atabrine. I passed through the existential rite of a Bar Mitzvah. I was a Jew out of loyalty to the underdog. I would never say I was not a Jew, but I looked to take no strength from the fact. What Hebrew I learned was set out to atrophy. I left what part of me belonged to Brooklyn and the Jews on the streets of Crown Heights. In college, it came over me like a poor man’s rich fever that I had less connection to the past than anyone I knew.

Today, one does not feel necessarily more a Jew. One is rather a member of a new Diaspora—those veterans without honor of the Beat Generation. But I have a debt to Buber. I have a fondness for the Hasidim. There was a recognition those seven or eight years ago that if I had nothing else in my mind or desire which belonged to Jewish culture, that if I were some sort of dispossessed American, dispossessed even of category, still I had, I had at least, a rudimentary sense of clan across the centuries. The Tales of the Hasidim did not make me feel like a Jew, so much as they made me realize what kind of Jew I would or might have been two hundred years ago. I would never, no never, have been a member of the Jewish Establishment. But some bright troublemaking young Reb with a wild beard, an odium for ceremony, a nose for the psychic épée, and a determined taste for the dramatic in words, in writings, in acts, in the life of dialogue—that was not altogether impossible. For the first time in years I could quit seeing myself as a prime creation, some prize mystery dropped on earth void of antecedents. Granted the intoxication of a historic past (it is like an orphan discovering that in fact he has a beautiful mother) I spent a few days scribbling aphorisms on the end-pages of the hard-bound Schocken edition I owned. Most of these remarks have that sentimental gnomic intensity which a literary mind vaulted too soon into religion will emit:

Anxiety is the noise man makes as he flees his soul.

False Humility: What man is so arrogant as to declare that his past works led people in bad directions rather than in good ones?

Arrogance is better than indifference, for indifference is the drugged sleep of the soul, while arrogance is the record of a man’s struggle against his soul, and by so describing it there may come the day when he will find it.

They are half-tolerable at best, these pietisms; they are really funny: I was writing “soul” with the same fretful grinding of the jaws once used for proving the soul could not exist—something emetic about a good atheist turning into a high-strung saint on a flight of drugs. But one didn’t know that then. No photographers were at hand. One merely felt beatific and too worshipful of sedation—the nerves were raddled. Once in a while, religious shafts and dark psychic clouds parted long enough to give an aphorism which was fair:

We laugh when we recognize a great truth and in the same instant conceal it.

In fact, Buber was indigestible—I was finishing The Deer Park. So one had to quit. One left the Tales of the Hasidim alone. Over other years, they were used for blackjacking cultural bullies—“Oh, you haven’t read The Early Masters? Oh.”

Once in a while, one would return for a look. The Tales had a continuing charm. One could read them as one would turn to a poet who was mild but a favorite.

Along the way, I was seeking to shape some existential leaps into a bit of coherent philosophy. It was never easy. I seemed to have no intellectual tools but the adz and the broad axe. The point of departure, opposed to Sartre, was without a shiver, religious. There was the steadiest belief in Heaven, Hell, and Something Other, something much worse. Since the formal equipment for this structural voyage was as complete as a Beat poet’s mountain pack, one found that the Tales began to take on a special character. They became the antiquated but conceivable vehicle for a small intellectual raid into the corporated aisles of modern theology. The Talmudist, that poor gun, was now unwinding his filament out from the cave.

With what a difference. The reactions to the Tales of the Hasidim will be the natural work of a non-Jewish Jew, an alienated American, an existentialist without portfolio. As such, obligatorily, they will have a modern, an irreplaceable value—they are document. As such they are entitled to appeal across the spectrum from A. Hays Sulzberger to Allen Ginsberg.

For sample, two short tales are put here with a garnish of comment. Normally the display will be reversed; greens will endeavor to grow from Hasidic seeds.



The Soul and the Evil Urge2

The soul says (to the Evil Urge): “When you try to lead me left, I will not heed you and go to the right. But should you by any chance advise me to go right in your company, I’d prefer to go left.”

Which is a way of saying that if you, Evil Urge, tell me to marry, my soul knows it is wise to remain in sin. But, of course, says the Soul, how may I distinguish myself from the Beatific raptures of the Evil Urge?



The Test3

Rabbi Yitzhak of Vorki once took his sons to see his teacher Rabbi Bunam, who gave each of them a glass of bock beer and asked them what it was. The elder boy said: “I don’t know.” Menahem Mendel, the younger, who was three years old at the time, said: “Bitter and good.”

“This one will become the leader of a great congregation” said Rabbi Bunam.

Or as St. Thomas of Aquinas said, “Trust the authority of your senses.”




1 Recently issued in paperback by Schocken Books in two volumes (The Early Masters, 355 pp.; The Later Masters, 352 pp.; $1.65 each).

2 The Later Masters, p. 163 (paraphrased).

3 Ibid., p. 298.

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