Commentary Magazine

The American Jew: Character and Destiny, by Ludwig Lewisohn

Emancipation As Villain
The American Jew: Character and Destiny.
by Ludwig Lewisohn.
Farrar, Straus and Young. 175 pp. $2.50.


At least since Paradise Lost, it has been a commonplace of literary criticism that the villain of the piece, against the will of the author and to the discomfiture of honest folk, finds it all too easy to monopolize the stage. Professor Lewisohn’s villain is the 19th century. Almost obsessively he returns again and again to it.

The attack on the 19th century is not new. From the Right, in a brilliant work by a sinister French reactionary, it was derided as stupid; from the Left it was dismissed as the inglorious epoch of the triumph of bourgeois meanness; art passed the merciless judgment of personifying it in Flaubert’s Monsieur Homais. To Lewisohn, as to many others, it is contemptible for a smug rationalism; a wilful severing of the human being from the human community; a bookkeeper’s view of the universe, as made explicit in the double-entry calculus of pleasure and pain; and an arrogant science indifferent to God because it could not see Him in its telescopes. For Lewisohn, however, the worst offense of the 19th century is the catastrophe it visited upon the Jews—the Emancipation.

To understand what this word means to the author, it will be helpful to remember what the word Liberation came to mean for many soldiers and civilians in Europe in the final days of the last war: the ideal of freedom degenerated into the actuality of looting and theft. So with Emancipation, in Lewisohn’s view: Jews exchanged their character of Jacob for that of Esau, eagerly yielding the father’s blessing, Judaism and the Jewish tradition, for the mess of pottage that was the 19th century’s vulgar set of values. For most of us Jews in 20th-century America, the Emancipation in which we glory is like that of the 19th century—only more so.

This is the corruption that Lewisohn perceives and the evil that he would banish. His special anguish is that while American society as a whole has not totally surrendered to the mass values of our day, most Jews have embraced them with passion. He does honor to the men who have set their faces against the dominant trend in our civilization: who refuse the “godlessness” and mediocrity of the public school and would restore education to religious auspices; who valiantly resist mass communication to dedicate themselves to art. Their counterparts within the Jewish community, he finds, are all too few. They are the (real) religious Jews and the (real) Zionists. Few as they are, however, it is only among them that we can look for a saving remnant.

For the sake of argument, as the lawyers say, let us grant Lewisohn his first principles and concede the worthlessness of much, perhaps most, in the culture of the 19th and 20th centuries. Having granted all this, we must still pause. There is in his denunciation a facility that repels. A more honestly ambivalent attitude toward the entire trend of modern civilization, whether in its higher or in its lower reaches, would have been more attractive. The thinkers whose disciple Lewisohn represents himself to be had a more nuanced thought and a more modulated tone.

Franz Rosenzweig is one of these masters. In the long and painful debate with himself on the question of halakha and mitzvot, Law and Commandments, he finally arrived at a position in which he accepted kashrut and tentatively, deferentially recommended it for others as well. His kashrut, however, was Scriptural (“intrinsic”), rather than the kashrut of the Talmud and the Shulhan Arukh. Lewisohn’s is also Scriptural. The difference is that Lewisohn is hortatory; that he evades the distinction between his kashrut and Orthodoxy’s, and that he is seemingly unaware that the distinction is caused by the influence of that 19th century he so execrates. Rosenzweig has been described as a man who would not be Orthodox because he knew that “something had happened”—the 19th century, in fact. He understood that if the 19th century was strong and true enough to keep him from Orthodoxy, it must be very strong and true indeed. (Ernest Renan once said: “Monsieur Homais was right, alas!”) Consequently Rosenzweig did not denounce those who, not having his faith and his understanding in sufficiently great measure, could not resist the 19th century as strongly as he did. He knew there was a real problem. If Lewisohn knew and understood, would he denounce?



It would be unfair to the spirit and purpose of this book to subject its rhetoric to a logical analysis of coherence and consistency. Essentially the rhetoric is a species of lyrical oratory that must be respected on its own terms. There is an important element in Lewisohn’s structure of ideas and emotions, however, that does not blend with the rest. This is the theme of Zionism, particularly secular Zionism. Secular Zionism is par excellence the child of the 19th century. In its impulses and character, it is an attempt to “be like all the nations.” Not only does it derive from 19th-century values, it also prefers them. Lewisohn speaks with admiration of the motives and content of Hasidism, but secular Zionism is a revolt against that Judaism for which Hasidism is a symbol. He also has much to say about the character and fate of the Jewish people, its separateness, distinctiveness, and uniqueness. There is much room for discussion of this belief, but let us again, for the sake of argument, grant him its validity. What we cannot grant is that secular Zionism in any significant way illustrates or serves these principles—except in the sense of mere geographical apartness.

Is physical apartness, then, the object Lewisohn really has in mind? Does that perhaps explain some of his feeling against the public school in this country? Can it be that the fact of national apartness in Israel is justification for itself in his eyes, but that he judges Jewish apartness in the United States to require a more elaborate rationalization? Does the major part of his text only constitute that rationalization? An alternative exists. Lewisohn means everything he says about the modern world and Judaism. He is also a Zionist, and has mistakenly tried to embellish secular Zionism by drawing it into an inappropriately lofty category.

Lewisohn’s execution, in sum, is not equal to his intention; and in subtlety, rigor, and persuasion he does not benefit by comparison with the masters he invokes.



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