Commentary Magazine

The Need to Clarify

To the Editor:

Although the main body of Norman Podhoretz’s article “Sholom Aleichem: Jewishness Is Jews” (September 1953) is excellent, the philosophy inherent in his concluding paragraph is ultimately as corrosively destructive of Sholom Aleichem as it is of Judaism. If Stanley Edgar Hyman could call books that appear to be novels, and are not, “pseudo-fictions,” then surely one is justified in calling Mr. Podhoretz’s concept of Jewishness pseudo-Jewish. It is a nice gay glib concept: “to make sense of a classically senseless situation, the Jewish answer was still the answer of the book of Job—that there is no answer.” And previously Podhoretz has compared Mottel to Job (!), saying that “the privations and sufferings of the Jews bore no relation whatsoever to anything they did; they suffered only because of what they were.”

It is indeed possible to carry casuistry a long way, and it is terribly possible to misinterpret the Book of Job. And if Job—and the Jewshave any meaning at all, it is that they “were” —and are—precisely because of what they did. Namely, you can’t interpret any one part of the Bible without a long, piercing, simultaneous side-glance at its source; i.e., God. If God is the source of the Bible, and Jewish theologians assuredly state that He is, then one must not treat the Book of Job as if Genesis did not precede it.

We get one clear and distinct interpretation from Genesis, not “no answer” as Podhoretz blithely says. Though it is true that “one can either rage like a Dostoevsky, or laugh,” this is only permissible if one’s rage or one’s laughter is directed toward clarification, not simply senseless smashing of the skull against a brick wall or braying like a jackass at cosmic inanity. Both Dostoevsky and Sholom Aleichem sought earnestly (unlike “Defoe, Smollett, Disraeli, and Dickens”) and with all their beings to clarify. Like Job’s, Dostoevsky’s ragings culminated in, “therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not” (Job 42:3).

Neither Job, Dostoevsky, nor Sholom Aleichem would for a moment agree that the lesson of the Jews is to recognize man’s involvement in a “classically senseless situation.” They would all agree “that optimism and a love of life must necessarily reflect superficiality of spirit.” That is—if and when, as Mr. Podhoretz assumes they do, these two concepts form a logical dichotomy. As they don’t, never have, and never will, they would say man’s situation, far from being senseless, is clear for those who will understand, and if you will understand you can do no less than be optimistic and love life!

Ivan B. Abrams
New York City

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