It is by now hardly news that there is a reviving interest among younger Jewish thinkers and writers in religion,…
The present revival of Jewish religious thinking has evoked considerable interest—often, however, tinged with perplexity, for many of the voices speak with religious accents rather unfamiliar to American Jewish thought: there is a novel stress on the supernatural as against the natural, and the religious as against the ethical. Israel Knox here attempts to reassert the naturalistic and ethical bases of the Jewish religion, and to answer some recent criticisms of this approach.
It is by now hardly news that there is a reviving interest among younger Jewish thinkers and writers in religion, as such, and in Judaism, in particular. It would also appear that there is dissatisfaction among these writers with the present condition of Judaism in America and with the quality of Jewish religious thinking. They find in it much that is concerned with “time” and little that has the breath of “eternity,” and they find above all that Judaism in America is a religion of accommodation, of easy convenience, that it asks the very minimum of its adherents and refuses to come to grips with man’s basic anxieties.
The younger thinkers and writers have turned to religion either out of the realization that here is an area of culture and experience which has been central in Jewish history, or because they have been shaken by the crisis of our day, by the bafflement of man in the presence of demonic forces with which he does not seem to be able to cope, and are seeking in religion an explanation and illumination of men’s nature and destiny. And with those who cannot forget Auschwitz and Treblinka, the quest is also a cry from the depths of their being—de profundis.
So the question is being asked: Can Judaism speak today? Can Judaism, as found in synagogue and temple, talk to a generation that is relatively indifferent to the traditional pieties of Jewish life, and yet is profoundly stirred by the stupendous crisis that our civilization has been undergoing? Can Judaism speak to a generation of Jews in this land and in this crisis of those things that are both “of time and of eternity”?
Where shall the young Jew go? There is, of course, Jewish Orthodoxy, at first glance hardly a too comfortable religion, with its six hundred and thirteen commandments and injunctions. In Eastern Europe these prescriptions constituted a mode of living, an intellectual and moral discipline, and were integral to and inseparable from the “normal” processes of both individual and collective Jewish life. Indeed, the very term “Orthodoxy”—suggesting as it does a special set of beliefs about religion—is utterly inappropriate as applied to our ancestors in Eastern and Central Europe. It is, however, appropriate in America, where that totality of experience has been disrupted. Here Orthodoxy is but one variant of Jewish belief and attitude, and it can be an “easy” religion in the sense that it offers a precise regimen for living, but no longer a grand and speculative vision of man’s nature and destiny. It is a fact of some significance that nothing has come out of Orthodox Judaism to light up the tragedy of these last decades—no cry at least faintly resembling that of the exilic prophet’s “comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” or even the mild and compassionate complaint of Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev, addressed to God: “Why are you inflicting so much agony upon your people?” What chiefly can be observed is an increase in the membership of Mizrachi, the religious-Orthodox wing of Zionism.
Reform Judaism, on its part, impresses many, Jews and non-Jews alike, as a very “sensible” religion. Its emphasis upon ethical monotheism, and its corresponding lack of emphasis upon the supernatural, have been salutary. Its failure, however, to impose any concrete obligations, to go beyond vague moral pronouncements, has rendered it an “easy” religion too, and has transformed its temples into lecture-halls and its services into social gatherings. There is nothing wrong with Reform rabbis participating in the extra-religious activities of the community, but one suspects that many have turned to Zionism or to movements of social reform, not as a consequence of religious conviction permeating all phases of life, but rather because of Reform Judaism’s remoteness from, and lack of inner commitment on, deeply religious issues.
Conservative Judaism has made a serious attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff, to preserve the core of traditional Judaism without its encumbrances, to put Israel’s ancient heritage in a contemporary perspective. Conservative Judaism is today very much to the fore and if Judaism in America is to endure, in all likelihood it will take much of its character from the Conservative version. Conservative Judaism has, however, not yet reached the heart of the matter; in practice, it represents a working compromise between Orthodox and Reform rather than a distinctive and carefully considered interpretation, and what it has of a philosophy is improvised and superficial. The relevance of Judaism must not be dissociated from its social ethos, but if it is to be the relevance of a religion, its categories cannot be subservient to the categories of sociology; they must be primary, fundamental, and essential. Nor can they be entirely derived from the categories of the Jewish people’s history or of Zionist nationalism. And these seem to be Conservative Judaism’s dominant moods.
One may disagree with Reconstructionism, but no one who is aware of Judaism’s predicament in our day can afford to neglect it. Unlike Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Judaism, it is “trans-denominational” and has a point-of-view. Reconstructionists, and notably Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, have done a good deal of thinking on religion in terms of theology, culture, and as a human experience; they have examined Jewish religious tradition and values in terms of Jewish peoplehood, existence in a “non-Jewish” environment, historic continuity; and Dr. Kaplan has written a solid book on the future of the Jew in America. It is to the credit of Reconstructionism that it does not engage in the “retreat from reason” which is now customary. To be rational, however, should not mean to be unimaginative; and to refuse, as Reconstructionism does, to take symbols, metaphors, and myths literally, should not at all imply that they are not to be taken seriously: poetry and myth are near the heart of religion. In its revision of some cherished traditions, in discarding symbols and metaphors whose meanings are multi-dimensional in favor of a less complicated language, Reconstructionism has made religious belief and expression somewhat tepid; and in its altered prayer-book and Haggadah it has substituted only too often rhetoric for poetry. Its conception of the Jews as a “peoplehood,” though not free from pitfalls, is fruitful, and its positive attitude toward the Galut is wholesome, but its linkage of peoplehood with political nationalism (Zionism) is too close and its theory of “two civilizations” lacks as yet clarity and precision.
It is easier, however, to point out the shortcomings of American Judaism than it is to say what should be done. And it is all too tempting to ignore the historic circumstances in which American Judaism has been wrought. In any case, criticism of Judaism, past and present, should always be within the basic premises of Judaism itself. It will not do to impose upon Judaism a “frame of reference” which is alien to its very nature and which, if accepted, would transform it into something other than itself.
Unhappily, a careful scrutiny of the criticism of American Judaism, as it shapes itself in the views of the younger thinkers and writers, discloses that much of it is the result of just such a misunderstanding. There is cause for dissatisfaction with present-day Judaism, and there is nothing insidious or destructive about such dissatisfaction. But if it is to be truly meaningful and if it is to lead to earnest thinking among those who care deeply about it, then it must involve an examination of Judaism—an examination of its fundamental and distinctive content, and perhaps a tracing of the historic development of that content—and not of something else.
The climate of free discussion will not hurt Judaism, and criticism, even if it be misdirected and confused, can serve a good end. And yet the time has come when a criticism of such criticism is necessary. It is clear, and even admitted, that much of the criticism of contemporary Judaism derives from the tenets of Protestant “crisis theology.” As such, is it not a criticism of Judaism outside its own assumptions (Judaism has hardly any formal theology at all, and what it has can be confined almost wholly to the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”), and in actuality is it not a demand that Judaism cease being what it is and become something else? Such criticism is not so much “destructive” as it is irrelevant. It would seem to indicate a failure to perceive the essential character of Judaism and its immense insights into the meaning of human history and into the nature and destiny of man.
Israel is a people in history, and has its origin in a sort of voluntary covenant1—or, more accurately, a series of covenants, from Abraham to Moses, from tribal henotheism to universalist monotheism, with the covenant of Sinai the decisive one. It is not at all important to ascertain the exact details of this origin or even to prove its historical authenticity. What is important is the undeniable fact that the religion of Israel assumed the validity of this original experience, accepted its ethical and spiritual implications, and built its edifice upon it as a base.
Israel’s holidays, millennial as they are, nonetheless are always new, because they celebrate a perennial act of liberation, a renewal of the covenant. The original act of liberation was from an old and decadent civilization, whose governing conviction—we are told by Professor Frankfort in his recent book, Ancient Egyptian Religion—was the certainty that “the universe is essentially static.” Jewish “destiny” was in the future, and the Jews came to believe that the universe was not static, that there was movement in history. From this it followed that such movement was history, and that history was progress, that is, movement toward the “end of days,” a golden era located in the future and not, as with the Greeks, in the past.
The “metaphysics” of Judaism—its conception of human destiny, of the relationship between man and God, of good and evil, of life and death—cannot be considered apart from the recognition that it is a religion in history. The religion of the Jews grew directly and continuously out of their historic experiences. The experience at Sinai, as reported in the Bible, was a momentous one because it conferred “peoplehood,” the sense of a common purpose and shared destiny, upon the “children of Israel,” the descendants of Jacob. In a sense, the beginning of Jewish peoplehood is rooted in a free association, made durable by a common historical memory (as “the sons of Abraham”), and sanctified by a covenant between the members of this “association” and their god, Yahweh.
The covenant determined the movement of Jewish history, but not because of any specific content. That content was shaped later, and the Decalogue as we know it was written later too. The supreme importance of the covenant lay in the altogether novel realization it exhibited as to the relationship between a people and its god. Hitherto that relationship (to be found also in the “stories” of the founding of Athens and Rome) was one of blood, usually “totemistic,” with the people claiming descent from its tribal god. Such a god was bound by physical kinship—consanguinity—to defend his people, and all quarrels between them involved “mercenary” matters (the quantity and quality of sacrifices), or ritualistic propriety. What was not involved was righteousness; that is to say, the whole domain of morality was excluded.
The compact between Israel and its god, Yahweh, was a voluntary “meeting of minds,” an agreement between a congregation of men and a god, choosing each other, and promising to abide by a covenant. And, in sum, the terms of this covenant comprised a single commandment: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy,” and therefore “you are to be a people living in righteousness.” The notion of a covenant of righteousness was as unique and was to prove as revolutionary as the concept of ethical monotheism.
The compact between the children of Israel and Yahweh was to be tested in conduct and not merely in creed or dogma, and on receiving the covenant the people proclaimed: “We will do and obey.” (It was the undying remembrance of this pledge that prompted the sages of the Talmud to ascribe the following utterance to God: “Would that they had forsaken Me, but observed My commandments!”) The covenant was to take on meaning and to be invested with content in the light of Jewish experience.
As Jews “adapted” themselves to the ways of the surrounding states (otherwise they could not build a state at all), the earlier, “non-literary” prophets came to warn and to remind them of their compact with Yahweh. This warning and this reminder, too, served to widen and deepen Jewish experience. The struggle against Baalism, waged by Elijah and others, grew out of the conviction that Yahweh was not a nature-god, a locality-god, like the Baals, imprisoned in a precinct, but a “mobile” god, a time-god, wedded to a people (a god who had already told Jacob: “I will go down with thee into Egypt”). Yahweh was to be more than a fertility-god, though that also was within his power; he was to become a God of righteousness. The Jews were still henotheists, that is, they admitted the existence of other gods besides their own, but they nonetheless liberated their god from bondage to a locality, and, after Elijah, the right of Yahweh to supremacy among the Jews was never doubted, though the danger of his Baal-ization was not wholly averted.
It would be an exaggeration to set up a perfect correspondence between the historic experiences of the Jews and the advanced ideas of the prophets. But to deny any correspondence at all would be equally false. Out of their servitude in Egypt, out of their contact with a stratified social and economic structure, and out of a dim memory of their common descent as “the sons of Abraham,” came the grand Mosaic conception of a free, collective covenant between the Israelites—all of them—and Yahweh: “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
The attitude toward Moses revealed in Jewish tradition is truly remarkable. Regarded as the greatest of the prophets, he was refused supernatural status, and was referred to as “the man Moses”; no attempt was made to deify him, and his failings as a human being were emphasized. As the Biblical tale has it, Moses died in the wilderness, and no one knows where he is buried. He did not enter the promised land. Is it far-fetched to assume that the writers of the tale—men of the prophetic tradition—did not wish to identify Moses, the giver of the law, with a land, promised or plain, and were implying, in effect, that Israel’s “land” was the law of God, the law of righteousness, that Israel was a people at once in time and eternity, “with the whole world as its stage”? (Several millennia later Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev was to reaffirm this in his own touching way: “The Russians bow to an emperor, the Germans and the English boast of their kingdoms, but I, Levi Isaac, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say: ‘Glorified and sanctified be His great name.’”)
It was only after Elijah’s victory over the priests of Baal—over the priests of a fertility-cult—that the way was clear for the prophets of the 8th century BCE and the great Deuteronomic reforms of the 7th century.
Not long before Elijah’s time the nation had been divided into two kingdoms, and the later prophets were stirred by this critical historical experience and learned from it a sublime lesson. There were now two kingdoms, and yet Yahweh was the god of both lands and of the people dwelling within them. It is quite possible that this simple situation assumed for the prophets a tremendous significance and led them to reason that if Yahweh could be the god of more than one kingdom he could also be the god of more than one people. It was a magnificent thought and a daring one, and from that moment on henotheism was doomed and Yahweh was destined to become God. Amos, a native of Judea and preaching in Israel, the Northern Kingdom, was possessed with this vision as no other in his day.
The process of transforming Yahweh into God required several additional centuries and was consummated in the teachings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and deutero-Isaiah (the unknown prophet of the Babylonian Exile). The tragic and turbulent experiences of the Jews constituted the soil upon which these teachings took root. The Northern Kingdom was conquered and its people submerged, and then Judea suffered defeat. Out of this anguish came the prophet’s comforting assurance.
Israel was undergoing a mighty trial, and not a mere punishment; Israel was the suffering servant of the Lord, the bearer of a universal message and a “light of the nations, that my salvation may be unto the ends of the earth.”
That assurance was never forgotten. Even as the “hedge” was being built around the Law, the authors of the Psalms, of the tales of Ruth and Jonah, were restating this universal affirmation on another level and in another mode. There were times, however, when it seemed that the message of Israel would be subordinated to a purely nationalist ideology. But it was not Ezra’s “hedge,” nor the “laws” of the rabbis and sages, that threatened to accomplish this. For Ezra’s “fence” was a spiritual one, erected to keep the light burning, to hold vigil over it, lest it be extinguished by heathen practices.
It was the political nationalism of the Maccabean period which subordinated this universal affirmation to the compulsions of a state, put God in the service of a land and a dynasty (thus “justifying” aggression against other lands and the conversion, at the point of the sword, of the Idumeans to Judaism), and led to the temporary shrinkage of the prophetic idea. But temporary it was (the books of the Maccabees were not included in the Biblical canon), and the enterprise of the prophets—the liberation of Yahweh from the role of a locality-god and his transformation into the God of all the peoples of the world with Israel as “a light of the nations”—could not be undone.
In rabbinic Judaism Israel still remained “the suffering servant of the Lord” and God A remained the God of all the peoples. It was the “light” that mattered, and for its sake Yohanan ben Zakkai was willing to leave behind the “earthly” Jerusalem in the midst of a violent war and plead with Vespasian for the preservation of the “light.” Rabbinic Judaism, far from being narrow and nationalist, yielded up without much effort the “peasant’s” loyalty to land and lord, and endowed the day of mourning in commemoration of Jerusalem’s fall with the prophet’s universal meaning. The day of mourning, the ninth day of the month of Av, was to be not only a day of lamentation but of hope and faith—of hope that all mankind would be redeemed. The restoration of Israel was to be inseparable from, was to be conditioned upon, the redemption of all the peoples of the earth.
There can hardly be any doubt that the prophetic idea—“ethical monotheism”—had its roots in the historic experience of the Jewish community, and that this experience is inextricably intertwined with the evolving sense of that community’s moral and religious destiny. The passion of the prophets was for justice, and justice was the core of their religion. Abraham had already challenged his God in peremptory fashion: “Shall not the judge of all the world do justly?” And seven centuries later, Amos proclaimed a doctrine of justice commensurate with his wider view of God, a justice which would now and henceforth include social morality:
I hate, I despise your feasts,
And I will take no delight in your solemn
assemblies . . .
But let justice well up as waters,
And righteousness as a mighty stream.
Amos did not scoff at “mere morality,” nor did Isaiah:
Woe unto them that join house to house,
That lay field to field,
Till there be room for none but them.
Both Amos and Isaiah beheld in morality the content of religion as opposed to its form, whether ritualistic or “metaphysical.” Jeremiah summed it up:
If one practices justice and righteousness,
If one champions the cause of the poor,
Then it is well with one—
This indeed is to know Me, says God.
Amos spoke of the might of God and Isaiah of his majesty, but not as “metaphysical” attributes. God was neither an abstraction nor a distant, disinterested observer. Jeremiah states in God’s name:
I am a God near at hand, saith the Lord,
And not a God afar off.
According to the prophets, God is involved in the affairs of men and in their destiny, and in the measure in which men practice righteousness is God’s might triumphant and his majesty exalted. To Amos and Isaiah, morality was not “peripheral” to religion, and religion was not “morality tinged with emotion”; morality, to them, was the content of religion, and their God was a God of history. After Amos and Isaiah, it was no longer possible, though such attempts were made, to cut religion off from social morality.
The emphasis upon the indivisibility of social morality and religion suggests the “naturalistic” trend of prophetic thinking. Naturalism in our time has come upon its “seven lean years” as the fashions of the day are changing, and the outcry against it has recently been both loud and shrill. Without supernaturalism, so the argument goes, there is no religion and there is no healing of man’s tragic tensions. All the ills in the world are supposedly due to the eclipse of supernaturalism in the 19th century (as though the world had had no ills prior to the Enlightenment!).
In the face of all this, it must be emphasized that prophetic naturalism stressed no system of “cosmology,” simple or complex. The prophets were far-sighted, but not so far-sighted that they gazed beyond the world of nature into another world—one beyond man’s reach and outside of society. They were concerned with nature and with the society of men and women within the world of nature. They talked in the name of God and did not bother to define him or to speculate about him. They had no need of definition and speculation because they heard his voice in their own hearts and minds and they saw him all about them, and their awareness of him grew as they became conscious of the wonders and beauty of nature and of the movement of history—human society—toward some reasonable and decent community of men and women.
There is a profound insight in Einstein’s comment: “The Jewish God is simply a negation of superstition, an imaginary result of its elimination. . . . It is also clear, that ‘serving God’ was equated with ‘serving the living.’ The best of the Jewish people, especially the Prophets and Jesus, contended tirelessly for this.” No one can tell exactly how the prophets thought of God and to what degree their images are literal or metaphorical. Perhaps it was just because their approach was “unphilosophical” that they had a conception of God as simply and supremely spiritual and as “regulative” in the affairs of men. God was the one “absolute,” to be loved wholly, “with all one’s heart, might, and soul,” so that men would not be tempted to convert their own little goods and achievements into “absolutes,” so that they might remember that they are not God, but only in the image of God, that is, that they are not the whole of reality but only a part of it.
Because the prophets were this-worldly they invoked the name of God, but did not “exploit” God as a worker of miracles. The “new heaven” and the “new earth” of the prophets were of man’s making, under the rule of God, and could be attained by harnessing the energies of nature and society to moral purposes. The ills that the prophets witnessed, the visible corruptions and in-justices about them, could not be remedied by miracles (happening here and there, now and then), but demanded hard and consistent effort, deep and sincere conviction.
The one “miracle” the prophets believed in was the ever-present reality of repentance and conversion, and that is why they did not cease exhorting: “Woe unto you, woe unto you!” Already Abraham, in his controversy with God on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, prolongs his filibuster in the expectancy of such a “miracle”; he is hoping that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah will repent and mend their ways. Abraham’s hope was in vain, but God apparently was sufficiently “impressed” later to punish Jonah, who was reluctant to go to wicked Nineveh and inform the people of their condemnation (either because he had no faith in the possibility of their repentance or because he feared exactly such repentance and did not want them to be spared).
Neither miracles nor a rigid determinism was acceptable to the prophets, but a creative idealism within the limits (which they knew to be great) of man’s moral and spiritual resources. The prophets were grown-up men and therefore could not make their wishes binding upon the universe, but they were not blind men and so could see that the “heart’s desires” and the “realities of nature” might meet—if we only did our very best—at some points on “life’s horizon.”
With the Pharisees and the rabbis, prophetic Judaism underwent considerable modification; recognizable eschatological elements—looking to the dissolution of this world in “the world to come”—were added, and in the 12th century Maimonides includes the belief in the resurrection of the dead as one of his thirteen articles of faith. But asceticism, monasticism, other-worldliness as such were never in the mainstream of Jewish thinking. The law was given to a community and it was given for life and not for death. (In the Talmud, God is reported as saying to Moses: “Wherever you find a mark left by the steps of man, there I am before you.”) The Torah was to be interpreted in the light of human experience and wisdom. Rabbinic Judaism is a modification of, but not a break with, prophetic Judaism.
There is yet another side to religion, and it is one whose appeal is strong in an age of crisis. It is both “metaphysical” and “psychological,” and is preoccupied with man’s enduring tensions in a world not of his making.
There is the awful brevity of man’s life—its uncertainty and abortiveness; there is the evil that surrounds it—sickness, old age, the futility of our finest efforts, the death of those dearest to us before our own days are ended. Obviously, these tensions cannot be completely resolved, but men have always strained toward some sort of “explanation,” some sort of answer to the perennial question: Why? In periods of crisis the quest gains momentum, and tends either to subordinate the social aspect of religion to the “metaphysical,” or else to discard it entirely as “mere” morality.
Awareness of evil as well as of the limited efficacy of human effort is evident in much of the early history of the Jews—their bondage in Egypt and their liberation, the wanderings in the wilderness and the slow arduous conquest of Canaan. And the death of Moses before entering the promised land is as definitive a testimony to man’s finitude as can be found in all literature, sacred and secular. Later, the precarious political condition of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the permanent destruction of one and the temporary destruction of the other, surely enhanced this awareness of evil in the world. But here something astonishing occurred. Instead of declaiming in accents of hate and vengefulness, the prophets cried out for justice in the land and for the purification of the heart. Amos had already informed the Jews that they were a “chosen people,” but that it was no simple matter to be chosen by God:
You only have I known of all the families of
of the earth;
Therefore I will visit upon you all your
Isaiah reproached them in the name of God:
Children I have reared, and brought up,
And they have rebelled against Me.
And the prophet of the Exile told them in unforgettable words:
For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace,
And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
Until her triumph go forth as brightness
And her salvation as a lamp that burneth.
The Exilic prophet was neither bitter nor despondent, and without ignoring the evil that befell his people made it bearable with his vision of the “suffering servant of the Lord.”
On their return from Babylonia the Jews may have shown the influence of the cosmological dualism of Zoroastrianism, with its conflict between the principle of Light (good) and Darkness (evil). But the essence of the prophetic tradition remained unimpaired and in the subsequent codes the admonition to deal justly with the “outsider,” to “know the heart of the stranger,” was preserved. In the stories of Ruth, Jonah, and Job, “strangers” are not treated as scapegoats, but presented with fairness and praise. In the story of Jonah, even the enemies of Israel are held to be capable of repentance (as the scapegoat is not) and are cared for by God, and in Leviticus it is given special sanction: “If a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
It is quite true that there is no sharp division in prophetic thinking between evil as cosmic and as moral, as individual and as social. That is a post-prophetic development and is fundamental with Paul. But it is precisely the stubborn refusal to draw such a division between cosmic evil and human evil that constitutes the spiritual greatness of the prophets.
Yet even a cursory reading of the prophets will reveal that they were men of genuine metaphysical sweep—else how could they have been so God-intoxicated and universalist? Their failure to withdraw from the “market-place” and to find refuge in a “metaphysical theology” did not impoverish their religious ethic, but rather gave it direction as well as meaning. None perceived as clearly as did the prophets that the source of religion was in man’s ineffable longing for the infinite, and they would have had no difficulty in understanding the Psalmist’s question:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou thinkest of
Man’s tensions, however, his longing for the infinite, were no reason—as the prophets and the rabbis saw it—for man to evade his social responsibilities. On the contrary:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation
of thy throne;
Mercy and truth go before thee.
Can the “metaphysical” tensions within us be finally resolved? Obviously, they cannot. What we can do at best is to try to give intellectual and emotional expression to them, and if the formulation be a reasonable one and in accordance with the “facts” of experience, that in itself is a kind of assuagement. Indeed, when so formulated, it is more than an assuagement; it can then, in turn, light up these facts of experience and, to a degree, transform them.
Prophetic Judaism was not seriously affected by that dualism which splits the dominion of the world between two principles, and then shifts responsibility for the existence of evil to the evil one. Nor could Prophetic and Pharisaic Judaism accept the Pauline version of sin and evil. Paul does not transfer sin to others (”original sin” is our common inheritance), but he does transfer atonement and beholds the washing away of such sin in the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God. Prophetic and Pharisaic Judaism could not accept this view without relinquishing its conviction of the inseparability of religion from morality, and its belief that sin can be redeemed through righteousness. The prophetic view is “prospective” and not “retrospective,” and looks forward to a Messianic era, a consummation in the future, in the “end of days.” Paul moves away from the prophetic linkage of religion and morality, and makes of both a state of mind, a matter of faith; freedom is no longer social and objective, but a function of the spirit, of the inner life. For the rest, there is little to do in history—which is the realm of nature—but to rely upon God’s love and forgiveness, which is the realm of supernatural grace.
As related in Genesis, “original sin” is part of the drama of creation and man’s groping toward self-recognition. How could the authors, without such a stupendous symbol, render intelligible the human situation? In Genesis, “original sin” is “original” in the sense that it is a component of life itself, of man’s life which is finite and fragmentary and lacks wholeness (”dust thou art, to dust returnest”). And it cannot be atoned for vicariously if life is what it is. Tragedy is thus one dimension of man’s life and holiness is another. Man is finite and cannot be equated with all of reality, for then he would be God; but he bears within him the “image of God” and can therefore seek God and serve him and aspire to be God-like. And he can do so by an act of supreme freedom, not as an automaton whose destiny has been decreed without his own intervention: “See”—the writers of Deuteronomy declare in God’s name—”I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil. . . . I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore, choose life. . . .”
“Original sin” can thus be diminished as we transcend our finitude, our self-absorption, in the practice of righteousness. And so Isaiah, aware of the terrible contradictions of our human nature, of the good we want and the evil we do, implores:
Come now, and let us reason together,
Saith the Lord;
Though your sins be as scarlet,
They shall he as white as snow;
Though they be red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.
Jewish history can surely be defined as one of “crisis.” Jews have lived for millennia in the “valley of the shadow of death.” They have learned how insecure life can be in a world that separates religion from social morality, and then makes of religion a matter of personal salvation, a relation between man and God outside society. In their own communities in Eastern Europe Jews clothed religion with the flesh and bone of morality, and appraised and hallowed each detail as a Sanctification of the Name. Such sanctification was coextensive with life itself. The story of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, with their spiritual discipline, the moral tone and quality of their social living—without the coercion of a state—has yet to be told to a Jewish generation whose self-esteem has been heightened by an exhibition of Jewish physical prowess to a world that respects such prowess alone.
“Naturalists” and “humanists” have described the crisis of our time as due to the vast gap between our technological progress and the social uses of intelligence. The “anti-naturalists” have been seeking the causes of the gap itself, and have described it as exactly what it is—an emptiness, a spiritual vacuum, a chaos in value. The remedy that they prescribe is a firm and fixed set of values, with a supernatural source and guarantee. Only by a transcendent affirmation—so they assert—can man lift himself out of the “realm of history” into the “realm of grace.”
It may be conceded that a transcendent affirmation is required as a postulate of social morality even as postulates are required in science (since we have to start somewhere). But though a postulate is beyond proof, it must grow out of experience, must verify itself in consequences, and must conform to reason. The faith of the prophets was naturalistic; it was grounded in “social psychology”—in their discovery that sympathy between man and man is a category of human experience, an “objective” moral fact. With that as a “scientific” basis and with the covenant as a transcendent affirmation, they could then “postulate” the indivisibility of religion and righteousness, and proclaim the Messianic era as the goal of history and the fulfillment of man’s destiny as a creature of both time and eternity.
How different from this is Karl Earth’s assertion: “We are not the ones to change this evil world into a good world. God has not resigned His lordship over it into our hands. The salvation of the world, which has already been accomplished, was not our work. . . .” Earth’s view is thoroughly Pauline and alien to Judaism, and leaves little for man to do between the time of “the salvation of the world, which has already been accomplished” and God’s “final judgment”—little to do, that is, except to live by faith in an “evil world” and make “Christian decisions” out of the “perpetual crisis of the soul.” But as Reinhold Niebuhr (himself not unsympathetic to “crisis theology”) remarks, this is “a too simple and premature escape from the trials . . . duties and tragic choices which are the condition of our common humanity.” There is some truth in Kierkegaard’s conception of an “infinite qualitative difference” between God’s purposes in eternity and man’s purposes in history, but in Kierkegaard’s elaboration of it, it leads finally to Barth and the unbridgeable chasm between religion and social morality.
The Messianic dream, the progressive vision of man’s destiny, avoids the crudities and shallowness of a one-dimensional, materialistic approach to history as well as the negative effect of Pauline and Barthian pessimism. The prophets knew what lay deepest in men’s hearts and understood the truths of the spirit, and can therefore speak to us and for us today. And they knew that what they preached was not beyond man’s moral and spiritual power, and that therefore the failure to establish the reign of justice and mercy is to debase God himself. God’s purposes in eternity and man’s purposes in history meet when man’s righteousness and compassion exalt God’s presence on earth; and in man’s striving toward the creation of a “new heaven” and a “new earth,” toward the “not-yet,” that meeting is vouchsafed.
Jewish peoplehood began with a covenant and the Jewish “mission” cannot be exhausted until the covenant of peace and righteousness is acclaimed by all humanity. In recognition of this, Jews are wont to read Isaiah and the Book of Jonah on the Day of Atonement, and the rabbis were fond of saying that “if men are united in one covenant, they behold the presence of God.”
Indeed, if we are to survive, we must literally obey the behest of Isaiah:
Seek good and not evil,
That ye may live;
. . . Hate evil and love good,
And establish justice in
the gates of the land.
The prophets were well aware of the tragic self-contradictions and ambivalence of man’s nature, the while they conferred dignity upon him by declaring him to be created in the “image of God.” They knew further, with a piercing clarity, that it is in the medium of social righteousness that man’s finitude is transcended and his contradictions resolved. They staked everything on that conviction, and feared nothing more than the ever-present inclination to identify religion, on the one hand, with ritual and ceremony, and, on the other, with sheer faith, mysticism, and “metaphysics.”
This is the prophetic tradition, and it is not Israel’s alone. For then there would be little hope for the world. Proselytizing is not Israel’s way. The prophetic tradition is a motif, and it is a light, and it is an aspect of Western civilization. It is in conflict with other aspects of Western civilization, but it has also helped to mold it; and it has always been an influence in Christianity, with its unstable balance of the Jewish element, this-worldly and humanist—and the Hellenic element, other-worldly and transcendental.
The Jews, however, did not “acquire” this tradition; it sprang from their profound experiences as a people. It is unthinkable that they will forego this historic tradition by turning to the Baals of our day, the locality-gods of territorial nationalism, and turn away from the God of Isaiah whose lines they read on the Day of Atonement. Nor will they, on the other hand, forget the words of Hosea, comforting them and assuring them in God’s name:
And I will betroth thee unto Me for ever
Yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in right-
eousness, and in justice,
And in loving-kindness, and in compassion.
1 The use of an identical religious vocabulary by religious thinkers who wish to convey different religious meanings is an obvious source of confusion. I do not use the term “covenant” as referring to any specific historical event. My use of it may be compared rather with the role of such a concept as “social contract” in political philosophy. Communities may not actually have been formed by such a contract at some single historic moment, and yet it is a sort of postulate implicit in the modern democratic polity; it is not possible to prove or disprove the theory of the social contract except by one’s own political practice. The “covenant,” like the “social contract,” can only be proved by its being fulfilled. It is similar, one would say, with the word “God.” In Jewish religious thought there has been little speculation on me nature of God; and what there has been is marked by an adherence to “negative theology”—we can say what God is not, but not what he is. The prophets and the sages used the term “God” as a negation of superstition, and as a supreme affirmation of the ideal and holy as real, though not necessarily supernatural.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
A Humanist Religion for Modern Men:Judaism as a This-Worldly Way of Life
Must-Reads from Magazine
Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages