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Moses and Atheism

The Refusers: An Epic of the Jews

by Stanley Burnshaw
Horizon Press, 447 pp., $14.95

Some time ago I found myself writing: “Anti-Semitism circulates in the European bloodstream like a permanent infection.” This was first brought home to me with great force when a Catholic publicist explained Jacques Maritain’s refusal to support Franco’s cause in Spain by Maritain’s having a Jewish wife. That Raïssa Maritain, who came from a Hasidic Jewish family and kept the luminous piety of her early milieu, was a Catholic gave her no protection—not that she and Maritain would have welcomed such protection. But for the wretched man who made this remark the category of Jewishness was ineffaceable, not as a glorious endowment but as a kind of ugly spiritual tattoo.

It would be possible to argue that the category of Jewishness, one that may be applied to a wide variety of people—observant Jew, atheist, agnostic, communist, conservative, pinko-gray (to borrow from E.M. Forster), or brown, or yellow, or black in pigmentation—simply by pointing to their presumed ancestry, is a category imposed by those who are not Jews. We may suppose a gradual widening of the category, from its application to those who profess belief in the Torah and keep the Sabbath, circumcize their male children, and keep the dietary laws, to the time when to say, “Spinoza is a Jew” or “Trotsky is a Jew” is not to say something self-contradictory.

In the nineteenth century, after the Jewish emancipation, one who violated the Sabbath or the dietary laws may have been a “bad Jew,” but a Jew he remained. Now, at least in the judgments of the courts in Israel, the only way of ceasing to be a Jew is by apostatizing, and this one does not by professing atheism or flouting the Torah, but by choosing to be a Christian. It has been judicially held that the law of return does not cover such a person. This is a less comprehensive view of the category than that of those who treat it as a biological category; and of these the best known are the German National Socialists, though they had and have a great following of scarecrows, mountebanks, cutpurses, buffoons, pseudoscientists, academic charlatans, paranoid military men, and other assorted rabble. This racial view we may take to be spiritually rock-bottom; and it was the apologia of those who took responsibility for the greatest massacre of this century.

These reflections are prompted by a reading of Stanley Burnshaw’s trilogy. Its parts—they are mistakenly called “novels” by the publisher—are all of them preoccupied with Judaism, with what it is to be a Jew, and with the fate of the Jews in the Christian era and in the modern world.

My Friend, My Father,” the third and best member of the trilogy, is in part fiction, in that it is cast in the form of an autobiography of the author’s father. He comes as a young man from a community of German Jews living in Courland under Russian rule. His tradition is that of the Jewish Enlightenment: Moses Mendelssohn is the great prophet, and the gods are Goethe, Schiller, and the German professors. The tradition of Judaism is for him above all a moral one; the Torah is understood as a declaration of the principles of a universal human morality and is disengaged from the particularities of the Biblical record.

His first intention on leaving Latvia is to go to France, a country he thinks of with tender feelings, as the home of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the land of such heroes as Voltaire and Diderot. He falls in with a group of Russian Jews and learns from them, apparently for the first time, of the bloody pogroms and the political use of anti-Semitism by the Tsarist government. He decides to accompany them to the United States. There, in New York, he soon establishes himself with a part-time job, an undergraduate place at Columbia, and a sweetheart, the dark-eyed Sonya, from a formerly well-to-do St. Petersburg family. He becomes an active member of the German-Jewish community.

He feels the difficulty of his position, first, as an enlightened German Jew in the midst of an immense East European community, Orthodox, inwardly turned, poor, then as one who is relaxed in his attitude to traditional Judaism and is therefore compelled to question himself about his own Jewish fate. He later becomes an inspiring teacher and director of Jewish schools and orphanages, effecting a revolution in their regimen. From highly disciplined mass organizations, with the children excluded from secondary schooling, they are transformed under his guidance into decentralized institutions marked by a happy spontaneity; and the children are no longer debarred from secondary and higher education. Morally and religiously they are Jewish; but this is an emphatically liberal Judaism, far removed from all rabbinical traditions.

His success is immense and recognized by important Americans, even by President Taft. His marriage to Sonya is fruitful and happy. Almost all his friends and relatives are remarkable for their virtue and good sense. The women are strong and maternal, the men brave and humorous. Weak and bad characters are merely alluded to, never described in detail. But alongside the happy sequence of success there runs another sequence, that of world anti-Semitism: pogroms, the long agony of the Dreyfus case, and finally, at the end of the story, the rising up, in the midst of that German society so much idolized by the hero, of National Socialism. The sense of betrayal felt by liberal German Jews over the victory of Hitler is well brought out. The hero is shown as a supporter of Germany against the Allies in the early stages of the First World War. The Balfour Declaration (glossed with great simplicity of mind by Burnshaw), the Zionist movement, and the establishment in the end of the State of Israel—these change everything. The hero dies at the end of the Second World War, and doesn’t see the triumph of Israel. However, the story is continued by the son who, once a sentimental communist, returns to his liberal Jewish tradition, not as a copy of his father, but as one who has the same fundamental loyalties.

This memoir of a time that only the very old can remember even in part, (though some still alive will remember the New York of the First World War), has much charm, at least for one who stands outside the way of life depicted and its conflicts and loyalties. The immense task of giving stability and hope to the lives of the Jewish immigrants to New York before 1914 is shown as one performed, and performed well, by those who belong to the community. They are aided by private philanthropy, scarcely at all by public authorities. Everyone goes about on foot, except the rich, who use carriages, and by rail and streetcar. When the orphanage and school moves from its cramped, barrack-like building in New York City to its new campus in Pleasantville, the hundreds of orphans go by train, and when they get to Pleasantville Station “at once the children arranged themselves in cottage formation [each child belonged to a cottage community of about thirty] and began the three-mile walk” to their new home.

Home, family, morality, active membership of a people and a culture, the desire for learning, a strenuous concern for advancement in business and the professions, a regard for the interest of the Jews as a target throughout the world of prejudice and persecution, loyalty to the United States and love of its free institutions: these are presented straightforwardly as good things, as indeed they are. But the treatment lacks depth and irony, and is too sweet for the modern palate (though we may think the modern palate has been ruined by too many hot dishes). In its tone “My Friend, My Father” resembles such evangelical fictions of the late nineteenth century as those of the Reverend E. P. Roe.

The other parts of the trilogy strike me as having little interest and no charm. The first, “Moses,” is an attempt to “fictionalize,” as for the making of some colossal movie, the career of Moses as set out in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Its rhapsodic, psychologizing style is troublesome, just because we are necessarily reminded of the noble simplicity of the Biblical narrative. For example, here is the account of Moses beginning the ascent of Sinai:

He lunged forward again, his tongue tasting the air from flaking rocks. Staring vacant, his eyeballs swung toward lights from the opposite cliffs. Pillars of rock covered in fire leapt skywards: “Fountains of gold? Am I climbing the wrong mountain? Surely a god must be there,” he smirked, “one at the least.”

This seems sad stuff.

The theological content of Moses is elusive. His God, the God who speaks from the burning bush and names himself “I am Who I am” (or “I will be what I will be”), is said to be a God of “Pure Idea.” This seems wildly anachronistic, and thin and academic set beside Exodus 3.14.

God as “Pure Idea” seems to lead us on to the hero of the second part of the trilogy, Uriel da Costa, a Spanish Jew converted from Catholicism back to Judaism, a refugee living in Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century. He finds that with the Law of Moses, his first motive of conversion, he has to accept a great mass of rabbinic lore that seems to him without warrant; he finds the doctrine of immortality especially hard to accept. He then studies the Torah again, finds (as he believes) contradictions within it; thus he sheds the Law. He comes across the works of Giordano Bruno and is converted to a kind of naturalistic pantheism.

Not surprisingly the Amsterdam rabbis take offense at all this; he is betrayed by his Jewish friends, his relatives take over his business, his Christian friends abandon him. Finally he is cajoled into acknowledging his guilt before the rabbis’ court, is lashed and trampled upon by the members of the synagogue, and is then readmitted to the community. All this is too much for him. From the window of his house he shoots the one relative and friend who, as he thinks, has betrayed him to the rabbis, and then puts a bullet in his own head. What seems to be thought to give historical significance to all this is that the young Spinoza witnesses da Costa’s humiliation.

The treatment of this story is melodramatic. There is a vacancy at the center of da Costa as he is presented. We have no idea why he thinks and acts as he does, and the attraction of Bruno’s ideas is never explained.

In one way or another all parts of the trilogy, with the linking passages and a poetic epilogue entitled “Mirages,” are addressed to the question of what is to be a Jew in the modern world. For the author Orthodoxy is impossible and even theism is not beyond dispute; in any case it has been settled pragmatically by Israeli practice and common Gentile prejudice that a Jew is the child of a Jewish parent or parents. This the author seems to think a gain. Jews are now coming to an end of what he calls “a third stage,” “a truly ‘Liberated Judaism’ that proceeded to foster differing types of worship, differing views of tradition, differing versions of personal faith, ranging from certain knowledge of Yahweh’s presence to ‘agnostic belief’ in the worth of benevolent acts.” This is the result of the Jewish Enlightenment. What, now, is to follow, Burnshaw doesn’t tell us. Plainly much hangs on the future of the State of Israel. My guess is that in the end more hangs on the future of Judaism as a religion. The existence of the Jews as “refusers,” members of a community that witnesses against all the idolatries, may depend upon there being men and women who cry out in the daily round and at the hour of death: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Letters

Refusing July 15, 1982

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