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…

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