A persistent fear worried Jews of the early Diasporas and of Hellenistic times: the fear that a child of theirs might grow up to be an amhaaretz—a peasant, ignorant of Torah; or, even worse, an apikoros—a sophisticated unbeliever who abandons Jewish faith to indulge in rationalistic speculation about the meaning of existence. In either case, the danger felt was that such an individual would not only ignore the commandments and rituals, but that he would, in effect, have lost the sense of his past. Asked, in the classic question of identity, “Who are you?” the am-haaretz does not understand; and the apikoros, instead of giving the traditional response: “I am the son of my father” (Isaac ben Abraham), says: “I am I”—meaning, of course, I stand alone, I come out of myself, and, in choice and action, make myself.
A similar crisis of identity is a hallmark of our own modernity—except that not rationalism, but experience, has replaced faith. For us, sensibility and experience, rather than revealed utterances, tradition, authority, or even reason, have become the sources of understanding and of identity. One stakes out one’s position and it is confirmed by others who accept the sign; it is no longer the hand of the father placed upon us—the covenant—that gives confirmation.
Not only the Jew, but all moderns, and particularly the intelligentsia, have made this decision to break with the past. Affecting first revealed religion, and later extended to all tradition and authority, the break has meant that the individual himself becomes the source of all moral judgment. But once experience is the touchstone of truth, then a “built-in” situation develops where alienation from society—which necessarily upholds the established, traditional values—is inescapable. This has meant, in the further fragmentation of society, that individuals have sought kinship with those who share both their sensibility and their experience—that is, with their own generation. The others have had a necessarily different experience. (Here we may see one reason why youth movements, a phenomenon unknown in previous times, are so characteristic a fact of modern life.)
Few of us can escape this mark. This is the way we have been bred. In us, especially the Jews, there has been a hunger for experience. The first generation fled the ghetto or the Pale—the second fled the past itself. For those of us whose parents were immigrants, there was the double barrier of language and culture to confront; and the double urgency of being not only thrust out on one’s own, but having to make one’s self in the course of discovering the world as home.
Yet no one wholly makes himself; nor is there such a thing as a completely cosmopolitan culture. The need to find parochial ties, to share experiences with those who are like ourselves, is part of the search for identity. There is an old truism that in some ways (biologically) we are like everyone else; in some ways (the idiosyncrasies of personality) like nobody else; and in some other ways still, like somebody else. In the parochial search for those like ourselves, the generation, the common age group, is only one tie. Neighborhood, city, country, vocation, political belief, family—these hold other ties. But prior to all—to begin with—one must come to terms with the past. One cannot wholly escape it. One may reject it, but the very mode of rejection is often conditioned by the past itself. A man is, first, the son of his father. In almost all tribal societies, the patronymic is part of one’s name. And the sins of the fathers—in the psychological, if not the legal sense—are apt to be the burdens of the sons as well.
For the Jew, his relation to the past is complicated by the fact that he must come to terms not only with culture and history but with religion as well. For the religious tradition has shaped the others, providing both conscience and the continuity of fate. As an agnostic, one can, in rejecting religion, reject God; one may reject a supernatural or even a transcendental God. But as a Jew, how can one reject the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—without rejecting oneself? How, then, does a modern Jew continue to identify with the Jewish fate? And if such an identification is made and conditioned largely by experience, by a generational experience at that, what must be the consequences? The initial problem remains the religious one.
The simplest way of being a Jew is to be Orthodox—at least in ritual, if not always in faith. An esoteric legend ascribes to Maimonides the affirmation that one does not have to believe in God to be a good Jew, one merely has to follow halakhah—obey the law. This is in keeping, in traditional Judaism, with the derogation of the single individual. As the rabbi might say, “Who are you to say that you do or do not believe? Does the world exist for you?”
But it is in the confrontation with evil that the judging of God arises. In the kaddish of Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berdit-chev, the 18th-century Tsaddik refuses to speak the Sanctification of the Name until he first arraigns God for the suffering of His innocent Jews. And we know the accusation, two centuries later, of the fifteen-year-old boy who, in Auschwitz on Rosh Hashanah, cries, “Why should I bless Him? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on the Sabbath and holy days?”1
Maimonides, in the Guide to the Perplexed, gave the classic answer to this recurrent cry:
Very often the throngs of the unreasonable will, in their hearts, put forth the claim that there is more evil than good in this world. . . . The cause of this error is that this foolish man and his unreasonable companions in the throng regard the whole universe only from the angle of individual existence. Thus every fool thinks that life is there for his sake alone, and as though nothing existed but him. And so, when anything happens that opposes his wishes, he concludes that the whole universe is evil. But if man would regard the whole universe, and realize what an infinitesimal part he plays in it, the truth would be clear and apparent to him. . . . It is of great advantage that man should recognize the measure of his worth, so that he may not fall into the error of believing that the universe exists only because of him. It is our opinion that the universe exists for the sake of the Creator. . . .
But if life is not present for me, if in the design of the universe “Man is like unto a breath,” as the Bible puts it, then why fight at all against any injustice or evil? Orthodoxy leads to quietism; suffering is the badge, one accepts it as the mark of fate. One of the more disquieting facts about Jewish behavior in the death camps, as a number of writers have remarked, was the extreme passivity of the people. We know about the ways in which hunger, fright, privation, can depersonalize an individual. But the fatalism that comes out of the religious tradition violates one’s conception of a personal autonomy. A modern man wants to believe that some portion of the universe does exist for him, in the here and now. The Orthodox view of Judaism is too constricted for such a man to feel at home in.
The same pride of self leads to skepticism or rationalism as concerns a supernatural view of the world. To the extent that he must reject religion as superstition, myth, or “absurdity,”2 to that extent is the modern Jew’s loss of Orthodoxy the victory of philosophy over theology, of reason over faith.
A different mode of Jewish identification lies in accepting the ethical content of Judaism while rejecting the ritual. This has been the path of those who have sought to join the “human” side of faith with the potentialities of science—the path of reform. But if one is too much of a rationalist to accept Orthodoxy, one is too much of an irrationalist to accept the “merely” ethical side of religion. Orthodoxy’s view of life may be too fatalistic, but that of ethical Judaism appears to some of us too shallow.
The ethical view is fundamentally syncretistic, drawing on all faiths, for to be valid, an ethical precept must be binding on every man and applicable to all men. Theologically, there is no more justification for a special Jewish ethic than for a Unitarian one, or for Ethical Culture, or for any non-ritualistic creed. The ethical dissolves the parochial, and takes away from individuals that need for the particular identification which singles them out and shapes their community in distinctive terms: terms which make possible a special sense of belonging shared by a group.
Ethical Judaism, in its often superficial rationalism, has taken some disturbing profundities of the Old Testament and transformed them into glossy moral platitudes. In ethical Judaism, a simplistic idea of human nature has led to the belief that there are few human ills which reason cannot remedy. But beyond that, the view of life represented by ethical Judaism is one of simple good and evil, unaware that a tragic component of choice is the fact that it must always involve some evil—a lesson which has been taught us by recent 20th-century history. As Emil Fackenheim once put it in these pages: “In the 20th century, men—all of us—find themselves compelled to commit or condone evil for the sake of preventing an evil believed to be greater. And the tragedy is that we do not know whether the evil we condone will not in the end be greater than the evil we seek to avert—or be identified with it.”3
What is left, then, for one who feels himself to be a Jew, emotionally rather than rationally—who has not lost his sense of identification with the Jewish past and wants to understand the nature of that tie? A Jew, we are told by one existentialist thinker (Emil Fackenheim), is “anyone who by his descent is subject to Jewish fate”—the covenant; one who by fate is urged to faith. The ground here is still faith, though the ground is “absurd,” in that the compulsions to belief are beyond one’s control, shaped by descent and, therefore, by history. But this is an attempt to defend faith, not fate. Lacking faith, I myself can only “choose” fate. For me, therefore, to be a Jew is to be part of a community woven by memory—the memory whose knots are tied by the yizkor, by the continuity that is summed up in the holy words: Yizkor Elohim nishmas aboh mori:—“May God remember the name of. . . .”
The yizkor is the tie to the dead, the link to the past, the continuity with those who have suffered and, through suffering, have made us witnesses to cruelty and given us the strength of courage over pride. However much, as moderns, we reject the utterances of authority and the injunctions of ritual, the religious link with our fellows is not the search for immortality or other consolatory formulas against the fear of extinction—but is the link of memory and its articulation.
All societies have memorial occasions, a day that commemorates an event of the past, a day of mourning for the dead. A memorial day, a holy day, often becomes, in secular terms, a holiday and an escape from the past. The yizkor is different. It is recited not just on one day, but on a set of days whose occasions form the wheel of life. For the yizkor is said on four days: Passover, Shevuoth, Succoth, and Yom Kippur—the escape from bondage, the giving of the Law, the ingathering of the harvest, and the day of atonement, which is also the day of “at-one-ment.”
One lives, therefore, as a Jew, through the meaning of the yizkor, through the act of commemoration, through the saying of a common prayer—but singling out in that prayer a specific name of one’s own dead. In the minyan of my fellows, I am linked to my own parent. In the yizkor, through memory, I am identified as a Jew.
If one is a Jew through filio-piety, is such a bond strong enough? Memory has its risks. The sense of the past is often merely the present read into the past. Memory is selective, it screens out the hurts, it throws roseate hues. Remembering what happened in one’s lifetime is difficult enough; uncovering the past of history is even more so.
The greatest risk of memory is sentimentality, and Jewish life has paid dearly for its sentimentality. The lachrymose recollections of the shtetl (which are still with us) fail to recall its narrowness of mind, its cruelty, especially to school children (to which a whole series of memoirs, such as Solomon Ben Maimon’s, testify), and its invidious stratification. In the same vein of nostalgia, there are the glowing reminiscences of the Lower East Side of Williamsburg, or Chicago’s Maxwell Street—but they omit the frequent coarseness, the pushing, the many other gross features of that life. At its best, this parochial identification exists as a tie of memory through pity; at its worst, it may be the continuity of appetite—the lox, cream cheese, and bagel combinations; or through comedians’ jokes.
A different form of filio-piety is in the satisfying of memory, when there is no faith, by “good works.” One is a Jew, discharging one’s obligations as a Jew, through membership in Jewish organizations. Here lies the second risk, of accommodation. In the embourgeoisement of Jewish life in America, the community has become institutionalized around fund raising, and the index of an individual’s importance too often is the amount of money he donates to hospitals, defense agencies, philanthropic groups, and the like. The manifest ends are the community functions being served, but frequently the latent end is the personal prestige—yichus. This kind of institutional life may even lend itself to historic forms of corruption : of simony, when those who have risen high in Jewish organizations receive their rewards in appointive office in Jewish life; and of indulgences, when leadership is the simple reward of wealth. And in performance of charity as a way of Jewish life, self-satisfaction may take on the face of righteousness. The most sensitive of the Jewish agency professionals, lawyers, and businessmen have often deplored this situation, yet are trapped by the system.
But for the intellectual, the greatest risk of memory is its repression—the past is only allowed to come back in the form of self-hate, shame of one’s parents, the caricaturing of Jewish traits (most notably verbal agility), the exaggerated thrust of ambition, the claims to superiority by the mere fact of being a Jew, and all the other modes of aggression that arise from the refusal to accept the tension of being in a minority, and the need to balance the insistent demands of the past with the needs of the present.
Coming to terms with this kind of repression often leads to alienation from Judaism, to the feeling of its insufficiency, even when one has some knowledge of its traditions. The alienated Jew is the Jewish orphan. He comes “out of himself,” rather than out of a past. He is homeless. The present is his only reality. Lacking a past, he can have no notion of continuity, or any image of the future. For him there can be no parousia, no fulfillment. This has been the signet of Jewish fate, particularly in Central Europe, over the last forty years, and it foreshadowed the fate of a whole generation of intellectuals. As W. H. Auden once said of Kafka, “It was fit and proper that [he] should have been a Jew, for the Jews have for a long time been placed in the position in which we are all now to be, of having no home.” The problem is spiritual, not territorial. Israel is no answer. The alienated Jew grew up in galut, and the world has been his home. Is it his fault that the world has been inhospitable—rejecting those who refuse to assert a distinctive parochial tie? Yet, in the awareness of his rejection, his life is Jewish, too: he is one of a community of exiles whose common experiences are molded by the common fate—and this becomes his parochial tie.
Finally, in this catalogue of risks, there is the risk of attrition. If, in order to give it meaning, Jewish involvement requires some encounter with tradition, so that one may be able to make choices, then succeeding generations, whose encounters are few and whose memories are hazy, must find themselves with fewer and fewer ties. They are in the most difficult position of all. It is not a question of assimilation, for that is a matter of choice, the choice of severing all ties, and one which is made consciously. Attrition is not chosen—it is a wasting away. There is a word, Jew, but no feeling. And this becomes the most tragic consequence of identification solely through memory.
If identification is an interplay of experience and memory, its shaping elements are in the successive generations themselves. Each generation has its own “entelechy”—its own inherent design, which gives the identification its distinct quality. In these days, generations succeed each other rapidly, and each succeeding one is also longer-lived. The characteristic fact about Jewish life today is the extraordinary palimpsest which the different overlaying generational experiences have become. The different generations can be identified with one or the other of the different forms of response I have described (the five risks of memory) as a rationalization of their own experiences.
The basic shaping element of Jewish life in America has been the immigrant experience—an experience with an inner tension of anxiety and hope. The anxiety was an inevitable consequence of being uprooted and living in a strange land. At times it led, particularly for those who lived away from the large urban centers, to a sense of being “a guest in the house”—which in turn led to a minimizing of Jewish life, subduing an inherent drive and ebullience, temporizing with the neighbors—attitudes that have persisted in smaller Jewish communities in America and that have been repeated for a new mobile class in the suburbs.
For the bulk of Jewish immigrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe, the anxiety was translated into the struggle between fathers and sons. Few generational conflicts have had such an exposed nakedness, such depths of strain as this. The metaphor of Fathers and Sons that one finds in the Russian literature of the 1860’s applied to political generations—there the “fathers” left home to go abroad, while the “sons,” when they came of age, initiated the radical activity on the land; but both generations were within the boundaries of a common culture. In the American Jewish immigrant experience, it was the sons who left home, and the very boundaries of the culture came into question—the repudiation of the synagogue, the flight from the parents’ language, the rejection of their authority, all of it intensified by the fact that both fathers and sons were living in a strange land.
If the immigrant generation was characterized by anxiety, the one after it was shaped by shame and guilt. However, the generational changes cannot be marked into exact historical periods, for generational time is interlinear. Thus the conflict of immigrant fathers and sons that took place before the First World War repeated itself during the depression of the 30’s, when the children of those who came at the tail end of the immigrant wave grew up. And these parallels are refracted in the literature. The first immigrant generation found its literary spokesmen in the emotional outpourings of such writers as Sholem Asch and David Pinski, and the response in a Mike Gold or an Isidor Schneider; while the second wave—more wry, disenchanted, the twice-born—found meaning in Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his gothic, bittersweet, explorations of Jewish shtetl life, counterpointed to such revelations as Isaac Rosenfeld and Saul Bellow made in their unsentimental, even sardonic narratives of Chicago Jewish life.
Despite overlaying, three major time spans may be demarked. One may say that the first shaping element of the American Jewish experience came to maturity in the years from 1910 to 1930, the second achieved its awareness with the depression and the war, and the third, now coming into its own, emerged in the last decade and this one.
It was in the second of these generations that the rupture with the past was sharpest, the hunger for experience keenest. In its encounter with American life, the generation broke in two: some ran hard (the Sammy Glicks and the Harry Bogens); others, more openly alienated, became radicals. Ironically, both experiences proved to be a mirage. For those who felt that they had caught the world by the tail, using money as salt, the reality proved empty enough: all that was felt, finally, was the appearance of achievement. Those who left home to seek a new community in Marxism, in the expectation that revolutionary activity could be a vehicle for experience, found themselves caught in a net of abstraction and slogans. They had won their intellectual spurs, found places in the academies or in the world of publishing, but they were politically betrayed.
The failure of radicalism together with the death of six million Jews in the Nazi gas chambers brought the generation back. Still, coming to terms with the past proved difficult. For the middle class there was Jewish organizational life; for the intellectuals, theology. But the attractions of both have tended to wither. Those whose status has become tied to Jewish life have remained in the organizational milieux. For the intellectuals who once found meaning in theology (one remembers the intense debates about Simone Weil, Martin Buber, and neo-Orthodoxy in the pages of COMMENTARY ten years ago), such problems have worn thin; the discussion has turned to more modish topics as Zen or hipsterism, or it has lapsed, more privately, into political philosophy, art, or humanistic studies.
For many of this generation, the burden of shame and guilt has tended to become less heavy through the catharsis of psychoanalysis and self-awareness, and by the attenuating passage of time. What has remained is a stoic mood, perhaps the only possible response of whoever seeks to resist the innocence of naive hope and the harshness of disillusion. Whether the generation still has a further statement to make remains to be seen.
And for the third generation? If literature is still a mirror of life, one of the most striking things about recent decades has been the disappearance, as a genre, of the roman fleuve—the family chronicle. Who today undertakes to write a Forsyte saga or a Pasquier chronicle? The thread of family continuity has indeed been broken. In a recent attempt, Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, the family chronicle (about the ancestors of Ernie Levy) seems contrived and stilted; it is no longer within the range of actual experience; the memory is more literary than real.
This seems to be the fate of the third generation: either memory is fabricated, or there is none at all. In suburbia, one sees the signs of the false parochialism, the thin veneer of identity, which rubs off at the first contact with the world. Many new temples are built, and the children go to Sunday school—because “it is good for them.” The fathers have made their accommodation—through their children. Yet it cannot last, for what is unreal to the fathers is doubly so, and hypocritical, to the child; the reckoning is yet to come.
There are no parochial ties and no memories for the children of the intelligentsia. They are driven to be educated (with the British tradition as the exemplar) and to be alienated, but without the moorings of the past that their fathers sailed away from. Just as there is something sorry about individuals who become “counter-revolutionaries” without having been “revolutionaries”—accepting someone else’s rancor as one’s own—so there is something pathetic about proclaiming one’s alienation without having known the world one is rejecting. There is, one is told, a new radicalism among the young; but without a central vision of its own, such radicalism can only be a caricature of the past. The warning from Marx is that the repetition of history is farce.
I write as one of the middle generation, one who has not faith but memory, and who has run some of its risks. I have found no “final” place, for I have no final answers. I was born in galut and I accept—now gladly, though once in pain—the double burden and the double pleasure of my self-consciousness, the outward life of an American and the inward secret of the Jew. I walk with this sign as a frontlet between my eyes, and it is as visible to some secret others as their sign is to me.
And yet a disquieting fact remains. If this is an identity shaped by experience, what are the “limits” of my responsibility? The philosopher F. H. Bradley (according to G. R. G. Mure’s memoir of him) once remarked late in life that, being so old, he no longer had much recollection of his undergraduate days, and if someone produced evidence of a sin he had committed at that time, he would refuse to accept responsibility for it—a reflection of his doctrine that responsibility rests on the sufficient continuance of personal identity.
How responsible am I for the Jewish past, and therefore for its future? My God—even the one of memory and not of faith—is a jealous God. Do I have to accept the sins of my fathers, and my children those of mine? This is not an academic question, for it confronts us everywhere, and most particularly in “our”—the American’s, the Western’s, the white man’s—relations with peoples who now come forth to assert their own identity. About five years ago, a group of African Negro intellectuals met in Paris, under the sponsorship of the magazine Présence Africaine, to debate this very question. How far, some of them asked, can the sins of the fathers be visited upon the children? What these men were saying was that one could feel free only after becoming free, only by some overt act of revenge, symbolic or otherwise, against those who had, by deliberately imposing an inferiority complex upon the Negro, robbed him of his identity. And yet the white men alive now were not those who had committed the original sin—though they continued to benefit from it. Should they be responsible for those who did? And, in the accents of the older tribal morality, these Negro intellectuals asserted that responsibility held unto the third and fourth generations—that the act of revenge was not immoral.
All this has been played out before. Orestes, guiltless but guilty, is driven on to carry out the blood revenge by the primitive law of retaliation. And although at the end of the Oresteia a new order of disinterested justice prevails, it is never wholly satisfying, for one feels that though the Furies have been tamed, the personal act, the act created by one’s obligation to the past, has now been dissolved as well. In the Pirke Avot is the famous saying of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it. . . .” Is this the claim which the acceptance of any parochial tie imposes upon us? This is the question raised when one realizes that one does not stand alone, that the past is still present, and that there are responsibilities of participation even when the community of which one is a part is a community woven by the thinning strands of memory.
1 From Night, a memoir of Auschwitz, by Elie Wiesel.
2 There is, in the esoteric view, the interpretation that Maimonides views God as a necessary “myth” to hold the masses in check. Man, unrestrained, is a b'hemah, or animal, who gives way to his instincts and worships cruel gods. Where man regards himself as the measure, then all means, including murder, may be justified to achieve his unrestrained ends. Individual men could live without myth—the premise of stoicism—but the masses could not. Hence the need for the idea of God for the masses. But then is there not equally the question whether Maimonides, in the cunning of reason, may not have fashioned this rationale for private disbelief actually in order to seduce the apikorsim—the unbelievers—to public faith?
3 “Can We Believe in Judaism Religiously?” December 1948.