To the Editor:
The article by Percival and Paul Goodman on current synagogue construction in the January issue was of particular interest to me. As a rabbi with a congregation engaged in erecting a new building, I face some of the problems they discuss. I should like to make several comments from that vantage point.
1. There is an important difference in commitment between the presently Jewish-minded artists and intellectuals and those of us who have kept the Jewish community going in their absence. In search of “likely reality” they are impressed primarily with the symbols in the, grand manner that come from the Bible. The drive that activates them is that well-known malaise, “the failure of nerve.” I hope that they will still be with us when their nerve (or nerves) is strong again.
Baalei tshuvah—those who return to the fold—cannot choose to forget the twenty or more centuries of Jewish experience that intervene between us and the Bible. It is true that Jewish life in the Galut was confined and constricted. That increasingly made of us particularistic people. Candidly speaking, the “insiders” are, by upbringing and emotional allegiance, passionately commited to that particularism. Abraham, Adam, and Jacob are not therefore, as the Good- Mans would have it, “archetypal in the psychoanalytic sense.” As symbols the Jew sees in them what Midrash and Jewish history have taught him to see: Abraham is not the father but the rebel, the outsider, and the wanderer; Adam is not an innocent but the man who sins with the forbidden attractions of the outside world; and Jacob is not the wrestler but the Jew in constant torment. The symbols of Hasid, Talmudist, halutz, and Haganah soldier are, to the “insider,” equally valid and important. Even our own flat American Jewish life is more emotionally significant to us than all the profundities of Mann and Gide. This is after all our own—and our greatest responsibility.
2. It is very revealing of the nature of their Jewish concern that the chief virtue of Jewish theology as understood by the Goodmans is “that it affirms least” and “what few will deny”—i.e. that “God is one, not a body, and the Messiah will come.” This kind of theology, if indeed it is an almost exhaustive statement of Judaism, is certainly unobjectionable to the refined intellectual, no matter what his spiritual antecedents. The only trouble is that “the main point is missing from the book.” The Orthodox creed revolves around the election of Israel, its chosenness to be “a kingdom of priests and holy people.”
3. It is quite true that a building requires an act of commitment to real use of its functions. Here is where architects, laymen, and rabbis can do great things together. Working together on mere physical plant they can steer future congregational development, by what they put into the buildings. Let it not be forgotten, however, that the face of the American Jewish community is not yet formed. Its religious orientation is still basically undecided. It is too early to know its relationship to Israel. Practically speaking it has not yet learned (or perhaps been able) to give towards its own inner life as it has given to its overseas expenditures.
4. The Goodmans miss rectories for the rabbis in new synagogue plans and attribute their absence to the professionalism, gypsy careers, and lack of concern of the rabbinate. This is hardly the place to defend even partially the vocation which is everyone’s favorite target in current Jewish discussion. I hope soon to be able to publish an analysis of the American rabbinate from within, but on the specific point they raise they are wrong. The rabbi has, as they know, never been a rector or priest keeping a building in which “souls are saved.” He has traditionally been a teacher of Torah, unrelated, except recently in western Europe and America, to any specific synagogue. Jews do not think of rectories for rabbis because they have not been fashioned by their heritage to regard them as ecclesiastical functionaries.
In conclusion, may I let the cat out of the bag? The architect for our West End Synagogue in Nashville is Percival Goodman. It’s very stimulating working with him—and we get along unusually well.
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg
West End Synagogue
To the Editor:
I was thunderstruck to hear that somebody was “keeping the Jewish community going”—until I considered that this was a usual opinion of institutional persons, statesmen, deans, and rabbis, who imagine that but for them there would be no social life. The Rabbi’s remark is not effrontery, but merely an occupational disease. Personally, I happen never to have been “absent” (simply because, on principle, I do not live by principle, nor practically, but by feelings and intuitions, and this method assures, whatever else, continuity). But in our article we were collecting a number of factors; these “absent” are obviously such a present factor; and I find, working with them, that they are damnably critical, hard to please, and good to attend to.
To make a quick diagnosis, Rabbi Hertzberg suffers from the dual flight-reaction: flight to the particular and flight overseas. Luckily, this is easy to treat. He need merely, as Kafka says, “hammer together a table.” I mean literally design, construct, and embellish a table: then the particular will be just the particular and overseas will lose its charms.
To get to the more interesting midrashim. My Bar Mitzva portion was Lech Lecha, God says to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy land,” from thy father’s house, etc. This is precisely why Abraham is a primal father; does the Rabbi imagine that one becomes a primal father by remaining the son of Terah? To find fallen Adam, one does not look in Scripture but simply at oneself and one another; it is to learn of the innocent Namer of the Beasts that one looks in Scripture; I am surprised to hear the Rabbi make this communal analogue of a Christian notion. Now Jacob is certainly in torment; also—look again—he is a criminal usurper and a thief; this is why I think of him as the Wrestler. The Rabbi’s line of interpretation is just what takes the heart out of most Jewish Biblical art (e.g., even Chagall’s illustrations): those patriarchs, those criminal adventurers, those divine yeomen, are given bent shoulders.
But what on earth does the Rabbi mean by calling the Hasid, Talmudist, halutz, and Haganah soldier “symbols”? Why, half-closing my eyes I can see Rabbi Hertzberg himself in these several roles. Once we begin to think of possible present roles as “symbols,” we are lost; action becomes not action but a performance on the Stage of History. As James said of Hegel: “Sober—drunk—all the same.” Please, let us eschew this particular kind of pulpit oratory.
Now as to missing the main point of the creed, the Covenant, I too am aware that I never do set it down. And do you know what I think? I think that this article is something that one does not say; nay, more, it is not an article, it is something that one also does not think, except after the event, the deed; nay, more more, to the extent that it is the case, one does not think of it either before or after, it is simply the case, to the extent that it is the case.
The Rabbi’s third paragraph, on functional commitment, is profoundly disturbing. Im lo achshav, eimatay?—If not now, when? Let us at least be frank. The Rabbi does not really want to; I presume that his heart is overseas. And we artists are timid and lazy; we are afraid to go out on the streets for such vision as we have.
His point on the rectory, however, seems to me to be correct; I think we were wrong (I speak only for myself).
New York City