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Nathan Englander’s Haggadah redux

July 2, 2012

We talked about Nathan Englander’s New American Haggadah way back in February and March.

The latter post attracted 42 comments; in the very last comment co-blogger J. K. Gayle pointed to a review by Leon Wieseltier from the Jewish Review of Books.  But I must have been busy at the time J. K. made his comment, because I didn’t actually read Wieseltier’s review until just today.  Shame on me.

I read Wieseltier’s review today.  It is remarkably harsh.  Wieseltier not only complains about the quality of Englander’s prose and translation; Wieseltier also complains that Englander betrays the Jewish tradition of learning of itself; and he pointedly quotes I. L. Peretz:  “It is not enough to speak Yiddish, you must have something to say.”

I read Wieseltier’s review today because today I saw a discussion of it in the letters to the editor section of the latest Jewish Review of Books.  Several readers take Wieseltier to task for his shrillness, but Wieseltier is unrepentant:  “Presenting a new version of a central text of Judaism, and making large claims for its superiority to previous versions, is not a trifling matter, and the standard by which it must be judged is not Maxwell House, unless of course everything Jewish is to be prized mainly for its ethnic cuteness. Nathan Englander is no more ‘defenseless’ than any writer or translator who puts a book before the public. Indeed, too many American Jewish readers are defenseless against his mistakes and misrepresentations.”

Perhaps the most striking part of Wieseltier’s response is his lengthy response to Gilah Goldsmith, who explains that she has relatively little knowledge of Judaism and who finds Englander’s translation “refreshing and thought-provoking.”  Wieseltier responds (emphasis added):

Gilah Goldsmith’s letter includes two sentences that take my breath away and make me tremble for my brethren. The first is this: “Of course, as a woman, it would have been rare at any time in Jewish history for me to have known much more than I do now.” This, after she has admitted to "no knowledge of Hebrew.” But she is not living then, she is living now. If, now, after the re-establishment of Hebrew as a living language, and in a Jewish community in which Hebrew instruction is not too hard to find, a Jewish woman, a woman who takes pride in her Jewishness, knows no Hebrew, then she has only herself to blame. It can only be because she does not wish to know Hebrew, and believes that as a Jew she can do without it. Misogyny, religious or secular, is no longer what stands in her way. Goldsmith now excludes herself with the memory of exclusion. This is a chosen exclusion.

Like many American Jews, Goldsmith is very charitable about her Jewish shortcomings. And so she writes, in her second unforgettable sentence: “Admittedly Judaism lite, but mine such as it is.” I wonder if she is so blithe and self-forgiving about her other passions and obligations. Against such relaxation, I would remind her of the following. This deep and beautiful tradition of ours has made it all the way to us after a journey of over two thousand years. It was not inevitable that this would be so. It was an agonizing journey. Many forces tried to prevent the tradition from surviving this far, or at all. But the persecutions of the Jews did not prevail against the preservationist genius of the Jews. They preserved their tradition because they prized it, not because they were persecuted. We are the custodians of what they, our ancestors, recent and ancient, preserved. We hold it in trust for those who will come after us. We claim to revere it, and to be its beneficiaries. So by what right, by what arrogance and ingratitude, do we condemn large portions of it, with our ignorance and our indifference, to oblivion? The Jewish tradition, the Jewish God too, is not owed blind obedience, even according to some canonical accounts of Jewish faith: Over the centuries many elements of the tradition have been rejected, or made obsolete by internally justified reform. But you cannot reject or reform what you do not know. Dissent must be literate for it to have a strong claim on the inherited ways. Otherwise it is just glibness or scorn. The stubborn historical truth is that the primary instrument of Jewish preservation and Jewish development has been Jewish knowledge, attended (but not always) by Jewish practice. So “Judaism lite” is Judaism weightless, and losing gravity; Judaism attenuated and abandoned; our very own race to the bottom. I would not boast about it.

While I cannot agree with Wieseltier’s astringent tone, I do think he has an important point, and one that can be universalized.  Religion is not merely a matter of ethnicity; but demands its followers to master a certain body of knowledge.  It is not enough to follow the fashion of a pop singer, and merely wear a crucifix or Star of David on a necklace (or a red string on the wrist.)  It requires mastery and learning.

I was reminded of a line one P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeve’s novels, Joy in Morning,  quoted this last weekend in an amusing column on “Is Philosophy Literature?”  In it, Bertie Wooster runs into one of his (many, many, many) near-miss fiancées, Florence Craye, who is a serious author.  They run into each other in a book shop (Craye is surprised that Wooster even visits one, “of all places” and asks “What are you buying?  Some trash, I suppose.”  and Wooster replies

“Oh, rather,” I said, with an intellectual flick of the umbrella.  “When I have a leisure moment, you will generally find me curled up with Spinoza’s latest.”

If our goal is merely to impress Florence Craye, it may be enough to buy a copy of a book by “Pop Spinoza.”  But if we actually want to engage him, we need to read his books!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2012 8:11 am

    “you cannot reject or reform what you do not know.”

    Very well put, and true indeed. And so you show how universally true in the context of religion:

    “Religion is not merely a matter of ethnicity; but demands its followers to master a certain body of knowledge.”

    I wonder what Wieseltier, or you, would make of what “Senior” “Pastor and Rabbi” Crystal Lutton has made of Judaism, Christianity, and her own Messianic Judaism that she’s come to after a full M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary? What knowledge? Would the Haggadah in any translation be important?

    One commenter, whose Jewishness is not certain but who comes across as a Jews for Jesus expert more or less (“MJ congs” is his abbreviation of “Messianic Jewish congregation”), seems to want to correct Crystal’s comments with his own:

    “The two primary Messianic Jewish affiliations in the US are the UMJC and MJAA. Belief in the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity is affirmed by both groups. Crystal’s comments which appear to be in opposition to the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity are not mainstream Messianic Jewish theology.”

    The other “rabbi” of a different “MJ cong” has also written a fuller protest. (And we notice that at his blog he also has included My People’s Passover Haggadah, after 3 C. S. Lewis books and right before Mere Christianity, as among his favorite books “about God.” No objection to or discussion of the Englander translation that I have found yet.)

    Doesn’t that sort of discussion highlight Wieseltier’s point?!

  2. July 4, 2012 1:01 pm

    Excellent observations, Kurk. I agree that they do highlight Wiestler’s point

    By the way, I do not think it is a failing in any way to read the writings of other religions, and even to take them seriously. One thinks of the many Christian champions of Martin Buber, for example (from Barth to Tillich).

    In America, at least, people are free to make any sort of church they want, but the asymmetry is striking: mainstream Jewish groups do not recognize Hebrew Christians (“Messianic Jews”) as Jews; although Hebrew Christians recognize mainstream Jewish groups as Jewish.

    And the entire structure is confusing. Why are Seventh Day Adventists, for example, not considered to be “Messianic Jews”? The Seventh Day Adventists I know are more serious about Torah law than the Hebrew Christians I know.

    The term “Messianic Jew” is also confusing because there are subgroups in Judaism who advocate particular candidates as potential messiahs. For example, many Breslov Hasidim advocate for the (18th century) Nachman as a messiah; about 40% of the Lubavitcher Hasidim advocate for Menachem Mendel Schneerson as a messiah. (Some observers have compared this advocacy with the founding of Christianity; but there is no widespread belief among the advocates for various messiahs that their candidate is God — a crucial difference). These advocates are called “messianists” and the adjectival form is “messianic.”

    I’m attracted to brilliant writing, and there are certainly numerous examples of brilliant writing — ancient, medieval, and modern — in all of the three major branches of Christianity, in Judaism (and in all of the other major religions). I even find brilliant writing in various splinter groups, such as Swedenborgians. But to date, I have yet to see any brilliant writing by Hebrew Christians — at least since 400 CE. Where are the Karl Barths, Paul Tillichs, Hans Urs von Balthasars, and Martin Bubers of Hebrew Christianity?

  3. July 4, 2012 9:31 pm

    The usage of “messianic” in this article is a good example of the confusion of the term “messianic Jew”:

    The title and and subtitle of the article are:

    Messianic sect allows peek into battle to build third Temple

    Messianic right-wing activists offer Haaretz a rare glimpse into efforts to Judaize the Temple Mount – including with a flood of lawsuits.

  4. July 5, 2012 1:01 am

    “Wieseltier” ???

  5. July 5, 2012 1:08 am

    Courtney, you are right. Thanks!

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