Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Happy Mother (1)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the peculiar experience I had watching Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Inglorious Basterds, while I was reading Hans Fallada’s great novel, Every Man Dies Alone, and how seeing the one while reading the other heightened (and also altered) the impression I think each would have had on me separately. And now I’ve had a similar experience that I also wish to share with you all.

Every so often, you read a book and end up feeling as though the author is speaking to you directly. It has an uncanny feel to it, that sentiment...but it is also a deeply satisfying one: the ability of a great author to reach out over time and space to speak not generically to the world but specifically to individual readers is no less real for being physically impossible, and the ability of great books to foster the sense in readers of being addressed directly by an author long in his or her grave is one of the reasons reading will, I think, remain one of the truly unifying building blocks of culture no matter how digitally advanced our world becomes.

In the course of this last week I’ve been reading something truly exceptional, precisely one of those books that somehow made me feel that the author was and is addressing me personally. Saddled in English translation with the unwieldy, off-putting, and slightly ungrammatical title, Restoration of Zion as a Response During the Holocaust, the book is nothing at all like its title in translation makes it sound: not a dull theological treatise at all, but a cri de coeur so vibrant, so alive, so simultaneously tragic and uplifting that it almost defies description in mere words. There’s literature and there’s literature, but this book, called Eim Habanim Semeicha in the original Hebrew, is in its own class both in terms of its author’s scholarly erudition and its ability to serve as living proof that there are in the world individuals wholly capable of living through the most indescribable hell without abandoning their faith, their moral bearing, or—in some ways most amazingly—their intellectual and spiritual integrity. And that is the book I’ve been reading: the English translation of the Eim Habanim Semeicha by Rabbi Yissakhar Shlomo Teichthal published in 1999 by KTAV Publishing in Hoboken, New Jersey. (The Hebrew title comes from Psalm 113 and could be translated as “The Happy Mother” or something like that. The translator, Pesach Schindler, should have left it at that. But that’s only a small detail and the translation itself, literate, abundantly annotated, and very easy to read, is masterfully done.)

Let me tell you about the book itself. Rabbi Teichthal wrote his book under circumstances most of us can only vaguely imagine and, indeed, the author died in a German cattle car in January, 1945, while the Nazis, still hoping to keep the enormity of their war crimes a secret, were attempting to prevent those still alive at Auschwitz from being liberated by the Red Army. But the Eim Habanim Semeicha dates to a slightly earlier period: before he was captured, deported, and murdered, Rabbi Teichthal spent 1943 in hiding in Budapest. And it was during this period of self-imposed incarceration, while reports of atrocities so horrifying so as almost to be unbelievable were already widely circulating in Hungary, that the author was moved to create a book that, even more than as a monument to Rabbi Teichthal’s almost indescribable erudition, serves today as evidence of the truly indomitable nature of the Jewish spirit. The book is almost 400 pages long and I read it in a few days possessed of the impossible feeling that Rabbi Teichthal was speaking from his grave—and I shudder to think what the fate of his remains must have been once the train reached wherever it was going and the bodies of those who died during the journey were removed—and that he was speaking to me personally and directly.

As everybody knows and endlessly observes, Jews have a deep, visceral love of learning. Indeed, the fact that the Yiddish words for synagogue and school are almost the same reflects our conviction that the institutions themselves are also almost the same: the ultimate act of Jewish worship is study and the word “rabbi” itself means teacher. Yet it is also the case that in some circles, and the more traditionally observant the circle in question the more true this regretfully becomes, the worth of study is predicated on the condition that nothing too radical ever actually be learned. In other words, study—and I am thinking specifically of Torah study here, although the same is true of other kinds of learning as well—study is deemed a wholly worthy undertaking...but mostly, or even perhaps solely, when it serves only to buttress previously held positions and to strengthen convictions one already holds to be true. Real learning—the kind that alters the learner, that is undertaken with no preconditions, that reflects the integrity of the learner’s intellect—is not only to be avoided, but is generally denounced as inimical to faith. (In this regard, I recall having a conversation years ago with a rabbinic colleague whose background was in the haredi/hasidic world, just as was Rabbi Teichthal’s, in which he boasted to me that he hadn’t ever read a book published by anyone whose piety was suspect and that he was proud never to have allowed himself to be exposed to ideas that might possibly have proven deleterious to his belief in principles he felt called upon to uphold regardless, apparently, of whether they were reflective of actual reality.) But there are rabbis and there are rabbis. And Rabbi Yissakhar Shlomo Teichthal was a man of true intellectual integrity, the rabbinic equivalent of the scientist who does not go into the lab to confirm things already known and widely believed, but to learn something new...and then to use the results of such unbiased experimentation to further our understanding of the physical world.

What Rabbi Teichthal learned from his year of work on the Eim Habanim Semeicha is that the violent opposition to the Zionist enterprise that was the hallmark of ultra-traditional European Jewry in his day was not only misguided, but contrary to the plain sense of so many traditional sources so as to constitute a wholly inappropriate stance for the traditional Jew eager to use those sources as the foundation upon which to build a life. Nor does Rabbi Teichthal—who himself had published a strongly anti-Zionist letter in a volume of similar screeds only a few years earlier in 1936—feel that the detail that so many of the early pioneers who left Europe to build up the Land of Israel were non-observant should serve as a reason to deny them the profound respect and admiration of Jews everywhere. Indeed, the author does not merely touch on this detail in passing, but returns to it again and again to insist that the settlement and building up of the Land of Israel is a mitzvah of such paramount importance that—and especially in times of such relentless disaster for the Jews of Europe—that those who have actually undertaken to establish a thriving Jewish presence in the land have done more than enough to earn the respect of those who in the past have only denigrated both them and their efforts. Nor does he content himself simply with making this point eloquently or forcefully, but instead proceeds to buttress his convictions with a series of analyses of various traditional texts so artfully and insightfully done that even the reader unfamiliar with the ins and outs of rabbinic commentary will find the argumentation lucid and inspiring. I honestly cannot recall reading a more persuasive or intelligently argued book about the relationship of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel and I would recommend the book to my own readers for that reason alone...even without the added detail that it was written by a man who cannot have woken up a single morning during the months he was working on its chapters without wondering if he would be arrested, deported, or murdered by nightfall.

And then he gets to me. (I mean that in both ways the sentence can be read.) A little more than halfway through the book, the author looks up from his writing desk—this is my fantasy, obviously, but not an unreal one for being untrue—the author looks up, then stands to address me directly. “I will now direct my words to the golus-yid,” he says. And then, launching into the ten or eleven pages that are, at least for me personally, the heart of the book, Rabbi Teichthal uses his considerable literary skill to draw a portrait of the golus-yid, of the diaspora Jew, so devastating as truly to be shattering for those of us who generally feel good about our decision to sit on the sidelines and watch on as others build up Israel, serve as its soldiers, and pay the taxes that support the Jewish state. And it takes him fewer than a dozen pages almost totally to smash the mirror in which all we golus-yidn so enjoy primping and preening while enjoying the fantasy that we are totally secure. Without raising his voice, but also without pulling any punches, he says it as he sees it. And the effect, truly, will be beyond stimulating for most sensitive readers.

Everyone who knows me or reads this blog or hears me preach regularly knows how proud I am to be an American and how regularly I decry the disinclination of contemporary Americans to use the language of proud patriotism to express themselves with respect to our great land. And, despite my awareness that the Jews of Germany too felt proud and patriotic before everything changed, I really do think America is different. But asserting that to be the case is one thing...and doing so after reading a book like Rabbi Teichthal’s is something else entirely. This is the bracing test that all of us in the diaspora must force ourselves regularly to take: not merely to parrot slogans about how happy we are to be here, but to assert our pride as Americans after reading something like the Em Habanim Semeicha and so to test our beliefs the only real way beliefs are ever truly tested: by being presented with argumentation to the contrary as forceful as it is well-written and then to see how those ideas and convictions fare under real fire.

I’ve gotten to the end of my space allotment for this week...and I still haven’t told you all where Joan and I went Monday night and how that experience was so dramatically heightened by the fact that I was still in the middle of Rabbi Teichthal’s book at the time. I suppose I’ll have to wait until next week to tell....

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