Culture, Religion

What Wieseltier Said

So Leon Wieseltier got a little pushback for his review of The American Haggadah in the Jewish Review of Books. To recap: In the review, in addition to criticizing the translation and the commentaries (except for Rebecca Goldstein’s commentary), he also went to town on the cultural and linguistic illiteracy of American Jews. In any event, Wieseltier gives again as good and better than he gets. His style is pedantic, rude and snobbish, but some of his points are spot on. What do you think? (The letters he is responding to are here. You might want to read them first, but I’m not sure its necessary)

I am sorry if I ruined anybody’s Pesach. The eight days are hard enough without such polemical nastiness, I know. I had hoped to welcome the New American Haggadah to the world, not least because its editor is (or perhaps was) my friend, and its translator, with whom I have enjoyed cordial relations, seemed well equipped for his task. But I take these things—Hebrew, English, my duty as a scholar, my duty as a critic, my duty as a Jew—very seriously, and in my view the fault for any unpleasantness lies not in my insistence upon demonstrating the inadequacies of this Haggadah but in the inadequacies themselves. 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.
I did not imply, not for a moment, that “anyone finding value or meaning or an expanded kavana through Englander’s take on the Pesach text is a muttonhead.” It’s a free country, and different people attain spiritual enlargement in different ways. Souls come in many varieties, and for the soul it is always catch as catch can. If The Prince of Egyptlifts you up, then be uplifted! But The Prince of Egypt is not Abravanel or the Maharal, and it is just a shabby internecine relativism to pretend otherwise. We are indeed “free to vary and interpret as we wish,” but the freedom to interpret does not vouch for the quality of the interpretation. Kavana, at least in its traditional conception, is not whatever gets you through the night. The integrity of its derivation is a part of what makes it powerful. The soul operates, or should, in some relationship to the mind, which makes distinctions between spiritual opportunities. In the Jewish tradition even mystics are intellectuals. Why would anybody want to soar on wings of error? So it was important to me to expose the errors of translation and interpretation—and the error of mistaking translation for interpretation—that I found in a book that would be used by many Jews at many tables. I thought I was being helpful. (Since Stuart-Martin Kosofsky lectures me about “trees” and “forests,” I should point out to him that there are indeed transliterations in the New American Haggadah. There are no forests without trees.)
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.

I can sign on to a lot of this, especially the idea that we don’t only have a responsibility to reproduce Jewish bodies, but we have a responsibility to understand, reproduce, expand, interpret Judaism as a textual tradition. This is hard work, but it is the work that will survive.
So what do you say?

4 thoughts on “What Wieseltier Said

  1. I think he’s right, but even more than that, he missed a major point, which is that the translation/interpretation isn’t egalitarian. In English, there’s no reason for that, and an American reader is likely not to expect to have half their table excluded from the proceedings. The response was lame as hell (Englander wanted his relatives to be able to use it without feeling uncomfortable, is what he said) and personally, I was offended that they even offered that as a response. Really? Given that the Orthodox population is perhaps 10% of the Jewish American population? Then don’t claim it’s the great new thing for Americans.
    I also agree with Wieseltier (although he said it snottily) that claiming that you’re ignorant ought not to be a boast of authenticity. If you’re ignorant, go and learn instead of being proud of it. An ignoramus cannot be pious.

  2. While I agree with the general sentiment, there’s a element of practice what you preach that lost me in the original review and this response. The uncompromising contempt that came out in both seems less about someone trying to present what he thinks Judaism should be and more about trying to tear down those with whom he disagrees. This isn’t usually my standard for book reviews, but if one starts a review with broad insults of a large part of the Jewish population, my bar is a little higher. For the response quoted here, I agree that the letter writer deserved to be called out on the claim of being both educated & illiterate, but that doesn’t divide the world into Judaism & Judaism lite.
    I know this is asking too much, but if Weiseltier had some humility regarding his own knowledge and some awareness that there isn’t a clear divide between knowledgable & unknowledgable Jews, he would have put his position on stronger footing. If he were to divide Judaism vs Judaism lite, he seems to be pushing Hebrew language literacy as that dividing point. Still, instead of actually putting that together as a core position (and dealing with secular Israelis) he uses Hebrew literacy as a weapon to attack those with whom he disagrees.
    As for the actual Haggadah, I flipped through it enough to be confused regarding it’s purpose. The authors seem to want it used during seders, but the layout just didn’t seem pleasant to practical to use during a seder. The artistic layout was beautiful to view, but it just didn’t seem readable. Did anyone actually use it during a seder & like the experience? If it’s more a book for study to gain a deeper understanding, the bar for quality should be very high & its unclear they crossed that bar. That leaves it as a beautiful coffee table book to read in advance and get some ideas & incorporate some sections into a seder. That purpose might well be worth the price, but I don’t think this was the authors’ intentions.

  3. Dan Ab,
    The part of the Wieseltier piece that I most embrace is his notion of Hebrew literacy, which is not based in spoken modern Israeli, but rather the language of the textual tradition. Many secular Israelis are not Hebrew literate in this sense. This is a central problem, to my mind, of how we think about Jewish education and identity in the US, and what brings people like Abe Foxman to claim that knowledge about contemporary Israel is central to Jewish identity. I think that we have let conversation Hebrew fluency overtake actual Jewish literacy. The immersion programs on the whole teach Israeli (which is based on but not nearly identical with the Hebrew of the Bible, Rabbinic literature and the tradition) at the expense of teaching texts in their original languages (both Hebrew and Aramaic). To this extent I would urge granting orgs and educational entrepreneurs to ask themselves to what extent are the educational programs they are supporting furthering deep Jewish literacy as opposed to the patina of Jewish literacy which actually promotes the naturalizing of Jewish ignorance.

  4. @Aryeh, I almost completely agree. One thing I’ll note is that the original push to teaching modern Hebrew in the US was because it was easier to use a living language as a gateway to our textual tradition than try to learn a language from text. This ideal still resonates with me. Despite this ideal, modern Hebrew fluency rapidly became the end goal. Still, I’ve spoken to several people who finished primary education with modern Hebrew literacy and not much textual literacy, but used that knowledge to expand their textual literacies.
    As for granting orgs and entrepreneurs, most of them aren’t supporting education programs that teach any form of Hebrew literacy (besides day school funding, which affects only a fraction of Jewish children & not even all day schools have a serious literacy goals). Simply having a goal of literacy in any form would be a great start.

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