Author Chaim Potok, 73, died Wednesday of cancer in his Merion, Pennsylvania home. Potok was a conservative rabbi and author of nine novels including The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969),My Name is Asher Lev (1972), Davita's Harp (1985) and The Gift of Asher Lev (1990), for which he was awarded The National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.
His writing is known for its questions of spirituality and meaning. His novels often chronicled tensions between various factions of Judaism and the struggle between Judaism and the secular world.
At Potok's funeral, University of Pennsylvania professor Jeffrey Tigay said the author "opened a window to the Jewish soul for the Jew and non-Jew alike."
In 1978, Christianity Today assistant editor Cheryl Forbes interviewed Potok. This article originally appeared in the September 8, 1978 issue of CT.
Chaim Potok is a small, quick man filled with intellectual intensity. His novels—including The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev, and In the Beginning—are not just popular; they are well written and deal with the problems of faith in a secular society. Even though the faith Potok writes of is orthodox or Hasidic Judaism, evangelical readers (and there are many) find themselves understanding and empathizing with the conflicts he presents. Evangelicals and Jews both live in what Potok calls a religious subculture, one that holds a firm belief in God, in the supernatural, in miracles, and in a way of living that contradicts everything contemporary society appreciates and approves. And we live under that secular umbrella.
Potok's books do something more. They explain Jewish tradition and religion. As Harold O. J. Brown has said, Jews and Christians are bound together. We need to understand each other. Potok, who was raised a Hasidic Jew and attended a yeshiva (Jewish school), brings us closer to that goal. He recently spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Soon after that, assistant editor Cheryl Forbes interviewed him at his home in Philadelphia.
Some evangelicals who have read your novels have found little theology in them. Do you agree with this?
There is theology in the novels. Some of those presuppositions are in the titles. No one talks about being chosen in The Chosen. The same is true of The Promise. This, by the way, is more or less typical of the Jews, who, until they confronted major cultures, simply never talked about their theological assumptions—or talked about them rarely. Ancient Near Eastern peoples rarely theologized.
But what of the theology in the Old Testament?
Well, there isn't a lot of explicit theology in the Old Testament. Most of the Old Testament is poetry, history, law, narrative, saga, epic, tales, chronology, genealogy, and so on. That's typical of a civilization that lives its doctrine rather than talks about it. You see, theology becomes explicit when antagonistic faiths collide or when creed dominates a civilization. There was no such notion as salvation through creed in the ancient world, as far as I know, unless one turns to some of the mystery religions. Paul invented it. Jewish tradition is a kind of deedology, rather than a creedology.
I'm talking about the concepts of God, providence, miracles, the parting of the Red Sea, the ten commandments. Occasionally you give the content of the prayers in your books. But generally you just say that so-and-so prayed, rather than telling what he prayed.
Well, even if we agreed that all of those Bible passages are theology, we would still find ourselves with a fairly small portion of the Bible.
Can you be a good Jew and an atheist?
The Israelis are good Jews and about 50 percent of them are secularists, atheists.
Then what do you mean by "a good Jew?"
I think that until the modern period, that is up until two or three hundred years ago, a good Jew was someone who observed the commandments, who accepted the authority of the Jewish community and its rabbis. All of that began to break down in the eighteenth century, and we have as much of a problem defining a good Jew today as we have of defining a good secularist or a good Christian. The spectrum has broadened enormously and it now includes someone who shares a sense of identity with the Jewish people and its history, who participates in the drama of Jewish peoplehood, gives money to Jewish causes, has a sense of loyalty toward Israel, a sense of responsibility toward Jews who might be in trouble anywhere in the world. It does not necessarily exclude those who are not observers of the commandments; nor does it exclude those who don't believe in God. No one in Israel would deny the Jewishness of the youth from secularist agricultural settlements who died for the country in the wars, or of the people in the kibbutzim where they don't even observe the Day of Atonement. We're living in a framework now where the old definitions don't work. No, I would not say that someone who is an atheist is not a good Jew.
But if a person says, I do not believe in God, very few people would say that that person could call himself a Christian.
That is correct. You could not call yourself a Christian.
Then, how, in any other sense than race, could someone call himself a Jew?
Because Judaism involves a concept of nationhood. Christianity never had that. Where you create a system that is entirely dependent on creed, clearly if you strip the creed away you have nothing. Where you create a total civilization, where it isn't only a matter of the theology but of the life style, the art, literature, language, the forms of thought, the geography, when you create a configuration of that kind, then if one component of it is lost, the system doesn't necessarily crumble. This is one of the fundamental differences between the Jewish way of structuring reality and the Christian way. We're now trying to build a third Jewish civilization. We've had the biblical, we've had the rabbinic. The biblical pretty much came to an end with the destruction of the first temple, and the rabbinic pretty much came to an end with the destruction of European Jewry. Jews today are engaged in an effort to create a third civilization. Secular Jews are very much part of that effort.
What is your theology?
I'd rather sidestep that. I've trained myself since I was fourteen or fifteen to think by means of the process of writing. If you were to ask me which of the people in the novels is closest to my way of thinking it would be Reuven Malter, Asher Lev, and David Lurie. From the heart of their Judaism they confront some of the core elements of Western secular humanism and try to deal with them.
Are there points of agreement between Judaism and Christianity? What are the points of tension?
I think that traditional Judaism and the evangelical church have in common a belief in God the Father, the supernatural God who is concerned with man, with the life and soul of every individual man and woman. I think we part from that point on. It is the mission of the evangelical church to spread the good tidings about Jesus; the Jew says that these are not tidings that are terribly good to him. That notion of good tidings means that Jewish history has ground to a halt. If the Messiah has indeed come, then what's the point to Jewish history? Jewish history is over. That was one of the basic quarrels that the Pharisees had with Jesus, or with the followers of Jesus. Jewish Messianism is something that's about to happen.
So that if somebody came today and convinced the majority of people that he was the Messiah, you think that Jews would still not believe that the Messiah had come?
Yes, I think that what you have just said is substantially correct. The concept of Messiah in the Jewish tradition, aside from those who reduce it to the folk level and vulgarize the notion, is essentially a concept of future hope, future redemption. There have been times in the past when Jews believed a Messiah had indeed come. Those comings trailed off into bitter disappointments. Traditional Judaism has neutralized the messianic idea by deferring it to some vague future time about which Jews speak with the rhetoric of nebulous dreams. It is that which is always to be.
And therefore it never can be?
The unspoken corollary of that is that once it is, it is not messianic by definition.
Yes, but it strikes me as convoluted somehow.
But it's the way the Jew redirected history. He tore it out of its cyclical patterns in the ancient Fertile Crescent pagan world and hurled it forward. He broke with the nature cycles. That was the basic point to Israelite religion. If there is a theological heart to Israelite religion it is that it is event-triggered or oriented, that is to say, its triggering element was history rather than nature. Sumerian faith was grounded in an uncertain world of raging rivers. And the Egyptian pantheon, that cluttered impossible-to-count world of ancient Egyptian gods, is inconceivable without the Nile and the desert sun that burned in the sky over that Nile. The Israelite had a different kind of triggering experience altogether, the Exodus. It's an event-oriented experience; that is to say, slaves escaped. How did it happen? In the ancient world nothing happened by itself, you see. Everything was God directed.
Now, which God engineered the slave escape? How did they get out? That's what they had to ask themselves. Was it the gods of Egypt? Why would the gods of Egypt engineer a slave escape? Was it the gods of Canaan? How could the gods of Canaan engineer a slave escape? This was what Mosaic religion came into the world to explain—that escape. They covenanted with the God who had made the escape possible. They had to express a relationship to that God. They adopted a suzerainty treaty, one of the forms used in the ancient world to establish international relations. To me, if you talk about Jewish theology, that's the heart of it all. The ten commandments constitute a treaty between God and the people, a treaty into which the people willingly entered. The concept of Messiah, the messianic idea, came out of that treaty. At a certain point in later Jewish history the covenantal relationship didn't seem to work. The notion developed that it would work at a future time.
But it's like looking for something you never expect to find, like saying tomorrow we'll do such and such, but when tomorrow comes it's no longer tomorrow.
It's a concept that effectively managed to keep the people alive through 2,000 years of hell. They kept trying to figure out when the Messiah would come; they kept giving him arrival dates, and when the dates wouldn't work they figured that they had miscalculated and they fixed new dates. And then, when the traditional notion of the Messiah as an actual person didn't seem to be working out, the Messiah became the messianic era, and much of this messianic energy got diverted into the creation of the State of Israel. It gets diverted now into the creation of thought and art. We are goal-oriented. The concept affected all of Western civilization through Judaism and Christianity. More than half the world doesn't think that way, you know. It doesn't think in terms of future direction. It thinks cyclically. As a sheer mechanism of survival, baldly put, it seems to have worked. Messianism has given the Jews, despite all the hell they have been through, the driving idea that has enabled them to live and create and now to begin to create again.
Not that there is a literal Messiah who's going to come and make it better?
Yes. Many of those who believed that there was a literal Messiah remained behind in Europe and died.
What do you think about Jews who call themselves completed Jews, who believe in Jesus as Messiah?
I think they have crossed the line and for them Jewish history is over.
Even though they think that Jewish history is continuing?
I don't understand that, you see. That's a contradiction in terms. If Jewish history is continuing in the creedology of Christ the Savior, then the Jews who are living their own Jewish history are less than peripheral to the human adventure. You simply can't have it both ways. It isn't entirely clear to me how someone who sees himself as part of the Jewish people can cross the line and accept Jesus as the Messiah, because what that means is that the Jewish component of the human adventure has terminated. And this vast excitement now about the real possibility of a third Jewish civilization is an unnecessary adventure; it's an exercise in absurdity.
I don't understand that. Christians wouldn't say that, and many evangelicals are almost Zionist, because their view of history says that Israel is essential.
But what is the event that they look forward to?
The second coming of the Messiah.
And what will that do to the Jewish people? There are all sorts of unstated assumptions here.
In other words, you think that history must never end, that there can never be a time when history is no longer.
Yes. That's correct. Other Jews would disagree with me. That's my own feeling at this point in my thinking. But that does not mean that history is without meaning.
Whereas Christians would see that history is vital, but that there will be a point at which history will end and we will enter timelessness or eternity.
I don't know if I can stake my life on that. I don't know what those words mean.
You mean timelessness? History ending? You don't understand that?
I don't know what any of that means—history ending, timelessness. I think that all of those words are in an empty set, as one would say in logic. I think that they are vacuous terms, which people really don't understand.
Why? Because they seem mystical?
They are words that don't designate. And I don't use words that way. A writer can't use words that way.
In Asher Lev the cross is the chief symbol, one of oppression. Is that all it stands for?
For Asher Lev the cross is the aesthetic motif for solitary, protracted torment.
So therefore it has no religious significance, right?
Any artist who functions in the secular world has emptied the cross of its christological vicarious atonement content and utilizes it as a form only.
How can you have a symbol that has no meaning?
Art is full of what I call aesthetic vessels, that is to say, motifs, which an artist fills with his own being. For example, when Beethoven wanted to express his feelings for a particularly heightened moment in the history of his time he cast about in music for a form into which he could pour his feelings and what he found was the mass. Into the form called the mass he poured Beethoven and out came the Missa Solemnis. When Picasso, who by no stretch of the imagination could be called Christian—you might have been charitable if you called him a high pagan—when Picasso's mistress began to die of tuberculosis, he drew a crucifixion. What did that drawing mean to Picasso? As far as he was concerned, the crucifixion had no religious significance. Well, that's what I mean by a form. These are aesthetic motifs. They are a triggering mechanism for certain emotions, and in this instance the emotion is evoked by solitary, protracted torment. And since Asher Lev had been studying art from the age of thirteen with the artist/sculptor Kahn, the crucifixion to him was clearly stripped of all its christological salvationist content and was a vessel. To his parents it's what the crucifixion is to most Jews—even to many secular Jews, by the way. It is and remains, and probably will remain for a long time, a triggering mechanism for images of rivers of Jewish blood. Countless Jews have been slain through the centuries for the deicide charge. That's what the crucifixion instantaneously triggers in traditional Jews and probably in most secularist Jews. Asher Lev is essentially about a conflict of aesthetics.
I can understand how the crucifixion would not have religious significance for a painter who used it, but I do not see how the crucifixion could say solitary, protracted torment unless the crucifixion of Jesus Christ had occurred. If you strip a symbol of its original meaning it's not a symbol any more.
Of course a man named Jesus was crucified. Of course the crucifixion has religious significance: There's no question about that.
Absolutely. Otherwise, Asher Lev wouldn't have a problem. If he weren't aware of the religious significance of the cross, he wouldn't have spent months walking around Paris trying to decide if he could really paint this.
Of course. Let's look at a theme that's less charged than the crucifixion. After Guernica was bombed by Fascist planes during the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was told about it. He was overwhelmed by the horror of that bombing. He wanted a motif for the mural by means of which he could express that horror, and that motif is the Massacre of the Innocents. Again, Picasso was not a Christian, but Picasso utilized these as forms. The Massacre of the Innocents would have no significance whatsoever in Western art had it not had that initial christological charge. Yes, these old forms are charged with christological content, but they clearly don't have that content for the modern artist. The crucifixion certainly doesn't have it for a man like Chagall, who utilized that form to depict the slaughter of Russian Jews. He put a Jew with a prayer shawl onto a crucifix. You can see that crucifixion in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Is that why some Christians fear or resent art, because non-Christians and Jews use their symbols?
Yes, rightfully so. We have similar problems in Judaism. Things very dear to devout Jews have been secularized. We all live beneath the vast umbrella civilization we call secular humanism or modern paganism. It has among its treasures all the civilizations of Western man—Greek, Roman, Christian, Jewish. But it makes no appeal to the supernatural. Man is the measure of all things. Civilizations are man-made creations, says secular man, and I will use them as I see fit and at the same time I will use them knowing the emotive connectedness that a Christian or Jew has to them. And, in one way or another, we all participate in this umbrella civilization.
What is your background?
Well, I was Hasidic without the beard and earlocks. I prayed in a little shtiebel and my mother is a descendent of a great Hasidic dynasty and my father was a Hasid, so I come from that world.
Is it necessary for an artist to rebel against his culture? Is that part of the definition of an artist? If so, I can understand how a Christian could fear art and how someone could say that a Christian cannot be an artist.
Most modern artists think it is.
I don't want to know what an artist thinks is necessary, but whether it really is part of being an artist.
There's no simple answer. In the ancient world, the artist wasn't separated from his community; he was part of it. He gave aesthetic expression to the relationship of the community to the cosmos, to the gods, and so on. All of this has changed in the past couple of hundred years. Certainly in literature and probably in painting as well. The modern novel developed as a very special genre, a genre that deals for the most part with social tension and rebellion. Certain people picked up on an old form called storytelling and began to use it to explore middle-class hypocrisy and the relationship between an individual's effort at self-identity and a community's insistence that tribal loyalties are primary.
Back to the question. Robert Henn, whom you quote in Asher Lev, says that an artist cannot believe in anything and be an artist. He can only be himself, and totally isolated, in a sense, from society. He can have no culture other than what he creates. Do you think that is intrinsic to being an artist? And therefore all good or great art comes out of this isolation?
Yes. You function inside the world, but you float inside an ambiance that you create for yourself. Do you understand what I mean? When I say that the artist isolates himself, I don't mean that he goes off to live on a desert island. There are parts of an artist that can sit and have a drink, and at the same time another part functions in a working way all the time as an artist. Henri wasn't a hermit.
But Henri also says that you cannot believe anything, have any doctrine or dogma, and be an artist. Therefore, following his view, one could not be a Christian and an artist. Or a Jew and an artist. There's a conflict there.
I think that he's talking about when the gauntlet is thrown, as it were. And that's the problem that Asher Lev had. You can go along for quite a while without any problems. But sooner or later if you are a serious artist there's going to come a time when you will encounter an enormous conflict of values between individual and societal truths. At that point you have to be true to yourself. By the way, it doesn't necessarily have to be a conflict with your background. It can be a conflict of values inside your artistic world. It's not only a matter of an individual rebelling against the system of societal or religious values that gave him life. You might rebel against the system of values that formed your artistic tradition.
So you are answering my question by saying, yes, art always comes out of rebellion.
Serious art, high art. Always, always.
Do you think your last novel is more complex because of the use of dreams and the images of sickness—the sheets, the pure world, David's tongue licking the white crispness of his bed linen, his mother traveling back and forth in time in her mind?
You have to reverse it. I've used all of those in order to handle the complexity of the problem.
No. That's one component of the problem. Each of the books deals with a culture confrontation, what I call a core to core culture confrontation: The Chosen with Freudian psychoanalytic theory, which comes from the core of Western secular humanism; Asher Lei, with art; In the Beginning with anti-Semitism, the dark underbelly of Western civilization. Throughout the last book you have the entire spectrum of Jewish responses to anti-Semitism. The final confrontation with anti-Semitism comes to this boy from modern Bible criticism. A lot of scholars have used this as a highly sophisticated weapon to get at the Jews. This boy knows that it is a weapon; but he also comes to realize that it contains truths. He asks himself, What do I do? How do I handle the truths? They are being used by Germans. Germans are killing my people. What do I do with those truths?
His response was to the truths imbedded in that scholarly discipline. Everything that happens in that book is triggered by anti-Semitism. The father leaves Poland because of a pogrom. The mother leaves Poland because of a pogrom. Earlier, the father joins a Polish unit in the Austrian army to be a machine gunner so that he can kill Russians in some legitimate way. He hates Russians. They massacre Jews. The boy doesn't know how to respond at first. In the end he joins the enemy camp in order to change the face of the enemy. Some of my friends did that. They entered Bible scholarship in order to change the attitude of that discipline toward Jews-and they have succeeded. This is their story.
How do you explain the appeal of your novels for non-Jews, in particular evangelicals?
Well, I think that I stumbled quite inadvertently upon the central problem of any system of faith in the secular world.
Can you have art without morality?
There's a good case for art as delectation, for the sheer joy of a pure aesthetic experience. To read Nabokov is to confront a writer who is unconcerned with moral issues, but whose writing is a delight—a lawful magic.
How can you use words that way? They are in a different category, it seems to me, than paint on canvas or notes on a page.
Of course, words designate and are tied up with canonicity and sacraments and rites. At the same time, one can be an exquisite wordsmith and just bring sheer delight. But a writer would have to be in the category of Nabokov to arouse my interest in that kind of handling of words.
Christianity faces an undermining of its absolute values. You deal with that in your novels. What advice do you have for people who are responsible for guiding young people who are facing our secular society? How should that be handled to avoid alienating the young person?
I would say that the teacher should be somebody like Reuven Malter's father. In many ways, he exemplifies the Jewish adventure. We have lived through a series of culture confrontations. Every time we've confronted a high culture we have always managed to borrow from it the best that it had to offer, to blend with it, to enrich our core in the process, and then to pass on to the world that blend of high culture with our own core.
By being in the world but not of it?
That's what I'm saying.
But now that's not happening.
I'll get to that. The core remained intact all along, until our contact with the secular enlightenment. For the first time the core has been radically altered. For the first time the Jew has encountered an umbrella civilization stripped of pagan gods. Modern paganism is entirely devoid of appeal to the supernatural. Because of that the Jew—even the traditional Jew—is able to participate in it. All along it was the element of paganism in high cultures that kept most Jews from an eager acceptance of whatever umbrella civilization they were in at any given time. But that pagan element is absent from the culture today.
So that it doesn't matter that secular culture is nonreligious so long as it is not anti-religious?
It matters tremendously that it is areligious. It has no religious components.
But it is not areligious. Secular culture is in many cases quite antireligious.
Let's look at this a little further. There are many kinds of secularists. There are fundamentalist secularists. They are the ones who are antireligious. There are, on the other hand, very tolerant secularists who see secularism as an umbrella civilization under which all peoples can participate. A Jew may not enter a world of paganism, but if it's an empty world—that the Jew may enter. This is the crucial difference between this culture encounter and the culture encounter between the Jew and the Canaanite. The covenant does not state that the Jew may not have contact with any culture. The Jew may not form loyalties with paganism.
Unlike Christianity, which compels us to contact pagans to convert them.
We don't have the notion of converting the pagans to a system of belief. We have the notion of sanctifying the behavior of Jews and of the world.
What absolutes do you hold on to? Are there any?
I can tell you what my basic commitments are. This business of living is very difficult indeed, and very precious. It's something you have to work at. You must regard it with heightened concern, because of the possibility of losing it at any moment. Every moment of beauty has its melancholy aspect. I would prefer to say that the universe is meaningful, with pockets of apparent meaninglessness, than to say that it is meaningless with pockets of apparent meaningfulness. In other words, I have questions either way.
I see it as my task to attempt to infuse with sense those elements that make no sense. That's the task of man. Specifically, it is the task of the artist. In terms of the model teacher, he or she is for me the individual who attempts to fuse the finest elements of secularism with the finest elements of his or her faith through a process of selective affinity. You select elements of the umbrella culture toward which you feel an affinity and integrate them into your own life. New breath enters your being-new ideas, new challenges. The best challenge, by the way, is the kind that forces you to identify yourself. You go along without any problems and suddenly you come up against an idea, and the idea says to you, who are you? I know who I am. That idea forces you to say to it, I am this and this and this. That's what culture confrontation is really all about. The Greeks forced Christendom to define itself. One can turn one's back on that kind of culture challenge, or laugh at it. Many did. But others said, You can't do that; these are serious questions.
What do you think of the strong evangelical support for Israel?
I welcome it. I'll tell you candidly that I welcome it, even though I know that its ultimate aim is the conversion of the Jews.
Why do I say that? We have an old Talmudic saying that you can do good things for inappropriate reasons. I hope evangelists will come to understand and value the intrinsic nature and purpose of Jewish faith. If I can't meet the challenge of an evangelist I have no reason to be in business. This world in which we live today, especially the United States, is a vast open marketplace of ideas. If Jews can't compete in this open marketplace of ideas, then we should close up the store. I am not offended when a Christian witnesses to me. I know that his teachings bid him to do that. I know that there are Jews who are upset by it, but I am not.
To the Jew first and then also to the Greek.
Of course, to the Jew and to the pagan. I used to get upset by it. Many Jews suspect that all the evangelical support for Israel is really for the purpose of converting the Jews. They say that there's really nothing altruistic about it.
How do you view the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Primarily as a conflict of nationalisms into which a great deal of religious and historical rhetoric has been infused. It will ultimately be resolved as the European conflict was. You have two peoples fighting about territory.
But what about Begin's view that the Bible gave the Jews this land and they must keep it?
It depends on what biblical passages you read. The Bible is very unclear about the borders of the land. If you read Kings you discover that when King Solomon couldn't pay Hiram of Tyre his bill for some construction work he gave him a number of Israelite towns that are now good Israeli cities along the coast of the Mediterranean. Clearly King Solomon didn't have a frozen notion of the sanctity of every inch of the land. Or if he did he didn't let it bother him too much when it came to international diplomacy.
If the Israelis are going to give up any land, my feeling is that they had better be certain that they're getting something really solid in return. I wouldn't give up anything for a piece of paper or a nebulous promise. The Arabs held all that territory for nineteen years before the Israelis took it in the June 1967 war. Was there peace during all those years? Did the border raids stop? Or the Arab boycott? Why should the Israelis give up territory unless they get something substantial in return? Would we Americans give up territory in some comparable situation?
What's your view of Jesus?
There is a historical Jesus and he is discoverable to anyone who reads with an unbiased eye and ear and head the first three Gospels.
Do you find them anti-Semitic?
The anti-Semitic elements in the Gospels are both latent and loud. They're polemical in nature. There is much in Judaism that's anti-Christian. There are about 1,500 years of Jewish and Christian polemics. And the two sides are often crude and vicious. That's the nature of polemics. The Crusades finished it in France and Germany. When Christians started slaughtering Jews, the Jews decided it was not worth talking. Up until that point the polemicizing went on and was very open and strong on both sides. Bitter things were said in typical polemical fashion.
But you wouldn't accept the resurrection.
No. The historical Jesus that's reported to us in the synoptic Gospels is an account of a young man who grew up with some tension in his family for reasons that aren't too clear, who was a brilliant rabbinical student, a Pharisee, who encountered John the Baptist, was baptized, and then received the call and became an apocalyptic Pharisee. That is to say, he became a preacher and a miracle healer. There were many such preachers then, and a few such miracle healers are recorded in the Talmud.
Toward the end of his life he began to believe that he was a prophet and the manlike judge described in Daniel, and then that he was the Messiah. He was executed in Jerusalem by the Romans apparently at the behest of some sort of court of priests, who regarded him as a menace because of his prediction of the destruction of the temple. During a pilgrim festival Jerusalem was always tense because the crowds could be worked up to riot. All you needed was one hothead to cause trouble. The priests took Jesus to be a hothead; he had overturned the tables of moneychangers, caused trouble. Most Jews have no difficulty accepting this historical Jesus. The Jesus whom Christians talk about—the Jesus who is worshipped—is the Jesus Jews don't understand. The concept of Jesus as man-God is simply incomprehensible to the Jewish mind. That concept is pagan. Hellenists and Romans used to deify kings. That's why medieval Talmudic law generally linked Christianity with paganism. But Jews today can associate with a paganless secularism.
The battle of David Lurie with Bible criticism is somewhat akin to that faced by evangelicals today. What is the significance of this?
Bible criticism presents a particular problem to the Jewish tradition that isn't faced by Christianity. Orthodox Jewish law is predicated on the assumption that the Pentateuchal text is fixed and divinely given. Once you touch the fixity of the Pentateuchal text the whole mountain of Jewish law begins to tremble.
That's similar to the problem within Christianity. If you accept one portion of Scripture as culturally conditioned, say, who's to decide where to draw the line?
Yes, if you say a text is spurious you might say it about a doctrine as well. That's perfectly true. Essentially both fundamentalisms face the same problem. That's why fundamentalists are afraid to confront Bible criticism. They don't know how to handle it.
You don't think that in confronting it faith will crumble.
Here's the problem in Judaism: The tradition itself has Bible criticism in it. You can find it all through the medieval Jewish Bible commentaries. If the tradition were entirely devoid of Bible criticism, then a David Lurie might never have been attracted to the excitement of that discipline. First, David Lurie turns his back on the modern version of Bible criticism. Then he realizes that there are truths involved. How do you relate to the truths? You have to rethink your relationship to the tradition. You have to come to an understanding of how you relate to the tradition without basing yourself on a fundamentalist version of its sacred text. And that involves rethinking your relationship to the history of your people. Many people don't want to do that and simply use Bible criticism as the most convenient excuse for the quickest way out of the Jewish tradition. They claim that Bible criticism proves the tradition to be infantile fables. Well, Bible criticism doesn't prove that at all. Quite the contrary. We know today that the Bible is far more complex and sophisticated than we ever suspected; it is far more awesome as a creation of man than as a word-for-word revelation by God.
Why does a good Jew study Talmud rather than the Bible?
You've crossed into another civilization. There was biblical civilization—the first civilization of the Jewish people. Then there was talmudic civilization. Talmudic—or rabbinic—civilization was built on the civilization of the Bible, but it created its own literature. Talmudic civilization stresses its literature, which is the Talmud. For the Jew, biblical civilization is now secondary to talmudic civilization. Therefore Jews concentrate upon the Talmud.
But if Talmud is built on the Bible, to stress the Talmud is to stress the secondary.
No. Talmudic civilization is what biblical civilization became in the Greek and Roman period.
So that they exist side by side, and not like a foundation and first floor.
I would say that they exist like a foundation and a first floor. If you're living on the first floor you take advantage of the sunlight and don't worry too much about what's in the foundation. Also remember that during the Roman period learning became a sacred obligation in the Jewish tradition. And learning meant learning how to live, how to sanctify life, how to live by the law. Therefore everyone had to know the law. That's the reason for the emphasis on talmudic study. After the destruction of the temple, learning became a form of worship. The Jew assumes that the youngster will know the Bible by the time he's ready to start Talmud. The Talmud is comprised of the Mishnah, originally an oral code, and of later discussions on passages in the Mishnah. There are also tales, homilies, and other forms of literature in the Talmud. It is really a vast collection of many kinds of literature, not all of it having to do with law. Fundamentalist Jews regard the Mishnah as having been part of the original revelation at Sinai, an oral revelation. Today most elements of Jewry have restored the importance of the Bible, of poetry and Hebrew literature; these are taught now, too, as well as Talmud.
You alluded earlier to conflicts with your tradition as being part of the reason you shifted from painting to writing.
The writing simply delayed it for a while. Asher Lev was the metaphor for the problems of the writer. David Lurie is another example of the problems that you ultimately have to confront in writing and the decisions that you have to make as a writer. I didn't win many friends among the orthodox as a result of those two books.
You are ostracized, then?
I left fundamentalism when I graduated from college. I entered the Western, liberal element of the Jewish tradition. Am I ostracized? Jewish orthodoxy is not monolithic. Some orthodox receive me warmly; others regard me with suspicion; still others are certain that I have crossed into dark heresies. There's an orthodox synagogue two blocks from my home that once refused to let me in to give a lecture. And there's an orthodox school about half a dozen blocks away from my home that bans The Chosen.
Yet you've spoken at Christian and secular colleges.
We live in a strange, exciting, new world.
This article originally appeared in the September 8, 1978 issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Cheryl Forbes was assistant editor of the magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.