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Jews and writing

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2005-03-04



I am back in the UK in time for Jewish Book Week, which is an interesting barometer of Jewish life. It will as usual be crowded with a strong representation of the sort of people who attend Limmud or the London Jewish Cultural Centre, committed and interested Jews bit not necessarily very orthodox.

The very Orthodox will hardly be represented at all. And it strikes me that this disconnect between extreme religiosity and literature is a sign of what might be missing in many areas of Orthodoxy.

Whenever you have an association of believers, they inevitably tend to try to marginalize anyone who deviates from the party line, whether it is Marxism or Maoism, even Thatcherism or Blairism. So I guess I should not be so hard on religion for simply showing universal human failings.

But it strikes me that literature is an important way of expressing dissent or criticism from ‘within’ as well as ‘without’ without actually putting it in language that jars. A recent review, by Wendy Shalit, a religious Jewish writer in the New York Times complained that religious Jews are caricatured even in Jewish writing. I believe she is right. The correct response is for more orthodox people to get involved in ‘proper’ literature (as opposed to the unmitigated pap that passes for it certain quarters).

Why are there so few great writers from within the Jewish religion? Nowadays it is almost entirely Jewish women who write about Jewish life and Jewish communities. The only serious exception I know of, since the days of Shai Agnon who actually won the Nobel Prize for literature) is a Syrian rabbi Chaim Sabbato in Israel.

Religions fear literature and ‘the arts’ in general. Salman Rushdie uses literature to laugh at the pomposities of Islam. ‘The Life of Brian’ pricked the bubbles of those Christians and indeed others who take themselves too seriously, far more effectively than any sermons or full frontal attacks. Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is still popular because we can see he is using literature to make fun. Philip Roth was excoriated over ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ because it was funnily close to the bone for many quasi-assimilated American Jews.

Literature is the art of describing human beings with their frailties and faults as well as their greatnesses. It is the way ideas can be spread beyond the academies and colleges to change people’s attitudes and minds. Just think of the impact of Zola or Dickens. Arthur Miller (who, sadly, died earlier this month) was able to stand up to the McCarthy bullies and played an important part in changing ideas and perceptions in American society precisely because of the significance of his writing.

Isaiah Berlin, writing about nineteenth century Russian novelists, says that the novelist was the only person who was able to criticize the oppressive Czarist State machinery, precisely because he could express ideas indirectly, through fiction instead of fact. And, yet, of course, Dostoevsky was imprisoned, and Turgenev harassed by the Russian Secret Service nevertheless. And yet in fact they probably achieved more by writing than others did through politics. So why can't literature be the route to bring about changes in attitudes in Judaism too?

Maybe a reason religion scorns literature nowadays is that whereas once upon a time much of it set out to change society or at least improve it, nowadays most of it is banal, cheap and of little value other than ephemeral entertainment. There is a case to be made out that secular culture is decadent and effete and that is why the field of battle for change is abandoned to the fanatics of all colours. Indeed, literature and arts are no guarantee of morality, goodness, or even honesty--look at how many acclaimed writers and poets are so blinded in their hatred of Jews they cannot see bias when it looks them straight in the face.

There is another factor. Judaism is so preoccupied with survival it has no time or tolerance for creative and critical art. The result of the male-dominated, exclusivist, conformist world that our religion has created to survive the threats and challenges of our times is that any male wishing to write has to go more or less into voluntary exile or, at best, be marginalized. Most orthodox men, quite rightly from the perspective of Torah, put study and Torah above any other form of writing or reading.

The field is indeed being left at this moment to women.  But why are women doing it better than men? Perhaps it is because writing is work that can be home based. Perhaps they have a brain that is wired differently or perhaps they are the ones who have been suffering most by being marginalized, a subclass within the oppressed. Can great literature only come from great oppression? But then we Jews have suffered from oppression and alienation for so long. Why no great literature?

So far what has been written about orthodox life has been overwhelmingly negative but hopefully this will change with time and experience. After all both publishing and cinema like to look at what is peculiar, controversial and negative rather than positive. If more orthodox men and women wrote fiction then perhaps the world would see a different and a more positive aspect of orthodox life.

If at this moment both literature and religion are locked in opposing worlds what hope is there? We still have Hillel’s great dictum, ‘In a place where there is no-one, you at least must strive to be someone.’ So go for it. Write! At least you know you won’t be burnt at the stake or sent to Siberia anymore!