Thursday, August 17, 2006

Proust Reads Artscroll

Sitting here in Evanston, far removed from the trench warfare for the soul of Judaism, I am constantly surprised what interests the blogosphere. I write with difficulty a nuanced, sober piece on the Israeli political situation, I get around three readers and zero responses. I pop a piece on Artscroll and wooo …them there are fighting words and my readership explodes? I’ve decided when I write a leftist blog on Yossi Beilin and the future of Peace Now, I am going to call it ‘Why Rabbi Soleveitchik’s Picture Should Have Been Deleted!” or “Artscroll and Hamas.” People have emailed me saying they simply can’t believe I said ‘I love Artscroll.’ Have I lost my marbles, am I teasing? (See the comments to the blog of 8/ and my response.) What is it about Artscroll that makes people so angry?

After I wrote my blog on Artscroll I realized that the a relevant proof text would be Proust. Marcel Proust was the son of a Jewish mother and Christian father, a homosexual and the author of one of the great novels of the 20th century, Remembrance of Things Past. The book is 3,200 pages long, so it’s difficult to give a two sentence summary. Besides the long essays on the Dreyfus Affair and on the relationship between being Jewish and homosexuality, much of the book is about the successive idealization and de-idealization of an aristocratic multigenerational family Marcel encounters as a young man, the Guermantes. This fictional family is a composite portrait of the highest ranks of French aristocratic society at the tail end of the 19th century. Marcel encounters these people as he attempts to make his way through high society. Such an aspiration for a Jewish person from the provinces was exceptional, to say the least. Because of his extraordinary taste, manners, and sensitivity, he manages to ingratiate himself with the crème-de-la-crème of the French anti-Semitic, snobbish high society. Although Marcel has a sharp eye for faults, he is so honored to be accepted into the Guermantes inner circle he can only see aristocratic perfection. He is in snob heaven.

As he gets older and gets to know these people better their faults become apparent. One of them is stupid and unkind, the other sadistic and perverted, a third totally insincere and an adulterer and so on. Finally, as we get to volume five, he begins to encounter the Guermantes in old age and for the first time he sees them realistically for who they are: old, snobbish, inbred, basically unimportant and uninteresting people, who yearn for a society that no longer exists. In the last volume, as I remember it, he heroically attempts one more last time to put it all together…the complete slavish idealizations of his youth with the bitter realizations of his middle-age. He’s not willing to give up on the Guermantes, but all he has to sustain himself are the memories of his youthful delusions. He realizes in a long reverie how the texture and depth of his life is shaped by the merging of successive representations of the people in his world, and how important creative idealizing memories are in determining the quality of a life. The novel as a whole is a long meditation on how to sustain an idealized image of one’s world in the face of a conflicting reality.

I think in America today, one of the biggest problems is the lack of idealizeable figures. We are a celebrity society which pays an enormous amount of attention to a few unimportant people. There are very few people out there in the public eye who are really worthy of admiration. The problem is intensified when the President, the leader of our country, and the group of people around him are so controversial that for many they are models of infamy and confusion. There are many difficulties that arise in a society without idealizeable figures. Young people have a hard time forming clear values and ideals which to pursue. It is a commonplace to see people in their teens and twenties trying to find some ideal profession and yet having no idea what it is or how to go about doing it. Adolescence today ends ten years later than it used to because young people have such a hard time growing up. The same situation didn’t exist in the thirties when times were tough and people had to work hard to stay afloat. Today, in affluent America, the inability to form clear and definitive goals is the biggest social problem for young people and affects all economic classes.

So, when I see Ultra Orthodox Jews manage to pull off this small miracle of finding and sustaining idealizeable leaders, I am in awe. I don’t care if the leaders have flaws or are snobbish or full of themselves. Every aristocracy is snobbish and full of themselves. The basic structure of society has to be democratic and egalitarian, but there’s no particular reason why voluntary associations like religion must have a democratic structure. The place where one can see the benefits of “a gedolim society” is in the young people. Ultra Orthodox Jewish young people end their adolescence somewhere around 20-22. They marry, they have many children, they go to work or they learn, and they get on with their life plans with little fuss and buss. It might be true that the prolonged adolescence in secular society leads to greater highs; more people score home-runs among secular Jews than in Ultra-Orthodox society. There is nothing like liberty and freedom when it comes to creativity. Secular Jews have more great scientists and artists and individuals with outstanding accomplishments than Orthodoxy, even on a per capita basis. While secularism leads to greater highs, it also leads to greater lows. They also have more bust-outs, more anorexics, more drug abusers, and more of all the ills that society as a whole faces. I believe the reason for all of this is the grater availability of idealized parental figures in Orthodox society. These idealizations can then be transformed into more abstract realizable goals and ideals.

A life of meditation on gedolim and their accomplishments provide an opportunity to form a measure of these interesting and great figures over a lifetime. Who they are to you and what you think about them depends on who you are, and where you are in the life cycle. A teenager looks one way, a seasoned ben-Torah another, a secular Jewish scholar a third, and a cynical and experienced man of the world a fourth way. In addition, these gedolim are in some ways like screens where we can project deep feelings about who we are and what we want to become. If they weren’t being used as vehicles for projection why are so many intelligent, smart people getting all worked up by a bunch of story books that are at worst bubba maiysis, old wives tales?

As in the case of Proust, Ultra Orthodox Jews believe a life outside a stratified aristocratic culture is less interesting, less textured and emptier. Whatever one may think of Orthodoxy as a whole, they may very well be onto something when they treat their rabbinical leaders as celebrities.


At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Rabbi Shael Siegel said...

I can't help but draw an analogy between the idealization of the American Native American of years gone by and the idealization of Eastern European shtetle culture long gone and their Gedoilim. As the American Natives of today sit back and revel in the glory of the great warriors,their spiritual leaders and rain makers, so to the ultra orthodox celebrate a fictional past ascribing powers to their gedoilim wich as we say in Hebrew lo hayah v'lo nivra. Art Scroll has done a remarkable job in memorializing that fictional past as well as invent some history. Nevertheless, I understand your sentiment.

At 10:09 AM, Anonymous MF said...

People respond much more strongly to your non-political analyses than your political analyses because:

* Politics is not your passion, but Judaism is. You should write what you're passionate about, because it will always come out better!

* You Jewish analyses are a more accurate description of reality than your political analyses.

* Everyone has their own ideas about politics. You write a political article saying X, and everyone reads it and thinks, "Okay, someone else who believes in X telling me why I should." Don't take that personally: with very few exceptions, that's what everyone of all political sides thinks they they real all political analyses. ("Oy vey, another hawk who wants us to just invade Lebanon, yeah yeah yeah, I've heard that argument a miillion times.") Politics is soooo circular -- it's the same four philosophical issues, over and over again, just the data change every time, that it's a lot less interesting to read.

I LOVE your summary for Rememberence of things past.

On our lack of idealizable figures: but isn't this the DEFINITION of secularism? Secularism is about the search for "truth" and, since every single great person has flaws, secularism ultimately results in the destruction of our leaders. (I also view Soviet communism as a religion -- look at all the statues and worship of Stalin and their leaders, who became gods, etc.)

Therefore, I think the real question is, how do we have a religious society (including having great leaders) but one which still enables us to create high highs?

I don't know the answer. Maybe the answer is Modern Orthodoxy?

You say that secular Judiasm has produced more high highs than religious Judaism. Is that true? My gut instinct is that, the great Jews have tended to have grown up more religious or semi-religious and then secularized as adults (think Einstein and Freud, for example), while the Jews who grow up secular tend to be, overall, very mediocre.


At 11:06 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Rabbi Siegel- I like the analogy. Many of the Artscroll volumes deal with people who were alive in our lifetime, Reb Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Schorr, Rabbi Pam, Rav Schach, the Steipler…I think there’s one on Rabbi Ruderman of Baltimore and Rav Hutner of Chaim, Berlin, and so on. It’s basically a celebration of people that we know. They were our teachers and we heard them speak many times and so on. Even the generation around 1900-1920, like the Chafetz Chaim, Reb Baruch Ber and Reb Elchanan, were people who had students that everyone in America knew. There are no Artscroll volumes, to my knowledge, on 18th century or 17th century personalities. There’s nothing on the Schach, the Taz, the Ktzoes or the Neceivoth. Similarly, there is nothing on the first three generations of Chassidus. It might be fiction but it ain’t so past.

At 4:20 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

mf- On the substantive question, is there any theoretical explanation why secularism must ultimately result in the destruction of our leaders? After all we still value the founding fathers, most of whom were agnostic. We value the history of philosophy which is not exactly seeded with believers. We have nothing but good to say about the history of science which is secularism on the march.

People have looked into this last question that you raise as to when genius flourishes. There seems to be a moment right before total assimilation and intermarriage where the Jewish genius comes out in all its glory. Freud, Einstein, Mahler, Kafka, Wittgenstein, are all examples of this phenomenon. There was a high school in Budapest in the 20’s that produced a bunch of Noble Prize winners (Teller, von Neumann, Szillard) and Field Prize winners. They were the children of assimilated Jews.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

As I mentioned before I think you are WAY out of touch with the effects of Gedolim-worship (e.g., via Artscroll) & Daas Torah.

You seem to think that mere innocuous, cute little bubba maasehs are at stake. Were it not so.

A planned future blog posting of mine will hopefully set you straight.

At 5:01 PM, Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Excellent post. However I gather, from your postings, that you basically are not a nogeah bedavar, you don't have a horse in the race. Its different when you do, or feel that you do.


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