Letters Fall 2014

Cardinal Dulles’ Inspiration

Elliott Horowitz accurately reports on the truly dangerous—indeed tragic—liaison between Rashi scholar David Blondheim and Eleanor Dulles (yes, John Foster’s and Allen’s sister), which ended in Blondheim’s suicide whilst Eleanor was carrying their first child (“Dangerous Liasons: Modern Scholars and Medieval Relations Between Jews and Christians,” Spring 2014).

John Foster Dulles’s son was the great Catholic theologian Avery Dulles. Toward the end of his life, Cardinal Dulles told me that he might not have pursued a life of scholarship had it not been for the model set by his uncle, David Blondheim.

Jerome A. Chanes

via email

 

Poland’s Aggression

Mr. Konstanty Gebert is wrong in his claim that Poland did not join Nazi Germany against the alliance (“The Ukrainian Question,” Summer 2014). In fact Poland was the first country to sign a “non-aggression” pact with Nazi Germany and partook in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Like Stalin’s USSR it joined the allies only after Hitler turned on it.

Ilya Prizel

via email

 

Sacks’ Sermon?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written a sermon, not a critical review (“Nostalgia for the Numinous,” Summer 2014). Abdicating critical thinking for sermonizing allows him to shift topics for no discernible reason, engage in logical fallacies, and present ahistorical assumptions as fact. Let’s look at a few examples from this sermon.

“We are meaning-seeking animals. And if we can no longer believe in God we will find other things to worship.” Why assume that the search for meaning entails searching for something to worship? My dictionary doesn’t link meaning with worship. It defines meaning as “purpose” or “significance.” If I find purpose in being the best teacher that I can be, am I worshiping teaching? This logical fallacy is rooted in Rabbi Sacks’ assumption that God is the only path to finding meaning. And since we worship God, he concludes we must also worship its substitute.

“We are surrounded by choices with no reason to choose this rather than that.” Where in the world does this sweeping statement play out? In our relationships? In our choice of professions? In the way we vote? I have no idea. The reference to “Man the Eternal Consumer” is just as baffling: Considering that nearly half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day, it’s laughable to state that “Man” is driven by consumerism.

“The West no longer has a set of beliefs that would justify its commitments to freedom and democracy.” What evidence is there for such a broad conclusion? Regardless of whether one thinks that the “West” is perfecting or degrading democracy, there is no justification to think that our commitment is weaker now than at any other point in modern history. Ongoing public activism surrounding human rights, including affirmative action, privacy, voting rights, health care, gene patenting, and income inequality, reveal a deep commitment to freedom and democracy. What justifies Rabbi Sacks to concur with Eagleton that “all [the West] has left is a mixture of pragmatism, culturalism, hedonism, relativism and anti-foundationalism”?

“Having tried and failed to provide substitutes for religion, today’s public intellectuals have no new candidate to offer beyond the present mix of relativism, individualism, hedonism, and consumerism . . . ” We might as well say: “Having failed to provide a substitute for paganism in Antiquity, the West turned to God and had nothing to offer beyond centuries of wars, persecution, and superstition.” Both statements are illogical and do not reflect history’s complexity.

Rabbi Sacks concludes with his concern that the religion of the 21st century will be “the most unreconstructed, pre-modern kind.” Is religion, however, the sole civilizing element in the modern world? I would argue that commitments to relief of human suffering, civil liberties, and prevention of discrimination are substantial enough to provide individuals with meaning. And halevia (Yiddish for “it should only be so”) that we would “worship” these values.

Michael Nutkiewicz

Albuquerque, NM

 

Fathers and Daughters

Regarding Stephen J. Whitfield’s review of Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof (“Tradition! Tradition!” Summer 2014): That Fiddler spread the knowledge of the Yiddish words widely used by Jews in English is convincing. It certainly also made Jews themselves more comfortable with their own heritage, at a time when many groups were rediscovering their separateness. There is another explanation for the popularity of it, however, and that is that it represents a set of circumstances that can be recognized as occurring in all Western societies. Fathers love their daughters and feel responsible to protect them. But the world changes, and the old ways don’t exert their former pull. Not only do the daughters spin out of the circle of inherited custom, but their behavior makes the parents rethink their relationship and outsiders have to be accommodated. Dangers are not always avoided, and even the house itself is threatened. You will recognize here the plot line of Downton Abbey.

Ellen Spolsky

via email

 

Malamud’s New Life

Adam Kirsch’s deeply insightful essay on Bernard Malamud (“The Jewbird,” Summer 2014) breaks down at just one point, I believe. Trying to put Seymour Levin in a box with Yakov Bok and Roy Hobbs, he badly misreads the ending of A New Life.

Kirsch writes: “Seymour Levin’s story ends on a desperate note, as he agrees to take in his married lover, with her children, even though he no longer loves her; his bid for a new life has landed him in a new kind of prison.”

In the last chapter of A New Life, Levin does not “take in” Pauline Josephson. They take off, together, with all their baggage, for California and another new life, a new life that Malamud leaves completely undefined. It could be anything. To say Levin “no longer loves her” doesn’t do justice to his chronic agonizing, or his determination to stay with her, and stay with himself, whatever the temporary state of his feelings. Love is not just feeling, they agree in the last chapter; it’s also “principle.”

Tom Phillips

New York, New York 

 

Heidegger v. Reason

The crux of Richard Wolin’s discussion of the Black Notebooks (“National Socialism, World Jewry, and the History of Being: Heidegger’s Black Notebooks,” Summer 2014) seems to be that Heidegger links reason to World Jewry. Heidegger of course isn’t fond of reason, ergo he dislikes World Jewry. This pretty much makes his statements anti-Semitism. However it would only make his philosophy anti-Semitism if you buy into the statement that World Jewry is somehow to blame for reason. And the only way you can make sense of that is by completely ignoring the intellectual history of the concept of reason.

I would conclude that in this case it’s pretty easy to make a distinction between Heidegger’s personal grudges and his philosophy. This in no way diminishes Heidegger’s abominable personal legacy, but I would say his philosophical legacy need not necessarily be seen in the light of his political folly.

Evert Faber van der Meulen

via jewishreviewofbooks.com

 

Richard Wolin Responds:

With all due respect, the “crux of my argument” was not that Heidegger adventitiously links reason and World Jewry. It is that Heidegger’s “critique of reason” (in German: Vernunftkritik) partakes of a broader “anti-civilizational” paradigm that he avowedly shares with the likes of other German conservative revolutionary thinkers of the interwar period, a discourse for which anti-Semitism and the rejection of reason go hand and hand. Thus it is in no way a matter of a personal grudge, but in Heidegger’s case, a matter of ideological conviction of the highest order. To this end, I cited the remarks of the German journalist, Thomas Assheuer: “The hermeneutic trick of acknowledging Heidegger’s anti-Semitism only in order to permanently cordon it off from his philosophy proper is no longer convincing. The anti-Jewish enmity of the Black Notebooks is no afterthought; instead, it forms the basis of [Heidegger’s] philosophical diagnostics.

 

Comments

Suggested Reading

Mastering the Return

Mastering the Return

Amy Newman Smith

Embedding biblical allusions in her descriptions of pagan practices, Tova Reich in her new novel seems to suggest that the world is so entangled that there is no space between the sacred and profane.

Hebrew School Days

When I was nineteen, I saw an ad at the UCLA Career Center for a job teaching “Jewish history through drama,” at the Sunday school of a large nearby temple. It was only a couple of hours a week, but it paid maybe four times as much as my job at the Student Store. Needless to say, I hadn’t taught…