From Moses to Moses to Sholem Aleichem

Eight years ago, in his fine biography of Benjamin Disraeli, Adam Kirsch analyzed one of his subject’s early novels, The Wondrous Tale of Alroy, which retold the story of a 12th-century Middle Eastern false messiah. “Disraeli’s distinction between Jewish belief and Jewish solidarity,” Kirsch wrote, “and his insistence that it is possible to have the latter without the former,” made the book “a significant proto-Zionist text.” David Alroy makes a brief reappearance in The People and the Books, not in connection with Disraeli’s themes (though his novel is mentioned parenthetically) but to serve as part of the backdrop to an extended discussion of his rough contemporary, Judah Halevi, who sought not to conquer the Land of Israel but simply to rest his soul in it.

Halevi himself is but one of a large gallery of both real and fictional characters, beginning with Moses and ending with Tevye the dairyman, who either wrote or populated the classics of Jewish literature that Adam Kirsch sensitively discusses in his latest book. Anyone looking for a single-volume introduction to Jewish civilization for a class full of highly educated professionals with only a limited knowledge of the subject will find nothing better in print. One shouldn’t be fooled by this book’s accessibility and lack of footnotes, however, into thinking that it is shallow. Far from being a mere survey, it constitutes a deeply serious meditation on the meaning of Jewish existence.

Marble relief portrait of Maimonides, 1950, House of Representatives Chamber, Capitol, Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.)
Marble relief portrait of Maimonides, 1950, House of Representatives Chamber, Capitol, Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.)

In his preface, Kirsch identifies four central concerns of the ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish writers he profiles: “God, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people.” With the exception of a few of the modern thinkers Kirsch discusses at the end of the book, all of the protagonists of his narrative are preoccupied with all of these matters. But they reflect on them in profoundly different ways. Kirsch, an outstanding literary critic with very strong Jewish interests but not a scholar of Judaism, explicates their views knowledgeably and deftly, often making novel and intriguing comparisons of figures one does not customarily associate with one another, such as Josephus and Judah Halevi. Whether Kirsch is dealing with believers or heretics, he writes with real empathy. What he doesn’t make entirely clear, however, is where his own strongest sympathies lie.

There can be no question of Kirsch’s admiration for the rabbis whose utterances make up the Ethics of the Fathers. In one of his most beautifully written chapters, he reshuffles their disconnected statements into something like a systematic account of “the ethical ideals of the pious Jew.” Sometimes his reformulations of the rabbis’ words are almost as quotable as the famous adages they paraphrase. For instance: “Since carrying out the commandments is the sweetest joy we can know, God can only reward us for following his laws by giving us more laws to follow.”

Kirsch stresses what was of necessity the apolitical character of the rabbis’ teachings. He describes the Ethics of the Fathers as “the work of a powerless and dispossessed people,” composed “just at the moment when the Jewish collective had ceased to figure in the drama of politics.” That this is a moment that Kirsch himself considers regrettable is evident from his entirely sympathetic treatment of Theodor Herzl’s effort to re-establish Jewish sovereignty. He notes, without criticism, how utterly removed Herzl was from the Jewish religion, but he also concludes his chapter on the founder of Zionism with the observation that he found it “impossible to excise God completely from his vision of the Promised Land.” As Kirsch points out, the very last word of Herzl’s utopian novel Old New Land is uttered by a rabbi identifying the force that created the new Jewish society it depicts: “God!”

If Herzl couldn’t quite cut himself off from God, most of Kirsch’s heroes don’t even try. For the majority of them, the God of Israel is an undeniable and authoritative presence, the object of both fear and love. But for some, He is a being who must be understood, first of all, not in terms of what the Bible reports but in terms of what reason requires. The first Jew of whom this was true was Philo of Alexandria, the 1st-century Greek-speaking philosopher who sought, in innumerable ways, “to reduce the affront to reason in the biblical text.” One of the challenges he faced was “to reconcile the cosmology of Genesis, which has the world being created ex nihilo by God, with the cosmology of Greek philosophy, which held that the universe was eternal and that God was simply the principle that set matter in motion.”

More than a thousand years later, Maimonides, living only about a hundred miles from Philo’s home but in the midst of not a pagan but a Muslim civilization, still had to grapple with the same issue. He dealt with it, Kirsch explains, by asserting “that the problem of the creation of the universe cannot be solved by human reason” and that one thus had to take one’s bearings from what Genesis says. Yet his belief in God’s boundless power didn’t prevent him from utilizing the tools of reason to reshape “the miracle-ridden narrative of sacred history into a rule-bound, naturalistic, and rational account.” That some secret teaching might be lurking here, that Maimonides may have been more of a student of Aristotle than he let on, is a possibility that Kirsch does not choose to consider.

If he gives Maimonides the benefit of the doubt, Kirsch is scarcely any less generous to his heretical adversaries, including Spinoza, who targeted him directly in the 17th century, and Salomon Maimon, who renamed himself after him in the 18th century but then went on to repudiate everything for which he stood. Like Philo and Maimonides, Kirsch observes, the philosopher born in Amsterdam into an ex-Marrano family “stood at the intersection of Judaism with a wider, more powerful, and more seductive intellectual world.” But unlike them, he was completely won over. He rejected Maimonides’ reading of the biblical narrative and introduced a new one, which led to the conclusion that the God of Israel was non-existent and Judaism was obsolete. Kirsch doesn’t rebuke him but only questions, gently, whether “the secular and universal society” for which he hoped “could really exist and whether discarding Judaism was too high a price to pay for admission” to it. Salomon Maimon, the erstwhile Lithuanian Talmud prodigy who had had his mind opened by Maimonides, groped his way out of what he himself depicted as the intellectual ghetto into which he had been born and into the world of German philosophy. Kirsch doesn’t defend the ghetto against Maimon’s famous mockery of it and concludes his discussion of Maimon with the observation that he remained, as he himself insisted, “a stiffnecked Jew,” if only because he conditioned his opportunistic offer to convert to Christianity on the officiating clergy’s recognition that he did not really believe in it.


Kirsch’s even-handed treatment of upholders of the faith and deniers of it makes it seem appropriate to apply to him words that he himself utilizes, in a somewhat different sense, with respect to the Jewish philosopher from Alexandria: “Philo, one might say, stands both inside and outside Judaism.” And it is not only Judaism with respect to which Kirsch seems to be both an outsider and an insider; he maintains the same ambiguous stance toward the world of scholarship. He eschews not just footnotes but any references in his text to any academic historians of Judaism—with the exception of the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, whom he quotes twice, and the scholar of Hasidism Martin Buber, whom he mentions only once. But he clearly knows his stuff. The very brief but discriminating bibliographies at the end of each chapter indicate the depth of his familiarity with contemporary English-language scholarship, and every page of his book demonstrates his broad knowledge of literature he has refrained from mentioning. This is not to say, however, that he hasn’t made some missteps.

Sholem Aleichem as a young man, St. Petersburg, ca. early 1900s. (Courtesy Beit Scholem Aleichem, Israel.)
Sholem Aleichem as a young man, St. Petersburg, ca. early 1900s. (Courtesy Beit Scholem Aleichem, Israel.)

Kirsch is wrong, for instance, to identify Moses Mendelssohn’s tangle with an anonymous pamphleteer who signed himself the “Searcher after Light and Right” as the occasion on which the former’s “self-control would meet its greatest public test” simply because it sparked the writing of his most important work on Judaism, Jerusalem. As the Searcher (an obscure hack named August Cranz) recognized, he was renewing the attack of theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater, who had publicly challenged Mendelssohn to explain his reasons for not converting to Christianity 14 years earlier, in 1769. That challenge had threatened Mendelssohn’s social and intellectual standing in Berlin and the European Republic of Letters and left him deeply shaken. His most trying public test arguably came two years after the publication of Jerusalem, when Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi dragged him into a public controversy over his late friend Lessing’s alleged Spinozism. But if Kirsch has erred here with respect to this biographical detail, he zeroes in correctly on the crux of the Searcher’s challenge to Mendelssohn and the core of his response to it in Jerusalem. Mendelssohn had to explain how he could denounce religious coercion while at the same time maintaining his adherence to a religion that, in Kirsch’s words, “was based on the idea of compulsion through law.”

Unlike a very large number of Mendelssohn scholars, Kirsch sees that the bulk of Jerusalem leaves this problem unaddressed and that it is only at the end of the book that Mendelssohn answers Cranz by explaining that the demise of the Jewish polity has transformed Jewish law, as Kirsch puts it, “from a communal rule for all Jews into a voluntary commitment of each Jew.” Kirsch then raises doubts about this contention, not in terms of its philosophical or theological adequacy, but with regard to its practical ramifications.

Once the decision to obey Jewish law is left up to every individual, it is inevitable that some—maybe most—Jews will decide that the burden is too great, that there is no way and no need to go on living under two sets of laws. And, in fact, that is just what happened with Mendelssohn’s own family. All of his grandchildren were baptized Christians, including the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who created masterpieces of church music.

Kirsch is not recalling this family history in order to disparage Mendelssohn’s ideology, as have so many other writers over the past two centuries. He is not even calling into question Mendelssohn’s affirmation of voluntarism. He is just pointing out that there are trade-offs, even for good things like liberty.

Kirsch’s book is designed not to get to the bottom of things but to open them up for those who are unfamiliar with them, as he makes particularly clear in his book’s final chapter. Avoiding any appearance of Zionist teleology by making his chapter on Herzl the penultimate one, Kirsch concludes The People and the Books with ruminations on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, which was written over more or less the same period of time as The Jewish State and Old New Land. Unlike Herzl, however, Sholem Aleichem does not provide unequivocal answers; instead “the Tevye stories manage to survey all the possible futures for the Jews of his time.” Kirsch, too, presents us with a variety from which to choose, extending from the rationalism of Philo and Maimonides to the mysticism of the Zohar and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, to the heresies of Spinoza and Salomon Maimon. He doesn’t try to tell his readers whom to follow. He just wants them to be educated and in solidarity with the Jewish past, even if, like Disraeli, they may not in the end fully reconnect with the faith that sustained it. “My hope,” he writes, “is that readers of The People and the Books will find what I have found in writing it: a richer and freer sense of what Judaism has been and can be.”


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