Letters, Winter 2018

Inky Seas Elsewhere

After reading Sarah Rindner’s excellent review of Ilana Kurshan’s new memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink (“Swimming in an Inky Sea,” Fall 2017), I was reminded of the Qur’an’s use of the same simile:

Were the sea ink for the words of my Lord, the

sea would surely fail before the words of my Lord fail. (Sura 18, verse 109)


Were the trees that are in the earth pens, were

the sea ink with seven more seas to swell its tide, the words of God would not be spent. (Sura 31, verse 27) 


Whether the conceit appeared in (and for) rabbinic literature first is an interesting question.

Ben Rich

Norwalk, CT 


Rome and Jerusalem (and Cardinal Newman)

To seek Michael Solomon Alexander’s importance, as the late Elliott Horowitz does in his learned review of Todd Endelman’s book on meshumadim (apostates) in the Jewish world (“Straying from the Fold?” Fall 2017), is to look for it in the wrong place. That place is the history of Anglicanism and the loss of its great imperial intellect, John Henry Newman, to the Church of Rome. The Jerusalem bishopric scheme of 1841, conceived by Germans and promoted by evangelicals within the Church of England eager to convert Jews in the Holy Land, was to consecrate a bishop who would serve jointly with Lutherans. Newman immediately saw the scheme as allowing “intercommunion with Protestant Prussia and the heresy of the Orientals.” It was, or so he was convinced, a declaration of the bankruptcy of Catholic principles within the English church. “Have you heard of this fearful business of the Bishop of Jerusalem?” he wrote to a friend in 1841. “It seems we are in the way to fraternize with Protestants of all sorts, Monophysites, half-converted Jews and even Druses. If any such event should take place, I shall not be able to keep a single man from Rome.” In fact, it brought Newman himself to his “death-bed as regards my membership with the Anglican Church,” where he lay until he left in 1845 for Rome.

Edward Alexander
Professor emeritus, University of Washington


Singer and Rabbi Dessler (and an fMRI Study)

Professor Socher wonders (“Is Repentance Possible?,” Fall 2017) whether repentance is possible for those with akrasia (weakness of the will). Will is compounded of evolved genetic inclinations (alluded to by Rambam in the eighth Chapter of his Eight Chapters), environmental influences, and previous choices. Despite these constraints Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler maintained that a person retains a nekudat ha-bechirah, a tiny province of free will, at which moral struggle takes place. (Michtav me-Eliyahu, Vol. 1) Isaac Bashevis Singer described this process beautifully in his story “The Fast”:

Since Roise Genendel, daughter of the Bialer rebbe, had left Itche Nokhum, he had discovered that a man can curb every desire. There is something in the heart that lusts, but one can thumb his nose at it. It wants to think carnal thoughts, but one compels it to pore over the Holy Book. It tempts one into longings and imaginings, but just to thwart it one recites the Psalms. In the morning it wants to sleep till nine, but one awakens it at daybreak. What this enemy within hates most of all is a cold ritual bath. But there is a little spot in the brain that has the final word, and when it commands the feet to go, they go, be the water cold as ice. In time opposing this lusting creature becomes a habit. One bends it, gags it, or else one lets it babble on without answering.   

The nekudat ha-bechirah of Rav Dessler and Singer’s description of Itche Nokhum’s ability to overcome akrasia are borne out by a 2001 functional MRI study. Ten young adult male volunteers were presented with erotic pictures while their brain activation was measured. As expected, viewing the pictures was associated with brain activation in limbic areas known to be associated with emotion. When the subjects attempted to inhibit their sexual arousal, other areas of the brain were activated. The authors conclude that “humans have the capacity to influence the electrochemical dynamics of their brains by voluntarily changing the nature of the mind processes unfolding in the psychological space.” 

The role of halakha (Jewish law) is to provide us with “oughts” so as to strengthen our evolved tendencies to moral behavior. When we fail, when we have weakness of the will, the rabbinic tradition assigns us diminished culpability for what Rabbi Basil Herring has called “choice diminished behavior.” Nevertheless, we’re all capable of at least some degree of repentance.

Joel Y. Rutman, MD

Zikhron Yaakov, Israel

Abraham Socher Responds:

I thank Dr. Rutman for his learned note, especially the passage from the Singer story, which I will go read. I am less certain than he is that brain science can teach us very much new about moral psychology—our differences here are no doubt professional deformations of character (that is to say “environmental influences and previous choices”). As for Rabbi Dessler’s interesting approach to these matters, curiously Andrew Koss brought up the same “point of choice.” I address his comments on page 50.



Levinas and Lear

Noah Millman’s wonderful article about parents and children in the Bible and Shakespeare (“Upon Such Sacrifices,” Fall 2017) got me streaming Lear and Cordelia scenes on YouTube. It also sent me back to a deep thing I remembered Emmanuel Levinas saying about fatherhood in Ethics and Infinity: “it is a relationship in which the other is radically other, and where nevertheless it is in some way me,” and that it is “as if my being . . . exceeded the possibilities of a being.”  

When I went back to my old paperback copy of those interviews with Philippe Nemo, I had no idea what Levinas meant in the sentences that came after that (this happens in Levinas, and modern French philosophers generally, at least with me), something about an “upheaval of the ontological condition.” Still the first bit about what Levinas called the “future beyond my own being” seems to be getting at what Millman lays out so clearly from Cordelia’s point of view: “I cannot love you all, not even for the best of the kingdom, because the kingdom is worthless if I cannot inherit it, because there is no ‘I’ to do so.” Bravo!

Jacob Levy

Montreal, Canada

Noah Millman Responds:

I’m so glad that my little essay prompted you to watch performances of the Lear online. It is extraordinary to live in a time when performances such as those of Ian McKellen and Romola Garai, Laurence Olivier and Anna Calder-Marshall, are available in a few keyboard strokes.

I am regrettably unconversant with the Levinas essay in question, but I am humbled to think that I was able to shed light on such a luminary’s thinking. From what little I do understand of his work, it is rooted in understanding the relation between self and other primarily as one of opening possibility rather than of challenge or threat—a beautiful idea. The distinctive thing about a child, of course, is that she or he is always in the process of becoming, but it is the natural mistake of parents to see this as becoming more and more other and hence increasingly distant—a process that would naturally be resisted by the parents—as opposed to a being that is already other becoming more and more completely itself, and therefore more and more able to enter into a fully reciprocal relationship with any other, including a parent, which is, of course, how the child experiences it. Whether that’s where Levinas went in his essay, I greatly appreciate your kind words about my own.


Remembrance Day

In his introduction to a recovered radio sermon by Emil Fackenheim (“Power and the Voice of Conscience: A Lost Radio Talk,” Fall 2017), Michael Morgan discusses an earlier sermon, “The Psychology of the Drum,” which was given, he tells us, on November 11, 1945. This was the first post–World War II anniversary of the end of World War I, a day that used to be called Armistice Day and now is called Remembrance Day in Canada. Fackenheim must have given it on that occasion.

Daniel Nussbaum II, MD, FAAP
Rochester, NY



In “Power and the Voice of Conscience” (Fall 2017), Yossi Fackenheim was identified as Emil Fackenheim’s grandson. He is his son.


In “Homer of Lod” (Spring 2017) some lines of an Erez Bitton poem were attributed to “Song of Purchase on Dizengoff;” they are from “Summary of a Conversation” (“Taktzir sicha”).


  1. daized79

    In response to Mr. Rich, above. The saying is attributed to R' Eliezer of the 2d Century and appears in Shir Hashirim Rabbah, most of which appears to pre-date Islam. However, as will all midrashic compilations, it is ultimately impossible to date, especially any particular statement contained within. A latest "date" of 8th Century is given by scholars, but traditional Jews would take the R' Eliezer statement at face value. Any scholarly Muslim, however could easily claim the opposite--that we got it from them.

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