haim Nachman Bialik is often thought of as a celebrant of aggada. He was, after all, the editor of the influential anthology Sefer Ha-Aggada, and in his poem “To the Aggada” he describes rabbinic lore and legend as a resource for the imaginative renewal of Jewish culture. It is noteworthy, then, that in his famous 1916 essay “Halakha and Aggada” Bialik mounts an equally strong defense of halakha. This is not because he finds halakha more appealing than aggada. “Halakha wears a frown, aggada a smile,” the essay begins. “The one is pedantic, severe, unbending—all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable—all mercy.”
Yet Bialik denies that law and literature can really be separated in this way. They are, he writes, “two sides of a single shield.” Indeed, the essay goes on to reconceive halakha itself as an art form whose material was the body, physical and social, of the Jewish people. “Halakha is, no less than aggada, a creative process,” Bialik insists. “It is the supreme form of art—the art of life and of living. Its medium is the living man, with all his impulses; its instrument is education, individual, social, and national; its product is a continuous chain of goodly life and action.”
Later in the essay, Bialik suggests that the energies that other peoples devoted to the creation of concrete works of art—what he calls “works of marble to delight men’s senses”—were devoted by the Jews to the fashioning of the national character. “I do not decide whose work is better,” Bialik concludes, “but I think that both are works of creative art, forms made material, ideas raised from the potential to the actual by the creative spirit of man.” Shabbat, he insists, is a greater artwork than the cathedral of Notre Dame, and Shabbat is the product of halakha:
There are one hundred and fifty-seven double pages in Tractate Shabbat, and one hundred and five in Eruvin, and in both there is next to no aggada; for the most part they consist of discussions of the minutiae of the thirty-nine kinds of work and their branches, and on the limits within which it is permissible to carry on the Sabbath . . . What weariness of the flesh! What waste of good wits on every trifling point! But when I turn over those pages and see the various groups of tannaim and amoraim at their work, I say to myself that these whom I see are in very truth artists of life in the throes of creation . . . Every one of those men did his own part of the task according to his own bent and inclination, and all of them were bowed before an overmastering higher will.
There is, however, a dubious ambiguity in the phrase “higher will.” For observant Jews, that will is God’s. For Bialik, it can be conceived only as a kind of spirit of history, working through the individual to create a collective idea. What Bialik is doing, in fact, is typically modernist: He is attempting to make art a source of metaphysical value, in a way that religion used to be. But it is by no means clear that art is powerful enough to compel either the adherence or the intellectual creativity characteristic of traditional Judaism. Once you start to treat halakha as aggada, law as literature, it loses the force that made it halakha in the first place.
There will never be more than a few people in each generation for whom literature has the force of law, for whom, as Bialik puts it, “real art” is “like Torah.” In Bialik’s generation, one of those few was surely Marcel Proust. The two writers are not often thought of together, but they were near-contemporaries; Bialik was born in 1873, Proust in 1871. And Proust’s seven-volume novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), is among many other things the story of an artist coming to realize his vocation—a vocation which he describes in religious terms, as an ethical and absolute duty.
Proust’s greatest statement of this theme comes in the famous passage in The Captive describing the death of the writer Bergotte. Once a writer dies, Proust wonders, what does it matter whether he wrote well or badly, since he will never know the fate of his works in this world? What he is grappling with is the disparity between the artist’s sense of his commitment, which is absolute and infinite, and the finite, transitory nature of all human achievement. In other words, Proust is asking a religious question, and he ends up giving what is essentially a religious answer:
He was dead. Dead forever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations . . . which to have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—if then!—to fools.
Even as Proust explicitly rejects religion, he invokes metaphysics: specifically, the Platonic scheme of a life that preexists this one, which we spend in the company of pure Ideas and for which we long unceasingly in this fallen world. The Idea serves Proust in the same way that halakha serves Bialik: Both are attempts to reconstitute the kind of absolute authority that is missing from the secular world. And both are invoked, as they have to be, only hypothetically. For Bialik, we must live as if we believed halakha were divine, in order to create a noble national life; for Proust, we must live as if we believed in a world “entirely different from this one,” in order to create a noble work of art.
What separates the two, of course, is their choice of metaphors. Bialik uses a Jewish metaphor, and what he looks for is a collective Jewish redemption; Proust uses a Greek metaphor, and what he looks for is the individual salvation of the artist. And it is hard not to suppose that this difference helps to explain the difference in the reputations of these two writers. Each has achieved the kind of reward he hoped for: Bialik became the national poet of a Jewish state; Proust became the international novelist of the modern world.
Yet it is possible to see Proust’s life, too, as an archetypal Jewish story. His father, Adrien Proust, was a French Catholic. Proust was baptized and raised a Catholic and always considered himself one. But his mother, Jeanne Weil, was the descendant of German Jews, originally from Wurttemberg. It was Proust’s great-grandfather, Baruch Weil, who first moved the family to France, during the Napoleonic period, when he came to Paris to become a successful manufacturer of porcelain. As any reader of Proust knows, it was his mother who was his closest companion throughout his life and the deepest emotional and intellectual influence on him. He also resembled her physically, which explains why his friends often referred to his “Persian” or “Assyrian” looks, both of which were euphemisms for Jewish.
And the more you examine Proust’s social background and friendships, the clearer it becomes that he moved in a milieu that was extensively Jewish. This fact is reflected in Swann’s Way:
It is true that my grandfather made out that, whenever I formed a strong attachment to any one of my friends and brought him home with me, that friend was invariably a Jew; to which he would not have objected on principle—indeed his own friend Swann was of Jewish extraction—had he not found that the Jews whom I chose as friends were not usually of the best type. And so whenever I brought a new friend home my grandfather seldom failed to start humming the “O, God of our fathers” from La Juive, or else “Israel, break thy chains,” singing the tune alone, of course, to an “um-ti-tum-ti-tum, tra-la”; but I used to be afraid that my friend would recognise it and be able to reconstruct the words.
It is not especially clear why the Narrator of In Search of Lost Time, who famously both is and is not Proust and who is never said to be Jewish, should have so many Jewish friends. But it makes perfect sense that Proust, from an assimilated half-Jewish family, should have had so many friends at lycée who were from identical backgrounds—including Jacques Bizet and Daniel Halévy, both of whom were grandsons of the composer of the opera La Juive, Fromental Halévy. It was Jacques Bizet’s mother—born Geneviève Halévy, she would end up as Mme. Emile Straus—who introduced Proust to the society and salon world. Mme. Straus was a partial model for the Duchesse de Guermantes, the dazzling society hostess whose wit is her greatest charm. Thus, as Proust’s biographer Jean-Yves Tadié writes, the Guermantes wit was really “the Halévy wit, which Marcel had heard ever since he was an adolescent.”
Later in life, Proust’s great love, the composer Reynaldo Hahn, was also the son of mixed Jewish and Catholic parents. And the magazine where he published some of his earliest stories, La revue blanche, was largely produced by Jews, including the future Socialist prime minister Léon Blum. At a time when, Tadié notes, the Jewish population of France was some eighty-six thousand, out of a total of forty million, it is clear that Proust’s milieu was highly unrepresentative of France, but absolutely typical of an assimilated Jewish haute bourgeoisie.
The significance of these facts is more than biographical. For Proust, Jews in the high society of the Third Republic occupy a peculiar role: They are in it but never truly of it, and the advent of the Dreyfus Affair midway through the novel emphasizes how high the barriers to acceptance remain. The great example of this is Charles Swann, whose Jewish ancestry does not stop him from becoming a friend of the Prince of Wales and a member of the Jockey Club. Yet when the Dreyfus Affair divides France, Swann finds himself driven to take Dreyfus’ side, thus putting himself at odds with most of his friends and jeopardizing his unique place in society.
Swann, we learn in passing late in the novel, had one Jewish grandparent—enough to mark him out permanently from the aristocracy, but not enough to shape his character in ways that would make him repellent to them. This is not the case with the other main Jewish character in In Search of Lost Time, the Narrator’s lifelong friend, Bloch. The Narrator first meets Bloch when they are students, and he is impressed by his friend’s ostentatiously sophisticated literary judgments. But Proust the writer never ceases to make clear what the Narrator doesn’t seem to realize: that Bloch is a repulsive person and in ways, moreover, that fit anti-Semitic caricatures like a glove. The product of a close-knit Jewish family, he has all the vices of the Jewish social climber, struggling to assimilate to French society: He is pretentious, ill-bred, pushy, and insecure. The portrait of Bloch is so unremittingly awful that it is never quite clear why the Narrator should want to be his friend in the first place.
It is tempting to read Bloch as Proust’s projection and exorcism of all the negative traits with which his own Jewishness seemed to threaten him. Yet any such assessment is complicated by the cunning and teasing self-awareness of Proust the novelist. For if we are about to claim with triumph, or even indignation, that Proust has concealed his fears about his own Jewishness by transferring them to Bloch, we are faced with the fact that the chief item in the novel’s indictment of Bloch is precisely his concealment of his Jewishness.
This is demonstrated in a painful scene in The Guermantes Way. We are in the drawing room of Madame de Villeparisis, where Bloch has been tempting fate by constantly bringing up the Dreyfus Affair. Finally, a nobleman puts him in his place:
“Forgive me, Monsieur, if I don’t discuss the Dreyfus case with you; it is a subject which, on principle, I never mention except among Japhetics [i.e., Christians].” Everyone smiled, except Bloch, not that he was not himself in the habit of making sarcastic references to his Jewish origin, to that side of his ancestry which came from somewhere near Sinai. But instead of one of these remarks (doubtless because he did not have one ready) the trigger of his inner mechanism brought to Bloch’s lips something quite different. And all one heard was: “But how on earth did you know? Who told you?” as though he had been the son of a convict. Whereas, given his name, which had not exactly a Christian sound, and his face, his surprise argued a certain naïvety.
This is the ultimate humiliation for Bloch, but not for the reason he thinks. He is embarrassed because he is identified as a Jew; we are even more embarrassed for him because he was deluded enough to think that he might pass for a Christian. All the sacrifices of self-respect that he has made in pursuit of assimilation have done nothing but strip him of his dignity. And it is Proust, who in the course of this very novel so completely conceals his own Jewish ancestry, who has created this unforgettable scene of false consciousness and self-delusion.
The novel, one might say, lays out two paths for Jews seeking to assimilate to French society. One is the path of Swann and, implicitly, of the Narrator: to be truly exceptional, so innately gracious (and, not incidentally, so rich) as to win a provisional acceptance that is always capable of being revoked. The other is the path of Bloch, which is to say, of the Jew who is not exceptional: This is the path of prolonged humiliation and submission, to the point of denying one’s own origins.
What is not canvassed in the novel, except perhaps inadvertently, is a third possibility. That possibility can be glimpsed in the comic scenes in which Bloch heavily drops the name of Sir Rufus Israels, a Rothschild-like figure who represents an unimaginable peak of power and influence to the Blochs. The joke, always at Bloch’s expense, is that the people he is trying to impress with this half-invented connection find Israels distinctly déclassé.
But could there be, the reader wonders, a Jewish society in which the Israels would occupy a peak position, analogous to the one the Guermantes occupy in French society? This is really a way of asking whether there could be a way to express and satisfy, without renouncing one’s Jewishness, the desires for status, prestige, and achievement that drive all the characters in In Search of Lost Time. This question is closely connected to the question about Proust as a Jewish writer. For the Narrator of In Search of Lost Time, literature and culture are inevitably and exclusively French and European literature and culture: His intellectual points of reference are Racine and Giotto, just as his social points of reference are the Guermantes. In such circumstances, there is no reason for a writer such as Proust to insist on, or even remember, the Jewish half of his identity. Jewishness is a void, a past, a condition, when the goal of life and art is to be unconditioned and self-created. In just the same way, there is no benefit for Bloch in acknowledging his Jewishness, when everything he wants in life—recognition, honor, grace—is seen as the possession of French aristocrats.
This is a recurring issue for European Jewish writers and artists. Walter Benjamin, who translated some of À la recherche into German, was the author of one of the classic essays on the novelist, “The Image of Proust.” In that essay, he praises Proust’s “intransigent French spirit” and says, “Since the spiritual exercises of Loyola there has hardly been a more radical attempt at self-absorption.” The terms, the coordinates of judgment and reference are once again exclusively Christian and French. Nowhere in the essay does Benjamin acknowledge that he is a Jewish critic writing about a part-Jewish writer—or that both of them are only a few generations removed from traditional German Jewish life. This might well account for some of their shared beliefs and attitudes, for instance, the metaphysical worship of art, which, for several generations of European Jews, seemed to be the only realm in which they had been truly emancipated.
One response to this situation might be offered by Bialik’s message in “Halakha and Aggada.” Bialik, writing in Odessa for a Hebrew- and Yiddish-speaking audience, belonged to the very kind of Jewish society that Benjamin and Proust had anxiously left behind. In adjuring Jewish writers to make use of the Talmud, he was insisting that a literature could have modern form and Jewish content—a combination that for Proust would have seemed impossible or nonsensical and of which Bialik himself seems less than certain.
One cannot imagine Proust paging through Tractate Shabbat in search of inspiration. Yet there is a fundamental agreement between Proust and Bialik about the ethics of art and its proper relation to life. Remember that Bialik, in affirming the value of halakha, argued that the creation of a goodly and Godly way of life was just as much an artistic task as the creation of Notre Dame. And he saw this elevation of life over art as a specifically Jewish value. “Our concern is with halakha . . . as a concrete and definite form of actual life, of a life which is not in the clouds, which does not depend on vague feeling and beautiful phrases alone, but has physical reality and physical beauty,” he writes. Just as aggada is for the sake of halakha, so art is for the sake of life.
Proust is easy to think of as an aesthete. After all, so much of his novel is devoted to luxurious descriptions of seascapes and hawthorn bushes, and of invented novels and violin sonatas. Yet he always insists that for him, too, art is not a final value, but a penultimate one; it is valuable to the extent that it preserves and grants a richer form of experience. He reserves his greatest scorn for the kind of people he calls “celibates of art”—those who loudly proclaim their addiction to music, for instance, and go to hear the same piece performed eight times, precisely because they do not have a true, vital experience of the music they are hearing.
The distinction comes to a point in a significant scene late in the novel, in Time Regained, when the Narrator encounters M. on the streets of Paris during World War I. In the course of their conversation about the war and its effects, Charlus complains that the great French cathedrals—the very ones invoked by Bialik as masterpieces of art—are threatened by the fighting. He deplores the loss of “all that mixture of art and still-living history that was France,” and says that if the cathedral of Amiens is lost, with it will go “the loftiest affirmation of faith and energy ever made.”
The Narrator has been fulsome in his praise and description of several cathedrals over the long course of the novel, so it is rather surprising when he dissents from Charlus’ complaint:
“You mean its symbol, Monsieur,” I interrupted. “And I adore certain symbols no less than you do. But it would be absurd to sacrifice to the symbol the reality that it symbolises. Cathedrals are to be adored until the day when, to preserve them, it would be necessary to deny the truths that they teach . . . Do not sacrifice men to stones whose beauty comes precisely from their having for a moment given fixed form to human truths.”
Couldn’t this elevation of “human truths” above works of art be seen as Proust’s own decision for halakha over aggada—for life and experience over monument and symbol? Indeed, reading this passage in conjunction with Bialik’s praise of Shabbat, I’m reminded of the way the rabbis deduce the thirty-nine melakhot, the categories of labor forbidden on Shabbat, from the activities of the Israelites when they built the mishkan, or Tabernacle, in the desert. The mishkan, of course, was a kind of building, a splendid and magnificent one, the Notre Dame of the Israelites. After the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the year 70 C.E., there could be no such building at the heart of Jewish life. Instead, just as Bialik says, the structure was made dynamic: It remained a work of art, only its medium was no longer wood and cloth, but a set of practices, a way of life. It went, Bialik might say, from aggada to halakha. There is something about Proust that suggests he would have understood and approved this transformation. He, too, believed that what we do and feel is more important than what we build and make—or, rather, that our creations are important only to the extent that they memorialize and preserve our experience.
It’s no wonder that the question of Proust’s Jewishness, and Jewishness in Proust, still has the power to excite strong feeling among Jews today, since it touches on the very questions of belonging and identity, culture and heritage, which continue to define Jewish life. The strength of these feelings can be seen in Jacqueline Rose’s recent book Proust Among the Nations. Rose makes much of the conversation between the Narrator and the Baron Charlus, just after Bloch’s humiliation at the Marquise de Villeparisis’ party. Charlus insists on referring to Bloch as a “foreigner,” despite the Narrator’s insistence that he is French. He then goes on to apply this view of Jewish foreignness to the Dreyfus Affair, holding that Dreyfus should in fact be found innocent of the charge of treason: “I believe the newspapers say that Dreyfus has committed a crime against his country . . . the crime is non-existent. This compatriot of your friend would have committed a crime if he had betrayed Judaea, but what has he to do with France? . . . Your Dreyfus might rather be convicted of a breach of the laws of hospitality.”
For Rose, this demonstrates the logic of anti-Semitism: Jews are irreducibly foreign, alien to the body of France, and therefore deserve elimination. She shows that Charlus’ argument was stated almost word for word by the leading anti-Semite Édouard Drumont during the Dreyfus Affair. The logic of otherness is, for Rose, already the logic of expulsion and—to use a word loaded with contemporary political resonance—partition. That is why the lesson she draws from the Dreyfus Affair is the need to oppose any kind of national partition and separation, which she sees as strictly an artifact of language: “The Jew is only what he is—stands distinct from the rest of the culture and from everybody else within it—because of the illusions we entertain about the permanence of words,” she writes.
The word makes the Jew. It is from this point of view that Rose understands Charlus’ venomous reference to “some great festival in the Temple, a circumcision, or some Hebrew chants.” These are, she writes, “epithets which hand over the Jew to a degraded, parodic form of ancestral belonging: Temple, circumcision, and the Hebrew tongue.” “Barely concealed beneath these fantasies,” she writes, “there is, of course, a logic of expulsion.” This is a strange and telling moment in Rose’s argument, for from another point of view—which is the point of view I think most Jews would take—there is nothing degraded or parodic about Temple, circumcision, or the Hebrew tongue. These are, in fact, essential components of Jewishness. Charlus only has the power to turn them into “epithets” if he is addressing someone—like Bloch, or the Narrator, or perhaps certain readers—for whom the words represent a parochial past that it is necessary to flee in order to achieve full recognition and full humanity. Otherwise, they would be no more insulting than if Bloch were to speak of Charlus, a pious Catholic, as having been baptized or knowing Latin chants.
What is at stake here is the difference between Jewishness as an identity and Jewishness as a mere predicate. If it is true that the word makes the Jew, then the power to define Jewishness will always be held by the anti-Semite, or at least by the non-Jewish world. If, on the other hand, the Jew is made by more than his name, if he is constituted by tradition, text, belief, nationhood, culture, any of the other components of identity, in short by halakha and aggada broadly construed, then it is the Jew who has the power to define and apply his name.
This very debate has played out, fascinatingly and a bit ominously, in the work of Alain Badiou, who is often described as the greatest living French philosopher. Badiou presents in a formal, philosophical language the same idea that Rose advances through her reading of Proust: the idea that the word “Jew” is only a predicate, or, better, that it should be only a predicate. In a series of articles collected in his recent book Polemics, Badiou argues that there are two opposed meanings concealed in the word Jew. One is the Jew as defined by community, tradition, and politics, one might say, as defined by him or herself. To Badiou, as to Rose, this is a corrupt and implicitly oppressive use of the word, because it allows Jewishness to be a positive identity, and positive identity is the source of ethnic violence and partition, notably, though not only, in Israel and Palestine.
Badiou describes this “bad” Jewishness, in a rather Charlusian spirit, as “bolstered by the tripod of the Shoah, the State of Israel, and the Talmudic Tradition—the SIT.” This is Charlusian in part because of its aggressive crankishness, but more because Badiou assumes that these things, which indeed are at the core of Jewishness, are somehow sinister and discreditable. His own mission, he says, is “liberating the word Jew from the triplet SIT”: that is, of giving Jew a new definition which has nothing to do with the ones Jews give it. Indeed, for Badiou, a good Jew is precisely one who opposes all the other Jews, because he breaks with his own form of ethnic particularism in the name of an absolute universalism. Or, as Badiou writes, “from the apostle Paul to Trotsky, including Spinoza, Marx and Freud, Jewish communitarianism has only underpinned creative universalism in so far as there have been new points of rupture with it.” He goes on to add that, “It is clear that today’s equivalent of Paul’s religious rupture with established Judaism . . . is a subjective rupture with the State of Israel.”
What goes unspoken, but not perhaps unintended, is the fact that Paul’s rupture with Judaism did not lead him to an absolute universalism; it led him to Christianity, that is, another particularism that was hostile to Jewish particularism. (The same is true of Marx’s and Trotsky’s Communism.) The lesson here for Jews is that there is no such thing as a concrete universal. Or, perhaps, that every concrete identity has an equal claim to participate in universal human identity. Likewise, when Bloch sought to shed his Jewishness in the belief that French society was absolute society, or when a post-Jewish writer like Proust paid no attention to Jewish culture on the grounds that French culture was absolute culture, they were only putting a greater distance between themselves and the goal they posited.
Where Bloch and Rose and Badiou meet is in their belief that there is a key—assimilation, emancipation, universalism—that will release the Jew from Jewishness. That there is no key does not mean that the Jew is locked in a prison. It means he is in a place that he can leave as often as he wants, but to which he always eventually returns—which is another definition of a home.
At age 97, Herman Wouk returns to Moses and goes postmodern.
In the spring of 1942—which, as Mel Brooks noted, was “winter for Poland and France”—Salo Baron published a boldly revisionist article. He was thinking of present-day Europe, a 12th-century Jewish woman named Polcelina, and perhaps also his colleagues.
Possible Jewish ancestry has fascinated both Jews and non-Jews when it comes to American historical figures, reaching as far back as Alexander Hamilton.
Sefer Yeṣirah is the most influential Jewish book you never heard of. Indeed, it has been argued that early commentaries written on the book tilled the gnostic soil out of which sprouted the tree of Kabbalah.