Saturday, December 15, 2012

Should a Jew read Dostoevsky?

[Just by the way: On Chanukah, when people asked how many candles we were to light that night, was I the only person who felt an urge to respond, 'Last night we counted X'?]

There was a period, while I was in college I think, when I was very into Russian short-story writers and playwrights. I read quite a few, and was very impressed - until I came to Nikolai Gogol, and a story in which described the glory of the Cossacks. I couldn't read any further; the Cossacks were murderous butchers who slaughtered my ancestors.

Of course, if Jews were to shun all writers who hated us, we would be left with slim literary pickings; a quick thumbing through Allan Gould's "What did they think of the Jews" shows that we would lose a great deal of Western culture, including figures like Lord Byron and Joseph Conrad and Jack London. But it's hard for me to stomach reading the work of someone who views me, and my heritage, in unambiguously negative terms.

The question comes to mind now because I am considering picking up my copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I've owned it for years, it's universally acclaimed as a remarkable work, but every time I look at it, it's with this ambivalence.

Dostoevsky said this of Jews:

... I know that in the whole world there is certainly no other people who would be complaining as much about their lot, incessantly, after each step and word of theirs -- about their humiliation, their suffering, their martyrdom. One might think it is not they who are reigning in Europe, who are directing there at least the stock exchanges and, therefore, politics, domestic affairs, the morality of the states...

Now, how would it be if in Russia there were not three million Jews, but three million Russians, and there were eighty million Jews -- well, into what would they convert the Russians and how would they treat them? Would they permit them to acquire equal rights? Would they permit them to worship freely in their midst? Wouldn't they convert them into slaves? Worse than that: wouldn't they skin them altogether? Wouldn't they slaughter them to the last man...

The decision to read, or not to read, is not a matter of halachah; it's personal. I have a hard time with the idea of reading his work, however insightful and creative. I should be even more horrified if I found myself admiring it.

What do you think?

26 comments:

  1. Your question here is similar to one of mine. I'm not Jewish but earlier this year I left Christianity to accept the Jewish understanding of God. Since then I've been wondering how to relate to my own cultural background and all its expressions of humanity.

    A lot of the books, music, and artworks that I loved as a Christian did contain aspects of truth and beauty that I still believe in, but they're related in one one or another to Christianity and thus an idolatrous context... to which I'm particularly sensitive and don't want any connection. As far as wider Western literature and culture go, there are a lot of beautiful, skilful, and inspiring human expressions that still communicate ideas about life, God, and humanity that I don't want my heart to get caught up in. I don't want to be influenced by their ways of thinking and questioning and answering, despite (or because of) the strength of their aesthetic. It gets even more complicated with appreciating the cultural expression of other idolatrous or anti-Jewish religions and nations.

    As a gentile I'm trying not to lose myself culturally even as I come close to and learn from the Jewish people I know. I'm interested in Judaism because I want to follow your God and experience the light of His closeness to you, not because I just love Jewish culture or something. I think a bit of culture shock also makes it important for someone like me to know who I am with God, and to continue appreciating the good things in creation and in my own cultural background, so that I can really appreciate Jewish creative expressions for the value they hold. But the problem is that God set Judaism up to be separate in some senses, to preserve a way of seeing and knowing that is different from everyone else's. And foreign literature is often something I can't pour my heart into safely.

    So I was curious to come across this post where you mentioned your interest in Western literature... I would love to hear how you think of it.

    And maybe the answer to your question could be related to the answer to mine.

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  2. I don't have such a problem with antisemitic literature, at least if the authors lived before the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps it's because I would lose so many authors I like. Or maybe I'm just inured.

    I have much greater difficulty dealing with anti-Israel authors - and actors, directors and journalists - even if the subject matter at hand has nothing to do with Israel or Jews. I'm too conscious that they want my (literal and metaphorical) family to be murdered by terrorists and that they should know better, whereas it would be a lot harder for someone like Dostoevsky to know better.

    I actually got a free copy of The Brothers Karamazov about a year ago (part of several boxes of books donated to the Jewish library where I was volunteering after their previous owner died; there didn't seem to be any obvious reason why it was in there, as almost all the other books were Jewish in some way) but haven't got around to reading it yet.

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  3. There's a famous story from Rav Nachman, that some rabbis in the surrounding area were speaking badly about him. Rav Nachman's chassidim came to him and said "Rebbe, they are saying such horrible things we are going to cause them some trouble". Rav Nachman said "No, they aren't speaking about me, they are speaking about the person they think I am--(then the story diverges but the funnier version is)THAT guy deserves it". It's hard to believe dostoevsky had an accurate portrayal of Jews and their character in this world...if he's not living, and not causing current trouble---there's what to allow. Brad

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  4. yonati-
    That is a lot to consider. In a sense, though, we are coming to the same point from opposite directions. You are talking about avoiding a work because it is close to your roots; I am talking about avoiding a work because it is anathema to mine.
    On the whole, I think I would have greater concern in your shoes than in mine. I don't feel any risk of identifying with Gogol or Dostoevsky in their anti-Jewish attitudes; my problem is simply my dislike for them.
    Does this make sense?

    Daniel-
    I hear. But it still bothers me.

    AnonyBrad 3:03 PM-
    Cute story. But why is it hard to believe that Dostoevsky had exposure to Jews?

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  5. It makes sense. For me, maybe it's both what you said was my reason and what you said was your own. The stronger issue must be the place where we find similarity.

    As a side note, I wasn't talking so much about antisemitism as I was about works whose way of viewing the world go against Judaism in any way. I know that anti-Jewish paradigms were the focus in your post, but you made me curious about your approach to the humanities altogether.

    I'm avoiding works at the moment because of values that I share with you; not a deliberate choice but an experience of discomfort and caution. They're an anathema to what I hold to be important, even though I wasn't brought up with those roots, and that's the main thing. The fact of my upbringing compounds the problem, like you said. But what I'm wondering about must be part of the Jewish experience too. How do you interact with the valuable things from cultures around you, the things that add greater depth to your understanding of Judaism, humanity, and creation, and learn to speak a language that lets you communicate what you have with others... while humbly guarding your heart and mind from worldviews that might allure you to assimilation, distracting your ability to reason about truth and loyalty to a Jewish way of seeing?

    Our minds are so fragile and some sort of intercultural 'modesty' seems to exist in the Jewish relationship with God. As an example I read part of an ethical will lately where the author was asking that his son not be taught Western philosophy till he knew Judaism intimately... if he needed to learn foreign writings at all. But you'd want to avoid setting your self apart from society in ways that weren't healthy or helpful, as well.

    I'm planning to do an Honours (research) year at uni in the coming year, in the area of medieval literature. These thoughts about the interaction between Jewish culture/imagination and the surrounding cultures' literature are on my mind a lot. I might end up trying to research them, as found in the Middle Ages, as part of my project.

    Annelise

    (By the way, 'yonati' isn't my username or such... It's coming up because I used my Wordpress url to post here.)

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  6. There's also a lot I have to read for uni that I can't read for leisure, and it's frustrating to draw such a line between the two. If that makes sense.

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    1. Annelise-
      Thanks for taking the time to spell this out - and yes, it's a major issue in Judaism. It's an issue without real resolution, so far as I can tell; we are instructed to safeguard our love of Gd and our faith in G-d, but the way that plays out is different for different people. Even the "red lines", such as the Talmud's warning to stay far from idolatry, leave room for people to apply them differently in different circumstances.

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  8. Reb Shelomo Friefeld [The rosh yeshiva of Shar Yashuv] told me to learn secular stuff in my spare time. That meant that I was in the yeshiva in the morning and afternoon seder and at night I read History, Philosophy, and Dostoevsky, etc. The only thing that I read of Dostoevsky was "The Brothers Karamazov." I had a debate with a collage professor who came to the yeshiva one Shabat about the identity of the villain. I saw my view supported later in Cliff's Notes. But I do not say that the professor was wrong. He claimed to have found hints in the work supporting his view. Later in Israel I tried other works of Dostoevsky? But I could not get through them.



    The professor claimed the murderer was the.....

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  9. This is an issue that musicians confront as well. With symphonic music, of course, there's usually no text, so there's no overt display in the moment as there is in your example. Richard Wagner was a terrible anti-Semite, and until quite recently the Israel Philharmonic refused to perform any of his music, although even his operas really never had any explicitly anti-Jewish content. Then there are all the composers who converted, more or less voluntarily. And recent research has confirmed that Herbert von Karajan, the great conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for many years, was in fact an official member of the Nazi party although he denied it vigorously later on.

    It's sometimes difficult to reconcile the knowledge that an artist was a poor excuse for a human being with the fact that his output is beautiful and life-affirming and -enhancing. I hasten to add that I don't put the quote you cite in that category!

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    1. Bratschegirl -
      Yes, I would have the same problem with music. In my youth in the '80s, I loved Falco's Amadeus. Today, the idea of listening to an Austrian singer makes me uncomfortable - and this even without any knowledge about the man himself.

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  10. You have to accept the truth from those who speak it. It sounds like you like Russian literature. You should read the book.

    (If you decide against reading the book, consider reading it on Tisha B'Av.)

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    1. An interesting thought. Reading fiction is pursuit of truth, after a fashion, I suppose.

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  11. I like philosophy, including Immanuel Kant, who disliked Jews. I try to ignore it. Dostoevsky wouldn't bother me.

    I avoid supporting LIVING authors who dislike Jews or Israel. So no Roger Waters / Pink Floyd. No Alice Walker (wrote The Color Purple), etc. I don't want to enrich them by buying their works.

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  12. Fenster-
    I hear, but I don't think that would work for me. More than concern for benefiting them, I'm concerned about 'connecting' with them.

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  13. I agree with your reply to Fenster about 'connecting' with them. I feel very sensitive at the moment to texts and music etc. even when it's not inherently incompatible with the Jewish understanding of God and life, just because I know that the composers come from a world of values and beliefs that is not something I want to identify with at a heart level or deeply admire.

    I know a lot of Jews have a deep relationship with God without having such a level of sensitivity as I'm feeling. I don't know whether for me, though, it's restricting (from both input in my creative consciousness, and output into relationships with others) and should be corrected, or whether it's nourishing my ability to value holiness and should be preserved. I see that it's a very personal thing though, even though there are some black and white guidelines and values to walk by in those choices. And there's the issue of how much to trust your own heart in things like this, as well :)

    Annelise

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  14. It's amazing how there are often two important sides to the conversation when it comes to the strict/lenient divide in the letter and spirit of moral law and Jewish covenant Law. It's so important to have this ongoing conversation and self-correction, I guess. We don't want to be ridiculous or legalistic in the things we avoid, but we also can't just do whatever seems right; we can have faith that it's better, more expansive and rich, to be with the creator than to be with anything in creation that draws us away from closeness with Him and His thoughts.

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  15. Annelise-
    Re: Your first comment - I think it is very personal, and it is a balance which you may need to shift over time. I certainly would not want to see someone lose that sensitivity entirely, but in certain settings it may do more harm than good. Which leads to your second comment, of course.

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  16. Agreed. After having this conversation in comments here, I decided that it would be healthy to *deliberately* try and find ways that it is possible for someone like me to engage in Western cultural expression without compromising loyalty to the Jewish knowledge of God, history, humanity, etc.

    This sounds a bit crazy, but for me it is an important experiment- I went through some of my favourite secular musicians whom I don't listen to because I'm not sure of their mindset, and then just took out the songs that I can still wholeheartedly resonate with and made a long playlist out of them. I'm not saying that everyone needs to do that (it feels a bit like censoring!), and in time I may either find it easier to listen to books and music with various worldviews, even for enjoyment, without being impacted by them at the core... or else end up spending more time amidst Jewish creative expression while engaging with the rest of the world in a different way. One or the other. But for now, I realised that it's important to do some safe trial and error and actively seek ways not to be cut off from the good things in my own culture... so that I'll have a strong way of doing that available to me :) There's a rabbi who teaches at my university as well, who has a simple and deep commitment to Torah and is also very interested in how secular media and foreign learning/culture can contribute to the growth of Judaism without assimilation. He said that I can chat with him soon about these things as well; I don't know if what works for him will work for me, and I'm careful about risking a lack of awareness of how I am influenced by attitudes and ideas (they are so potent and subtle at times, but it matters).

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  17. P.S.- So I think that this way I'm trying out does involve avoiding identifying with material that's gratuitously against the Jewish testimony. But with material that's neutral, maybe I'm willing to read and listen to composers who are personally living out ideas that I don't want to connect with... as long as I'm clearly deliberate about picking and choosing what aspects of their work I love, untangling it. If I applied that to your original question, it would mean reading anti-semitic authors with a sense of absolute caution and with some detachment, but nonetheless an appreciation of the individual elements of beauty or insight in their work. This may or may not work for you though, since we're in such different situations. For me, there are a lot of questions still remaining about the truth of the Jewish revelation, so I need to guard my heart from confusion that is driven by feelings rather than truth.

    I'm sorry if all these questions seem legalistic or over the top... I'm not suggesting that it's a universal question... but for me it is having a real impact on the direction in which my values and loyalty to Hashem really run, and on my sensitivity to know Him even amidst the distraction and confusion. In a slightly different topic, I heard a rabbi say recently that every stringency in applying the law inherently involves a leniency. It is a decision to put a very wide fence that separates a person from the commandment itself, and it can also involve compromise in a person's peace of mind... which is the most important tool given to us by our Creator so that we can serve Him. So a healthy understanding is to distinguish as much as possible, in practice, between the Law itself and the stringencies, and to discourage unnecessary stringencies. It would be a very beautiful thing if Jewish communities would encourage stringencies where needed to heighten the commitment to and awareness of holiness, and to be careful in matters where Law and culture are harder to disentangle... but then to have an equal commitment to avoid that approach for the sake of anything else. In a way, I'm trying to apply that to this question I have: deciding to be over the top for the sake of preserving relationship with God, but also making a deliberate effort to engage with the world around me (both Jewish and gentile societies) in every way that is beneficial and possible and freeing.

    Thanks for your thoughts, they've been meaningful! We'll see how it goes :)

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  18. Because I am a firm believer that anyone who has had a proper exposure to Jews would not be anti-semitic. I would argue the same thing about other ethnicities--but I believe it strongest about Jews. Brad

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  19. It is still something which any Jew should find averse and repulsive. An example: I was in a museum which had stood in the walkway a church built in Cologne during the 14th century. Now, It had a clerical, awe-inspiring yet relaxing and fascinating essence to it. People lingered, admiring the tall, deep blue stained glass gothic windows, the special echo and hush from the ancient flagstone walls and the ribbed-gothic ceiling curvatures. I was repulsed. This very building was a command post, a center and a בית הוראה for endless persecution of a nation walled against their will in a small, dehumanizing ghetto and treated as dirt by supposedly righteous and peace loving, kindness performing people. To bask in the esthetic significance of such a place is repulse in a command form, and I see no difference that to the literary works of haters, from Byron to the Cossacka. -R.

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    1. R-
      Thanks for your comment, and definitely understood regarding your example, as well as mine. But how far would we go with it?

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  20. I think it's always important to understand the mindset of anti-semitism. While I personally prefer to boycott Wagner for eternity because of his direct connection to Nietszche's sister and husband who were actively involved in dialect later utilized by Hitler and the Nazis, the typical language espoused by Dostoevsky, Renoir, and a myriad of others is always painful to discover after admiring their works. The fact is, prejudice and racism is not a mindset of the uneducated and talentless and it's important to understand how such become this way; it's important to understand how they grew up, how their religious upbringing informed them, how Jews are recognized as having a strong tribal identity (even if individuals don't see this themselves) and are therefore often the first victims of rabid xenophobia. Why along the road to the cyclical murderous rage that culminates in expulsions and worse in the Jewish communities do non-Jews like Emile Zola rise up against the tide and reset a nation's moral compass? So don't shun artists, the spokespersons of the past and present generations, who mouth off with this rhetoric if you can stomach it. Rather look at their work, engage in dialectic as they do these days ACROSS THE HIGHLY PUBLIC ACCESSIBLE INTERNET, address the shortcomings in their mindthink. If they avoid DIRECT confrontation, as the disappointing Alice Walker seems to in her impassioned one-woman tirade of late against Israel and Jews as a friend of Farrakhan, then be sure to point out the hatred and disconnect exhibited in her unreasonable reasoning. The great danger is intimidation in the face of genius to make oneself heard, to speak out against the haranguing of these artists who suddenly have the power to influence millions with their call to divest in Israel, hush up Israeli educators (oh let's just say JEWS), and other misguided and ANTI-JEWISH ravings; their inability in most cases that their condemnations ARE anti-Jewish, their unwillingness to accept the possibility and probability that what they are called upon to condemn are likely untruths, and certainly taken out of context. Yet they choose to take a "side" that would undoubtedly lead to the extermination of a people yet again if acted upon...FOR ALL THESE REASONS, don't ignore the writings and viewpoints of historical anti-semitic-artists to understand and know better how to understand and respond to those of today and to know how to address issues that bring about this mindset in those of tomorrow and correct them.

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    1. Anonymous 5:49 PM-
      I agree with your point re: reading those authors for utilitarian purposes, like understanding anti-Semitism (or, for that matter, participating in a university course). My discomfort would be with reading them for personal aesthetic appreciation.

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