Firing off a Jewish Canon: The Modern Jewish Canon; A Journey through Language and Culture

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Firing Off a Jewish Canon: The Modern Jewish Canon; A Journey Through Language and Culture

Ruth Wisse has written a very important -- and long overdue -- book on great novels of Jewish literature, focusing on Jewish works of the last century. It is particularly timely because the National Yiddish Book Center recently invited a panel of judges to create a list of the 100 greatest books of Jewish literataure from the Enlightenment to the present, expected to be announced later this year. Wisse's book will undoubtedly make an important contribution to that endeavor.

The book is important, Wisse tells us, because teaching Jewish civilization is important "for its own sake and as a counterpoint to antisemitism, and...learning about the Jews is more important for the future of humankind than learning about their [the Jews'] extinction." I think there is something at least as urgent today that needs to be added as a great virtue of this book: It will strengthen Jewish culture and Jewish identity among many who are unaware of Jewish contributions to world literature.

The benefits of the political, social, and economic freedom enjoyed by Jews in the last two centuries have inevitably produced acculturation and assimilation, including vast defections from Judaism -- both as a religious and a national or ethnic identity, identities that are worth preserving. Moreover, the problem has become significantly and increasingly acute even in Israel, where post-Zionist ideology is moving toward a conception of Israeli identity and the Israeli polity as embracing a secular democratic state that has no necessary connection to a concept of Jewish civilization and Jewish culture.

This problem, of course, is associated with an important and unique aspect of Judaism, which has been from its inception, both conceptually and practically, a religion and a polity or ethnic political community. So much so, that even Spinoza understood that Jewish ritual was an important part of a Jewish political identity. Unfortunately, he concluded -- with a prescient, if flawed, analysis -- that, in the diaspora, the rituals of Judaism were dispensable, without explaining how a Jewish return to a homeland and nationhood could be achieved if Judaism became just a Unitarian-style religion of universal moral values and behavior over a prolonged period in the diaspora.

Ruth Wisse now reminds her Jewish audience -- which, I believe, is the primary audience for this book -- that Judaism, as a civilization, has produced, in addition to its many contributions to economics, law, philosophy, music, and poetry, to name just some of the important aspects of Jewish civilization during the past 2000 years, a body of literature in its principal modern form, the novel, that ranks with the literature of other nations for its artistry and its message of life, of struggle and survival, and sometimes, of individual and national redemption in history.

For those who have lived without knowledge of this aspect of Jewish civilization, which, in fact, is almost as long as the history of the novel itself -- or longer, if we consider the novels and other fictional works produced during the Inquisition's reign -- Wisse sets before us a notable and representative sampling of great Jewish novels of the last century that is worthy of respect, of study, of appreciation, and of understanding. In this regard, she has made the beginning of a vital contribution to stemming the tide of continuing defections from Jewish identity, insofar as they are caused by an almost total ignorance of all of the vibrant aspects of Jewish civilization since the loss of Jewish nationhood 2000 years ago and the completion of the Talmud 1500 years ago. That void in Jewish self-knowledge easily becomes a void in Jewish self-respect and, ultimately in Jewish identity and the benefits of its preservation.

In addition to noting this crucial objective of this book, there is the related question of the causes of this problem and the importance of Wisse's book, and similar efforts that will surely flow from it, in correcting or ameliorating those causes. …