Toward a Jewish (M)orality: Speaking of a Postmodern Jewish Ethics

By S. Daniel Breslauer | Go to book overview

the power of silence no less than the power of words, the message that comes from the absence of sound. 30 Silence and orality share a partnership of morality in this reading.

Both the defenders and opponents of silence have impressive arguments. The controversy, however, is even more complicated. It may be that neither silence nor the absence of silence is possible. Elie Wiesel, whose writings on the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews demonstrate an eloquence on behalf of memory, sometimes imagines that silence alone responds effectively to that event. His novel The Oath tells about the madman Moshe, who extracts a promise from the novel's hero. That vow is one of silence. The witness must remain mute in the face of the memory that he bears. Wiesel's hero almost accomplishes the task. He then faces a choice--he must fulfill his oath and allow an innocent person to die or he must speak, thereby breaking his vow, but by so doing he will save a life. He chooses to betray silence through speech. 31 That is the lesson modern Jewish moralists draw. The price demanded by silence is too high. Just as Abraham breaks his silence with misleading words to Isaac, so a Jewish morality must learn to speak even at the risk of not saying enough or of saving too much. Even the legacy of the Shoah stands between the morality of silence and the necessary betrayal of speech. 32

This ambivalence toward expression highlights a third major characteristic of recent Jewish ethical thinking--awareness of the tragic situation in which we all must live. This awareness enacts an aesthetic drama, a drama in which the actors call attention to their individuality through the suffering they endure. Whether enduring in silence, exploding in speech, or wavering uncomfortably in an ambivalent stance between the two, contemporary Jews imagine themselves within a play they have not constructed, acting out a plot they do not understand, and seeking aesthetic meaning through ethical choosing. For such Jews Abraham provides a fitting postmodern role model. He instructs Jews today in their double obligation--that of choosing both beauty and ethics by choosing for the risk of diversity, by choosing to enact a partial morality in a world that does not permit us to ever achieve the impossible morality, which must, nevertheless, remain as an aspiration.


NOTES
1.
Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Walter Lowrie tr. ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954).
2.
Michael Oppenheim, Mutual Upholding: Fashioning Jewish Philosophy through Letters ( New York: Peter Lang, 1992), 131-33.
3.
See the discussion of Levinas and Rosenzweig in Susan A. Handelman, Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 44, 288, 303-4.
4.
Emmanual Levinas, Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Crary D. Mole , tr. ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 61.

-59-

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