Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Iconoclastic Commitments: Idolatry and Imagination in Cynthia Ozick and Ronald Sukenick

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Iconoclastic Commitments: Idolatry and Imagination in Cynthia Ozick and Ronald Sukenick

Article excerpt

This essay explores the enactment of the Judaic polemic against idolatry for two important contemporary novelists: Cynthia Ozick and Ronald Sukenick. It articulates the polemic that these novels have retrieved in very different ways, and addresses some implications of taking Ozick and Sukenick literally.


In this essay, I argue that what Lionel Kochan, in his book Beyond the Graven Image: A Jewish View, calls the "Judaic polemic against idolatry" constitutes an urgent critical logic that can be rendered accessible in secular terms: insofar as it presents itself an argument addressed to humanity, as it already does in the Hebrew Bible, and not merely a localized belief, it is always already accessible in such terms. In this case we can, as Kochan, contends, "expound the Biblical argument against idolatry in the Bible's own terms, and also in those elaborated by later thinkers, rabbis and philosophers" (1). Here, I examine Ronald Sukenick's Mosaic Man and Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers as attempts to take the Judaic polemic against idolatry literally. Both texts put the polemic against idolatry to work in broader epistemological and moral terms, accounting for the relationship between modes of representation and the demand for justice. Furthermore, as innovative works of fiction, these books provide promising test cases for exploring the implications of the second commandment for contemporary cultural critique.

Kochan singles out the following elements of the Judaic argument against "graven images" or "alien worship": the rejection of symbolic intermediaries between the human and the divine (the "imagination") in favour of symbolic action imitating God and re-enacting the human-divine relationship; a privileging of direct, pedagogical, oral transmission of memories over monuments claiming to represent the original event; a proscription of realistic human images, as indirect attempts to fix the reality of God; a concept of time as in flux, always "beginning," rather than divided into discrete sections; and, finally, an egalitarian ideal of social justice. According to Kochan, the rejection of idolatry entails a demythologizing approach to the world but not, contra Max Weber, a disenchanting one: its purpose is to open the world to applications of Jewish law, aimed at enacting and renewing creation and revelation.

While Kochan touches on some affinities between the Judaic polemic and post-representational thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Leora Batnitzky's study of Franz Rosenzweig, Idolatry and Representation: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig, provides a more helpful way of articulating the polemic with contemporary discussions. Batnitzky distinguishes between two contending definitions of idolatry in Judaism. One, associated with the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, views idolatry as worship of the wrong object: that is, idolatry involves a mistaken conception (anthropomorphic, in particular) of God. The other, associated with the medieval thinker and poet Judah Ha-Levi and Rosenzweig, sees idolatry simply as worship that has not been commanded by God. From this latter perspective, the whole question of what kinds of images are prohibited is misguided: what matters is the terms of sanctification within which the image is addressed. For Rosenzweig, idolatry is a denial of God's freedom to enter human reality however He chooses, and denies the possibility of authentic divine-human encounters (which must always be "figured" in some way--and, moreover, not simply as a compromise with our inability to imagine the unimaginable, but because the encounter is a distinctive event, to which form/content distinctions do not apply).

Batnitzky uses the two German words for representation to clarify the distinction: Vorstellung, representation in the sense of establishing a relationship between sign and object (a question of knowledge), is the type of relationship that concerns Maimonides and Cohen. …

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