From its inception, the theology of Rabbinic Judaism has been that of a beleaguered community whose classic institutions were under constant attack. In reshaping and restating the principles of a normative Judaism at the critical moment when the political and judicial responsibility for the community first passed into their hands, the Rabbis' main effort was directed at keeping the Torah supreme. They reasoned that adherence to the highest discernible meaning of the Torah would keep the community together and, at the same time, promote the higher life of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the early teachers of the Torah were superlatively practical and what they enjoined was not blind and automatic obedience, but, rather, a reasonable adherence to the Law in keeping with Hillel's principle of "practical benevolence."
It is this traditional principle, in conflict with the self-damning dogma of ascetic Musarism, which forms the background of Chaim Grade's sweeping and masterful Yiddish novel, Tsemakh Atlas, the first volume of which is [an English translation entitled] The Yeshiva.
Grade's novel begins at that point in Jewish history when the Musar movement had begun to fail as a constructive religious reaction to the Haskalah. Founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter in 1840, it sought to counter the centrifugal effects of the Haskalah by stressing Torah study, good deeds, compassion, and critical self-examination, all within the fraternal bounds of a cohesive Jewish community. Some of Salanter's later disciples, however, contributed to the eventual inefficacy of the movement by accenting a harsh and masochistic asceticism, thus forgetting the practical view of the founders of normative Rabbinic Judaism who, many centuries earlier, had recognized both human weakness and potentiality and had decreed that "no ordinance is to be laid on the people unless the majority of the people are able to bear it."
Placing the action of his novel in the environs of Vilna, Poland, after the first World War, Grade spins an alternately moody and volcanic tale which is not only breathtaking in its polychromatic effect, but which also gives visible evidence of the profound and compassionate understanding of man's vulnerability to his own instincts.
It is the milieu of the Musarist yeshiva—its students, supporters, enemies, and its particular flavor—which is the focal point of the novel. For those to whom the word yeshiva conjures up arcadian visions of pale and sensitive young Jews forever preoccupied with matters of Torah and other heavenly thoughts, Grade's portrayal comes as a rude shock. The paleness is there, but the sensitivity is frequently replaced by lust, greed, and a vicious concern for self-glorification. These yeshiva students often evince a pettiness which is at the furthest remove from the intent and spirit of the Torah. (pp. 115-16)
The novel bristles with characterizations, and there are fascinating portraits of some of the parents of the yeshiva students as well. These portraits and vignettes are never flat, or black and white. Each of the characters, negative though he may be, seems caught up in the turmoil of his feelings, and in the feelings of those about him. The ultimate effect is that of an East European Jewry rocking on its emotional heels, clawing its way to some inscrutable goal….
In addition, Grade's profiles of pious and love-hungry Jewish women, as well as of scheming adolescent girls bent on snaring a husband, are drawn with skill and sympathy. The most memorable feminine portrait is that of Slava, the protagonist's wife....
(The entire section is 1497 words.)