Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1497
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. (p. 116)
All of these characters, however, appear as peripheral rapids churning about the maelstrom that is the central character, Tsemakh Atlas. There has seldom been a more powerful characterization in all of Yiddish literature than that of the brooding and guilt-ridden Tsemakh, who, to shift the figure of speech, hovers over the pages of the novel like some gigantic Promethean vulture ready to swoop down and devour its own liver. (pp. 116-17)
Although Tsemakh's self-punishing behavior often seems exaggerated in the light of modern morality, in Grade's skillful delineation he emerges as an impressive and tragic figure. This is so because his nature, though it appears within the Jewish context of a religiously sanctioned socialized masochism, is, nevertheless, universal. Tsemakh is not self-destructive merely because he is an adherent of the Musarist philosophy. On the contrary, the Musarist yeshiva offers him the convenient framework within which he can inflict the needed punishment. (p. 117)
Tsemakh's disposition contains both of these elements. When faced with the prospect of moderate comfort, as in his betrothal to Dvorele Namiot, he flees into the arms of the dubious and flighty Slava. When finally presented with the opportunity of becoming a settled, wealthy, and possibly philanthropic merchant through his marriage with Slava, he destroys that relationship and becomes involved with Ronya, with whom he will not permit himself even a modicum of pleasure. Thus, his life becomes a long series of punishments and failures which, to his mind, are richly deserved and which provide him with a certain measure of perverse enjoyment: "Though he had found no answer during his solitude, he spent every free hour there and took pleasure in tormenting himself."…
Why this overriding inclination for self-negation and humiliation? Perhaps it is precisely because he feels so deeply the animal part of his nature. It is certainly no accident that most of the characters in this novel are described in animal terms. Thus, Vova Barbitoler looks like a man "who had crawled out of a forest cave," or else he is described as a "wild beast sunning his face." Volodya Stupel, Tsemakh's brother-in-law, is compared to "a bear with an upraised paw," and Slava herself is pictured as a cat: "She clambered over to a deep chair, folded her legs beneath her again, and stroked her knees with both hands." In addition, there are numerous descriptions stressing the dark, animalaspects of Tsemakh's nature. (p. 118)
Tsemakh despises himself for these animal features…. The buried lust hidden within himself, Tsemakh feels, must be extirpated by resorting to a religious masochism.
There are two aspects of these "buried lusts" that bear remarking upon. One is that they cannot possibly refer only to Tsemakh's feelings for the bizarre and inaccessible Slava, for these lie on the surface, as do his hesitant gropings for Ronya. Instead, it is quite likely that Tsemakh is actually punishing himself for those infantile lusts and desires which are "buried" in the unconscious and which have surfaced again with merely a change in characters: it is no longer the forbidden mother who is desired, but a Slava or a Ronya.
Secondly, it is not incest that the rabbis regard as the ultimate sin, but, rather, the wish to do away with God. The son not only wishes to possess the mother but also to replace the father. Throughout the novel, Tsemakh is tortured by doubt…. Thus, Tsemakh punishes himself not only for his fantasies of forbidden women, but also because of his ambivalent feelings toward God the father. In so doing, he indulges in even more sinful self-aggrandizement: to Grade's brilliant imagery of Tsemakh as a bird of prey must be added another image—that of Tsemakh as a sinister avenging angel who steals God's wrath and turns it against himself.
These latter remarks, which may seem to be a kind of psychoanalytical divertissement, are perfectly fitting in view of the therapeutic aspects of another wonderful Grade characterization—that of Reb Avraham-Shaye, referred to in the novel as Mahaze Avraham. This imposing but radiant figure, who is based on one of the author's early teachers, Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, also known as Hazon Ish, counters the fierce gloom which emanates from Tsemakh Atlas. He calms the emotional storms raging about Tsemakh and soothes the self-inflicted wounds of the Musarnikes with patient listening, a deferential smile, and gentle aphorisms which point the way to right conduct. (pp. 118-19)
Mahaze Avraham never proposes a general moral laxity, nor does he advocate a secular humanism with little or no connection to the basic customs and practices of traditional Judaism. On the contrary, though he espouses social and artistic sublimation, he does so within the context of the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism: "The strength that can lift man up is inherent in the acquisition of wisdom…. Hence studying Torah is the only sure way…." (p. 119)
It should be noted that behind the technical device of animal imagery, Grade's art remains essentially humanistic and imbued with a sense of high seriousness. Through its use of multiple plots and characters The Yeshiva conveys an atmosphere teeming with the thickness of Jewish life…. In its total effect, Grade's The Yeshiva not only communicates a brilliant illusion of life and reality within the Jewish context and at a particular point in Jewish history, but it also imparts Grade's essential message: it inveighs against the excessive achievement of a self-defeating heroism, and restates the traditional Jewish belief in an inward principle of tolerant order. (pp. 119-20)
Moshe Moskowitz, "Contra 'Musar'," in Judaism (copyright © 1978 by the American Jewish Congress), Winter, 1978, pp. 115-20.
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