What is missing in the uniformly negative response to Wendy Shalit’s recent bombshell in the New York Times Book Review, about how Jewish fiction bashes Orthodoxy, is an acknowledgement of the partial correctness of her claim: That by and large, Orthodox Judaism is more often the focus of wicked satire than fulsome praise.
Shalit’s tone in her essay “The Observant Reader” was so dismissive, and her blurring of the lines between fiction and community P.R. so thorough, that it was hard to find the nugget of truth in her critique.
In actuality, if one were to look at the most widely read American Jewish fiction over the past 10 years, Orthodox Judaism probably comes out looking more absurd than holy. Satire from a writer like Nathan Englander — whose fictional rabbi in the story “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” sends a congregant to a prostitute to solve a marital problem — is more common than the more naturalistic work of someone like Allegra Goodman, whose Orthodox community in “Kaaterskill Falls,” despite its problems, is a place where Jews of all denominations might want to spend a little time.
But — and this is a big but — Shalit’s narrow analysis misses the mark on several other levels. One of these is her assumption that Jews are deeply superficial readers, an argument that flies in the face of thousands of years of Jewish textual analysis.
Let’s look at two examples mentioned in Shalit’s essay. First, Englander’s story. It should be apparent to even the most obtuse reader that the rabbi’s directive to his congregant is meant to be satirical and not an accurate reflection of communal norms. More importantly, the story draws upon the themes and literary strategies of earlier Jewish writers, including I.B. Singer and the chasidic storyteller Nachman of Bratslav. Nachman, following on a long tradition of mystical reflection, urged his followers to achieve higher rungs of spiritual fulfillment by first descending — if only mentally — to the depths of sin. In “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” Englander is demonstrating the absurdity of such an experiment, even as he suggests the difficulty many men and women have adhering to the strictness of traditional Jewish sexual mores.
The second example is Jonathan Rosen’s new novel, “Joy Comes in the Morning,” in which Shalit dismisses the spiritual and sexual needs of a Reform rabbi named Deborah Green, while obsessing over the sexual hypocrisy of her Orthodox ex-boyfriend Reuben. Shalit thoroughly misses the book’s sociological point — in a post-denominational Jewish world, where gender is no barrier to rabbinical leadership, a Reform woman rabbi can hold the spiritual center of a novel in a way that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Reuben’s modestly flawed personality is at the very margins of the book; Deborah’s innovative grappling with tradition is at the center. The issue of a deep Jewish reading of literary texts goes all the way back to the Bible, which is full of characters whose moral decisions would get them thrown out of yeshiva in a heartbeat. I would assume Shalit would not begin a review of the Torah in the New York Times by saying, “The stories of Genesis portray Jews in a poor light. How God could write a book where incest and a lack of parental respect are represented as Jewish values is beyond me … .”
Instead, a tradition grew up of reading between the lines, looking closely at our patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ flaws as acknowledgment that even our holy ancestors struggled, and their attempts at building community were marred by their own very real weaknesses and limitations. The genius of the Bible is that the characters, despite their flaws, still have a great deal to teach us. This is so, at least in part, because they are vitally alive, and not just mouthpieces for certain ideas. The most accomplished Jewish characters in today’s fiction have the opportunity to teach us what it means to be moral, communal beings, whatever their relationship to specific Jewish practices. And our most creative and provocative Jewish writers — including Nathan Englander and Jonathan Rosen — have a special role to play in helping the Jewish community make the necessary self-critiques to keep it healthy and vital.
One of the tragedies of an increasingly insular Jewish Orthodoxy is that voices of creative dissent are heard less and less. Without access to the wisdom of our best fiction writers, whether they are compassionate, lacerating, or somewhere in between, traditional Judaism will undermine its very vitality — producing, in effect, Jewish readers like Wendy Shalit.