Between Rabbi and Outlaw

Between Rabbi and Outlaw April 7, 2017

In a review of new editions of the works of Israeli novelist S.Y. Agnon, Robert Alter highlights Agnon’s debts to both his Jewish heritage and modernist revolt against tradition. His description of Agnon’s story collection, A City in Its Fullness, captures both sides:

“The stories, some folkloric, many realistic, all take place in a Buczacz [Agnon’s birthplace} of centuries past. Agnon wrote them relatively late in life, brooding over the fate of his hometown, where almost the entire Jewish population was slaughtered on a single day by the Nazis. Though the stories are from time to time punctuated by angry denunciations of the killers, one must agree with the American scholar Alan Mintz that for Agnon ‘the truest response to the Holocaust is to create literarily the fullness of Jewish life before that dark shadow was cast.’” Some of the stories are “virtually hagiographic, celebrating prodigies of devotion to Torah scholarship and to the scrupulous observance of all the minute details of rabbinic law.”

But it’s not all nostalgia. It includes “shocking tales of vindictiveness, greed, gluttony, and the heartless exploitation of the helpless poor. Even a story that ostensibly extols an extreme act of piety, about a man who dies of hunger in the forest, though he has food, because he refuses to eat in the absence of water for the ritual washing of hands, makes piety look like craziness. A City in Its Fullness, at first glance a loving commemoration of the ancestors whose descendants were murdered, turns out to have a subversive undercurrent, as in much of Agnon. As an artist he was too deeply committed to an unblinking vision of things as they are to sustain an aura of reverence.”

This was what Alter describes as the “underlying paradox of Agnon’s multifaceted project as a writer. He often presented himself to his readers and to the public eye as a modern avatar of Jewish tradition, writing in the very Hebrew in which it had been fashioned, expressing reverence for its sages and saints. But he also had a sense that there was a kinship between the artist and the outlaw. Agnon certainly cherished the knowledge that could be attained from sacred texts, and also, as an autodidact and the friend of modern scholars, he evinced some admiration for secular scholarship as an instrument of knowledge.”

In Alter’s view, Agnon believed that the artist, not the rabbi, was “prepared to take the dangerous last step into the forest where ultimate contradictions must be confronted, where he must put himself beyond the pale of received values, like his secret brother, the outlaw.”

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