Sunday, February 16, 2014

Salvation by Sholem Asch

This complex historical novel covers the period after the Napoleonic wars during the polemics against Hasidism and end of the Kotzker Rebbe's life and beyond.  It is about a simple son who yearns to learn Torah and to succeed in the spiritual realm of fear of Hashem.  He develops into a highly sensitive person able to empathize with the simple folk. In spite of the scholarly elite's ridicule, this son grasps the meaning of saying Psalms with the community of the ignorant. With the Kotzker's blessing Psalms becomes the vehicle for gaining an understanding of Jewish thought and fear of Heaven.  The Yiddish title of the book is "The T'hiliner Yid" (the Psalm Jew).  His empathy, sincerity, and ability to understand people catapults him unwillingly as the leader, a rabbi of the ignorant community.  Ironically, his reluctance to give advice mirrors the reluctance of the Kotzker to give advice claiming unworthiness.

The basic plot follows the career of the T'hiliner Yid who is told by the Kotzker that one can actually go very far through Psalms and one should not despair about one's learning.  Slowly but surely he gains much understanding and becomes a unique leader of a non - scholarly community.  The rabbi is approached with a demand to guarantee a child to a childless couple.  The demand coming from a highly unscrupulous horse trader is not simple but with strings attached that will help the poor.  The T'hiliner Yid makes the promise that Hashem will deliver, however, not without sacrifice: his own wife and newborn die in childbirth.  The rabbi becomes known as a miracle maker by also nursing a poor man back to health who claims that the rabbi gave back feeling to his feet, the rabbi cured his frostbitten feet and becomes his servant.

The promised child, a daughter grows up only to fall in love with a gentile peasant.  Although she is pledged to a Jewish scholar, the plan is to ride off with the gentile to the convent to be baptized and be entered into the Catholic faith and then marry the gentile.  With tremendous angst and turmoil, the child has doubts about carrying through with her apostasy, nevertheless the nuns and priest deny exit from the convent without conversion.  Eventually, the daughter commits suicide without leaving the faith of her ancestors. The rabbi, however, who throughout his life refuses to believe that the Divine could be anything less than good has a crisis of faith and wants to abandon his role as rabbi to the community.  He argues that one with little faith can give no serious advice.  Yet he overcomes his crisis with the argument of simple piety: one is not to question the Almighty but rather one is only to believe in His goodness.  Some questions are not meant to answered and thus should not be asked.  The book concludes with the rabbi predicting a very good year after Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.  The rabbi expires with the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

The symbolism of this book is overwhelming.  This is a story of tension between father and son, tension between the learned and ignorant and the tension between rich and poor.  It is a scathing criticism of scholarly arrogance.  The book also touches on the tension between Judaism and Catholicism.

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