College People Interview With Chaim Potok

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College People
October, 1983
An Interview With Chaim Potok
with Doug Morgan, Editor

What happens when one's faith clashes head-on with a dominant idea in secular culture? How does an intellectually honest believer relate to the theory of evolution, higher criticism of the Bible, relativistic morality and all the other components of the modern Western outlook on life which are at odds with traditional faith?

Chaim Potok, a best-selling Jewish writer, deals with such questions in a way that is artistic, authentic and compelling. Artistic because Potok expresses his ideas primarily by telling stories. He's written five highly acclaimed novels in the past 15 years, and is currently working on another. Authentic because Potok writes from his own rich heritage of Orthodox Judaism. In each book the beliefs, customs, struggles and complex psyche of 20th-century American Judaism come alive in fascinating detail. Compelling because one who has grown up in a deeply religious subculture finds it easy to say "I've experience that, too," while reading about the challenges and conflicts faced by Potok's leading characters.

The novels speak to Christian as well as Jewish readers because, as Potok puts it, he has "stumbled quite inadvertently upon the central problem of any system of faith in the secular culture."

In addition to his novel, Potok has written an interpretation of Jewish history entitled Wanderings. A recent film version of his first book, The Chosen, has brought Potok's work to the attention of an even wider audience.

Raised in strict Orthodox Judaism, Potok broke with his fundamentalist past when he graduated from the college, and entered the Western, more liberal element of the Jewish tradition. He completed rabbinic training at Jewish Theological Seminary was ordained in 1954. He also holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.

Recently Chaim Potok granted and interview to CP's editorial director, Doug Morgan, and following are excerpts. Few CP readers will agree with everything Potok has to say, but we believe his perspective is valuable in helping to clarify how a believer should relate to modern culture.

You've said that each of your novels deals with a "core-to-core culture confrontation." What do you mean by that?

Well, at the heart of each culture is a very special way that is sees the world, a way that it thinks the human experience. Western civilization, for example, has as it core ideas generated by Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, Picasso, Stravinsky, Kafka, and of course many others.

Now inside Western civilization are a number of other ways of seeing the world that are not secular readings of the human experience. You might have various kinds of Jewish ways of thinking the world, ethnic ways and so on. All of us grow up in particular realities--a home, family, a clan, a small town, a neighborhood. Depending upon how we're brought up, we are either deeply aware of the particular reading of reality into which we are born, or we are peripherally aware of it.

Two hundred or more years ago most people on the planet were never aware of any reality other than the one into which they were brought up. But today we become aware of other readings of the human experience very quickly because of the media and the speed with which people travel the planet. And what ends up occurring today is that very early on ideas begin to clash inside people. You will turn on the television set and an idea that is very strange to you floats in toward you from the tube. That's a culture confrontation.

Various kinds of culture confrontations are possible. What I'm writing about are what I call core-to-core confrontations. That is to say, an individual brought up in the very heart of his own particular readings of the world encounters ideas from the very heart of the secular umbrella civilization in which all of us live today.

Can you give some examples from your books?

Well, in The Chosen, Danny Saunders, from the heart of his religious reading of the world, encounters an element in the very heart of the secular readings of the world--Freudian psychoanalytic theory. And these two elements are at odds with one another because Freud is utterly adversary to almost all the ways of structuring the human experience found in Western religions. No Western religion can countenance Freud's view of man. And yet there are some magnificent things from Freud, profound insights into the nature of man. The question that confronts an individual like Danny Saunders is, How do you come to terms with the good things in Freud and what do you do with the things that cause you tremendous stress? That's a culture confrontation; that is essentially what I'm trying to track.

Would you say either side wins this kind of confrontation in the lives of you chief characters?

In culture fusion something is yielded by both sides. The ideal would be that out of the fusion something new would result. You hope when you give something up that you gain something back. It is impossible to fuse totally with a culture for which you feel a measure of antagonism. The problem always arises when there is something in an alien body of ideas that attracts you. If nothing attracts you to it then you simply walk away from it.

As you are engaged in that kind of confrontation, trying to sort out how the fusion would take place, how do you decide what to discard and what to retain? Are there principles to guide you in that process?

Well, one hopes that if you're really related to the core of your particular culture, you have profound commitments to it, and that you are aware of how much you can strain it before you do violence to its essential nature. I'm dealing with individuals who are really familiar with the worlds in which they live.

The principles to use are the principles of one's own heart and mind.

Your latest novel, The Book of Lights, suggest a sort of ironic contrast between a well-educated 20th-century Jew who studies the Kabbalah, an ancient source of light, and the "death light" from nuclear weapons which some Jews helped to create. Could you comment on that?

Yes. There is considerable irony in that, bitter irony. As a species we are always hungry for new knowledge. And here is this extraordinary gift that has been given to us by individuals in this century, the gift that finally unlocks the source of the energy of the universe. And what do we do with it? We make a bomb with it to destroy. I don't know any greater irony than that. And it is even more ironic in that the bomb was ultimately dropped on the wrong enemy.

The reference to Kabbalah in The Book of Lights reminded me of apocalyptic writings. Are there similarities between the two types of literature?

There are, you're absolutely correct. Kabbalah essentially nourishes from apocalyptic literature. In the second and first centuries before Jesus, there were a variety of responses to the breakdown of the convenantal relationship. The covenant between God and Israel clearly stipulated that if you observe the commandments, you will be rewarded, if you don't you will be punished.. That's the treaty relationship. In the period of the Maccabean revolution it was precisely those who were observing the commandments who were being slaughtered. So, an enormous tension grew up--the Maccabean revolution against the Syrian Hellenizers which took place in the second century.

An enormous tension also grew up with regard to the essential nature of the covenant, because the covenant seemed not to be working. But three responses grew out of that tension. One was the response of the author of the book of Job, who claimed that though the covenant seemed not to be working here on earth, it does work on a cosmic level--we just can't fully understand it. And since we can't understand it fully on a cosmic level, why don't we simply assume that we can't understand it fully here, even though it really does work.

The second response is the apocalyptic response which has its beginning in the book of Daniel, and states that God is going to enter history very soon and offer us a new revelation. We will then be afforded all sorts of visions of what it is the future is all about. We will be able to walk with God, as it were, seeing the essential nature of creation. What we have to do is hold fast to the faith because soon, soon in a great explosion of war and traumatic action, God and His angels will enter history and resolve all the difficulties of man. That's another response of the convenantal relationship's breakdown. We call it the revelatory response.

The third response was to say, Well, it's not working too well now, let's defer the concept of reward to a later time. Let's do God's work on the day-to-day basis, try to make the small things of the world holy, and wait. By doing the small things on a day-to-day basis or a week-to-week basis and not expecting God to enter history tomorrow, thus deferring the covenantal reward to some nebulous future time, we might help bring that reward to us. That's the Messianic approach.

The Jobian response was easily absorbed into Rabbinic Judaism. The apocalyptic response became Christianity and to a very great extent fed into Kabbalistic Literature, which picked up on the notion of the apocalypse and said, "If God is entering history I would like to know what God is. What is God all about? The third response became what we call Rabbinic or Talmudic Judaism.

But you're quite right in sensing significant apocalyptic moments in Kabbalah. I think that what you are sensing are those elements consisting of Gnostic thought that entered both Judaism and to a very great extent Christianity in the first couple of centuries after Jesus.

What struck me was the Kabbalah became significant for a 20th-century individual like Gershon Loran. Perhaps apocalyptic literature has lasting significance, too, even though not every generation of believers relates to it in identical ways.

Sure. It's meaningful to Gershon Loran in The Book of Lights because all the other categories that he has used as a possible source for meaning in his life just don't seem to work for him anymore. This is a very battered young man. Every time something good happens to him it's wrenched out of his life. Every time he forms a relationship it is destroyed. His first visionary experience on the roof of his apartment house takes place on the day that the atomic bomb is dropped on Japan.

My feeling is that when normal systems no longer work effectively for a religious individual, that individual will resort often enough to the apocalyptic dimension of the religious experience, to the expectation that very quickly the horrors of the world must be resolved, and will be resolved by God. I think it is a fall-back system. Apocalyptic versions are fall-back systems when the normal systems cease to offer effective answers to the dilemmas of existence.

In an interview with Christianity Today a few years ago, you said you viewed the universe as meaningful, though there are pockets of apparent meaninglessness. From a traditional Christian standpoint, history has meaning because it is moving towards a goal--a time when all things will be made new. What makes history meaningful for you?

Well, I do believe that it isn't a blind swirl of absurd forces. I cannot see history in that fashion at all. It is meaningful to me in the sense that it is a record of my species and I can look at it and learn from it. Learn both from the terrible things that we have done and from the magnificent things we have done.

I think that to a very great extent we are partners with the divine in this enterprise called history. That is an ongoing relationship, and there is absolutely no guarantee that things will automatically work out to our best advantage. We will have to have very serious efforts put into the making of good history in order for us to benefit from it. I do not believe that grace is automatically extended to Homo Sapiens by a benevolent diety. we have to earn that grace. And by grace I simply mean no act of unearned kindness is granted to a deliberately malevolent species. In other words, Judaism is not Calvinism.

So, the significance of one's actions now are how they contribute to what the world is for subsequent generations?

That's right.

You worked for several years on the Jewish Publication Society of America's translation of the Hebrew Bible. How did your work on that project affect your view of the Bible?

It gave me the opportunity to see the Bible from advantage point of the many periods in which the Bible was created. Generally these days we have a tendency to see the Bible from our own perspective. Jews will see it through the perspective of Rabbinic Judaism, which has it own rather special way of interpreting the Bible. Christians will see it through the perspective of Pauline Christianity, to a very great extent. What my work on the translation offered me was the opportunity to see the Bible through the Bible itself. I began to get a sense of what the words really meant in their original sense. I also began to see the rather sophisticated artistry that went into the creation of the texts of the Bible. Whoever the people were who put the final touches to it, they were artists. And they enjoyed, they loved, what they were doing.

When you laboriously translate the Bible word for word over a period of 16 years, you become highly sensitive to the works. And I became aware of the extraordinary artistry that was part of the tapestry of the text. As a writer, this filled me with another dimension of attachment to that text.

Yet your work in biblical scholarship has led you away from a literalist/fundamentalist view of he Bible. Would you call the Bible inspired in any sense?

Oh, yes. Profoundly inspired. It's an attempt on the part of one people to link itself with that dimension in the universe which is divine, immaterial, the goal for the best of human striving, the source of whatever wisdom and intelligence and compassion we have.

Was there a particular reason why you decided to make a film out of The Chosen? Were you pleased with the way it turned out?

Interestingly enough the film initially was acquired by a Methodist fundamentalist from New Orleans named Roger Harrision. He wanted the world to see that there were American boys who were serious about their studies and about how to relate to their families and the world and that not every American teenager was and drugs and sex and hot rods, as he put it.

He was the one who got the initial seed money together to acquire the property and get a screenplay written. The film was his dream for about seven years. I trusted him. Ultimately when it went into production the people we chose had an absolutely fine track record, they had made some extremely high-quality films in the past. Again it was on the basis of trust and I was very satisfied with the results.

Are there more films planned on your subsequent novels?

Yes, there is some thought about making a film of My Name Is Asher Lev.

One practice very prominent in the Bible which has to a great extent been lost sight of by Christians is Sabbath observance. Do you see any significance in the Sabbath for individuals in our modern society?

I think it is a very important day. It's a crucial human experience. One of the unfortunate tendencies of modern society is the false sense of dominance it often gives man. The feeling that anything we want we can have. In the final analysis that feeling leads to profound dissatisfaction. It seems to be the nature of things that the more you have the more you want, the more you want the more you have, the more you have the more you want, and so on. And there is no real happiness to be had from all that wanting.

The Sabbath serves as a balancing act for the rest of the week. It is a day that situates man in his proper place as one more element of totality of things. It is a day of nourishment, reflection, for family, for the replenishment of spent human resources. I find it a crucial day in my own life.

Many Christian groups have experienced and are experiencing internal controversies which I find very similar in principles to those that are dealt with in The Promise. Do you think it is possible for a religious group to be tolerant and allow for plurality of views and still maintain a clear identity and sense of purpose? If so, how do you do that?

That's a very serious problem. Within Judaism itself you will find a significant spectrum of difference in terms of responses to your question. For example, Jewish fundamentalist, the very orthodox, will say, "No, it is not possible. There is one reading of the Jewish tradition; all other readings are wrong."

To the extent to which a Christian group is a fundamentalist group, I would suspect that it would have to respond in the same way. But Judaism has a complex variety of readings, especially in the modern period. Rabbinic Judaism is much more than its specific orthodox or fundamentalist component. And this permits the Jew to maneuver with a very richly textured tradition that is more than 3,000 years old.

I can see where the problem would come into very serious play with specific Christian fundamentalism s I would suspect, though, that if a Christian fundamentalism looks deeply inside itself, it will find a spectrum of readings. It is inconceivable to me that a million or three million or half a million human beings will think and feel precisely the same way on any single subject. I think that we all finally ought to admit that while a system of thought has boundaries, the boundaries can be narrow or wide. Even the most fundamentalist of fundamentalism, if it really looks, will find fairly wide boundaries.

The trick then is: How do you respect one another? The alternative is disruption of a planet. It is not linger just burning people at the stake, throwing people out, excommunication people or fighting wars. Either the species learn to listen--to listen--or we will simply disappear as a species. Now I submit that the price you pay for listening is far less than the price you pay for not listening and disappearing.

I'm not altogether certain that a fundamentalism of necessity has to argue that it is the only reading of the human experience in order to stay alive. There has got to be another way of articulating one's commitment to a body of ideas--a way other than saying, "I'm right and everybody else is wrong." And that's what we have to learn in the next half a century to a century, otherwise we are just not going to be around to talk to ourselves anymore.

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