Back to menu






On Being Proud of Uniqueness

Everybody grows up inside a particular, almost invariably small world. Everybody, without exception. Very early in our lives we learn the "banking system" of that world: family, small town, neighborhood, church, community. At the same time, ideas begin to come to us from outside this small particular world. These ideas are often alien to those values we are being taught in our particular world. We learn to behave and act in a certain way from our fathers, mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. We learn if we behave incorrectly, certain things follow from that incorrect behavior. We turn on the television set and someone is behaving incorrectly. Nothing happens as a result. It's a joke. It's a laugh. It's accepted. When we experience this sort of thing in an ongoing way, we develop a certain method of handling this constant clash of values.

What I'm trying to explore in my books is one kind of such confrontation of ideas. Of cultures in tension with one another. A kind of tension that I experienced as I grew up and made my way into this world. All of us have one kind or another of ongoing culture confrontation almost every day of our lives. We don't think about it often because by the time we're out of our teens we learn to handle these confrontations almost in the same way as we walk and breathe. It's a kind of choreography that we develop without thinking about it too much. Then along comes the novelist and looks at it, opening it up so that we can more or less see what it is we are really doing without thinking about it. The novelist forces us, if we read the novels, to look at what it is we are doing and urges us to think about it, to see if something can be learned or understood about ourselves and our species by observing this confrontation.

One of the things we are taught very early is that each of us is a unique creature. We need that sense of uniqueness to take us through the travail of existence. We are taught that we count as individuals, that the group we belong to is a unique group, and that this group counts in the spectrum of the broader community in which all of us live. That uniqueness is then challenged by ideas that inevitably impinge upon us from other kinds of uniqueness.

When individuals are brought up in the heart of such a community or culture, they learn and commit themselves to its values. They usually understand the problems inside that community and are willing to cope with those problems. They see the world through the systems of values of that unique community. At the same time however, they experience important ideas or values that come to them from the general world outside their community. These ideas come to them from the core, the heart of that general world. When a person finds his or her own inherited values to be in conflict with those of the general culture, he or she experiences what I have come to call "core-core culture confrontation." All of my books are an attempt to explore the dimensions of this kind of confrontation.

One thing absolutely fundamental to an appreciation of the core of one's community is a sense of identity with its core, a sense of the uniqueness of that community. This sense of identity is born out of the following elements:

(1) You learn early on in your life the stable values of your particular community. (2) You learn early on in your life that your life makes sense, that it's important, it counts. (3) You learn that human actions are meaningful. They resonate. One cannot act without in one way or another affecting. (4) You learn early on in your life that action and value ought to be in harmony. You cannot have a viable sense of self worth if you value one thing and act contrary to what it is that you value. When this happens, a dichotomy or split in the self is established. Finally it seems to me that fundamental to an awareness of the nature of a core of both a tradition and an individual in that tradition is (5) that the individual be made aware of what is right and what is wrong, as far as the community is concerned, and that the individual be able to choose between the two. These are the components that go into the making of a healthy, well-adjusted individual. With this firm sense of identity an individual finds his or her place in the core of the tradition of a commmunity and, out of it, establishes a sense of his or her particular uniqueness as an individual..

Sooner or later, if that individual is a thinking person, if that individual ends up in a college somewhere, that individual is going to come across alien elements from the general civilization in which all of us live. These elements are referred to as Western Humanism, Western Secularism or Western Secular Humanism. It is a civilization born about two to three hundred years ago in western-central Europe out of what we call the Enlightenment. A civilization whose founding fathers are people like Voltaire, and Diderot, Kant, Hume, Darwin, Marx, and, closer to our time, people like Kafka, Joyce, Stravinsky, Picasso. Ideas from this secular world inevitably impinge upon an individual born in a church community or a synagogue community, especially when that individual embarks on a college experience. And then tension is generated. He or she begins to look at those, alien ideas and wonder whether they speak in a meaningful way.

With this dynamic in mind, I would like to now show how the books that I've written explore this confrontation of cores of cultures and how in some instances a resolution is reached, and in other instances point out that the resolution may well be impossible to achieve.


The Chosen is essentially about the core of my own tradition. At the very heart of any living tradition there are at least two elements of ongoing tension. One element says, "I don't need the outside world to solve my problems. It is disgusting and creates only ugliness. Why do I need the noise, the music, the pornography, and the heathenism therein. Using my own inner resources I can solve all my problems from inside my own tradition." The second element insists on an openness toward the outside world. "There are some really beautiful things in the world beyond us," it points out. "There are really things that we can learn from that world. Not everything about the outside world is ugly. Let's borrow the good things, and, by integrating them withour tradition, enrich ourselves as a result." These two elements are an ongoing conflict in any viable religious tradition.

In The Chosen those two elements are brought into confrontation with one of the fundamental gifts to us from the very heart of the general civilization that we call Western Humanism. The gift to us we call Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

When the religious person encounters Freud for the first time he or she is struck dumb by what Freud has done to the human being. For Freud has no supernatural, no priest, no rabbi. With no supernatural, religion is a kind of mask, an infantile delusion of the species which we all ought to outgrow. Everything is tightly linked in a causal chain to the origin of this or that pathology. Understand the origin and you can more or less deal with the pathology. There is no intrinsic meaningfulness in the universe, no intrinsic sense to human actions. Most of our actions come from a kind of oceanic, unconsciousness inside ourselves about which most of us are only dimly aware.

How do you relate this kind of a system to a religious world? Most religious people, upon encountering Freud, walk away and will have nothing to do with him. But what if you sense in his body of thought some element that resonates inside of you? That speaks to you? That you can absorb for whatever reason? Danny Saunders comes to this realization in ironic fashion in The Chosen. Caught in the throes of a strange method by which his father is teaching him compassion for human suffering, Danny finds in Freud the instrumentality for handling this pain and suffering. It is in the nature of things that once you are inside an alien system of thought, no matter what the door that brings you in, you slowly begin to wander around inside that system in ever widening circles until more and more of the system becomes hospitable to you. That is precisely what happens to Danny Saunders in The Chosen. Danny eventually makes his peace with Freud by absorbing and utilizing Freudian psychoanalysis and its instrumentality for the healing of human pain and suffering, and for research into the same. But he will have absolutely nothing to do with Freud's view of man. When Reuven Malters asks him what he thinks about Freud's view of man, Danny will simply not respond. He takes his own view of man and uses that as the basis upon which he places this powerful instrumentality for research into the healing of human suffering.

That's how Danny Saunders tries to resolve his encounter with Freud. I know that many of you are thinking that this is hardly a viable intellectual solution to this problem, and I'll come to that in just one moment.


In The Promise the confrontation is between a fundamentalist religion and another gift to us from our general civilization. A gift right from the very heart of that civilization developed in the Universities of western Europe in the last century. A methodology we call scientific text criticism. It's a methodology that uses all the modern findings of archeology, philology, ancient languages, and the new things that we know about the cultures of the ancient world and their interactions to explore the developement of ancient texts.. It brings all this powerful instrumentality to bear upon the central and sacred texts of the western tradition. The texts of the Bible. For fundamentalists, these texts are in one way or another divinely revealed. They are the word of God to man. We touch and tamper with those texts at our great peril.

Indeed for the Jew the problem is considerably exacerbating, in that for the religious Jew all of Jewish law is predicated upon the idea that the first book of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, is literally word for word revealed by God to Moses at Sinai and may not be touched. The entire legal religious tradition of Judaism is founded upon the infallibility of that text. You are forbidden to touch that text, especially its legal portion, for once you begin to tamper with the text and alter the words all the laws predicated upon those words begin to totter. It's quite as if we discovered one day that there was another version of the American Constitution and that the one we've been working with all along isn't quite the one that they were supposed to have agreed on at that meeting in Philadelphia. To tamper with the sacred text is to do violence to the core of a tradition.

Yet what do you do with the truths that seem to come to us from the discipline we call Scientific Text Criticism? What do you do with the windows that it opens up for us on the development of species?. Do you throw out truths in order to maintain your uniqueness, your allegiance to your particular core? Is that the price that is being exacted from us? That's the tension that an individual like Reuven Malter is caught up in in The Promise. A tension felt by many of the people with whom I grew up, that of a core-core confrontation of ideas.

Reuven Malter resolves this particular tension in the following way. He will take this methodology and apply it only to the text of the Talmud. This is a vast work which took about 800 years to develop and create, and whose earliest texts are concurrent with the latest texts of the Bible. Now you will say to Reuven Malter, "What kind of sense does this make?" If you're going to apply this kind of methodology in order to understand the Talmud, why not apply it as well to the last books of the Bible? "Well," Reuven Malter will say to you, "if you want me to apply it to the last books of the Bible, I will. But then then you'll say to me, "Why not apply it to the books that are adjacent to the last books, after all aren't they also concurrent?" And I'll do that. And you'll say to me, "Why not apply it to those books that are adjacent to those books that are adjacent to those adjacent books?" And before you know it we're inside the first of the three volumes of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, in which the legal portion is supposed to be inviolate. Then we begin to tamper with the legal portion and all Jewish law begins to totter. Therefore, I will simply make a hard and fast rule. The Talmud, yes. I will alter text, change things around, maneuver and manipulate pages in an attempt to understand what is in the Talmud's order, but I will not apply this method to the Bible." Thus Reuven resolves this particular confrontation.

Now I would like to ask if this really an honest way to proceed? Danny Saunders chops up Freud, and Reuven Malter chops up the Bible and the Talmud, each for his own convenience. Is this an intellectually honest way to proceed? And the answer is probably yes. It is certainly the case that many do this kind of thing. And it is absolutely the case that the very founding fathers of Western Secular Humanism did precisely this as they went about creating this super-sophisticated secular civilization in which all of us live today. People like Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and others reached back into the civilization of the classical world of Greece and Rome and took from them what they regarded as it's loveliest aspects, it's cool and rational thoughts. They took its art, its eclectics, its stoics and thought that they were going to create a new world, a thinking world not locked into throes of religious thought. Those aspects were the ones they made the paradigms of this new civilization. They totally ignored the ugliness and brutality of this ancient world, its orgiastic elements, its lust for power, and its crude religion. They very carefully selected out of classical Rome and Greek culture those elements toward which they felt a significant affinity. They performed the same act of selective affinity that all of us do when we encounter an alien culture. We pick and choose those elements of that alien culture toward which we feel a measure of affinity. Then, adopting those elements, we reject the others, precisely as Danny Saunders does with Freud and Reuven Malter does with scientific text criticism.

The Chosen and The Promise, although dealing with how people feel on a daily basis when locked in this kind of confrontation, are essentially exercises in intellectual confrontation. Individuals caught up in that kind of confrontation compartmentalize rather than fuse reality. They section off their life and apply this methodology only to parts of it, but not to their faith system, or its core. The problem is thus by and large intellectually resolved.


When I finished The Promise I wasn't satisfied in terms of the extent of this kind of confrontation. I remember asking myself for a long time, "This is an intellectual problem that I've handled in The Chosen and The Promise, but what about an aesthetic problem? What about a problem that you can't compartmentalize? A problem that seeps into all areas of your life because it involves your feelings, the deepest kinds of emotions that you have. Intellectual problems can be sectioned off. Aesthetic problems have a way of seeping through the doors and closed windows of your being and affecting everything that you love."

That's when I began to think of painting as a serious problem in my own tradition. The Jewish tradition is essentially an anti-iconographic tradition for the most part. Certainly it opposes the making of any human image. Mosaic monotheism, on which Judaism is based, offers a powerful counter statement to paganism and pagan worship. Anything having to do with pagan worship is anathema to monotheism, and fundamental to pagan worship was idolatry, the representation of God in human form. Therefore Jews have never participated in art of any kind that was connected to worship.

All through the middle ages, as far as Jewish law is concerned, Christianity was essentially an idolatrous religion because of it's iconography. Because of this, religious Jews never participated in the art of that civilization, which was intimately connected to that form of worship. So we have a situation of two thousand years of Jewish wandering throughout the western side of our planet, contributing to everything except art. There has not been a single instance, until the modern age, of any religious Jew who has participated in any significant way at all in this extraordinary adventure we call modern art. Here is where Asher Lev appears. Born into the heart of a Jewish pietous group, the Hasidism of Brooklyn, this boy is gifted or cursed, depending upon your point of view, with a hunger to enter the mainstream of Western art. Because Jews did not participate in the mainstream of Western art, there are no Jewish motifs in Western art. All the motifs in Western art are either pagan, that is to say, Greek, Roman, African, or Egyptian, or they're Christian, or they're empty of salvationist tones altogether and are landscapes, still lifes and so on. Secular in nature. There are no Jewish motifs in western art.

Into this stream of Western art enters Asher Lev, right from the core of the Jewish world. There comes a time when Asher Lev is compelled to paint his feelings for his mother's long, solitary suffering. His search for a motif reveals none powerful enough in his own tradition, and so he turns to the central theme of suffering in the Christian tradition: crucifixion.

In the eyes of most Jews, crucifixion instantaneously triggers images of rivers of Jewish blood because of the thousands upon thousands of Jews who died all down through the centuries on account of the charge that they participated in the slaying of Jesus. Asher Lev knows no other symbol can give full expression to the feelings that he has about his mother's long torment. Other artists who were not Christians had long used the symbol of crucifixion in their works. In his mid-20's, when his first mistress was beginning to die from tuberculosis, Picasso went periodically to visit her in a sanitarium outside of Paris. One day when he returned he drew a crucifixion. We have the drawing. Later, when his own life was a shambles, Picasso painted another crucifixion. Though the shapes are Picassoid shapes, the theme, the motif, is crucifixion. He poured into that scene his feelings about the life he was living at that point in time.

That's precisely what Asher Lev does. He takes the aesthetic mold, the crucifixion, a central theme in Western art, and into it he pours his feelings for what he, and his mother, are experiencing. Out of this comes his two Brooklyn crucifixions. Shago by the way, does the same thing when he depicted the suffering of Russian Jews. There is simply no other equally poignant theme in Western art that an artist can use to depict torment. Asher Lev knows how his community will react to those crucifixions. If he doesn't paint because he's woried about what the community will say, sooner or later he will be confronted with another, similar choice. The next thing he knows, the community will begin to dictate in subtle ways what he may or may not paint. For an artist who must relentlessly pursue his or her own vision of the world, that is the beginning of the end. Art becomes public relations, and that is not what art is all about.

Please understand this. Asher Lev remains an observant Jew. He has not broken any Jewish law by painting that crucifixion. According to Jewish law you can paint all the crucifixions you want as long as you don't paint them for purposes of worship. Asher Lev has crossed an invisible aesthetic line, as he well knows. His community just simply cannot come to terms with one of its members involved in this kind of activity, and Asher Lev pays the price and is asked by the leader of that community to leave. This book, therefore, addresses the aesthetic problem, another form of core-to-core confrontation of cultures not capable of easy resolution.


After My Name is Asher Lev, I asked myself, "Is there an intellectual confrontation that is not capable of resolution?" It was then that I began to think about writing the book that ultimately became In The Beginning.

The central text of western civilization, the most sacred text, is the Bible. Scientific Bible Criticism, a gift to us from the heart of Western Secular Humanism, is the most powerful instrumentality brought to bear upon that text. Biblical criticism opens up the layers of Biblical tradition. It reveals to us the contradictions inside the Biblical text. It shows us the extent to which the Bible is locked in a cultural context that is enormously broad in space and time. It shows us the extent to which the Bible participates in a vast world of cultures. It questions immediately the fundamental tenets with which most religions have always approached the Bible. That is to say, it's uniqueness. By placing the Bible within the ancient Near East, biblical criticism causes one to ask what is really unique about it. Eventually, of course, the biblical critic discovers dimensions of uniqueness he or she was never taught before, but only after many cherished ideas are broken down.

In the last century and in the early decades of this century, this instrumentality we call Bible criticism came to be a part of institutionalized anti-Semitism, especially in the universities of Western Europe. Biblical criticism was used time and time again to attack the Jewish text, thus denigrating its significance, and the significance of those who reverenced it.

These two elements contained for me the core components of In The Beginning. A story evolved of a boy growing up on the streets of New York and encountering the Anti-Semitism that prevailed there at a certain period of time. At the same time he becomes caught up in this scientific way of looking at the Bible. Though he understands fully the Anti-Semitism involved in this scientific method, he is faced with an extraordinary dilemma when he suddenly realizes that imbedded inside this instrumentality are powerful truths. What do you do with the truths? He is faced with the same sort of situation that confronted Danny Saunders when he faced Freud. Truths may be imbedded in muck, but the muck doesn't alter the essential nature of the truths. David Lurie in In The Beginning makes the intellectual decision to commit himself to this instrumentality, though unlike Asher Lev, David doesn't wait to be asked to leave his community. He knows full well that no fundamentalist community can countenance at this point in time an alliance with Bible criticism, and so he leaves his world.

Indeed when I attended parochial school this whole discipline called Bible criticism quite literally didn't exist. You would not find its books in our libraries. Its authors were not in the indexes. Nothing of that discipline existed anywhere on any shelf in my school and no student would have thought to bring any book in that came from the discipline we call Scientific Bible Criticism

How painful it is to leave one's friends who will never talk to you again. Ones teachers, one's schools, the warmth and tribal embrace of one's past for an idea, an intellectual goal. A high price indeed for a core-core confrontation on an intellectual level which is virtually impossible to resolve.


What about a confrontation where the end result is no answers at all, but only questions? That's what The Book of Lights is all about. Admittedly a rather difficult book, deliberately so because of the difficult problems it deals with. I spent fifteen and a half months of my life in Korea and a little bit of that in Japan, courtesy of the United States military in which I became a chaplain. I came into that experience with a very neat coherent picture of what I was as an American and what I was as a Jew. All that neat, antique coherence came undone in the fifteen and a half months that I spent in that part of the world. I remember when I was very, very young, being taught by my father and my teachers that paganism was intrinsically an abomination. I came to Japan and to Korea and saw pagan loveliness I never dreamed I could see. The sheer beauty of that pagan world overwhelmed me. Although it was manmade loveliness, its beauty was created by the human hand for the purposes of worship. I learned to appreciate the loveliness of God's world in a pagan land. I had never really seen beauty as such before I came to that part of the planet. How about that for a confrontation of cultures?

I was also taught by my father and by teachers that Jewish suffering makes some kind of sense. Jews are the "moral reconnaissance" troops for our species. My father had served three and a half years in a Polish troop of the Austrian army in the first World War and often talked in military terms. He would say Jews are the recognizance troop in terms of the moral vision of mankind, and that recognizance troops always take the highest casualties. So Jews take the highest casualties with some kind of bizarre rational for Jewish suffering. I saw suffering over in the Far East I had never imagined possible before, and suffering for no purpose whatsoever. People destroyed, mauled, slaughtered, simply because they were in the paths of empires. What's the point to that kind of suffering? Why do Asiatics suffer? I have no answer to that question.

I remember walking the streets of Kyoto one evening and suddenly feeling an overwhelming sense of freedom and openness. Asking myself why I felt this way, I suddenly realized that I was inside a world where there was no anti-Semitism. I cannot begin to even describe to you what it means to find yourself in a world where anti-Semitism at least in that point of time was simply not a category of thought. Nobody hated you for what you were, for what you had no control over, and this was a pagan world. A world that I had been taught to abominate. How about that for a question? I remember being taught over and over again by parent and teachers how fundamental a component to Western civilization my own tradition was. You cannot think Western civilization without its Jewish component because you would have to strip it of its Christian component as well and you would have no civilization at all. I spent fifteen and a half months of my life where Jews and Judaism constituted no part of civilization or culture whatsoever. They got along without Jews and Judaism with no difficulty at all. How about that for relativising the tradition.

Walking through a Japanese market in Tokyo one afternoon, I came into a Shinto shrine where an old man with a long, white beard was praying to an idol. Dressed in a tattered grayish suit, unadorned, with a book in his hands, swaying back and forth he reminded me of the old Jews in the synagogue I used to pray in when I was a child. The intensity of the prayers in that synagogue was no more intense than that of this old man as he prayed to the idol. For a moment, I stepped outside myself, and looking down at what I was seeing, I asked myself, "What's going on here? Is the God that I pray to listening to this old man's prayers? Why not? Where are you going to have greater intensity of devotion in an act of prayer than at this moment with this old man in front of this idol? If the God I pray to is listening to this old man's prayers, what are Christianity and Judaism all about anyway?" There I experienced a dramatic confrontation of cultures.

I have no answers to these questions, and The Book of Lights is about culture confrontations that eventually lead us in the world of ambiguity. In a world where nothing is hard facts. It is a fluid world where things constantly shape and value systems move in and out. You try and live your life as best you can without any hard and fast answers.


Davita's Harp is a confrontation between two fundamentalisms I would say. The secular fundamentalism represented by Marxism, Stalinism, and communism, and the religious fundamentalism of the extreme right in my own tradition, and how those two fundamentalisms deeply hurt individuals pro-foundly committed to them, and what those individuals do in the wake of that pain.

To me these are profoundly rich confrontations. As we go about trying to fuse these cultures together, very often, gold is created. We are all of us made richer as a result. I don't advocate this kind of confrontation. I don't have to advocate it. We live these confrontations all the time. I'm only trying to understand them and to track them and to explore the possibilities of resolution that might come from them. I know there are other kinds of confrontations that we experience, more than confrontations from the hearts of cultures.

I'm writing about people caught up in some of the central events of our century. How does one hold onto one's own world, a world one deeply loves, while navigating the wider world beyond our own? In one way or another, whether through ourselves, our children, our friends, or our relatives, it's a problem all of us confront sooner or later. That's the problem, the human adventure that constitutes the heart of the stories I write.

Chaim Potok lecture, March 20, 1986
Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists
Collegedale, Tennessee U.S.A.
Edited by Dr. Jerry Gladson