- My Critics and Mai Nafka Mina:Further Reflections on Jewish Literary Historiography
There may be Jews without Judaism, but there can be no Judaism without Jews.— Judah L. Magnes1
Whatever our beliefs, we are Jews by descent.— Morris Raphael Cohen2
When I first read the five, mostly hostile, responses to my "Race, Literary History, and the 'Jewish' Question," my reaction was defiantly Emersonian. "To be great," I told myself, "is to be misunderstood." But I soon sobered up. I realized, sadly, that I had reversed and thus misread Emerson's dictum: he had not said, "To be misunderstood is to be great." So the fact that some very distinguished scholars felt impelled to describe my scholarship with such adjectives as "pernicious" and "pathetic" gave me pause. Self-reliance turned to self-pity and then to self-doubt. But the dark night of the soul passed, too. I had been misunderstood, I told myself. Nothing more. Still, I took only small comfort in this. Clearly, I had failed to explain well, let alone to convince. I was thrown back upon an older, very un-Emersonian kind of wisdom: "Avtallion says, 'Scholars, take heed of your words, lest you incur exile, and be banished to a place of bad waters, and the students who follow you drink of it and die, and the heavenly name be profaned.'"3
Moving from Emerson to Avtallion led me back to the word race—the use of which underlies a good number of the misreadings I am referring to. But I will defer discussion of the word until later in my remarks. At this point, let me say only that my choice was reasoned and deliberate; and though I knew it would be provocative, I didn't realize how much. I suspect that explaining the choice now would only cloud other, equally important aspects of my argument that need to be clarified. For the points of contention between me and my detractors do not have to do solely with race (not even primarily with race) but with the purpose and scope of Jewish literary [End Page 335] study, and I hope that a less highly charged exposition of mina hava amina will lead, if not to agreement, then at least to a balanced and nuanced sense of bemai kamipalgi.
Moving from Emerson to Avtallion also leads me to what is to me the conceptual fault line upon which modern Jewish literary study is built. The problem has been oft-stated but also oft-ignored, so it bears repeating: What do we do with a work that displays both "Jewish" and "non-Jewish" characteristics, as most works of modern Jewish literature do? The practical answer is simple: in most cases, we can describe it as both, and teach it in courses of Jewish literature as well as in, say, American literature (or, of course, in Jewish American literature). It all depends on context and purpose. But the problem has a more obstinate theoretical side. When we call a work of modern literature culturally Jewish, we almost always are speaking in metonyms. If I quote Avtallion, if I sprinkle my discourse liberally with talmudic terminology, then my text is generally going to be seen as Jewish—even though I also quote Emerson and though, for the most part, my rhetoric is standard criticalese. But what if the ethnic markers in my text are less evident, less tangible? What if the references to Emerson outnumber those to Avtallion? What if they overwhelm them? What if the text bears only the faintest hint of Avtallion's dictum? What if the relation of the text to Avtallion is not metonymic at all, but metaphoric? Where do we draw the line? At what point does metonymic ethnicity obscure more than it illuminates? At what point does it no longer make sense to count a work as culturally Jewish?
I have no intention of answering these questions. I'm not sure I know how to, and I'm certain that I don't want to—not categorically, in any case. For while the metonym represents the text, it is premised upon the identity of the writer. The part...