Thursday, September 12, 2013

Job, Jeremiah, Yosl…

Is it a coincidence? Four days before Yom Kippur, a colleague passes me a book and asks me to give him my opinion. The story, which takes only about twenty pages of the book, is entitled Yosl Rakover talks to God(*). It begins with these words:In one of the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in a little bottle and concealed amongst heaps of charred stone and human bones, the following testament was found, written in the last hours of the ghetto by a Jew named Yosl Rakover.

I read these twenty pages breathless, crying, my heart in knots. A dazzling text, a powerful cry, rebellious and peaceful at the same time. An incredible profession of faith in the midst of the worst horrors. Job and Jeremiah together... It is only by reading the essay of Paul Badde, which occupies most of the pages of the book, that I realized that it was fiction. But, as Emmanuel Levinas writes (in the last pages of the book), this text is true as only fiction can be.

The author of the story is Zvi Kolitz, a Lithuanian Jew, born in 1919. Emigrated to Palestine at the beginning of World War II, he was active in the Zionist movement and was even an agent of the Irgun. In 1946, he published his story in a Yiddish magazine of Buenos Aires, on the occasion of Yom Kippur. Then settled in New York, Zvi Kolitz died there in 2002.

The ups and downs of this text are amazing. For a long time presented as an authentic testimony, deprived of its real author, Yosl Rakover’s testament circulated around the world, raising many questions, but arousing everywhere a real fascination. Even if the fate of this story and that of the author are exciting, it is perfectly possible to ignore them and receive the text in all its strength and brilliance.

I confine myself here to quote a few fragments. But first, it is necessary to set the scene. It is April 28th, 1943. The Warsaw Ghetto is living its last hours, in a deluge of fire and under a barrage of artillery. Yosl witnessed the death of his wife and his six children, and now his time has come. In the house where he writes, lying on the ground, he is surrounded by the bodies of his comrades, fallen before him: I look into their faces and it is as if irony had washed over them, peaceful and gently mocking. As if they wanted to say: ‘Have a little patience, you foolish man, another minute or two and everything will become clear to you, too’.” 
The fall of the Warsaw Ghetto

Indeed, he is unable to understand, otherwise than in revolt and anger, the killing madness that surrounds him. The animals of the forest seem so dear and precious to me that it pains my heart to hear the criminals who are now masters of Europe likened to them. It is not true that there is something of the animal in Hitler. He is — I am utterly convinced of it — a typical child of modern man. Mankind has borne him and raised him and he is the direct, unfeigned expression of mankind's innermost, deepest-hidden urges. In a forest where I was hiding, I met a dog one night, a sick, starving, crazed dog, his tail between his legs. Immediately we felt our common situation (…) He rubbed up against me, buried his head in my lap, and licked my hands. I don't know if I have ever wept the way I wept that night; I wrapped myself around his neck and cried like a child (...) I was ashamed before the dog, for being not a dog but a man.

But it is God, that he always wanted to serve with dedication – with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength to whom Yosl now turns. He wants Him to give reasons. Because, he says, God has hidden His face. God has hidden His face from the world and delivered mankind over to its own savage urges and instincts (…) In such a circumstance I have, naturally, no expectation of a miracle and do not beg of Him, my Lord, that He should take pity on me. Let Him veil His face in indifference to me as He has veiled it to millions of others of His people…Yosl knows that God is just, and even that He is the God of vengeance and our Torah threatens death for the smallest of transgressions”. But the Talmud tells us that a single death sentence from the High Council in seventy years was enough to make people call ‘You murderers’ after the judges. The God of the other peoples, however, whom they call ‘the God of Love,’ has offered to love every creature created in His image, and yet they have been murdering us without pity in His name day in, day out, for almost two thousand years.

Then, Yosl stops his thoughts to profess his faith. I am proud to be a Jew. Because being a Jew is an art. Being a Jew is hard (…) I believe that to be a Jew is to be a fighter, an eternal swimmer against the roiling, evil current of humanity. The Jew is a hero, a martyr, a saint (…) One is born a Jew as one is born an artist. One cannot free oneself of being a Jew. That is God's mark upon us (…) I believe in the God of Israel, even when He has done everything to make me cease to believe in Him. I believe in His laws even when I cannot justify His deeds. My relationship to Him is no longer that of a servant to his master, but of a student to his rabbi. I bow my head before His greatness, but I will not kiss the rod with which He chastises me. I love Him. But I love His Torah more.

Finally – and these are the most ardent pages – Yosl addresses his God. And so, my God, before I die, freed from all fear, beyond terror, in a state of absolute inner peace and trust, I will allow myself to call You to account one last time in my life.He demands to know. O tell us, what more must happen before You reveal Your face to the world again? (…) Now, more than at any previous stage on our endless road of suffering — we, the tormented, the reviled, the suffocated, the buried alive and burned alive, we, the humiliated, the mocked, the ridiculed, the slaughtered in our millions — now more than ever do we have the right to know: Where are the limits of Your patience?

Surprisingly, this call changes into intercession and a demand for mercy. And I wish to say something more to You: You should not pull the rope too tight, because it might, heaven forbid, yet snap. The temptation into which You have led us is so grievous, so unbearably grievous, that You should, You must, forgive those of Your people who in their misery and anger have turned away from You. Forgive those who have turned away from You in their misery, but also those of Your people who have turned away from You for their own comfort (…) Forgive also those who have taken Your name in vain, who have followed other gods, who have become indifferent to You (…) I am saying all this to You in plain words because I believe in You, because I believe in You more than ever before, because I know now that You are my God. For You are not, You cannot be the God of those whose deeds are the most horrific proof of their militant godlessness.

And the prayer becomes like a blind leap into faith, but incredibly daring and with plenty of extraordinary nobility. “I cannot praise You for the deeds You tolerate. But I bless and praise Your very existence, Your terrible majesty. How mighty it must be if even what is taking place now makes no impression on You! But because You are so great and I so small, I beg You — I warn You — for Your name's sake: Stop crowning Your greatness by veiling Your face from the scourging of the wretched!
Zvi Kolitz
Finally, speechless, stunned, we must listen to the last words of Yosl to his God. He first recalls the story of a Jew who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. On an island where he landed, his wife was struck down by lightning and his child carried of by a wave. Left alone on his rock, he exclaimed: God of Israel, I have fled to this place so that I may serve You in peace, to follow Your commandments and glorify Your name. You, however, are doing everything to make me cease believing in You. But if You think that You will succeed with these trials in deflecting me from the true path, then I cry to You, my God and the God of my parents, that none of it will help You. You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death — I will always believe in You. I will love You always and forever — even despite You.And Yosl appropriates these words of fire: You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You. Praised be forever the God of the dead, the God of vengeance, of truth and judgment, who will soon unveil His face to the world again and shake its foundations with His almighty voice. Sh'ma Yisroel! Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my soul.

Once the book was closed, and after recovering  my senses somewhat,  I thought that I had just read the answer to the Grand Inquisitor found in The Brothers Karamazov...


(*) Zvi KOLITZ, Yosl Rakover talks to God, First Vintage International Edition, 2000. Besides the story itself, the book includes an essay by Paul Badde on Zvi Kolitz, a short text – a speech given in April 1955 – by Emmanuel Levinas, entitled Loving the Torah more than God, and another one of Leon Wieseltier. The text of the story is available online

Monday, September 2, 2013

Alyosha Karamazov

Nikolaï Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945), Boy on a lawn
Alexey (Alyosha) Karamazov is a “radiant” figure, among the best known of Dostoevsky's fictional universe. The freedom he shows facing difficult and even dark situations is quite amazing. The family drama described in the very last and brilliant novel of the great Fyodor does not leave Alyosha indifferent, but it makes him grow up and mature. His eyes are able to discern precious stones in the middle of the mud. His kindness radiates and awakens, in those who meet him, feelings of trust and bursts of faith.

Having sketched the portrait of the elder son, Dmitri (Mitya), who possesses a passionate and excessive temperament, and then Ivan’s, a dark, restless, tortured person, the novelist describes the third son Karamazov, Alyosha: First of all, I must explain that this young man, Alyosha, was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion at least, was not even a mystic (...) He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love” (I, I, IV)(1). Indeed, at the beginning of the story, Alyosha is a novice in a monastery, where the elder Zossima is his spiritual father.

Sofya Ivanovna, Alyosha’s mother, who died when he was not yet four years old, left deeply impressed memories in his soul. He remembered one still summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (that he recalled most vividly of all); in a corner of the room the holy image(2), before it a lighted lamp, and on her knees before the image his mother, sobbing hysterically with cries and moans, snatching him up in both arms, squeezing him close till it hurt, and praying for him to the Mother of God, holding him out in both arms to
the image as though to put him under the Mother’s protection...” (I, I, IV).

Because of his simplicity and his purity of heart, the young man shows a surprising freedom which opens every door for him: “Here is perhaps the one man in the world whom you might leave alone without a penny, in the center of an unknown town of a million inhabitants, and he would not come to harm, he would not die of cold and hunger, for he would be fed and sheltered at once; and if he were not, he would find a shelter for himself, and it would cost him no effort or humiliation. And to shelter him would be no burden, but, on the contrary, would probably be looked on as a pleasure.” (I, I, IV).

Throughout the story, we see Alyosha trying and rescue his two elder brothers. So it is that he tries to applie the recommendation – a kind of prophecy – made to him by the elder Zossima: Christ is with you. Do not abandon Him and He will not abandon you. You will see great sorrow, and in that sorrow you will be happy (...) Go, and make haste. Be near your brothers. And not near one only, but near both.” (I, II, VII). He is very close to Dmitri, whose excess and extravagance do not hide for him a heightened sensitivity and a deep generosity. And even if his relationship with Ivan is more difficult, Alyosha feels for him an equally deep love. He understands what his anguished search means. In a dialogue with a libertine seminarian, who is convinced that all the Karamazov are debauched and miserly, Alyosha asserts: “It is not money, it’s not comfort Ivan is seeking. Perhaps it’s suffering he is seeking (…) he has a stormy spirit. His mind is in bondage. He is haunted by a great, unsolved doubt. He is one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions” (I, II, VII). The famous chapter called the "Grand Inquisitor" (Part II, Book V) illustrates this thinking of Ivan, for whom the suffering of an innocent child is incompatible with faith in a good God. The implacable demonstration of the "Grand Inquisitor" leaves Alyosha disarmed. Ultimately, his only answer is a kiss on the lips of his brother. And Ivan, deeply shaken, says to him: It’s enough for me that you are somewhere here, and I shan’t lose my desire for life yet” (II, V, V).

To look at the others with a merciful gaze and without any judgment is the typical behaviour of the deified man. And that is the way Alyosha is perceived, especially by his brother Dmitri:
You are an angel on earth. You will hear and judge and forgive. And that’s what I need, that someone above me should forgive” (I, III, III).

The old patriarch himself, Fyodor Pavlovich, in his ignominy, was able to perceive something of the goodness that dwells in the heart of his younger son Alyosha ‘pierced his heart’ by ‘living with him, seeing everything and blaming nothing.’ Moreover, Alyosha brought with him something his father had never known before: a complete absence of contempt for him and an invariable kindness, a perfectly natural unaffected devotion to the old man who deserved it so little” (I, III, I). Moreover, Alyosha will say to his father: “I know your thoughts. Your heart is better than your head” (I, III, VIII).

Nikolaï Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945), Future monk
Alyosha is deeply affected by the death of his beloved elder Zossima. It is for him a terrible test. But, after a painful inner struggle, it results in a new birth. The young man leaves his cell: His soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him (…) Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. ‘Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears,’ echoed in his soul. What was he weeping over? (…) He longed to forgive every one and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything (…) But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul (…) He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute. ‘Some one visited my soul in that hour’, he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words” (III, VII, IV). What an amazing experience of birth given by a spiritual father !

Further in the novel, beautiful pages describe Alyosha’s relationships, full of tenderness and respect, with kids (see Book X: “The Boys”), in particular with Kolya Krassotkin and Ilusha Snegiryov. About these episodes, I refer the reader to three texts (unfortunately, not yet translated into English) published in the French version of my blog: “N’ayez pas peur de la vie”, “Ilioucha – ‘Si je t’oublie, Jérusalem…’ and Éternellement, main dans la main”.

Dostoevsky's “five elephants”(3) – not only The Brothers Karamazov – are an inexhaustible mine. But one day I shall have to stop digging there. In the meantime, I felt obliged at least to call to mind the elder Zossima. More to come!

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) All the quotations (Part, Book, Chapter) are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated into English by Constance Garnett,
(2) In the main room of the Russian houses, one or several icons occupied a corner - Krasnoie ugol or "beautiful place" - where they could be seen and worshiped by the inhabitants and visitors.

(3) That is the name given by Svetlana Geier, who translated Dostoevsky into German, to the five great novels of the writer's maturity