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Wicked Sons: Benjamin Kerstein, Doron Rabinovici, and Norman Finkelstein

Is Jewish rebellion really a form of submission? Two new novels and one political critic examine apostasy.

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Every culture despises an apostate. But Judaism, in particular, has always made hostility to the traitor, the deserter, the child who grows up to turn on the community, into a central organizing principle. Not for nothing is honoring your parents one of the Ten Commandments; and the Torah’s prescription for dealing with a child who fails to honor his parents is ruthless. Listen to Deuteronomy: “If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them; then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; and they shall say unto the elders of his city: ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’ And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”

The Passover Haggadah draws the distinction between the good child and bad child in milder but no less definite terms. The “wise son” at the Seder is the one who asks: “What are the testimonials, statutes, and laws that the Lord our God commanded you?” His eagerness to learn the laws shows his readiness to join the community, to take responsibility for passing the tradition on. And he is rewarded for this submission by being initiated into those laws: “You should respond to him as the Torah commands, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, etc.’ and also instruct him in all the laws of Passover.” Soon he will be holding a Seder of his own.

The question of the wicked son, the rasha, on the other hand, manages to display contempt and disaffiliation in just a few words: “What is this service of yours?” “Yours and not his,” the Haggadah emphasizes: The form of the question already declares that he is regarding the tradition from the outside, with the independence of the critic. It is permissible to ask questions about the traditions and statutes and laws—that’s just what the wise son does—but those questions must be asked from within, not from outside. To be a good son, one must be what Michael Walzer calls a “connected critic,” one who includes himself in what he is criticizing, rather than a mere enemy.

For Judaism, the threat of the wicked son, the disconnected critic, has been especially dangerous, which is why he has always been stigmatized as an apikoros. In the medieval Christian world, where hostility to Judaism was second only to ignorance of it, the Jewish apostate who chose to turn against his former tradition spoke with the authority of an insider. He could spill the terrible secrets that the Christians could only guess at. Johannes Pfefferkorn, the 15th-century Jewish apostate, could demand that the Talmud be banned because he actually knew what was in the Talmud—so why wouldn’t Christians trust him when he claimed that the Talmud told the Jews to murder them? So too with the Jewish convert Pablo Christiani in the 13th century, who challenged Nachmanides to defend the Talmud in a public disputation before the King of Spain, and a whole series of other Jewish enemies of the Jews.

The emergence of a secular, modern world made the threat of apostasy less grave, but it did not disappear; it merely took new forms. If Otto Weininger had been born in the Middle Ages, he would probably have been one of those who explained the evil secret of Judaism for appreciative Christians. Because he was born in Vienna in 1880, however, his apostasy took the form of explaining the evil secret of Jewish psychology for appreciative Germans, in his book Sex and Character. But that secret was no less damning: It was that the Jewish essence is cowardly, effeminate, and amoral, at the opposite pole from healthy Christian masculinity. When Weininger committed suicide at the age of 23, he seemed to be drawing the logical conclusion of his own self-diagnosis; that is why he became the favorite Jew of Hitler, who admired his solution to the “Jewish problem.”

***

The ancient Jewish horror at apostasy is nicely captured in The Forsaken, a new novel by the Israeli-American writer Benjamin Kerstein. The Forsaken opens with a pseudoscholarly preface, which explains that the narrative we are about to read is a newly discovered manuscript from the 14th century. It takes the form of a report written by a priest who was dispatched to investigate disturbances in a small French village called Treves, where a superstitious and brutal peasantry lives side by side with a community of Jewish merchants. The Jews live in total isolation behind their “Jews’ Gate,” emerging only to do business with travelers along the nearby highway. For generations, their Christian neighbors have been content to leave them in peace, or at least to ignore them.

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But this tranquility is broken by the emergence of that ancient villain, the Jewish apostate. One morning, Father Michel, the local priest, finds that a Jewish adolescent has taken refuge in the village church. He explains that he has had a series of dream visions of Jesus and demands to be allowed to convert to Christianity. But Father Michel cannot feel wholly satisfied with this victory for the Church when he learns that the Jewish boy is actually the son of the local rabbi. “It is a tragedy indeed to lose one’s child, whether to death or apostasy,” he reflects, and he almost turns the boy over to his father. But his sense of duty prevails, and he agrees to baptize the young Jew with the name Paul, after the greatest of all Jewish converts to Christianity.

It is not long, however, before Father Michel’s scruples are justified. Not content with being a Christian, Paul begins to spread frightening rumors about the evil practices of the Jews—focusing, as in so many real-world cases, on the Talmud, which he says contains all kinds of magic spells and slanders against Jesus. When a Christian child turns up dead, Paul quickly fans the flames of the village’s anger into a full-fledged blood libel. This appalls the humane Father Michel, who is inclined to adhere to Saint Augustine’s view that the Jews, while cursed, should be left alone in their cursedness. Dreading the violence that he is sure will come, Father Michel summons a deputation of high-ranking priests to come to Treves and investigate Paul’s charges against the Jews.

The paradox that animates The Forsaken is that the priests end up in the unlikely role of defenders of the Jews, not out of any particular love for them, but because they see themselves as upholders of peace and order and Church tradition. Paul, on the other hand, is a radical, demanding that the “truth” about Judaism be told though the heavens fall. Kerstein’s portraits of Father Michel and the other priests are sympathetically drawn; but when it comes to understanding Paul’s motivations, he draws a complete blank. Paul, like Iago, is driven by motiveless malignity, a pure lust for destruction that can only come from the Devil. His eyes, Father Michel says, are “Vast and empty orbs. Like the bottomless pit. And behind them, not the slightest trace of the human soul.” It is beyond the power of the Jewish novelist to imagine what drives a Jew to wreak destruction on his own people. The bad son remains a figure of loathing, to be stoned and driven out, rather than the kind of sympathetic subject a novel can be built around.

In the end, however, it turns out that even Paul’s rebellion against tradition has its limits. The Forsaken climaxes in a public disputation of the kind that Jews were periodically forced to engage in throughout the Middle Ages; but this time, the stakes are heightened by the fact that the opponents are Paul and his father, the rabbi. Paul remains ruthless, bringing up the most controversial and anti-Christian Talmudic passages in the knowledge that his father will have to resort to weak equivocations to defend them. (The Jesus maligned in the Talmud, the rabbi maintains unconvincingly, was not that Jesus, but someone else with the same name.)

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Wicked Sons: Benjamin Kerstein, Doron Rabinovici, and Norman Finkelstein

Is Jewish rebellion really a form of submission? Two new novels and one political critic examine apostasy.