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Modern Times

Herman Wouk wrote a foundational text for American postwar Modern Orthodoxy, and for the emancipated Jewish literature in its wake

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Beth El congregants at the synagogue for Tisha B’Av, c. 1951, in Hennepin Co., Minn. (Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest)

Locating the roots of Modern Orthodoxy is one of those tasks highly contingent on where one happens to be standing. In the mid-1980s, when the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran the story “American Jews Rediscover Orthodoxy,” the religious counterculture of the late 1960s seemed like a taproot. But even earlier, at the start of the 1960s, the editors of the American Jewish Year Book were looking for someone to write about what appeared to be Orthodoxy’s resurgence; in 1965 it was the sociologist Charles Liebman whose article “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life” was published in the AJYB. “Earlier predictions of the demise of Orthodox Judaism in the United States have been premature, to say the least,” Liebman wrote. If Modern Orthodoxy could be said to have an ideologist, Liebman designated him as Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a pioneer in the refusenik movement whose radical reinterpretation of halakha was that it was “about more than texts. It is life and experience.”

Yet all of these efforts to locate the origins of Orthodox Judaism’s resurgence seem to have missed the signal contribution of the novelist Herman Wouk, whose wildly popular This Is My God appeared in 1959, at a moment most scholars of American Judaism believed that Orthodoxy was all but dead and buried. As Nathan Glazer wrote of non-Hasidic Orthodoxy in his 1957 American Judaism: “It has survived—barely.”

That Wouk spent so little of This Is My God making himself out to be a religious virtuoso (he compared a trip to the synagogue to a night at the opera) was key to the book’s success. Anyone with common sense—anyone who could read—could see the wisdom in Wouk’s Orthodox lifestyle: “The sensible thing is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do. … The chances are that—at least today—he will seem a mighty freakish non-conformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter?”

It certainly did not matter if you were wealthy and famous. And as a best-selling novelist and playwright living in the Virgin Islands when not comfortably lodged on Park Avenue, Wouk was able to push the boundaries of the Judeo-Christian tradition so in vogue in the 1950s toward a religious particularity that included mikvah and mezuzah and the rules of kashrut in a way that appealed to upscale suburban readers. One of the most brilliant things about Wouk’s This Is My God was how amiably he made the case for dignified, “non-conformist” Modern Orthodox living. In the era of strivers like those depicted in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Wouk tapped into the yearnings of his readers, who wished to live independent of the opinions of others, even as he acknowledged the pressure of social expectations that weighed heavily on 1950s Americans. Serialized in both the New York Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, This Is My God found a place on the breakfast tables and nightstands of Americans who had never heard the word “phylacteries,” much less “tefillin.”

Herman Wouk in Jerusalem, 1955

Herman Wouk in Jerusalem, 1955. (Wikimedia Commons)

There was nothing new in 1950s America about Jewish-themed books or Jewish authors, of course: Leon Uris’ Exodus was published the previous year (also by Doubleday), and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus appeared on the New York Times list of notable books in 1959, along with Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. The 1940s and 1950s witnessed a surge of “Introduction to Judaism” books for mainstream American readers, authored by Reform and Conservative rabbis. With titles like Basic Judaism, What the Jews Believe, and What Is a Jew? this genre’s greatest contribution might have been in affirming the American-ness, at mid-century, of a general ignorance about Judaism, as well as the desire for self-improvement through reading. In the New York Times Book Review, Will Herberg condescendingly referred to This Is My God as “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Orthodox Judaism,” alluding to the book’s popular and accessible-guide style (as well as George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism) and its failure to show religion as an “agonizing venture of the spirit.” Herberg wrote: “Whether he intends to or not, Mr. Wouk gives the impression that being a Jew is lots of fun.” More to Herberg’s liking was the old plaint: “It’s hard to be a Jew!”

This Is My God was also noteworthy within its genre for the author’s confidence in where to turn for guidance: Modern Orthodoxy. There was no hint of an angst-ridden Jewish writer exposing his alienation from Judaism. Still, Wouk demonstrated real sympathy for his generation’s gloomy memories of childhood visits to old Jewish neighborhoods and the “ball-and-chain dragginess” of their grandparents’ Judaism: “There was foolishness about not striking matches or turning on lights on the holidays, niggling suspicion about the ingredients of packaged foods; obdurate mistrust and disdain, based on no intelligible reasons, for anybody who lived differently or believed differently.” One left these stale spaces and “came into the sunlight of the street with the joy of a man getting out of jail.” Wouk was not interested in a return to fusty, pre-modern Orthodoxy; even the world of his beloved grandfather, a rabbi from Minsk featured prominently in This Is My God, was portrayed as superannuated. “He was, to the best of his ability, a walking replica of the East European Jew of the past two hundred years,” Wouk wrote, without reproach. “One cannot live in a time capsule after all.”

As early as the 1950s, then, Wouk helped put the modern in post-World War II Modern Orthodoxy. His co-religionists were grateful. Around the corner from Kehillat Jeshurun, where Wouk regularly worshipped, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue wrote about This Is My God in his synagogue’s bulletin. It was no mean feat, in Jakobovitz’s view, “in this materialistic age of ours, to make God a best-seller.” (One Christian reviewer called Wouk the C.S. Lewis of Orthodoxy.) Even more important was the author’s denominational affiliation. “Now, for once,” Rabbi Jakobovitz wrote, with unabashed relief, “it is an orthodox [sic] author and an orthodox book which leaves all others far behind in literary grace and consummate execution.” In the Orthodox magazine Jewish Life, Saul Bernstein echoed this pride in one of their own: “Perhaps never before … has a work of this kind been penned by a major figure in the world of popular literature who is shomer mitzvoth, and ‘ken lernen a blatt Gemorah.’ ”

Wouk helped to open the territory later plowed by Chaim Potok and Cynthia Ozick, whose characters were not marked by the secularism and alienation from Judaism that was characteristic of fiction by Roth, Bellow, and Bernard Malamud. In the works of Wouk, Potok, and Ozick, Jewish characters felt a strong attachment to an Orthodox lifestyle even as they struggled with the allure of the outside world. As Wouk framed it, Modern Orthodoxy called on American Jews to take control of their religious destinies. The pressures of the majority, Wouk cautioned, had a funny way of making one believe. He wrote:

Its demands are one’s own spontaneous desires. A Jew who feels large chunks of his heritage slipping away from him, and observes himself behaving more and more like the massive majority, should make very sure that this is a result he truly wants, and that he is not being stamped willy-nilly by the die-press into a standard, exchangeable part.

What Modern Orthodoxy entailed, as Wouk described it, was the acknowledgement that the theological reality of Orthodoxy was no longer all-embracing in a Jewish world in which individual choice was now as significant as Jewish law. In a more integrated, tolerant post-World War II America, new social pressures impinged. In writing a first draft of an introduction to This Is My God, Wouk sketched an imaginary dialogue between himself and a religious skeptic whose reasons for reading Wouk have little to do with faith and much to do with fascination with the faithful. “You’re a sort of an interesting freak to me,” explains the skeptic.

I know you’re a successful novelist, Pulitzer Prize, best-seller lists and all that—and I hear that you’re an old-fashioned religious fanatic, won’t eat ham, and so forth. You’re a sort of two-headed calf to me. The whole picture is very curious.

The religious life is of no personal interest, the skeptic insists. But despite all that, “I’d like to know what makes you tick.”

We can’t all empathize with what it means to feel Wouk’s firm commitment to daily prayer and the rules of family purity (nor do we all desire to live this way), but we understand well the agony of decision-making and the fear of commitment. Writing about the Modern Orthodox therefore allowed readers to connect with a particularly modern set of emotions, even as they foreshadowed the return to more traditional religious practices by a surprisingly large number of American Jews.

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Interesting article. Somehow I don’t think that Wouk would be happy with the increasing Haredization of modern orthodoxy.

fyi, it’s ‘Jakobovits’ with an ‘s’

This Is My God changed my life forever. I was a child when it was published, but several decades later it spoke to me, just as though I had a contemporary conversation with Herman Wouk himself. May it continue to speak to others as well.

How interesting to see Modern Orthodoxy described as “non-conformist.” Given the way it was taught and practiced in the community I grew up in (Flatbush, Yeshiva University) and the way I perceive it today, it seems predicated on conformity within the community.

David Powers says:

“Modern orthodoxy” is an oxymoron. One cannot be modern and also claim an orthodoxy, a “correct belief.” Wouk demonstrates this well in his thinly veiled contempt for liberal Judaism in his lamentable _This is My God_.

FYI, Bellow’s book is “Henderson, the Rain King”

Hershl says:

What a wonderful article.

It inspires me to take the book down from the shelf, dust it off, and read it with new eyes.

Thanks, again.

Who is Mr. Powers to say that Modern Orthodoxy is an oxymoron? Why don’t you go to Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun ( the synagogue referenced above) on a Saturday morning.Mr Powers would observe that Modern Orthodoxy is robust & vibrant, unlike too many non-Orthodox synagogues that I have attended.

M. Brukhes says:

For someone so intent to speak against “orthodoxy” from a “modern” perspective, Mr Powers seems to be the one advocating and adjudicating “correct” beliefs vs oxymoronic ones. He makes himself out in the space of a haiku to be far more rigid and censorious than most of the modern orthodox Jews I know. In fact, orthodoxy as an ideological position only emerges in the context of modernity–as a choice and a position of critique, not an inquisition or hegemony. The contempt of an ostensibly liberal Jew toward the choices of more halakhically observant but no less modern Jews than himself is what is truly lamentable….

Rachel Rabinowitz says:

Re: Herman Wouk’s “This is my G-d”
I worked in an engineering firm where the boss was Jewish but completely not religious.
On the morning of the Six-Day-War, after hearing on the radio what was happening in Israel, I went to work. As many times before, he called me into his office for taking shorthand notes. But this time, he first spoke about the news from Israel, which was a very unusual thing for him to do. At that time he asked me certain questions about Judaism. I explained that I am not able to really do justice to his questions but I will give him a book that will do so. The next morning I brought him
Herman Wauk’s book.
The following morning he thanked me for showing him the book and said that he would buy another copy because he wants his son to have this book in his library.

Rachel Gordan says:

Rachel R., thank you so much for this last comment – I’m always looking for stories of how Wouk’s This Is My God changed lives.

Great story. I miss good old fashioned Modern Orthodoxy.

Thank you for this article.

I was given a copy of “This Is My God” by the U.S. Army at a retreat for Jewish soldiers in Worms, West Germany circa 1988. This book, along with a few others, steered my life. I grew from a not particularly knowledgeable or observant Conservative Jew into “an observer of mitzvot” who prays at an Orthodox shul, tries to study a bit, and has for smart and charming kids in day schools and yeshivot.

I can only try to repay my debt to Herman Wouk by doing my small part to move along the Jewish story.

Thank you Mr. Wouk and thanks again Ms. Gordon.

P.S. While serving in Iraq a few years ago as an embedded civilian advisor with the U.S. Army I wrote to Mr. Wouk to thank him for his impact on my life. He kindly wrote me back and I now display the note in a place of honor in my home, similar to the way that friends hang pictures of an influential rebbe.

Jon Deltas says:

Is nobody, but nobody, aware of the fact that this book was written by Wouk as an apologia for “Marjorie Morningstar,” a work that in its self hatred and distancing from Jewish values was simply decades ahead of itself? You don’t have to go back to Judaism and Jews or apologize and guide them, if you never left them and never badmouthed them. And let’s all recall who the survivor of Auschwitz’s hero is at the end of Wouk’s encomium to Jewish victimhood and American triumphalism in World War II.

Jeff says:

It’s ironic that Wouk wrote this paean to Modern Orthodoxy in the late fiftes. It could have been a eulogy. Shortly thereafter, the Haredim, who had since the War’s end been going furiously about the business of replenishing their numbers (as they still are), began the process of commandeering Orthodoxy – and the Modern Orthodox, who had always suffered from a basic insecurity about their “compromise” with Modernity, allowed them to. While the MO spent the next several decades having fewer children and getting them into top-tier universities, the Haredim took over the franchise.

The pre-War Modern Orthodoxy about which Wouk wrote is largely dead (there are a few isolated pockets, such Avi Weiss’ community, but there are no longer enough of them to sustain a subculture). The Haredim killed it, and the Modern Orthodox helped them to dig the grave.

Dr. Maxine Jacobson says:

For Rachel Gordon author of “Herman Wouk–”
I think that you would enjoy reading the part of my thesis where I discuss Herman Wouk in the context of Modern Orthodoxy.

Maxine Jacobson. “Trends in Modern Orthodoxy As Reflected in the Career of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung”. A Thesis in the Department of Religion of Concordia University.( Montreal) October 2004. 291-294.

Rachel Gordan says:

Thanks, Maxine! Looking forward to reading this.

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Modern Times

Herman Wouk wrote a foundational text for American postwar Modern Orthodoxy, and for the emancipated Jewish literature in its wake

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