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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.

Adam Kirsch
August 20, 2014
(Erik Mace)
(Erik Mace)

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.

Is the American Jewish critic of Israel a bad son or a good one?

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.)

But finally, Father Michel locates the one taboo that even an apostate cannot break: He asks Paul to pronounce aloud the name of God, which of course Jews are forbidden to do. It is perhaps sentimental of Kerstein to imagine that a man who could destroy his own father would be unable to say God’s name aloud, but Paul cannot, and he is forced to flee in shame. His aroused followers storm Treves’ Jewish quarter, only to find that the Jews have already made their escape. The only Jew there is Paul, who has committed suicide by slashing his own throat—just the same way that the Christian child is supposed to have been murdered by Jews out to drink his blood. Is this Paul’s version of penance, or is it his last incitement, meant to remind his followers of Jewish perfidy? In any case, evil destroys itself, and the Jews are saved—a parable, perhaps, for the way the Jews have always managed to survive their persecutors, collectively if not individually.


The emergence of the State of Israel has changed the terms of Jewish apostasy, just as it has changed so much else in Jewish life. It is one thing to tell lies about Jewish power when Jews are utterly powerless; then the bad son’s malice is obvious. But when Jews do have a measure of power—a state with an army—and a Jew criticizes the way it uses that power, is it still treason? Or is it, as all good liberals have been brought up to believe, the highest form of loyalty to want to guide your own state, your own people, onto the path of justice? What about when the state is both yours and not yours, the way Israel is for American Jews? Do we have the right, or the obligation, to attack Israeli abuses the way we do American abuses? Is the American Jewish critic of Israel a bad son or a good one?

As Jonathan Freedland reflects in an essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, this very question is what divides liberal Zionist Jews from left-wing anti-Zionist Jews. The liberal Zionist is very much concerned with remaining a “connected critic,” a part of the community that he wants to influence. An example would be Peter Beinart, whose campaign against mainstream American Zionism is emphatically that of a good son, who loves the thing he criticizes. At the other extreme is a modern-day Jewish apostate such as Philip Weiss, who has paralleled the careers of Pfefferkorn and Weininger in casting himself as a Jew who speaks the hidden truth about Jewish perfidy to the world and surrounds himself with outright enemies of the Jewish people.

Where does Norman Finkelstein fit into this spectrum of disaffiliation? As he told David Samuels in a revealing interview in Tablet, he utterly rejects Walzer’s notion of connected criticism: “But if a precondition for being a prophet is that you have to love your people, it doesn’t work for me. It’s not something that I relate to.” This is a man who famously declared “We are all Hezbollah,” thus explicitly identifying himself with an organization dedicated to killing Jews and eradicating the Jewish state. Yet as that same interview revealed, Finkelstein is a man entirely defined by Jewishness—living in the heart of Jewish Brooklyn, deeply shaped by his experience as the child of Holocaust survivors, and publicly wholly identified with issues involving Israel and the Holocaust.

This double impulse in Finkelstein’s work—the way his repudiation of Jewishness ends up implicating him still further in Jewishness—was on display once again last month, when he headed a group of demonstrators who got arrested in front of New York’ Israeli consulate, to protest the war in Gaza. Why not protest the Syrian consulate, or the Russian consulate, over their wars? The answer is obvious: Finkelstein performs his Jewish identity by publicly attacking other Jews, in a way that seems compulsive as much as deliberate. You can see it happening on every page of his new publication, Old Wine, Broken Bottle, a pamphlet-length attack on Ari Shavit’s much-praised book about Israel, My Promised Land. Indeed, reviewing Finkelstein and Shavit, Freedland invokes the rasha, the bad son of the Passover Seder. Israelis and Jews, he points out, generally are willing to hear criticism from the inside, from good sons, that they simply repudiate when it comes from bad sons like Finkelstein.

The odd thing about Old Wine, Broken Bottles is that, when you come to Finkelstein’s ultimate position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is one that many liberal Zionists could accept. “Israel exists: That is its ultimate argument. It is a state like any other state, and has the same rights and obligations as any other state. Yes, it was born in ‘original sin.’ … But most (if not all) states have originated in sin.” This is a view stripped of any affection for Zionism per se, any pride in Israel as a Jewish achievement, but it at least leaves room for Israel to exist, which is more than many on the left are willing to grant. It’s not hard to imagine Finkelstein finding a way of making this argument that other Jews would be willing to hear.

Instead, Old Wine, Broken Bottles goes out of its way to be as offensive as possible. Like the parricide who asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan—the definition of chutzpah, according to the old joke—Finkelstein attacks the State of Israel not for being a Jewish state, but precisely because it is not Jewish enough: “One would be hard-pressed to find anything Jewish in secular Israeli culture, and Shavit doesn’t even try. … The only thing Jewish about Shavit’s Israel is its demography. Shavit loves Israel not because it is Jewish but because those who created it are Jews.” This line of argument, which might at least be sincere coming from a member of the anti-Zionist Orthodox group Neturei Karta, seems decidedly odd coming from Finkelstein, who does not otherwise display any enthusiasm for Judaism or Jewish culture. Rather, it is part of his polemical technique, which is to hurl any charge at Shavit he can think of, whether it sticks or not. Thus Finkelstein dismisses out of hand the idea that Israel is a needed refuge in an anti-Semitic world: “the physical safety of Jews would probably have been better secured if a Jewish state had not come into being,” he writes, in a passage that has been dramatically falsified by recent events in Europe.

At the heart of Finkelstein’s criticism of Israel is hostility toward the connection that American Jews continue to feel for the Jewish state. He repeatedly looks forward to the day when American Jews will stop caring about Israel—the very day that a liberal Zionist like Beinart especially dreads. “Israel offers nothing to American Jews that they don’t already have in abundance,” Finkelstein writes, “while a lot of what it does have in abundance—racism, warmongering—leaves American Jews, if not disgusted, at any rate embarrassed.”

In other words, Finkelstein is not just a disconnected critic; he is a critic of connection per se. Here he is no pioneer—a long line of Jewish leftists have argued that ethnic loyalty of any kind is a moral error. The most famous statement of this principle is probably Rosa Luxemburg’s, in a letter she wrote from a German prison during World War I: “Oh that ‘sublime stillness of eternity,’ in which so many cries of anguish have faded away unheard, they resound within me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the [Jewish] ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.” Finkelstein, however, omits the positive pole of this idealism, the attraction to humanity, leaving himself only the negative pole of repulsion from Jewish particularism. The result is that he becomes a toxic specimen of the “wicked son,” but not the most dangerous kind, because he remains within the fold of the people he attacks—if only because it’s easier to throw stones from close up than far away.


If you were looking for a quick way to disprove Finkelstein’s claim that there is nothing Jewish about Israeli culture, all you have to do is open the pages of another new novel about the theme of sons, loyal and disloyal: Elsewhere, by the Israeli-Austrian writer Doron Rabinovici, which turns the subject into a kind of emotional burlesque. The comedy in this sophisticated, attractive book comes from the ambivalence of its hero, the beleaguered Ethan Rosen, about whether he wants to be a member of the community or a critic of it. Like Rabinovici (who wrote Elsewhere in German), Ethan was born in Israel but lives in Vienna, where he is a successful, jet-setting academic and a frequent contributor to newspaper op-ed pages.

Jews criticize other Jews but bridle when non-Jews make the same criticism

His problem, in fact, is that he has too many opinions—so many that he can’t keep track of which side of an issue he is on. Ethan’s troubles begin when he reads an obituary of his old friend, a Holocaust survivor named Dov Zedek, who devoted his old age to leading young Israelis on tours of Auschwitz. The obituary, published in a Vienna newspaper by someone named Rudi Klausinger, is a thinly veiled attack on Zedek as a Jewish nationalist; it even quotes an unnamed Israeli writer who condemned Zedek’s Auschwitz tours as a retrograde obsession with the Holocaust. Infuriated, Ethan dashes off a rebuttal in which he underscores the continuing importance of the Holocaust and defends Zedek’s work. Only once his editorial is published does he learn that the unnamed Israeli Klausinger quoted was himself: In an earlier article, this one written for an Israeli audience, Ethan himself had attacked the Auschwitz tours.

The comedy of self-contradiction is totally plausible, because when it comes to Jewish questions, Rabinovici suggests, we all keep a double set of books. Jews criticize other Jews but bridle when non-Jews make the same criticism; what an Israeli publishes in Tel Aviv is different from what he would publish in Vienna. But this embarrassing episode is just the start of Ethan’s troubles. Soon Rudi Klausinger starts turning up everywhere: He applies for the same job Ethan is trying to get; then he appears at the Tel Aviv hospital where Ethan’s father, Felix, is dying of kidney disease. What is it that Rudi wants from Ethan, that a gentile wants from a Jew—is he a competitor, an enemy, a would-be friend, a doppelganger?

Or is he, perhaps, a brother? For Rudi announces that he was an illegitimate child, who never knew his own father; and after years of searching, he has concluded that the man who fathered him is none other than Felix Rosen. Ethan, who grew up as the only child of Holocaust survivors, has spent his life putting distance between himself and his parents, his family, and his country. To him, they are suffocating, embarrassing, the kind of parents a child must rebel against: “No one savored every joy and sorrow more deeply than they did. Occasionally they would spend an entire night huddled against each other, sobbing loud enough to wake their son, whose bed was directly on the other side of their bedroom. But just as often they might start to sing and would not stop because it reminded them of all they had been through together … with the two of them, everything—good or bad—was doubled.”

To the newcomer Rudi, of course, this is exactly the kind of warmth he has been lacking. Rudi the gentile embraces Jewishness even as Ethan the Jew flees it. Each is a child in rebellion against his background, whose rebellions cause them to change places. Rabinovici steadily and skillfully heightens the comedy of the situation, as Rudi becomes the cuckoo in Ethan’s nest, winning over his parents, stealing his job, even moving in on his girlfriend, Noa. The absurdity is heightened when Rabinovici introduces another subplot, involving a maniacal Hasidic rabbi who is convinced that he can clone the Messiah, with the help of Ethan’s DNA. Or maybe Rudi’s DNA would do just as well?

Like the best Jewish comic novelists, from Philip Roth to Howard Jacobson, Rabinovici excels at communicating the too-muchness of Jewish experience, the sensation of being bombarded by insoluble questions—about Israel, the Holocaust, religious belief, family obligation. Who could blame any child for cutting herself off from the tumult, and simply going it alone? Yet just as Ethan can’t escape Israel, and ends up dutifully attending his father’s bedside, so the child usually ends up discovering that the parent is alive within him, whether he likes it or not. The exact way Rabinovici ends up unraveling his comic knots matters less than the book’s ability to evoke the tragicomedy of rebellion and submission. When even Roth, at the age of 80, receives an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary, it is tempting to believe that rebellion itself is merely one phase of submission and that every Jewish child, no matter how vocal in opposition, is just a Jewish parent waiting to be born.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.