Philip Roth Interrogates God


by Ed Simon

That Philip Roth was a Jewish author – maybe the Jewish author – is undeniable. Roth, who died last Tuesday, was the last of that generation who developed a new Jewish American literature; his equals being Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, with seemingly only Cynthia Ozick remaining. And though there have been scores of young Jewish writers three or four generations from Ellis Island like Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Nicole Krause, Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer, writers who’ve expanded the category of what “Jewish American literature” is, Roth remains the standard by which young Jewish fiction writers measure themselves.

Roth’s literary batting average was almost absurdly impressive; a tremendously prolific author of such incredibly high quality that it seems bizarre to categorize him as anything other than among a half-dozen or so of the greatest American writers, producing almost a novel a year, frequently among the best written in any given year. However, he’s not always critically faired well, in large part because of his representations of women or relationships. It’s easy to see Roth as an avatar of the American literary “Great Male Narcissists” identified by David Foster Wallace (takes one to know one…). In a fashionable word, Roth can be problematic. And yet that difficulty coupled with such undeniable talent is so visceral and unavoidable that the editor Paul Zakrzewski would title the first section of his 2003 anthology Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge “Love and Sex After Portnoy” in honor of Roth’s seminal novel about Newark, psychotherapy, sex, and the creatives uses of liver.

Zakrzewski noted the debt owed to Roth’s “brilliant, explicit, and outrageous dissections of Jewish identity” by acknowledging that the elder writer remained a “good prism through which to view a new breed of Jewish-American writer.” Advertising honestly his anxiety of influence (for neuroticism must be central in such an endeavor) Zakrzewski’s irreverent subtitle admits that he and his generation perhaps strive towards something “after” Portnoy’s Complaint, but there’s no not going through Roth first. But if over a half century career, Roth explored Jewish assimilation in Goodbye, Columbus, and American Pastoral, Jewish trauma in The Ghostwriter, Operation Shylock, and (with increasing relevance) The Plot Against America, and of course Jewish identity and neurosis with Portnoy’s Complaint, what he seemingly had little use for, was the Jewish God.

Paul Berman, in a perceptive piece written for Tablet last week, described Roth (with some justification) as “not a metaphysician,” the Great American Man of Letters being “insistently secular” and for whom if “the sun rises… it is not because God has chosen to put in a word.” Ample evidence of Roth’s religious irreverence, as in a rare 2005 interview conducted for The Guardian with the Danish journalist Martin Krasnick, Roth said that “I’m exactly the opposite of religious… I’m anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It’s all a big lie,” which would seem as unequivocally a statement of atheism as one could deliver.

And while that may indicate that Roth’s Jewish concerns are limited to cultural and social questions (even while in the same interview he tells Krasnick that “I know exactly what it means to be Jewish, and it’s really not interesting. I’m an American… [and] I don’t accept that I write Jewish-American fiction”) his dogged skepticisms, his finely attuned sense of the blasphemous, and especially his elevation of the interrogative mark Roth as a supremely Jewish writer, not just ethnically, but theologically.

For sure Roth’s Jewish world is not that of Chaim Potok’s Hasidic ghettos or Sholom Aleichem’s romanticized Polish shtetls, but it’s a very Jewish world nonetheless, not just in character and setting but in sentiment as well. Roth may go through Judaism, through Zionism, through assimilationism, interrogating and wrestling with all of them, but it’s his snarky approach to an absent G-d that’s the most Jewish, as proud in the enormity of its emptiness as the dash that some Orthodox Jews like Roth’s ancestors used to spell the Lord’s name. No author gives novels tiles like Sabbath’s Theater or Everyman and doesn’t evidence a theological imagination, for though it may not always be respectful or prayerful, it takes religion seriously, and in that regard, Roth was less an atheist than he was the dutiful opposition.

When Roth waxes rhapsodic as his fictional counterpart Nathan Zuckerman in The Counterlife about desiring to be a “Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness” he’s as if Jacob wrestling with the angel; in that same novel when he writes that “circumcision gives the lie to the womb-dream of life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory” he’s as if the legends of rabbis putting God on trial for His abrogation of the covenant; when Roth told Rita Braver, a reporter for CBS, that “When the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place” he wasn’t just being impious. For heresy aside, he was also as if the great matriarch Sarah in Genesis 18:12 who “laughed to herself” when confronted with the absurdities of God.

I come not to claim Roth as a crypto-sectarian for the pious, only to observe that if central to Judaism has always been dialogue, debate, and disputation, even with God, then Roth’s writing was always of a Jewish devotional nature, even if ostensibly atheistic. Religion writer Jonathan Kirsch recounts that “the Talmud records one especially heated debate on a point of religious law in which God himself is moved to speak out from on high – and God is outvoted!” We recall, after all, that Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel” after his night struggle with the nameless supernatural interloper, the patriarch’s new designation roughly translated as “He who struggles with God.” This divine irreverence and devotional sacrilege has always been the beating heart of a certain type of Jewishness, and as on exponent of being willing to wrestle with a God he didn’t believe in there were few the equal in American letters to Philip Roth. That particular Jewish theme threaded through Roth’s novels and stories, and it is the particular and idiosyncratic sense of the sacred which he enacted for the reading public for more than five decades.

Berman suspects something much the same, writing that “Roth, the secularist, turned out to be a seeker.” He identifies this in Roth’s “later-career turn towards symbols,” and with the healthy critical skepticism that every theorist must use when confronted with the protestations of the Creator himself, Berman writes that this religious turn is “entirely moving… precisely moving because [Roth]… himself does not understand what he is doing.” While I agree that later triumphs like Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, or The Plot Against America evidence a maturity of symbolism as “if out of Hawthorne,” I’ve no comment on what was intentional or not.

But more importantly, while I agree with Berman about a perhaps sublimated yearning for meaning in Roth’s later work, I think that the author was a “seeker” for far longer than the Tablet piece gives him credit for, back to the very beginnings of his career. His 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus, with its story of the ill-fated romance of working-class Neil Klugman to upper-class Brenda Patimkin may have introduced readers to the perennial concerns of Roth – class conflict, assimilation, sexuality – but it was one of the five short stories anthologized alongside the longer text that exhibits Roth’s particular theological concerns.

First appearing in The Paris Review a year before its inclusion in Goodbye, Columbus, “The Conversion of the Jews” is a perfect example of the sort of mid-century narrative that in structure is sometimes called “The New Yorker story,” as with contemporaries like John Cheever and Raymond Carver (albeit with different thematic concerns). In a similar manner, “The Conversion of the Jews” features a plot in which the drama is centered around a subtle, almost ineffable psychological transformation, one where the proper interpretation is purposefully ambiguous.

In this case the story involves a young Hebrew school student named Ozzie Freedman who exasperates both his mother and his instructor Rabbi Binder with endlessly probing yet sacrilegious questions, most impertinently queries that had a particular Christian gloss. In conversation with his classmate Itzie, Ozzie explains that he asked Rabbi Binder that if God “could make all that in six days, and He could pick the six days he wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn’t He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse.”

Neither Rabbi Binder nor Mrs. Freedman takes to the questioning of Ozzie, with the 13-year-old informing his friend that the teacher had castigated him as “deliberately simple-minded and a wise guy.” Roth’s story comes to a head when during a session of Torah study following punishment for his questions, Ozzie condemns the young rabbi with the prophetic accusation that “You don’t know anything about God!” escapes to the synagogue roof where he barricades himself and threatens to jump. Stories below in the dwindling November light a terrified Rabbi Binder, his class, the Newark fire department, and ultimately Mrs. Freedman look up in horror at the 13-year-old flapping about on top of the synagogue threatening to jump.

Finally, Ozzie agrees to jump into the net of the firemen if the assembled will “Get down on your knees” and declare that “you believe God can make a child without intercourse,” and then finally forcing them to say that “they believed in Jesus Christ – first one at a time, then all together.” Before he Jumps “right into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening’s edge like an overgrown halo,” Ozzie Freedman asks his mother specifically to “promise me you’ll never hit anybody about God.”

A difficult story, its title drawing from the 17th Century British poet Andrew Marvell with its evocation of the forced conversion used to punish Jews for centuries, the visual of the congregants in uneasy supplication made to mouth platitudes of a faith not their own – and most disturbingly by one of their own as well. Enough to conjure images of some medieval converso forcing his family to kneel before the Inquisition. Easy to see why this was one of the stories that drew the accusation of “self-hating Jew” that dogged Roth throughout his career.

When I first taught this story to a group of students at a Catholic university more than a decade ago, the majority of them maintained that Roth’s was an explicitly Christian message. New to the task at hand, I had an impossible task of explaining to them that Philip Roth wasn’t one for goyish affectations. Whether Roth was a self-hating Jew or not was perhaps up for debate, but nobody could credibly claim that he harbored some secret Christian enthusiasms. So, what did “The Conversion of the Jews” mean?

The story has never been about Christ or Christianity, neither Roth nor Ozzie really care whether God did make a Virgin give birth; rather the crux of “The Conversion of the Jews” is when the main character says that after contemplation “for a solid hour” he is “convinced God could do it.” Not that God did do it, but that he could. We should no more take the forced conversion of the synagogue seriously, striking though it may be, than we should Rabbi Binder’s dismissive responses to Ozzie. Rather what we should take seriously is the injunction to “never hit anybody about God.” In answers comes certainty, and in certainty comes dogmatism. For Roth, answers are nothing, but questions are everything.

That’s arguably the position of not just the novelistic imagination, but of all great art which eschews didacticism and the tyranny of message. The 19th Century poet John Keats called such a quality “negative capability,” describing it as being “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” The 20th Century Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin rather defined “heteroglossia,” the aspect of literature speaking in different, contradictory voices and perspectives. I prefer to think of it as the “Hebraic sublime,” the pleasure that comes in paradox, the comfort of contradiction, being assuaged by ambiguity.

In Western literature the multiplicity of voice, the contradictions of character, the truth that lay in disagreement and inquiry, all of which are celebrated by Keats and Bakhtin, find their origin in the Hebrew scriptures. Roth may have worn the mantle of the skeptic or the heretic, the supreme epikoros. But in reality, he was clothed in pious irreverence or reverent impiety (choose your pick); Roth was a yeshiva bocher of his own academy.

For in wrestling with God alongside Ozzie, in his delight at glorious contradiction and paradox, there is the fullest expression that the most powerful form of prayer is disputation, the most glorious worship is disagreement. Roth may have declaimed an atheism, but the wisdom of his most sacred writing is that of Mrs. Freedom, whom when she lit the sabbath “candles she looked like something better; like a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything.” Roth’s succor was always in the questions, and what could be more Jewish than that?

Illustration by Gregory di Folco.

About the Author:

Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. His writing regularly appears at sites like The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, LitHub, The Millions, and several others. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books later this year. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, or at his website.