Tuesday, July 3, 2007


I just finished Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev. A friend of mine has been encouraging me to read this for some time now. I'm not exactly sure why I procrastinated. I know now that I had the wrong impression of the book.

Potok's use of the cross raises all sorts of fascinating questions. It is, on the one hand, simply a symbol for the complex conflict between Asher Lev's anti-iconic Jewish tradition and his artistic passion to paint what he sees and feels. More than that, there was no aesthetic form in Asher Lev's Judaistic culture that could capture his Mother's passionate suffering. But this seems inexorably to point to something richer and more dangerous. Something Potok himself surely did not intend. It's very difficult for me, a Christian, not to read this story as an allegory of the incompleteness of Judaism. Of course, for me, the cross is the fulfillment of pre-Christian Israel's own cruciform existence as the first, corporate form of "the suffering servant" (Isa. 53). Jesus is the true Israel, the one who suffered in love for the world.

All texts transcend authorial intention. Perhaps this is one of those texts that has depths of meaning not only not intended by the author, but also not appreciated.


shookfoil said...


Glad you liked! You captured well the reasons why, as a Christian, I found this book to be heart-breaking and provocative on numerous levels, the 'real-life' one most of all. The interview with Potok in the Image Journal from which you took his painting of A Brooklyn Crucifixion is also illuminating in that regard. And this article is somewhat thought-provoking as well: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1402. The author argues that Potok saw the Torah as becoming incomplete as soon as history moves forward, that Potok believed history demanded a maturing Torah in order to retain any meaning for humanity (specifically Israel) as it matured and faced new situations. Or something like that. At any rate, fascinating stuff as a Christian to read these critiques and images from on ordained rabbi. The cross as the only and most meaningful universal symbol for suffering and as the inevitable result of Torah-frozen-in-history conflicting with the demand for maturation! Wow. Anyways, thanks for your thoughts.

Premodern Bloke said...

I was on a Potok binge two years ago and this was one of my favorites.

Potok is a master at articulating very strong feelings through dialog that is very tight and concise.

I was also struck by how these Jewish communities are so covenantal about all of life. I wished that we as Christians had a fraction of their reality of Community.

However, I concluded that Asher Lev made the wrong decision by placing the need to express himself artistically above how such an expression would impact those he loved and how such an expression would stand against his faith commitments. Asher Lev may have been less of an “artist” for not doing the painting, but he would have been a better son, father, and Jew. In order to make the point, I would have had Asher paint the painting in his fit of creative tension, and then after contemplating the repercussions, destroy it. Of course, Potok more than likely meant this as justification for his own literary efforts which are in tension with his faith tradition.

Jeff Meyers said...

Jeff: I think you are on to something. I have to wonder if Potok's novel preaches a modernistic notion of art. The idea that an artist is autonomous and able to transcend his immediate human cultural situation and do "art for art's sake" is incredibly naive (at least). Asher Lev's struggle seemed in the end to be a battle between his own narcissism drive for self-expression and the demands of love. I, too, believe love lost that battle.

Andrew McCallum said...

Hello Jeff,

I thought you were right on with your comments about the lack of Jewish forms but I did not understand where you got the idea in Potok of the artist as autonomous although admittedly it’s been many years since I read My Name is Asher Lev. One thing I love about Potok is his description of the Jewish pedagogical forms, particularly in The Chosen and The Promise. The Orthodox and Hasidic youths in these novels are trained to understand their sacred texts as a comprehensive and rational set of beliefs. As they then stand to defend these texts in the Yeshiva they are expected to be able to explain all aspects of a given text with this understanding. So when the Hasidic student in The Promise leaves his community and heads into the modern world he takes this same approach to psychology and economics. He expects that these subjects are rational and comprehensible but he realizes that his religious beliefs can’t give him answers in the modern world so he has to borrow from other traditions. In short, his worldview is correct in that it assumes absolute truth and a rational ordering principle in the world, but it fails him in that it does not give him the basis for understanding the world outside the very narrowly defined world of the Hasidic religious experience. There is this same issue for Asher Lev. His Orthodox understanding of the world (no different from the Hasidic worldview in this regards) makes him yearn for art forms that are grounded and ordered in eternal principles, but he can’t find them in his Jewish experience so he looks elsewhere and finds something real and concrete in the historic symbol of cross. So it seems to me that Asher Lev and Potok assume a classical understanding of the eternality of artistic forms. But then again it’s been many years so I could be totally wrong here…

Andrew McCallum said...


Hmmm...in my post above the software left only my first name in the display, so now I'm experimenting here to see if I can get it to leave my whole name this time


Jeff Meyers said...

Hey, Andrew! I hope you and Lori are doing well these days!

Well, there's the whole "art for art's sake" thing that comes up with Asher's interaction with his marginal Jewish mentor. I do think this is modernist hubris. The notion that the artist can and should rise above and in defiance of his culture, godlike in his "objectivity" is pure modernism. For the modernist art must 1) depart from emphasis on literal representation, 2) reject tradition, 3) be fiercely anti-commercial, 4) be an expression of the artists emotions and who gives a damn what others think.

Oscar Wilde's explanation of true art is classic modernism:

"A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist."

The story of Asher Lev is in large part the story of his conversion, as an artist, from his own tradition and culture to that of a fully modernist artist.

Andrew McCallum said...


In The Promise, one of the heroes goes through a very similar journey except in stead of art, it's about psychology. And the young man does become a throughly modern and secular psychologist. But I never got the feeling that Potok was trying to promote the ideals of modernism, concerning either art in Asher Lev or psychology in The Promise. It seemed to me that he was just pointing out the inherent contradictions in the Jewish psyche in even the most Orthodox of Jews when they confront the modern world. This kind of story repeats itself over and over again in the real lives of so many Jews (Martin Buber comes to mind). Potok is an honest intellectual in that he does not try to sugar coat the conflicts within the Jewish mindset as they try to grapple with concepts that their worldview just cannot deal with. I wish writers coming from other non-Christian perspectives would be so transparent.

On modern art, Lorri and I and the boys just got back from Paris. I had the fun of trying to explain modern art to the boys when we went to the Pompidou (Paris' mostly hideously modern collection of art). It was so much more enjoyable to be at the Louvre and Orsay!

Please say hello to Chris for me.


Jeff Meyers said...

Andrew: good point about Potok. Perhaps my use of the word "preaching" is the problem. I don't think Potok was intentionally trying to "promote" or "preach" modernism. But in the end the book may have that effect. Asher's art is everything and subject to no one and nothing other than his autonomous feelings. It may begin with conflicts within Judaism, but the book ends with the modernist rejection of tradition, family, etc.

I think in the early 70's when he wrote this the modernist mindset about art was part of the intellectual air that artists and novelist breathed. The postmodern criticism of the modernist philosophy of art has gone a long way to help us appreciate the hubris of this way of doing art.

Andrew McCallum said...

OK, I'll buy that! Happy 4th...