Phillip Roth Z”L – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – May 25, 2018
I have not read a lot of Phillip Roth. Sadly, I rarely have time to read novels. But Roth’s short story, The Conversion of the Jew, is a favorite of mine. This week, Roth died at 85. I honor him with this short reflection.
Set in the 1950s and included in Goodbye Columbus which won the National Book Award in 1960, The Conversion is the story of a boy preparing for his bar mitzvah at his synagogue. The boy, Oscar (Ozzie), is both inquisitive and antagonistic. Unwilling to accept traditional, doctrinaire answers to fundamental questions, he finds himself at odds with Rabbi Binder. Oscar’s brazen attitude and pointed questions push his theological inquiry to the extreme and push the rabbi over the edge:
“Stand up again, Oscar,” Rabbi Binder said calmly, “and try to assemble your thoughts.”
Ozzie stood up. All his classmates turned in their seats and watched as he gave an unconvincing scratch to his forehead.
“I can’t assemble any,” he announced, and plunked himself down.
“Stand up!” Rabbi Binder advanced from Itzie’s desk to the one directly in front of Ozzie…
What’s your question about?”
Ozzie pulled a word out of the air. It was the handiest word. “Religion.”
“Oh, now you remember?”
“What is it?”
Trapped, Ozzie blurted the first thing that came to him. “Why can’t He make anything He wants to make!” [That is, if God could make the world in six days, why couldn’t God make a virgin give birth?]
As Rabbi Binder prepared an answer, a final answer…Ozzie shouted into the rabbi’s back what he couldn’t have shouted to his face. It was a loud, toneless sound that had the timbre of something stored inside for about six days. “You don’t know! You don’t know anything about God!” The rabbi spun back towards Ozzie.
“You don’t know—you don’t—“…
Rabbi Binder’s hand flicked out at Ozzie’s cheek. Perhaps it had only been meant to clamp the boy’s mouth shut, but Ozzie ducked and the palm caught him squarely on the nose. The blood came in a short, red spurt on to Ozzie’s shirt front.
In this scene, Oscar (read, Roth himself) castigates Jews and really all religious followers for extreme beliefs, hypocrisy, shallowness, and an exclusionary theology that fosters fundamentalism, even violence in the name of God.
There is much to unpack in the story. With its multiple references to Judaism and Christianity there are many layers of meaning. But even just on its surface, it’s a scene to which I can relate.
Let’s just say that I can identify with Oscar. No, I was never hit by a rabbi nor was my critique as biting. But I was a bit of a trouble maker in religious school (my parents got a phone call home when I (unintentionally) set off the fire alarm). Looking back, my attitude was not surprising. Other than loving bagels, I had little use for or understanding of Judaism. Growing up, I went to Temple only twice a year. I bluffed my way through my one and only Torah reading and dropped out after my bar mitzvah.
Why and how all that changed for me is the topic for another time. But my experience in religious school like that of Oscar’s made a lasting impression on me and shaped my rabbinate. It is why I am upfront in saying that I don’t have all the answers. Instead, I give people permission to question and remind them that we are called and called upon to be God-wrestlers.
Oscar taught me that we may never find all the answers in shul. But I hope, within the embrace of a caring and committed community, that we are inspired to search.
I don’t know what Roth would think. But I am grateful for his challenge. Zikhrono livrakha. May his memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Alexander Davis