My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner ("Mayn Krig Mit Hersh Rasseyner")

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MY QUARREL WITH HERSH RASSEYNER ("Mayn krig mit Hersh Rasseyner")

Short story by Chaim Grade, 1982

In the early 1950s Chaim Grade, a leading Yiddish poet, began to write prose fiction, and "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner" was among his first pieces. Drawing upon his own background in the Noveredok Yeshiva of the Mussar movement, the story anticipates the fuller portrayal and more sustained questioning of that milieu in his subsequent novel, Tsemach Atlas.

"My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner" presents the lifelong debate between two classmates from the Noveredok yeshiva. Hersh Rasseyner remains committed to the stringent mussar movement, characterized by extreme piety, with an emphasis on ethics, and an ascetic tendency. His companion, known as Chaim Vilner, a stand-in for the author, abandons the mussar movement to pursue a life in secular letters. The tale begins with a brief conversation on a street in Bialystok in 1937 seven years after Chaim has left the yeshiva, followed by a second, chance encounter in Vilna in 1939. These moments serve to delineate the characters and to set the lines of their quarrel. The largest portion of the text is devoted to their meeting on the Paris metro in 1948, at which time the experience of the Holocaust drives them to a passionate elucidation of their respective positions: for Hersh, greater piety; for Chaim, deeper questions. In the course of that discussion the friends ask one another what change the Holocaust has wrought in their thinking, and they answer in turn. Yet Grade presents the post-Holocaust reflections as continuous with their pre-war quarrel. The Holocaust casts a stark, clarifying light on their differences and also raises the stakes, as it were, of the contest, but the debate remains a confrontation between Jewish tradition, as interpreted by the mussar movement, and modernity, as it has been embraced by secularizing Jews.

The first round in Bialystok goes to modernity. Hersh castigates his friend for abandoning piety for the vain pursuit of fame. But Chaim responds with a critique that takes traditional piety by its blind side. He points out that "Women exhausted from work bring you something to eat." Hersh's spirituality denies a place for women and yet depends on them and on the labor of those whom Hersh himself maligns for lack of piety. A telling criticism will have an important post-Holocaust echo: "You scold the hungry for being sinners." Will the pious similarly blame the victims of the camps for their victimization?

In round two the balance shifts. The two friends meet in a Vilna plagued by the Russian NKVD and in sight of Red Army tanks. Hersh asks the rhetorical question, "Is this what you wanted?" The implication has been developed in much post-Holocaust discussion, namely, that the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler are not aberrations but rather the logical extension of the premises of modernity. Chaim's retort is unconvincing and easily overturned. He asserts, like the biblical Cain, "Hersh, I bear no more responsibility for all that than you do for me." The adherent of mussar need only accept his responsibility for his brother to suggest the parallel responsibility of the secularist for the modern totalitarian condition.

The experience of the Holocaust appears, at first, to have transformed the acerbic and judgmental Hersh into a milder man. But eventually he is led to speak aloud the challenge that he claims to have practiced in the camps. His argument is forceful, particularly as he presses the former themes, such as the basic irresponsibility of the credo of liberalism: "Let me alone and I'll let you alone." Reason, the characteristic instrument of modernity, makes the freedom of the individual, critical intelligence the principal value. Reason, then, is not inevitably wed to ethics, and, moreover, the free individual is not wed to a community. Without community the Jew cannot be a Jew, Hersh argues, and without a basis in ethics modernity can and does lead to the Holocaust. At the limit Hersh declares that the Jew who leaves his community (for Hersh, but also for Chaim, Jews are gendered male) to emulate the gentiles will find himself, when Holocaust comes, wishing to become—that is, to exchange places with—his torturer in the camps. Hersh easily brushes away Chaim's objection that the gentile philosophers also understood and strove for the good, suggesting that upholding ethical values did not prevent the Holocaust. Hersh responds that good deeds, not a good ethical system, was called for, and only the Jewish law conceives of ethics in those terms, thus leading the Jew, and only the Jew, to true goodness.

Chaim counters with the example of the pious Christians and humanitarian atheists who saved Jewish lives: "Now you come along and repudiate everything in the world that isn't piously Jewish." He goes on to contest Hersh's understanding of the chosen character of the Jewish people, which, he demonstrates decisively, excludes not only pious gentiles but also all Jews who do not share the mussar way of life. Many who suffered as Jews would be denied their Jewishness by Hersh's standard, and this, Chaim urges, would be a further crime against the living and the dead.

Grade gives the final word to Chaim. Freedom, Chaim argues, does make for individuals, but so too it breeds equality, whence comes fraternity. Community is not to be achieved by the ascetic who withdraws from human contact and by the pious traditionalist who excommunicates fellow Jews for their modernity. After Auschwitz, argues the modern Jew, let us have fellowship. Thus Chaim's closing refutation is to invite his adversary to enlarge the tragically diminished circle of Jewish life. After Auschwitz, and before the friends separate forever, Chaim proposes, "let us embrace each other."

—Andrew Bush