Political Prose against Peyes
On the surface, The Search Committee: A Novel by Rabbi Marc Angel is a book about something as trivial as the work to find a new head for an important yeshivah in the US. The committee has two candidates to choose from: one is the son of the former rosh yeshivah, the learned and respected Rabbi Grossman. Against him stands the young and dynamic Rabbi Mercado.
This is Marc Angel’s first work of fiction, but he’s far from an unknown debutant. Angel has been the rabbi of the congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and he also founded the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. Then why does he opt to write a novel? Is he trying out a new career? Hardly. The subtitle to Angel’s book might be “a novel”, but one only has to scratch a little on the fictional surface to find that it really is a political manifesto.
To write political manifestos in the form of novels isn’t exactly a groundbreaking move. The most famous Jewish example in this genre is probably Theodore Herzl’s Old-New Land, where the father of political Zionism painted a rather idyllic and unbearably naive image of what life would be like in a future Jewish state.
Much like Herzl, Rabbi Angel has a rather ambitious goal. He wants nothing less than to reform Orthodox Judaism, and he highlights a number of fields where immediate action is needed. Angel attacks a dated approach to women, where signs of modesty and subjugation to men are all important, and where educated women with a will of their own are seen as a threat rather than as a resource. Blind faith in authority within the yeshivah world and rejection of critical text studies are also criticized, as is the contempt for work outside the protective walls of the yeshivah.
Angel lets the two candidates represent two different streams of Orthodoxy, and a story from the Talmud is central in illustrating the difference between the two. Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yosei ben Kisma, who was offered a large sum of money to leave his home town – full of learned and pious Torah scholars – in order to move to another town and teach its inhabitants. Rabbi ben Kisma refused, since he did not want to leave his frum home town.
The Haredi Rabbi Grossman points to ben Kisma as an ideal. One should devote oneself completely to the study of the Torah, and avoid the surrounding world with its low spiritual level. In Grossman’s eyes, modern society is merely a destructive threat, and the task of the yeshivah is to isolate and protect the students from external impressions and alien influences.
Rabbi Mercado on his part is not afraid of the world. On the contrary. He has studied at the university, and knows that there are many good things to learn from modern society. Mercado quotes the story of ben Kisma disapprovingly, and criticizes a rabbi who closes himself up in a little bubble of his own, and leaves the world to its fate. Rabbi ben Kisma was only interested in his own spiritual development, and thereby he betrayed his calling and failed the Jewish people.
The Search Committee is a fascinating contribution to one of the most important discussions in the Orthodox world today: should it open up and try to adapt to modern life, and thereby run the risk of Orthodox Jews falling for the temptations of the secular surroundings? Or should it isolate itself in its own world, focus on deepening its own piety, and treat the rest of the world as definitely lost?
According to Rabbi Angel, the development has taken the wrong direction, and his novel is in many ways an eloquent J’accuse against those who he thinks lead Orthodox Jewry into a self-destructive cul-de-sac of ever-increasing stricture and inhuman social relations.
But even though I do agree with the overarching argument, there still is something about The Search Committee that bothers me.
In Angel’s depiction, conservatism becomes a sign of bad character, and Rabbi Grossman and his entourage are depicted as bad through and through. Grossman himself is arrogant and hungers for power, his wife is a malicious gossip, and his biggest donor is a hypocrite who does not shy away from blackmail. Against this collection of dysfunctional caricatures, Angel places Rabbi Mercado and his supporters, who all are polite, altruistic and enlightened people. Black stands against white, evil against good, the past against the future.
These one-dimensional characters, shallower than a puddle, leave me with a vague feeling of discomfort – and it’s not merely a question of literary quality. Was it really necessary to go ad hominem? Would Angel not have been able to make his point about the need for reform, and still concede the point that rabbis with peyes and big full beards can be just as good people as their more progressive, and clean-shaven, colleagues?
I’m convinced that a more nuanced set of characters would not only have made the reading more enjoyable, but it would also have made Angel’s underlying point even more convincing.