Reflections, like words that can kill and vanquish, like a hot tea when you come in from the rain, are never neutral. They always come with an agenda, emotionally charged and cloaked in subjects laden with layers of meaning. Even our historical memory, ostensibly based purely on fact, is far from being neutral. Maurice Halbwachs, a Jewish sociologist who died in Buchenwald, distinguished between collective memory and history. Collective memory is supposedly sourced in the dry facts of historical information. By right, it is accurately located in time and carefully verified by documentation. It is reflective of real events—nothing more. Yet, it remains inevitably laden with the world of those who remember—their psychological tendencies, political tastes, core beliefs. Collective memory is created, so Halbwachs argued, not because it presents events as they occurred, but based on the ethos, direction, and internal meaning which the “preservers of tradition” wished to create. If this is the case with the writing of history, it is even more the case with literature.
An author needs to know the enormity of the influence she wields in the words she creates… Literature does not merely reflect reality. To a large degree, it creates it.
Literary reflections do not take place in a vacuum. They are products of unique observations made by authors located in particular social and spiritual realms, with very specific stirrings of the heart, from within which they find their voice. Whether aware of it or not, these reflections are sent afield, like bread cast upon the waters, so that one day the public might find them, consume them and resonate with them. Literary reflections ultimately reflect subjective consciousness, striking new roots within it.
On this count, I have some difficulty agreeing with Kepler’s self-image, which seeks to reduce her work to simply “holding up a mirror.” An author needs to know the enormity of the influence she wields in the words she creates. Her literary mirror carries both a carrot and a stick: by gazing at the reflection created in the mirrors of her words, readers ask questions about themselves, their world, and their duties within it. Whether we wish it or not, the plot creates a character quite different from him who occupies the factual reality of a given society. Literature does not merely reflect reality. To a large degree, it creates it.
the Charedi author today is the bearer of postmodern that undermine the hegemony of grand narratives which have traditionally dominated Charedi society.
I wish to argue that contrary to Kepler’s argument, the Charedi author today is the bearer of a postmodern vision that undermines the hegemony of grand narratives traditionally dominating Charedi society. It achieves this with flair, despite the limits imposed by censorship committees. The challenge of Charedi literature is not the creation of “adult literature” but the ability to find a dialectical language that critiques reality without shattering it.
Post-Modernism: Sixty Segmented Chapters
The creations of many Charedi authors, such as Ruthi Kepler, Penina Paksher, Chaya Hertzberg, Chasya Brettler, Chavi Rosenberg, and others, are a particular literary expression of a mindset current throughout the world. True, its version, laced with traditional headdresses of sheitels and shtreimels, gives the literary creation a unique feel; but having pierced the superficial cover, the spirit is all too familiar. It tells a well-known story, namely: the era of the big ideas is over.
Modern philosophy, the corpus of ideas dealing with concrete truths and solid contentions, has cleared the path for a postmodern philosophy focusing primarily on dismantling the stable and the absolute. No longer ideas that readers look up to with longing eyes. Ours is a time for doubt, an era in which we cannot muster up anything more than “maybe.” Thinkers, French and otherwise, did their best to undermine three hundred years of fortified, systematic thought. To a large degree, they succeeded, opening all to reexamination, subjecting all fields of knowledge to withering analysis that dismantled their absoluteness. By choice, they offered no coherent position as an alternative. The question mark reigns supreme.
This spirit blows within our own camp, too, and its primary bearers are our authors. To be more precise, its promulgators are specifically authoresses.
Charedi society, certainly in the male bastions of traditional power, holds tight to its big truths and likes to think of itself as unaffected by the postmodern winds of deconstruction. It ostensibly has a complete and solid set of principles, representing a truth that lies beyond all doubt or equivocation. But the arrows of deconstruction are directed nonetheless towards the institutions that speak for this truth. Our institutions of chinuch and of community structure have become targets for the author and her wounded heart.
Charedi literature does not directly attack the “big truth,” but silently critiques its underlying assumptions, enveloped in mantles of ideology and values.
Many stories thus tell the difficulties encountered by individuals whose paths clash headlong with a harsh establishment. They describe his dilemmas, his heart-wrenching pursuit of self-expression, and his journey to find it that must take him well outside his point of departure. A Litvak strives to become a Chassid; a daughter of a troubled mother is torn between emotional suffocation and the mitzvah of respecting one’s parents; a divorced woman searches for self-definition beyond the family; a young bride cannot tolerate her mother-in-law; a female student rebels against her rigid teacher; a “good wife” cannot repress thoughts of rebellion against her domineering husband and her blind loyalty to him.
All these stories speak of a tension between compliance with a “big idea” and following it through trials and tribulations on the one hand, and doubt, questioning, and listening to an inner individual voice on the other. Charedi literature does not directly attack the “big truth.” Rather, it silently critiques its underlying assumptions, enveloped in mantles of ideology and values, which cause misery to the individual buckling under their weight.
It is not by chance that specifically the women of our camp have given voice to these tensions. In her study of the Haskalah movement, literary scholar Iris Porush points to the hidden and significant role of women in the modernizing process of Jewish society. Women did not dwell in the beis midrash, poring over holy books and discussing their minutiae, as did the intellectual elite among menfolk. If only for supporting the household economy, their negotiation with the outside world exposed them to ideas prevalent in the general atmosphere. This changed their thinking and their lives. In contrast to the men, women were also unarmed with the counterweight of Torah; they stood defenseless at the battlefront, and the Haskalah ideas penetrated their consciousness with far greater effect.
Today, we witness a very similar situation. While men engage in intellectual sparring in a beis midrash sealed with the seal of absolute truth (and in the Chassidic world, earning a living within the protected Charedi enclave), women are increasingly exposed to the world “outside.” True, they come charged with a strong ideology nurtured over years of education. But at a still young age they are thrust headlong into the secular workforce bereft of absolute truths fashioned in the beis midrash. Moreover, by nature and education, women tend to be more pliable and inclusive, less absolute than men, and lean toward dialogue and sharing. The result? Authors, predominantly authoresses, whose pens emit stories that shatter hegemony and plots that buckle under weighty question marks.
Today, we witness a very similar situation. While men engage in intellectual sparring in a beis midrash sealed with the seal of absolute truth… authors, predominantly authoresses… emit stories that shatter hegemony and plots that buckle under weighty question-marks.
Within the heart of the educational establishment, more “masculine” and absolute writing styles continue to survive. In musical programs at educational institutions, in camp anthems and seminary bulletins, you will still find the strong colors of monolithic correctness and isolation. But the central voices in Charedi literature are female ones, authors who undermine the traditional cast in which stories are supposed to play out. Moreover, this is happening under the very noses of the most stringent censors. The anger directed at Kepler by the female teacher representing the old order is well-grounded. Indeed, a titanic struggle is taking place here between two spirits—those of certainty and those of doubt.
This, in my opinion, is where our “feminine” writers face a challenging assignment. Sometimes, individual anguish and the inability to express personal feelings lead a person to “break the vessels”—to use the kabbalistic term. In psychoanalytical language, we would call this “acting out.” At the heart of this action lies a spiritual or verbal muteness. Instead of declaring his anger, the person will be late for school or work, will use expletives, will break objects, or will turn inward in defiant silence. Teenagers excel at these sorts of gestures, but they are true even of all people whose growing pains are unbearable.
Charedi literature, much like the public at large, is experiencing such pain. Stories that tell of institutional obtuseness or of the helplessness of educators accompany our daily lives. Thoughts of how to mend and how to move to a more mature social level are fermenting among female authors. In internal conversations, I hear a great deal of rage directed against values forced upon them, of intimidation and fear, of a feeling of suffocation and of having no way out. Will our scribblers succeed in speaking of all this without “breaking the vessels”? It seems to me that the cry of the teacher, directed against Kepler and her new order, and the surprising ovation she received echo a fear that we cannot preserve our good wine while shattering the barrel of our conscious existence: loyalty to the good and the just, deep commitment to fulfilling the word of the Creator, and true dedication to the covenant of Torah and mitzvos.
Even within the rules of halacha and Charedi correctness, it is not difficult to undermine the old, absolute cultural establishment. It is all too easy, and certainly tempting, to create a counterpoise of “connection,” “authenticity,” and “listening to the inner self.” Without a doubt, there is nobody better suited for this than the (female) “emotional therapist,” whether real or fictional. In Charedi literature, the attentive therapist stars as a counterpoint to “suffocating mothers” and old-school teachers—somebody ready to really hear individual suffering. In many stories, she takes the place of the respected teacher or the chair of the all-knowing mashgiach. She undermines traditional authority, while her candor and authenticity create a new form of authority for the masses to follow.
The real challenge facing our future authors is creating an honest dialectical literature—a literature that oscillates between these two poles, between the absolute truth of Torah, “Moshe is true and his Torah is true,” and our inner calling, “my duty in my world.” The dialectic must embrace both the objective and the general on once side, on one side, and the subjective and singular on the other.
The real challenge facing our future authors is creating an honest dialectical literature—a literature that oscillates between these two poles, between the absolute truth of Torah, “Moshe is true, and his Torah is true,” and our inner calling, “my duty in my world.” The dialectic must embrace both the objective and the general on one side and the subjective and singular on the other, refraining from concrete decisions while not abandoning the reader in a vacuum of ideals. It needs to set a direction, creating representations that dovetail with the good and the elevated, not coercing but not blurring the path. It is a “dialectic of friendship,” in the elegant phraseology of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l.
Those who set their torch to the bonfire of great and eternal truths have cultivated an individual who is aware, developed, and mature. But this individual often suffers from a deep failing: he is unable to find meaning and spiritual satisfaction; he is incapable of dropping moral anchors to create social cohesion in a postmodern ocean. Let us be wary of placing ideas of “connecting,” “awareness,” “feeling,” and “going with the flow” on the highest pedestal of our writing. By so doing, we create a monadic figure detached from its own great spirit. Reveling in fantasies of individualism, he throws mud and muck at agents bearing the waters of life, who seek to provide him with what he so thirsts for—a modicum of truth.
It is our duty to carve out a path in a deficient world, partial and split, by a human medium that is by definition riddled with errors and pains. In such a world, we are charged with expressing an individual voice without destroying the traditional structure that upholds it.