This should be obvious by now, but Chaim Potok is one of the people I want to meet in heaven.
Michael J. Cusick: Dostoyevsky spent years in prison. Asher Lev, David Lurie, Danny Saunders, and several other characters of yours suffered and went on to enormous creativity. How does suffering affect one's corpus of creativity and art?
Chaim Potok: Well, it will either mature you or destroy you. If it destroys you, we won't hear about you anymore. But if it matures you, then you might make a contribution. All of us, at one point or another in our lives, have suffered- if not in our own flesh, then in the flesh of those we love. We will experience suffering.
It's the task of the artist to take that experience and map it through her or his own way of seeing the world. That's what I tried to do with the individuals I was writing about.
Michael J. Cusick: What would you say about the idea of encountering the sacred in the midst of the secular?
Chaim Potok: My sense of it is that the sacred is everywhere. And by that I mean we are surrounded by mystery, we are surrounded by beauty. A child is born and it's a mystery. A person dies and that's a mystery. What are we doing here? That's a mystery. I have to respond to that one way or another. And that's what I mean by the sacred- things that are given, yet oddly given. I have to respond to that and ask myself, "What map do I make of this? What relationship do I have to this?" I'm a writer, and I have to deal with such givens.
You might tell me that the smile of a child is biologically and genetically driven, and I will say, "Fine." But even that statement is in many ways a mystery. Man's propensity toward killing is a mystery to me. Those aspects of ourselves that tend to drive us up and out of ourselves in a search for realms of being beyond our mere mortality- those are what I call the sacred. The constructive, the cooperative, the creative- those are the sacred.
The destructive- that is the demonic. As I said earlier, we are in a race with our own selves. And we have no guarantee as to which of those two elements of our selves is going to win. That's why those of us concerned with the sacred have to work hard. We have to lobby for it, because we can be sure of one thing: those taken up by the demonic are very good at what they do.
Michael J. Cusick: When you talk about what could be, is there a sense of the original "image of God?"
Chaim Potok: Yes, absolutely- there is a sense of an origin to things. And my feeling is that the biblical image is a magnificent metaphor for that feeling or sense that we have of the mysterious origin of things. That is the quintessential mapmaking. It's so rich that it has forever changed the mindset of our species.
Is it ontologically true? Well, the fundamentalists will say yes. Someone who knows a great deal about the history of Jewish thought will probably say that it has profound value in the way it has set the human mind in a certain direction- that that is its truth. And for me that's truth enough.
Michael J. Cusick: Whether or not the ontological reality is there?
Chaim Potok: That's right.
~Conversations with Chaim Potok, pages 129-130
Chaim Potok: So I can't make the step beyond creation to the infinite God. But I can certainly relate to the God of the Bible. I talk to him all the time and complain all the time.
~Conversations with Chaim Potok, page 131
Michael J. Cusick: You spoke of complaining to God, and in your writings there are characters who shout at God. It seems to be more acceptable for Jews to do this than for non-Jews.
Chaim Potok: The tone is set immediately in the Bible with Abraham. He has a long talk with God and tries to change God's mind regarding Sodom and Gomorrah. "Suppose there are some decent people there. What are you going to do - kill them all?" Well, that's pretty audacious, I think. After all, it's God he's bargaining with. It may be the creator God who doesn't get his or her way all the time, but it's still God.
Of course, the first grave lament- the one that sets the tone for all the laments in Jewish history- is the Book of Job. Now, the Book of Job is about one thousand years into Israelite history. That's quite a note to strike, the Book of Job. It was struck because there was a sense that the covenant relationship wasn't working. At least it certainly wasn't working in this world.
Michael J. Cusick: Not working in terms of reciprocity?
Chaim Potok: That's what covenantal relationships are all about. I do something, you do something. If I do something and you don't, you've broken the conversation. It's as blunt as that. It's a treaty- I keep my end, you keep your end. If you don't, the treaty is broken.
By the time of the Book of Job, there was a sense that the covenant was not working. Much of it had to do with the Maccabean Wars and the awful suffering that Jews went through. But for whatever the reason, the writer of the Book of Job said, "The covenant isn't working."
It is one long complaint. It amounts to Job taking God to court. In the Jewish worldview, the metaphor for complaint to God is the idea of taking God to court because Judaism is a legal system. "Now I know I'm going to lose this case, because you're God and I'm a simple human being. But I'm going to take you to court anyway, and I'm going to let the judges know how I feel and what the charges are. I 'll lose, but it's what I am going to do anyway."
Remember, the book was canonized, which already tells you that this attitude is acceptable to the rabbis of the Talmud. To canonize a book in the ancient world was to guarantee its permanent existence. Not to have it canonized was to virtually guarantee it oblivion. We've had complaints like this all through Jewish history. Books of complaint were written in the wake of the Crusades, the massacres in the 1600s in eastern Europe and the Ukraine. This is now part of the Jewish tradition, complaining against God.
I once talked about this to Norwegian clergy. They invited me to a conference, and I told them about this tradition of Jewish complaint. Some of them were aghast over it. But then they said, "I wish we had done this a year or so ago." They had an awfully tragic ferry accident where hundreds of Norwegians perished, and when their parishioners came to them, they didn't quite know how to handle it. My response, and the Jewish response, is to yell at God.
There used to be a tradition, which may still be in existence in some Jewish communities, where if you had a complaint against God you stopped the service on Saturday. You went up to the ark, you opened the ark, and you stood there shouting at God until the rabbi finally led you away.
Michael J. Cusick: The thing that's so fascinating about this is that it happens inside a system of faith. If you're going to rage against the master of the universe, you had better have some kind of faith as to what he is essentially like.
Chaim Potok: You shout out of faith, not because you don't have any faith. If you don't have faith, you don't have anyone to shout at.
~Conversations with Chaim Potok, 134-136