Doug Morgan: Would you say either side wins this kind of confrontation in the lives of your chief characters?
Chaim Potok: In culture fusion something is yielded by both sides. The ideal would be that out of the fusion something new would result. You hope when you give something up that you gain something back. It is impossible to fuse totally with a culture for which you feel a measure of antagonism. The problem always arises when there is something in an alien body of ideas that attracts you. If nothing attracts you to it then you simply walk away from it.
Doug Morgan: As you are engaged in that kind of confrontation, trying to sort out how the fusion would take place, how do you decide what to discard and what to retain? Are there principles to guide you in that process?
Chaim Potok: Well, one hopes that if you're really related to the core of your particular culture, you have profound commitments to it, and that you are aware of how much you can strain it before you do violence to its essential nature. I'm dealing with individuals who are really familiar with the worlds in which they live.
The principles to use are the principles of one's own heart and mind.
~page 57 of Conversations with Chaim Potok of the Literary Conversations Series, edited by Daniel Walden
This has been what has claimed me since the time I first began to feel and think. From my inception, this was the problem that troubled me. The Rav struggles with this and that is why I relate to him. He claims in the end that the yeshiva and the secular world can never be perceived as a synthesis. This is the same Rav who believes in dialectical schisms. Thus, it is in keeping with his theory that he will utilize techniques of the secular world and analyze in accordance to them, but will not allow actual content to infiltrate his carefully created world. Hence his article in Light magazine.
This is also what R' Aharon Lichtenstein refers to when he states:
- I know of few poems that express so forcefully the moral idea that binds us to the beit midrash.The narrator's life would have been far simpler had he dismissed the lure of nature: "What all the fuss? Snow, ice, trees, woods – they are all worthless! We're here today, gone tomorrow. Let's get on with it!" Rubbish can be dismissed without a second thought. But in order to have a "lover's quarrel" with the world, you must first see its value. Frost appreciated the hues and colors of the world. Though the narrator is attracted by the aesthete's passive contemplation, morality's voice within him eventually wins.
So, too, is it with us. It is easy to devote yourself to Torah if you are convinced that everything else is nonsense. Nonsense is easy to give up. But one who sees the beauty in God's creation, who comes to love it, must be strong in order to devote himself to learning Torah. One must not divorce the world, but rather bear in mind one's "lover's quarrel with the world."
For those who claim all morals, ethics, that which is beautiful and that which is true comes from the Torah, this struggle need never occur. As Potok explains, if nothing attracts you to the alien culture "then you simply walk away from it." However, as Rav Lichtenstein notes, "one who sees the beauty in God's creation, who comes to love it, must be strong in order to devote himself to learning Torah." He is, after all, lured by something beautiful- and something Rav Lichtenstein even sees as being valid in its beauty.
My difficulty is that aspects of both worlds attract me. There is much that is valid, that which R' Lichtenstein would support, that fascinates and calls to me. It is simply a question of priorities. But there is also much outside the pale, forbidden, exotic, and pleasurable to the mind, that sings to me. I am torn, not because I am choosing between good and evil, but because I am choosing between my good and God's version of good. And my good is not necessarily synonymous with total evil. I long to find the way to fuse the many cultures that comprise me so that they create one strong and sturdy system of religiosity that enables me to keep to my Orthodoxy. But as I mentioned before, I have not been successful in my quest thus far; I am only afraid. My response has been to flee in the face of what I am not equipped to handle or to resolve. The Rav wrote about surrendering one's mind to God. Alas, I feel that is often my only option. And yet it is not satisfying; it does not please the soul. I am trying to fuse magnets that exist at opposite poles; they repel one another! So of course it is impossible. Of course the only way to continue is to bow to God. But sometimes I become so frustrated by this entire endeavor and angry with God for forcing me to continously choose that I wonder what would happen if I allowed my mind free reign for a day...the consequences of such a day make me tremble!
Jordan knew this about me instantly; he believed that no matter what I did I would somehow end up serving God through it. But I have less confidence than he does...they say the seal of God is truth and yet I find that I must block out what seems to be the most convincing truth because it totally contradicts my Judaism. This is, of course, vastly due to the fact that my truth is created by emotion as opposed to logic and it is what people feel that matters to me more than anything else. And so I try to fuse the culture that seems concerned with people's feelings- that preaches codes of tolerance and acceptance and humanism- with one that has clearly defined limits, no matter what one may feel- a kohen cannot marry a gerusha, a woman is an aguna until she receives her get, the homosexual act is forbidden. I simultaneously believe in an absolute truth and draw back in horror at the wreckage I perceive this causes the human being who must abide by it. I am caught in a place between and I cannot fuse these two cultures- I cannot- and yet I cannot let one go to wholly accept the other!
Of course this problem would never have come about to begin with had I been raised in a totally insular community where they would have taught me never to explore. Then, I would have been taught from the get-go to place God before my own perception. Yet they tried to teach me this and did not succeed...I had already been calibrated to be too sensitive, to thrill and thrum at the slightest sweep of the bow across the delicately laced strings...there was no way for me to escape. And in the pursuit of honesty, I never could have truly chosen escape as my option. I would have had to face the clash, to stand before it, to consistently have this vague sense of doing something wrong but to be unsure of whether I truly was wrong. And thus I cultivated my philosophy of 'Torah Through Tears.' I cannot accept that one must serve God with joy when one hurts another. I think it should kill you to hurt the other but you serve God despite this, not because of it. It should kill us to watch the homosexual struggle because he desires to sleep with another man. But the law is the law and it has been given by God. We must cry bitter, bitter tears, for it is through this that we attest that we are still human and that divine justice is not human justice.
Is this, then, my resolution? Clearly it cannot be. I have only solved how I can feel as I do and simultaneously keep the law. I have not yet discovered whether it is permissible to ignore texts in favor of common sense, which I strongly feel must be but cannot prove (platonic relationships, anyone?) My entire modus operandi is called into question by today's suspicious society, created in 'Rupture and Reconstruction' mode, because modern man has been taught and guilted into not trusting himself. Or as one of my esteemed rabbis and professors once stated, and only now do I finally understand what he means, "The heresy of the Moderdox is the idea that if you can't find an explicit prohibition it's kosher. The heresy of the Haredim is...well, it's the same thing, most of the time, except when they decide that everything not commanded is prohibited." How to live in a world where you must work to fuse elements that seem impossible to be fused? Two competing creeds, each of them worthwhile, with elements of goodness and purity scattered through like mica chips...it's a wonder sometimes that we are sane. The great tragedy- and simultaneously the great challenge- of our world is that it is not black and white. It is a great and glorious multicolored tapestry and the question is whether the thread I select when I weave my portion has been dipped in poison or not. If it has, then not only do I erase myself but the caustic, toxic potion shall eat away at the entire portrait. If it has not, then I create something beautiful...and the difficulty is that I can never be sure.
Cultural fusion is the perfect term...but alas, I am so torn, so very, very torn, that I have no idea how I shall fuse anything at all, or what will even happen with me in the end. All I can do is request that God guide my path and desire Him to have compassion upon me should I err. But that does not feel like anything near enough...I want clarity, I want answers; I don't want to have to work this damnable fusion on my own!