Chaim Potok and the Exploration of Moral Courage

Chaim Potok wrote interesting and substantial books, and there are few such books published in recent decades. I’ve only read the two novels My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev, and I confess to having read them four or five years ago. That length of time won’t be a problem so far as this discussion goes. It was, in fact, a time necessary for contemplation on the moral meaning of those novels.

In those books, Asher Lev begins life as a quiet fellow, seemingly little different from the other Hasidic youth of his community — until he shows a talent for art and also shows the genius that draws him on to greater and greater risks with his art. If you read those novels, pay attention to the conversations between Asher Lev and the Rabbi. [A different spelling than ‘rabbi’ is used in the book, but I’ll use this to not confuse the reader.] There are strong hints that these two men, one a dedicated artist who rejected much of his Hasidic tradition and the other a leader and founder of a major Hasidic community, are great-souled folk little understood by those around them. One is a man who rejected the comfortable and secure path of remaining in his community and leading the life he’d been raised to live. The other took great risks in gathering a folk and coming to a new land decades prior to the setting of these novels.

But the question that these novels raised in my mind, and a question raised by many other works and personal observations is: why is moral courage so rare in the modern world?

I think it interesting that there are these two seemingly so-different characters in these novels who show the courage to break away from the path upon which life set them. Asher Lev has a soul set on fire by artistic visions and the Rabbi and leader of the Lev family’s Hasidic community has a soul set on fire by visions of God. The Rabbi is from an earlier generation, raising the question in my mind: Did moral courage disappear amongst religious leaders during an earlier generation? How long will it be before it disappears in the artistic and scientific and literary communities? (I think we’ve passed that point for the most part but form your own opinion.)

By the end of the second novel, there are hints that the Hasidim in this community are going the way of other Americans and Europeans, those of Christian or ‘mainstream’ Jewish descent. This is to say they are becoming creatures of the marketplaces, men who live to buy and sell goods rather than Jews who engage in trade to allow them, or their sons, the freedom to study the Torah. They’re men of lukewarm souls rather than being men who have a greatness coming from a personal courage and men who develop a significant amount of courage and greatness when inspired by the likes of the Rabbi. Sometimes courage can be inspired by God or can even result from someone being led into a life he didn’t foresee. Don’t underestimate the number of Jeremiahs amongst the courageous creative personalities of history.

You duped me, Lord. You tricked me into taking on this dangerous life of a prophet.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into these novels but great novels deserve to be stretched just as we stretch what we know of history in our efforts to understand those failures of courage on the part of so many nice human beings who proved willing to serve Hitler. I’ve spoken in my book ( To See a World in a Grain of Sand) of Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the nice, middle-class Germans who filled the Nazi bureaucracy but she also had some harsh comments about nice Jewish leaders. She claimed in her books on the Nazis (the third volume of The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem) that many Jewish leaders turned entire communities of their followers over to the Nazis in return for safe passage out of Nazi territory for themselves, their families, some of their friends, and sometimes their money. Those Jewish leaders were probably not much like the Rabbi of the Asher Lev novels and probably a bit like the retailers who are prominent in that Hasidic community by the end of those novels. And a bit like the members of Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet as described by Robert McNamara in the book he co-authored with Brian VanDeMark: In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

In fact, if there had been more men like the Rabbi amongst those Jewish leaders of the 1930s, or amongst the Christian leaders of that period, Hitler’s schemes to corrupt the Germans into carrying out his morally insane programs would have simply fizzled. Similar statements can be made about the bloody mess in Vietnam and probably similar statements will seem appropriate about the bloody mess in Iraq once we know more details.

It also emphasizes a danger of the modern democratic movement, actually the dangers of modern marketplaces — commercial and political. Modern history indicates that a mass of human beings will choose leaders who flatter that mass of men and pander to its desires for safety and security, also pander to its desires to see geniality as moral integrity. There seems to be no chance we will choose a man who will make moral demands upon us and raise us to at least the possibilities of a true moral integrity.

In my opinion, the United States has had only one great president: George Washington, but he’s not an exception to the rule we prefer scoundrels as our leaders because he wasn’t really chosen by the American citizens. He had the courage to risk life and fortune for political independence and was already in a position of leadership before those citizens first voted. And he showed enough courage in office to, among other efforts, make a serious attempt to help the Amerinds form their own nation in the lower Mississippi River Valley. He was beaten back and came to be despised for that stand and other moral stands. Greed has never been a weak force in the American soul. Washington left office as one of the most unpopular men in American history and regained his popularity only when he had no power to make moral demands upon the American people. It’s interesting that George Washington was himself a greedy man, but he was quite capable of suppressing his own greed when it came into direct conflict with his moral principles.

So, why is moral courage so rare in human history? I think the answer is simple. Morally unformed human beings tend to be genial. We genial men will like to see ourselves as having true moral integrity, of being able to pay a price to live up to our principles. The fact is that human beings are not born with moral integrity. It’s hard-won by enduring hardships in the right way or by being subjected to the proper training over a good number of years. Some are able to win moral integrity by persistently acting as if they have it. The inspiration of artistic visions or the hunger to live in the Presence of God can motivate a man to set out on a path where he’ll pay prices he’s not prepared to pay as yet. Various societies of virtuous pagans, the Romans of the Republic and the Apache who vainly sought to defend their land against American imperialism, are just two examples of societies which knew how to toughen up their young men.

Americans had it good for too long and we didn’t have the sort of morally well-structured society which would have encouraged the formation of strong moral characters in young men and young women, but especially young men. If the maternal natures of young women are properly nurtured, the experiences of child-bearing and child-raising will complete the formation of their moral characters. It’d be nice to have more authors who can depict moral struggles in a way that might inspire the youth of our day, but we also need readers who can realize the Asher Lev novels are not just some sort of National Geographic tour of Brooklyn. There are serious moral dramas being played out in the pages of those books.

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3 Comments on “Chaim Potok and the Exploration of Moral Courage”

  1. jmoney Says:

    I think America actually has done OK under the circumstances.

    Why is moral courage so rare? E.B. White said:

    People are, if anything, more touchy about being thought silly than they are about being thought unjust.

    Why? Well, it takes awhile to get used to it, the first time you hear your voice on audiocassette. We’re just starting to see ourselves on such a scale—give us a little more time to get used to it.

  2. jmoney Says:

    I find myself rereading this and the previous post a little more closely than I did the another night (and with a little less wine in my system!), and I agree with what you’re writing, Loyd. If I meant anything by my earlier comment about your tone—from a practical point of view—it’s just that there’s seems to me to be such an aversion among the reading public to listen to almost anyone saying that we need to shape up, morally or otherwise. To that end, I’m personally interested in finding more, um, subversive ways to get the message out and acted upon.

    My comment above reads a little goofy to me now, but what I meant was that one of the effects of the past century’s advances in information media is that we are all scrunched a lot closer together, psychically if not always physically, than ever before. So we end up seeing ourselves reflected in each other more and more, and I think that many of us are a little reflexively embarrassed by the uncoolness of someone wearing their heart on their sleeve, especially since that person’s moral foundation may not be all that rational under scrutiny.

    That said, upon further thought, I agree with your response that prosperity has brought complacency (and that it needs to be penetrated). Maybe moral courage isn’t so rare, but the circumstances that reveal it are, at least in the 21st century West. Surely we saw it on September 11th and in the days after; surely one could argue that in the Mideast, moral courage of a kind is almost too prevalent. And surely the problem is the same one that’s plagued us since Socrates’ time and before: that most of us leave our lives all too unexamined.

    Just my thoughts. Sorry for the verbosity (although I can’t guarantee it won’t happen again). Thanks!

  3. loydf Says:

    Thanks for the comments and don’t worry about any verbosity. I have trouble holding myself back at times.

    There is a major issue here about presentation and I’m worrying about the problem myself. I even spoke in the confessional booth about a possible lack of charity in my ways of expressing myself. The priest said that’s a hard matter. Sometimes you have to disturb human beings, even hurt them, to let them know they’ve got a problem.

    I’m not backing off on this general subject. In my one published book to date, I would break into a moral discussion in the midst of a chapter on integrating theology and physics. I am moving on to a new aspect of the problem and one which will allow me to step back and talk in a more detached manner for a while: what can we learn about moral responsibility from those cycles of quality of literacy/thought which sometimes result in a collapse into fatalistic ways of behavior and thought. I think the cyclical return to the personification of evil even on the part of some historically knowledgeable human beings gives a clue. And I intend to follow that clue despite the fact that I don’t know enough history to do it right.

    I’m more than happy to seed ideas and let others nurture them or pronounce them stillborn.


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