halakhic fantasy

a discussion with Michael Weingrad

http://www.flickr.com/photos/natematias/229737535/ What makes fantasy different from all other genres?

In his article ‘Why There is no Jewish Narnia’ (Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2010), Michael Weingrad questions the strangely silent Jewish voice in fantasy literature.  ‘I cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish,’ he says, ‘and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little.’

Weingrad frames his article around a review of two recent fantasy titles from Jewish authors, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (Viking, 2009), and Hagar Yanai’s Ha-mayim she-bein ha-olamot [The Water Between the Worlds] (Keter, 2008), the second volume in her Hebrew-language trilogy The Whale of Babylon.  Weingrad uses what he describes as the shortcomings of these books—a heavy dependence on stock fantasy idioms, a lack of spiritual depth—to ask why Judaism, unlike Christianity, has not inspired a Narnia.

The Article

Weingrad observes, rightly, that the esteemed maestros of fantasy—Tolkien and Lewis—were both Gentile and High-Church Christians.  Despite their deep respect for Judaism and Jewish culture, they understandably wound their writings around Christian belief.  Partly because of this, Weingrad argues, fantasy has become inextricably intertwined with Christianity—whether affirming its beliefs as in Rowling, or attempting to dismantle them as in Pullman.

This may be due partly to fantasy’s role in Western history, Weingrad says.  Tracing its roots back to English Victorianism, he describes it ‘as one of a number of cultural salvage projects’ attempting to preserve a mythic haven against the onslaught of modernity.  ‘Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.’

This, says Weingrad, might account for the apparent disinterest of Jewish writers in the genre.  He writes that ‘most Jews have been deeply and passionately invested in modernity, and that history, rather than otherworldliness, has been the very ground of the radical and transformative projects of the modern Jewish experience.’  Science-fiction, on the other hand, he adds, has seen Jewish writers from Asimov to Weinbaum dominating the genre.

Weingrad suggests several reasons for this disinterest.  First, much fantasy romanticizes the Mediaeval period, glorifying feudalism (of a sort) and chivalry (of another sort).  There is little love lost in Jewish cultural memory for those centuries of dispersion and persecution, crusade and inquisition.

Second, and perhaps more significant, is the harsh reality of the Holocaust.  ‘Its still agonizing historical weight must press prohibitively upon Jewish engagement with the magical and fantastical,’ Weingrad says.  The magic and parallel worlds of fantasy ‘must have made redemption seem too easy. Certainly, the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world—as in, for example, the Harry Potter books—becomes all but impossible. (Or at least must raise the question of why Hogwarts, like the FDR administration, never tried to bomb the railroad tracks.)’

So, third, this long familiarity with the world’s evil and an equally long eschewing of magic counters much of fantasy’s typical contours.  Whereas Christian writers can and do look with admiration on pre-Christian mythologies as possible explanations of the world, Weingrad says, mainline Judaism has taught for millennia the rejection of pre-Torah idolatries. 

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.

The Discussion

Weidman’s article is impeccable, for as far as his analysis goes.  And it is completely beyond the scope of this discussion—written by a Gentile with a woefully inadequate knowledge of rabbinic Judaism—to engage in his evaluation of Jewishness or the Jewish literary tradition.  But there are several weaknesses in his discussion of fantasy literature which, if altered, could change his analysis.

Weidman cites the phenomenal success of the genre on the Israeli market, and admits without shame to being a fan of both Lewis and Tolkien.  Paradoxes reader Dov Krulwich has written in some detail about the parallels between Rowling’s fiction and the teachings of the Torah.  It seems fantasy literature has as profound a following in the Jewish community as in any other.

It seems inadequate, then, to describe fantasy as exclusively Christian.  Perhaps a more adequate explanation is that fantasy, like any art, begins in a place of passion in the human heart that winds imagination with belief.  For Tolkien and Lewis, that was a sacramental place, identifying with the person of Christ.  For other notable fantasy writers—George Lucas, for instance, or Ursula Le Guin (whom Weidman quotes)—the belief entwined in fantasy reflects a form of transcendentalism or pantheism.  Regardless of the merits of demerits of the belief systems, one flavor of fantasy cannot be called any less ‘pure’ than the other.

Weidman may have overestimated the intrinsic harmony between mainline Christianity and fantasy.  A vigorous as Christian fantasy has been, there is an equally vigorous voice within the church opposing it.  In Adela Cathcart (1864), George MacDonald gave voice to much criticism of fantasy through the prim character of Mrs. Cathcart, who regards it as improper.  More recently, consider the church’s highly publicized stonewalling of the Harry Potter series, despite its overtly Christian framework.  Several families of this writer’s acquaintance even consider the Narnia series as unwholesome for Christians.

Fantasy’s roots, contrary to Weidman’s assertion, predate Victorianism.  Certainly it extends much farther than English Victorianism.  It’s proper heritage begins in the Romantic movements of England, Scotland, and Germany.  Stephen Prickett (in W. Raeper, The Gold Thread, Edinburgh, 1991) has cogently argued that the dream-structure of MacDonald’s Phantastes, for instance, is directly influenced from Goethe.  The Victorian fantasists consciously continued the Romantic tradition in writing stories of transcendence and revolt.  MacDonald, Carroll, and others wrote on the fringes of the Christian tradition, not in the mainstream.

That, often enough, has been the point.  Lewis recalled the difficulty of ‘feeling what one ought to feel’ when confronted with the Christ-story (Of Other Worlds, 1966).  He wrote to see if he could evade the ‘watchful dragons’ that imposed an entirely inappropriate religiousness on love for the actual gospel. 

It would be surprising for Weidman to suggest that these are merely Gentile phenomena—that all Jews feel the right emotions during feast days, enjoy unhindered the sense of sacredness and rest on Shabbat, have the right degree of awe and respect for Torah study.  Surely the need for the fairytale—the ‘satisfaction of ancient human desires’ Travis Prinzi describes—is for the Jew as well as the Greek.

Ultimately, Weidman’s article brings to mind Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev (1972).  Asher Lev, a Hasidic artist, finds himself drawn to paint crucifixions, since within his own tradition he can find no way portray the ultimate suffering he so desperately needs to express.  Under the long shadows of Tolkien and Lewis, it may seem that Jewish fantasy would be a similar extremity.  But it doesn’t have to be.

To this goy, it seems that greatest difficulty facing a Jewish fantasist would be resisting assimilation into Christian or secular fantasy.  It would need, in a word, chutzpah.  A Jewish fantasy would be its own discovery of new worlds and ideas, its own reordering if symbol and dream, infusing the ‘halakhic core’ of the universe with renewed wonder.  It would not be derivative.  And it would not be the first time for such resistance to succeed, and the world made better because of it.

Perhaps the future of Jewish fantasy is not as bleak as Weidman makes it seem.  Perhaps the horrors of the Holocaust might still impel the creation of a uniquely Jewish fantasy, the way the killing fields of the Somme impelled Tolkien and Lewis.  The transcendence and revolt of fantasy respond to and engage the questions of suffering, and to those questions the Jewish voice can speak words the world needs to hear. 

Read the full article here:
http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com/publications/detail/why-there-is-no-jewish-narnia

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond intends no offense of any kind in this or any other post, and trusts none has been given.

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