This is a book that I first read when I was 18 and studying in yeshiva in Israel. But I didn’t really read it very well back then. This is for two reasons. First, I wasn’t sleeping well at all, and I read Grade’s novel only between the hours of 11 and 1. Second, I was a ball of anxieties about secular/religious tensions, and ill-equipped to make sense of the world of ideas Grade was constructing.
In Yiddish the novel is called Tzemach Atlas, and we are quickly introduced to the man himself. Tzemach Atlas is an extreme adherent of the Navarodok branch of the musar movement. He believes that man’s desires need to be entirely uprooted through extreme self-reflection. He can find the flaws and hypocrisies in both common people as well of in great rabbis. He obsesses constantly over his own faults, and has gained a reputation as a brave teacher who is willing to “save” his students for the yeshiva. And yet, on the very first page, we are told that he is haunted by his doubts about the existence of God.
Then a lot of things happen — I won’t burden you with them all! — but we’re eventually introduced to Chaikl Vilner, i.e. Graim Chade, i.e. this is just a stand-in for the author Chaim Grade himself.
Tzemach Atlas eventually takes Chaikl into his upstart musar yeshiva. (Chaim Grade himself spent time studying in a Navarodok musar yeshiva.) Misery ensues for everyone involved, especially Tzemach Atlas and Chaikl.
And then, in the last fifth of the novel, the great gaon and Talmudic scholar Rabbi Avraham-Shaye shows up, vacationing in the small town where the yeshiva is. He takes a liking to Chaikl and invites him to be his personal study partner — this is shocking, as it is wildly unlike a great Torah scholar to take a young study partner.
Amazingly, though, all of this is more or less true. Rabbi Avraham-Shaye is a stand-in for Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, who published under the pseudonym “Hazon Ish.” Chaim Grade was his study partner for many years.
I’m rereading the book now — I just finished Volume 1, and am ready to start Volume 2 — and the biggest surprise for me has been just how clearly Grade sides with Karelitz. Grade himself left the religious life and fell in with the secular Vilna Circle. Nevertheless, his portrait of Karelitz is almost hagiographical — it’s beaming and admiring.
Though it’s reductive to put it like this, it seems to me as if Grade wanted to write this book simply to take his teacher’s side in an argument about the value of musar.
The real Karelitz was a critic of musar and its ability to improve a person’s character. As Lawrence Kaplan writes in a piece about Karelitz’s views, the musarniks had the whole thing backwards:
The Hazon Ish was of the opinion that the fundamental Musar approach of working on oneself, of turning inward, in order to develop one’s spiritual personality and overcome the obstacles standing in the way of proper observance was fundamentally misguided.
In the novel, Tzemach Atlas, the great man of musar, slowly comes apart at the seams. He is a failure in every single aspect of his life. He is unable to keep a “proper” engagement, and runs off with a wealthy secular woman. And though he shows moments of clear moral insight — and impresses his wife with his clarity and moral standards — he alienates himself from an entire town. He then runs off to start his own yeshiva, and finds that he is unable to influence his students in the least.
But from the perspective of the novel, this is wholly due to his own faulty ideology and personality. When Chaikl starts spending the night with a local girl (bad Chaikl!) Atlas reprimands him, but succeeds only in inciting Chaikl’s rage.
In contrast is the positive influence of Rabbi Avraham-Shaye. He is even able to influence the child Melechke, who goes about bragging about every little accomplishment for the first 330 pages of the novel. I don’t want to go too hard on him — he’s just 11! — but really he’s a greedy, sniveling braggart who annoys everyone.
But after he visits Avraham-Shaye? He’s a changed boy!:
As soon as the visitor and his escorts withdrew, the younger students surrounded Melechke. Although he had grown and matured somewhat and could already read a chapter of the Talmud, Melechke was still considered a spoiled only child and a show-off who trust himself into the midst of older people so they would test him in Talmud and pet him. His friends couldn’t understand why he hadn’t told them that he had visited Reb Avraham-Shaye.
“I went to see Reb Avraham-Shaye Kosover to discuss Torah with him,” Melechke replied, “and I probably asked him about a dozen questions about the first page of the Tractate Kiddushin. So Reb Avraham-Shaye told me, ‘Come into my house and we’ll open my copy of the Kiddushin and look at that matter together. Then you cn ask what you have to ask.’ So we studied the page together, and all my questions were answered of their own accord. When we left his room, Reb Avraham-Shaye led me to the low window which faced the forest and told me, ‘Climb out. Let’s see if you can climb out of a window as nimbly and quickly as you can ask questions.'” Melechke spread his hands like an old Torah scholar and concluded, “Since I didn’t hear any new interpretations from him, what was there to tel you? How I crawled out the window in the woods, and how he crawled out after me?”
Later, once Chaikl is invited to be the personal study partner of the great gaon, he finds himself unable to remain the night with his landlady’s daughter:
“How could he look Reb Avraham-Shaye straight in the eye and debate lofty matters with him when he did such improper things at night? His shame at deceiving a saintly gaon changed to fear: Perhaps Reb Avraham-Shaye knew? A man like that had divine intuition…”
Later, when the gaon debates Tzemach Atlas in the closing pages of the book, Avraham-Shaye makes the case that through studying the Talmud and its commentaries one essentially gains moral influencers along these lines: “A youngster pores over his Talmud in Vilna and muses that he’s in Babylonia, sitting in the great Talmudic academy of Nahardea, in the beth medresh of Rashi and his scholarly descendants.” So, through Torah study one obtains moral exemplars who effect a profound moral influence. (Or maybe it’s Torah itself that exerts the influence?) Greater than whatever results from the intense moral introspection and trials that the mussarniks recommend.
Two things seem remarkable about this to me. First, that this is essentially the actual view of Karelitz. Second, Chaim Grade seems to have written this novel so as to adopt this perspective wholeheartedly. In the final lines of this book, Tzemach Atlas walks away a broken man, having been absolutely seen-through by the visiting gaon.
There is one place, however, where Grade seems to go beyond his teacher. Late in the book, with nowhere else to go, Chaikl goes to the beautiful wooden shul to sit alone. (Sidenote: the wooden shuls of Poland really are a wonder.) He sits there contemplating — but he is not alone, as Tzemach Atlas has been performing moral introspection up above, in the women’s section. He descends to accost Chaikl.
“Are you studying Musar by yourself?” Tzemach asks.
Chaikl responds: “I came into the shul to look at the carvings. The man who carved the lions, eagles, deer and leopards is a great artist.”
I think the strong suggestion of the book is that Chaikl’s obsession with beauty (and metaphor, as he is the author and poet as a young man) is roughly equivalent to Karelitz’s obsession with Torah. Both are capable of providing a strong moral influence on the subject, something that Tzemach Atlas is unable to comprehend. The book tells us again and again that Tzemach not only doubts God; he also does not comprehend beauty, and (as a consequence) has no respect for humanity — in himself or in others. He is a moral failure because he is a religious and aesthetic failure.
All of these themes are made much more explicit in Grade’s remarkable short story, My War With Hersh Rasseyner. He writes there — and Hersh Rasseyner is an adherent of musar who sounds quite a bit like Tzemach Atlas:
Reb Hersh, you say that I have forsaken a fountain of living waters for a broken cistern. I must tell you that you’re wrong. I draw water from the same fountain as you, only with a different vessel.
Karelitz believes in simple faith and an obsession devotion to Torah study to guide one’s moral behavior. Grade in The Yeshiva basically agrees — but extends that basic moral perspective to devotion to the humanities, in general.