Rabbis and Schlemiels: On Reading Diaspora, Jewishness, and Survival


Joseph Chaim Brenner’s writings on Zionism in the early 20th century are of great interest to scholars of early Zionist ideology.  As I have noted elsewhere, Brenner took a strong stance against the schlemiel character.    In his essay entitled “Self-Criticism” he takes the Yiddish writer Mendel Mocher Sforim and the schlemiel character to task.  He points out that even though the schlemiel characters in The Tales and Adventures of Benjamin the Third survive, this survival is incomplete:

The skeptics and rebels who have just recently appeared in literature say: What? The Jews have survived? Yes, it is true they have survived. But, my friends, survival alone is not yet a virtue. Certainly, it is better for any man, any people, any organism to be than not to be….but existence in itself is no evidence of an estimable character.

Echoing Heinrich Heine, who says that Jews, during the week, are like dogs, Brenner argues that “we survive like dogs and ants” and not like human beings.   “True self-criticism,” according to Brenner, will yield the insight that always being on the run from the Nations is a half-life.    While the schlemiel is a dreamer, her form of survival is not dignified.

In saying this, Brenner is not simply challenging the schlemiel.  Drawing on Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin’s book, The Powers of Diaspora, one can argue that Brenner is challenging the Rabbis of the Second Temple period and the diasporic Judaism they advocated.  Both of them see the strategy of survival employed by the Rabbis – which includes appeasement, hiding, and obfuscation – as the best (and the most Jewish) strategy Jews can take today.  For them, the appeal to Masada instead of Yavne (where the first Yeshiva was based) is more Roman and masculinist than Jewish.  The “foundation of the rabbinic value system is the obverse of ‘manly’ Roman values on the Masada foundation myth of Jewish heroism,” which Josephus gave life to in his famous account (52).  For the Boyarins this difference is fundamental:

The Babylonian Talmud’s Rabbi Yohanan prefers life and the possibility to serve God through the study of Torah over everything else.  He is willing to abase himself, pretend to be dead (as the story goes, he pretended to be dead in order to avoid being killed by the Romans) – a virtual parody of the Masada suicide? – make peace with the Romans over/against the Jewish zealots, even to sacrifice Jerusalem, in order that Jewish life and Torah might continue.  Where the Josephan zealots proved themselves “real men” by preferring death at their own hands to slavery, the Rabbis prefer slavery to death.  (52)

Survival, according to the reading of the Rabbinic tradition by the Boyarins, is directly related to a policy of appeasement.  To support this claim, they cite the Talmud Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:3, 3c which reports the following about Rabbi Hiyya:

How does Rabbi Hiyya the Great explain the verse: “You shall buy food from them for money and eat”? – If you feed him, you have bought and broken him, for if he is harsh with you, buy/break him with food, and if (that does) not (work), then defeat him with money.

They say: That is how Rabbi Yonatan behaved.  When he saw a powerful personage come into his city, he used to send him expensive things.  What did he think?  If he comes to judge an orphan or a widow, we will find him propitious towards them.  (55)

Commenting on this, the Boyarins argue that Rabbi Hiyya developed a “whole political philosophy of Jewish-gentile interaction” from this verse which comes from Deuteronomy 2:6-8 (55).   This verse makes specific reference to the previous verse 2:4-6 which is in reference to the “descendants of Esau,” Jacob’s brother (who, as we learn from the Hebrew Bible, wanted to kill his brother out of spite for stealing his birthright).  The Rabbis, elsewhere, recognize these descendants as the Edomites (who are the Romans):

And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsman, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you be careful not to provoke them.

The Boyarins explain that “an alternative to provoking them is also offered by the verse, which Rabbi Hiyya understands in a way that takes it out of its immediate biblical historical context and gives it new cultural power”(55).  In other words, the Boyarins are arguing that Rabbi Hiyya is creating a cultural principle to deal with the Romans and all possible enemies:

He reads it as a suggestion to use gifts to turn the rulers’ hearts favorably to they Jewish subjects.  This is derived from the verse by typically clever midrashic punning, in addition to the mobilization of the foundational inter-text: the story of the original Jacob and Esau.  (55)

The Boyarins, using quotation marks, point out how there is, in Rabbi Hiyya’s reading of the passage from the Hebrew Bible (and perhaps even the passage itself), “an obvious allusion to the situation within which the weak ‘feminine’ Jacob bought the favor of the ‘virile’, dominant  Esau by giving him food….we will be observing how various ‘dishonest’ practices, deceptions, are valorized by the rabbinic and other colonial peoples in direct opposition to the ‘manly’ arts of violent resistance”(55).

Drawing on JC Scott’s book Domination and the Arts of Resistance, they argue that this valorization is something shared with other colonized peoples:

We must also tactfully disguise and hide, as necessary, our true aims and intentions from our social adversaries.  To recommend it is not to encourage falsehood but only to be tactical in order to survive. (55)

As one can see, the Boyarins have a much different reading on survival than Brenner and the early Zionists.  One can surmise that they would see the survival of the Jewish people in the diasporic mode – as one can see with the schlemiel character in many different instances – draws on a more ancient tradition of diasporic survival, which is found in the rabbinic writings.   Brenner’s “self-criticism,” in their view, would be a criticism based on a masculinist Roman way of thinking (which they associate with colonialism) as opposed to a Jewish way of thinking which works by appeasement and obfuscation rather than through power and strength.   Instead of leaving the schlemiel behind, as Brenner suggests, they would likely – as they would with their turn to the rabbis of the Talmud – valorize the character.    There are questions, however.   How is one to deal with the claim that the schlemiel character is “feminized”?  And is the biological survival of the Jewish people the right frame to use when reading this character or when reading the Rabbis?  Is the schlemiel character born out of a survival tactic?

Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel character comes out of and responds to the “weakness” of Jews in diaspora.  Its comic victories, so to speak, are ironic.  As the title of her book makes explicit, he is the “modern hero.”   However, in her later writings she rejects this position and sees Zionism as superseding the diasporic character. Wisse takes on a position more in turn with Brenner’s “self-criticism.”    While she originally saw the schlemiel’s cunning as a mark of “Jewishness,” Wisse sees Zionism as its most important feature, today. Why should Jews remain powerless and take on the tactics that the Boyarins refer to when they no longer need to do so?   The Boyarins obviously disagree with Wisse and see the turn away from the Rabbis and their diasporic strategies as a form of betrayal.  Moreover, they would likely see the rejection of the schlemiel as a masculine form of critique.   The only difference, however, is that while the Rabbis of the Talmud period were truly a subaltern culture that had to survive by virtue of its wits, Jews of North America are not.  The need for appeasement is no longer necessary.

Nonetheless, writers like Michael Chabon, Gary Shteyngart, Shalom Auslander, and many others, see the schlemiel character and its diasporic antics in terms of its cultural meaning.  The character – today – doesn’t relate to survival so much as American-Jewish identity (American first, Jewish second).   Survival is not a frame of reference and neither is the dialectic between power and powerlessness.  In America, schlemiel humor, with its penchant for self-mockery and self-deprecation, has become iconic.    One wonders, given this situation, what it would mean for a Jew to be, as Brenner once said, self-critical.  American Jews don’t see their kind of existence in terms of merely surviving or surviving as “dogs or ants.”  That said, the tension between the schlemiel and the Israeli sabra may no longer hold; unless, that is, the power of self-mockery and self-deprecation loses its iconic status, anti-Semitism rises, and American Jews return to the survival mode.   The schlemiel, if that happens, can offer an “ironic victory.”   And if this arises, once again, one will have to ask whether Brenner’s self-criticism or the Boyarins recovery of the rabbinic approach of appeasement and trickery is more appealing.   Until that happens, the schlemiel lives on in an America where survival is simply not an issue.  It lives on in what some thinkers would call a post-diasporic mode of existence.    Larry David’s schlemiel – and so many others – seem to dwell in this comic space of existence.



2 thoughts on “Rabbis and Schlemiels: On Reading Diaspora, Jewishness, and Survival

  1. This “comic state of existence” is exactly what I can’t stomach! How I would love to sit and argue with some of your points! From what I could remember, Brenner takes Heine’s words out of context, but be that as it may, Der Zeide (Mendele Moicher Sforim) depicted characters of his times who were not infected with secularism which is a major factor that had not been in existence until the Haskola movement.
    Sorry, too much to say and no time to say it…
    A gutn mo-ed and a gut Shabbos to you and yours!

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