The schlemiel character is constantly expanding and contracting. But in the end she always becomes small. She always seems to be caught up in a comedy of scale. In their dreams schlemiels are, as Hannah Arendt said of Heinrich Heine’s schlemiel, “lords.” But they are, in reality, quite small. They are – as Arendt would say – worldless. Whether it is Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, or Gretta Gerwig playing the schlemiel, the self-deprecation we see with the schlemiel has become something of a norm. One expects smallness from this character. The schlemiel shrinks before some things, but expands before others. However, in the end, there is always a kind of shoulder shrug or smallness that predominates.
The comedy of scale we find in much schlemiel comedy articulates a Jewishness in terms of contraction. This notion has its source in the Kabbalah. In other entries – on Franz Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Michael Wyschogrod, Jonathan Safran Foer, and others – I associate smallness with the Kabbalistic notion of Tzimtum, which, as both Scholem and Wyschogrod point out, is dynamic. Tzimtzum is a movement of withdrawal (contraction, distance) and beckoning (of nearness, expansion). Jonathan Safran Foer beautifully illustrates this in his latest novel. He shows how Tzimtzum relates to the relationship between his two main characters: Jacob and Julia Bloch. Foer’s use of Tzimtum as a figure in this novel demonstrates that revelation has personal and narrational aspects. And Jacob, the main character who discovers the meaning of Tzimtzum, is a schlemiel.
Emil Fackenheim dedicates one third of To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought to the tension between Baruch Spinoza and Franz Rosenzweig. Of the two modern Jewish thinkers, Fackenheim leans more toward Rosenzweig. He finds that Rosenzweig’s notion of the “new thinking” must be taken to heart by post-Holocaust Jewish thought. Considering this, he insists that the tradition of Medieval Jewish thought must be reassessed in terms of the new thinking. What is “old” and in need of revision? Fackenheim tells us that it is the notion of revelation.
Instead of taking to Saadia Gaon’s claim – which is repeated by Judah HaLevi and Maimoindes – that millions of Jews witnessed the revelation of the giving of the Torah, Fackenheim argues that Rosenzweig called for a different kind of experience of revelation; namely, what he calls “radical empiricism.” This latter notion suggests the importance of the present moment as a moment of “verification” rather than in terms of a past moment that was witnessed by millions of people. Revelation is encounter with God which happens now. It can be verified, now.
This is what Fackenheim, echoing Rosenzweig, calls a “non-fanatical” relation to revelation:
Note well: the concept of revelation. The “new thinking” cannot wait until it turns into Sinai or Golgatha…Rosenzweig states that whereas the old thinking had “set up for itself the problem of whether God is transcendent or immanent,” the new thinking “narrates how and when the far God becomes near, and the near God far.” (73)
What is the meaning of this narrating which is “not fanatical”?
In part 2 of the Star philosophy becomes “narrating.: the narrating, however, is yet, as it were, an abstract narrating. It is confined to the “far” and “near” God as such and in general. Only in such abstract generality can the philosophico-theological narration of revelation point backward to Creation as its own presupposition (thus doing justice to paganism); point forward to redemption as its own goal. (73)
Fackenheim takes note of the “bold invasion of narration into metaphysics” and argues that while “Creation” narrates what “has been” and “Redemption” narrates what will be, Revelation “narrates what always is: in contrast to recovery or anticipation, it is present experience” (75). This “narration” of revelation is the “heart” of the whole because it “does nothing less than reaffirm in one grand sweep the age-old Jewish commitment to God’s presence in history” (75).
Rosenzweig’s move is to “affirm the love between God and man as reflected in The Song of Songs. The Rabbi’s reading of the book – like Rosenzweig’s – is not Biblical but is “a deep and bold act of rabbinic Judaism” (76). This love is particular and universal. It belongs to someone and to everyone.
But when Rosenzweig relates Judaism to Christianity and Redemption, he de-emphasizes the bold act of love and notes how, in relation to Christianity, the movement of revelation in Judaism is contraction while in Christianity it is expansion:
All secular history deals with expansion. Power is the basic concept of history because in Christianity revelation began to spread around the world, and thus every expansionist urge, even that which consciously was purely secular, became the unconscious servant of the expansionist movement. But Judaism, and it alone in all the world, maintains itself by subtraction, by contraction, by the formation of ever new remnants. (Star, 327)
In the end, contraction is the central feature, not love. However, without narration (which has, at the outset, to do with near and far and then with time), contraction would not be possible. In relation to revelation, Judaism’s modality is smallness, is the remnant. The love between the Jewish people and God is more private. And the Jewish people are a testimony – notes Fackenheim – of the survival of the remnant. It is a modest kind of survival, however. The issue of survival, however, is not an issue for Christianity since it is merged with history. Only the beings outside of history and expansion contract and become small.
In response to this “dynamic” of contraction, Fackenheim argues that Rosenzweig’s identification of Jewishness with a kind of contracting revelation is “overrun by events” (92). And by events he is alluding to the Holocaust. It “destroyed” the idea of “the holy remnant” (92) that Rosenzweig extols at the end of The Star of Redemption:
As for the “contracting” dynamic of the Star of Redemption, this is overrun by events; indeed, it is imperative that it be reversed.
The idea of reversing the “contracting” dynamic of Jewish existence is barely glimpsed yet in the sphere of thought. It is already actual, however, in the sphere of Jewish life. In response to the great catastrophe, the Jewish people took one collective step that was able to avert wholesale despair: it restored a Jewish state. (92)
Instead of “contraction,” the new dynamic is “ingathering”: “The Jewish state requires a dynamic of ingathering, and this in turn requires a dynamic of expansion” (92). Now the dynamic of contraction appears to be a dynamic that must be left behind. Without expansion, suggests Fackenheim, the Jewish people will disappear. In other words, smallness doesn’t have a place in the present. This is “an obvious socio-political necessity” that has been caused by the Holocaust.
After what has occurred, it (expansion) is also a moral imperative and an act of faith. In his own time, Franz Rosenzweig gave the most profound modern account of the Jewish people as a remnant, of this remnant as an “eternal people,” and of this people as eternal because it was in history but not of it. In our time, we would have to recognize that – for better or for worse but in any case, inevitably and irrevocably – this people has returned to history. (92)
All of these dynamics fit under the umbrella of what Rosenzweig calls narration. The dynamic of Tzimtzum is, as Scholem argues, a movement between contraction and expansion. In Fackenheim, however, one dynamic displaces the other. The movement of Revelation, for Fackenheim, during our time is one of ingathering and expansion. The other movement is not something that must be negated; it was negated by virtue of the Holocaust and the establishment of a Jewish state. In this scenario, one wonders what kind of statement is made through the schlemiel. In Fackenheim’s paradigm, this character – like Kafka’s “Josephine the mouse singer” – is of the past. Smallness – in this scenario – is equated with death and a retreat from history. It is a reaction.
But if the schlemiel is read in terms of the Tzimtzum – which is what JS Foer does in his latest novel – we have a different kind of narration. What survives with the schlemiel is love. It may be outside of history and worldless – as Hannah Arendt suggests, elsewhere – but the tzimtzum narrative, which, for Foer, is synonymous with the schlemiel narrative, brings contraction and expansion together into a dynamic that touches all Jews. The only problem, as many a schlemiel knows, is that sometimes, when revelation is contracted, she forgets her beloved and can’t hear her – as The Song of Songs says – knocking. As one can see in Foer’s novel (and as in Saul Bellow’s Herzog), the schlemiel can get distracted and – literally and metaphorically – end up separated, alone.
But with the dynamic of Tzimtzum, the schlemiel is not bound by fate. She has a chance for change. This dynamic – as the Kabbalists knew – is never finished. However, Fackenheim rejects the dynamic of contraction – which is a part of this dynamic – because he sees a new kind of Jewishness, a new Jewish dynamic – a new thinking – as displacing the old. The new thinking – consistent with history rather than against history – affirms the dynamic of expansion. And this leaves us with a few questions. Which choice is the right one? Does one displace the other? Has the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel already made the choice for us and is it a matter of listening and adhering to this new historical narrative? If expansion is historically necessary while contraction is unnecessary (because it is ahistorical), does this mean that the schlemiel character has no place in Judaism? This is only the case if the case for smallness and the schlemiel is no longer being made. But, echoing Fackenheim, one can say that the fact the schlemiel lives on (and has, in fact, become an American icon) shows us that the Jewish people have not let go of contraction and smallness and that the Holocaust has not destroyed it. To be sure, it lives on in America and perhaps even in Israel today.