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The Will To Live On

May 9, 2009 | by

In his new book, Herman Wouk tackles the toughest issues of the modern Jewish world. His conclusions in this excerpt may astound you.

Herman Wouk is one of the world’s most widely read authors. His novels have ranged from the mighty narrative of "The Caine Mutiny" and the warm, intimate humor of "Marjorie Morningstar," to the global panorama of "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance."

But Wouk's most enduring legacy may be a book he wrote 40 years ago, entitled "This Is My God." There, Wouk stated the case for his religious beliefs and conduct--- articulating to a generation of Jews why he studies Talmud daily and observes Shabbat.

At age 84, Wouk has written "The Will to Live On," a treatise on the great 20th century Jewish earthquakes: the apocalyptic experience of the Holocaust, the reborn Jewish state, the precarious American Diaspora, and deepening religious schisms.

Learned in general culture, warmly tolerant of other beliefs, Wouk's aim is to break through the crust of prejudice, to reawaken clearheaded thought about the magnificent Jewish patrimony, and to convey a message of hope for Jewish survival.

The following is an excerpt from Wouk's new book, "The Will to Live On":

If not for the simultaneous hammer strokes of the Holocaust and Israel, we might now be withering below the survival margin.

Two psychic forces have been infusing American Jewry with amazing vitality since the Second World War, the energy of guilt and the energy of pride. Both are waning, and neither is likely to fuel this great diaspora far beyond the year 2000. Such is my view, and that is all I mean by the stock phrase "running on empty." The guilt is about the Holocaust. The pride is about Israel. If not for those two nearly simultaneous hammer strokes of history, which rang alarms and struck sparks in our souls, I believe we might even now be withering below the survival margin, for all to see. Except in enclaves of the observant, the religion which has preserved our folk down the ages is undeniably at an ebb. From Bible days onward Jewry has experienced lapses and revivals of faith, but this decline among America's Jews is steep, and the bottom is as yet not discernible...

[A] new direction has for years been coming into sight, and is today much talked about among our leaders. If I may be allowed [an] analogy from navy days, Clausewitz said that in war the basic things are simple, but the simple things are very difficult. So it is with leadership. A massive turn to Jewish education appears to be inevitable, but this turn will be very difficult indeed. For to call a spade a spade, our leaders by and large are not learned, yet it will no longer suffice for them to give or to raise money. Money is needed, lots of it, but dedication of the heart is more urgently needed, and there's the rub. How do these admirable men and women lead a drive to reclaim the Yiddishkeit they themselves may lack, and have had little thought or hope of ever acquiring?

Money is needed, lots of it, but dedication of the heart is more urgently needed.

Again, the answer is simple but very difficult: by starting to learn. What they learn, when they learn, how they learn, is each individual's responsibility. If I am right, the will to live on has been a collective imperative for all of them. Loyalty to their Jewish past, to family memory and inherited ethnic identity -- in short, a sense of noblesse oblige -- has been energizing them to lavish time, effort, and money on our people's causes. The demands of the future are harder, but in the end may offer more reward. Jewish learning undertaken in good heart has magic in it.

Whether the commitment is to conversational Hebrew -- which I consider of prime importance -- or the prayer book, or the Mishnah, or simply the Hebrew alphabet if one doesn't know it, or the weekly [Torah portion], or Yiddish, or Kabbalah, or Graetz, or for the ambitious the whole range of Jewish thought and law, the thing is to make a start. Compared to such personal commitment, listening to weekly Sabbath sermons, or to lectures on Judaism by people like me, are of small account. Such passive experiences leave little or no residue. [The great 20th century American rabbi,] Reb Moshe Feinstein, stamped on my spirit this urgency of personal commitment. Years might pass before I would see him, but whenever I did, he would ask straight off, "What are you learning?" as in olden times adults would ask a child, "What is your posuk [Torah verse]?" If I happened to be slacking off, as was too often the case, I would feel the gentle query like the flick of a whip.

In some not too distant day, they will be greeting each other with "What are you learning?"

So let me put my aspirations for American Jewish leadership in one visionary image. In some not too distant day, at the local conclaves of these organizations, and at the grand annual gatherings, they will be greeting each other, men and women alike, with "What are you learning?" High on their yearly agendas will be Reclaiming the Heritage Through Learning; a sort of nationwide Manhattan Project of education on a scale unimaginable today, into which funds and work will be pouring as they once poured to Israel in her years of peril. For the stark fact is that in the new century already upon us, we will be fighting against our own peril, a slow slump to oblivion.

Yet here in the United States, for all the scary attrition I have pictured, we are still a community over five million strong. That is more than the population of Norway. We live in the world's greatest nation, speaking the world language, and our material and intellectual resources are impressive. At a far stretch of my hopes, our descendants could one day be a diaspora comparable to Babylonia. At the moment, of course, that is beyond rational expectation. We have to concentrate on lasting at all. And the ultimate reason for that -- to write down the unthinkable -- is that if by some unforeseeable future horror Israel goes down, we will be the last bastion of God's people on earth.

But that is mere nightmare. Israel will survive by God's grace into an era of uneasy peace as world Jewry's spiritual center, even as Palestine was in the time of Yavneh, though the Babylonian Jews were more numerous, and possibly more learned. The Talmud we study, after all, is Babylonian. Smaller communities in places like Canada, Australia, France, Mexico, and South America are showing surprising tenacity, and Russian Jewry, almost throttled by the fallen Soviet system, is reviving as a reservoir of redeemable souls, perhaps in the millions. Ours can become a leading diaspora of sinewy promise and power, if we will be strong and of good courage, and will acquire the vital grip we need on Language and Learning.

The bare rock of Jewish survival is right conduct, children, and learning.

Amkha -- the Jewish masses -- can be aroused by its leaders to move mountains, but heart has to speak to heart. The Talmud says that in the World to Come we are asked three questions: "Did you negotiate in good faith? Did you try to raise a family? Did you have a set time for Torah?" Not, mind you, "Did you observe the Sabbath? Did you keep kosher? Did you [pray] three times a day?" The Sages probably took such observance for granted, but in any case they were delving to the bare rock of Jewish survival: right conduct, children, and Learning.

Resh Lakish quoted Rabbi Judah, "The world is sustained only by the breath of the children in the house of learning."

Rav Papa objected to Abayeh, "What about you and me at our learning?"

He replied, "Do not compare breath tainted by sin to the breath of the sinless."
(Talmud, Shabbat 119b)

The leaders now in their adult vigor will serve their day and pass on. The octogenarian hand that moves this pen will have gone well before them. Our future lies with the children. The ember whispers and smolders, and if it is not to die here in America, it can only be blown into flame by the breath of Jewish children at their Learning.

"The Will To Live On" is published by Cliff Street Books / HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York. Reprinted with permission.

click here for "The Will To Live On" from Amazon.


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