Tzaddik ve-Ra Lo: Revisiting the Problem of Evil in Chaim Grade’s My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner

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Marina Zilbergerts


One of the courses I taught as a professor at the University of Wisconsin was a seminar on the problem of evil. As part of this course, my students read classical treatments of the subject, literary and philosophical. Texts included Job, selections from Voltaire and Rousseau, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. It has always been surprisingly difficult to find Jewish thinkers who deal in a sustained way with this major philosophical problem. When the Talmud in Menahot 29b broaches the question with Moses asking God to justify Rabbi Akiva’s cruel death at the hands of the Romans, God’s response is laconic: “Be silent; this was part of my plan.” From the rationalist works of Maimonides to those more mystically inclined, such as the Zohar, the existence of evil appears as a necessary part of a greater divine plan that culminates with the reinstatement of justice in the afterlife and in messianic times.

Chaim Grade’s story “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” first published in 1952 in Yiddish, stands out among Jewish texts in that it engages the reader in an honest and rational debate about the question of divine justice in the face of evil in this world. Born in Vilna in 1910, Grade, the foremost Yiddish writer of the twentieth century, was educated at the Mussar movement’s Novardok Yeshivah in Bialystok. He famously broke with the Novardok path of mussar and with the yeshivah more generally, but many of the questions and arguments of the Lithuanian Torah world continued to occupy him for the rest of his life. In “My Quarrel,” Grade deals with the question of the legitimacy of faith after the Holocaust and of whether Western culture and its ethics provide a reliable path for moral action. The work challenges assumptions about morality and, as great literature often does, gives equal voice to opposed viewpoints.

Grade’s story is now available in a new translation by Ruth Wisse.[1] In addition to re-Judaizing some of the expressions which had been lost in translation, Wisse supplements a crucial section of the work that was missing from the 1950s translation by Milton Himmelfarb on which I had previously relied.

In this essay, I focus on the philosophical questions and ideas presented by Grade’s work: How can an omnipotent and benevolent God allow for such great evil to take place? Does the existence of unjustified suffering suggest that the universe lacks transcendent meaning? Putting metaphysics aside, what is the extent of human culpability for a catastrophe such as the Holocaust? And can Western culture provide an adequate source for moral values? Reading Grade’s arguments and their literary expression alongside major thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche, who have grappled with these questions, I want to finally ask what Jewish answer, if any, Grade’s work contributes to the history of ideas.

The Problem of Evil: Voltaire versus Rousseau
In Grade’s “My Quarrel,” a heated debate about the problem of evil erupts between two old acquaintances who meet each other in post-war Paris. The two opposing protagonists are Chaim Vilner, who has left the traditional fold to become an “enlightened,” westernized Jew and is an alter ego of the author, and Hersh Rasseyner, who rejects the modernizing world around him and clings to tradition. While both Jews survived the terrors of the Holocaust, their respective responses to those experiences define opposing philosophical positions. Vilner’s faith in God has been undermined by the Holocaust, yet he idealistically continues to place his faith in Western culture, maintaining that its accomplishments could redeem mankind. Hersh, on the other hand, is left bitterly disillusioned with humanity and Western culture, yet his experience in the concentration camps has only strengthened his faith in God. It is Vilner who first engages Hersh in the question of faith after the Holocaust:

And you, Reb Hersh, do you still believe in God’s particular providence for the Jews? You say that the Holy One has not been orphaned. But we have become orphans. A miracle happened to you, Reb Hersh, and you were saved. But how about the rest? Can you still believe? (p. 36)

Vilner’s objection is that faith in the wake of the Holocaust requires holding morally untenable assumptions with regard to God’s existence and His goodness, as well as the equally untenable assumption that personal justice has been, or will be, served. The classic philosophical articulation of the problem of evil consists of a triad of premises, in which only two can be true at the same time. These are: 1. God is omnipotent, 2. God is benevolent, and 3. Evil exists. For religious or deist thinkers wanting to preserve faith in the first two premises, the general response was to say that evil is an illusion, and that in the grand scheme of things, all is well. Conversely, the atheists’ or skeptics’ perspectives were to accept the reality of evil and reject one or both of the first two premises.

A classic precedent for this debate between Vilner and Hersh is the much earlier controversy between Voltaire and Rousseau in the wake of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, one of the most powerful seismic events in recorded history. The natural disaster, which hit one of Europe’s most populated centers, was followed by months of fires, famines, and disease that left the city ravished. It also struck Europe at the height of the Enlightened, post-Newtonian world, when rationalist thinkers like Descartes and Leibnitz had made the case that the world was run by an intelligent designer and that, despite the evil and tragedy that we perceive, this world was indeed “the best of all possible worlds.” It was in response to this philosophy, and Alexander Pope’s poem “Essay on Man,” which expounded Leibniz’s idea, that Voltaire, the Enlightenment’s most notorious atheist, gave his biting critique. In his satirical “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” Voltaire protested the ethical failure of those who, looking into the face of suffering, deny the reality of evil and maintain that the world operates according to sense and justice:

Say, will you eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain?
While you these facts with horror view,
Will you maintain that death to their crimes was due?
Can you then impute a sinful deed
On babes who on their mother’s bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?
Yet in this direful chaos you’d compose
A general bliss from people’s woes!
O worthless bliss! In injured reason’s sight,
With faltering voice you cry: “what ever is, is right!”[2]

Voltaire tackled the type of arguments made by the “friends of Job,” who respond to undeserved evil by arguing that the afflicted person must, in fact, have done something to deserve it. Voltaire criticized the responses of theologians who argued that Lisbon had been punished for promiscuity (“was more vice in fallen Lisbon found than Paris…”) and asked why innocent children were punished in this case. In the twentieth-century Jewish context in which Grade is writing, theological apologetics, similar to those which Voltaire disparages, include those who suggest that the Holocaust was a punishment for assimilation. While Hersh does not raise this point in Grade’s work, he does insist on his faith in God’s ultimate justice, to which Vilner vehemently replies, “I won’t say his judgement is right! I can’t and I won’t!” (p. 36).

Voltaire’s poem about the Lisbon disaster also famously attacked Leibniz’s idea that ours was “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire’s argument is surprisingly in line with the Book of Job: it is unethical, in the face of such suffering, to maintain that evil is an illusion, and that “all is well.” While the Jews never viewed the world as perfect, but rather as a broken one (as Hersh well knows), the notion of reward and punishment always remained a central tenet of Jewish faith. Like Voltaire when writing about the Lisbon disaster, Vilner argues that in the case of the Holocaust, the scale of injustice has surpassed a thinking person’s capacity to maintain faith in God’s ultimate justice.

Stirred by Voltaire’s arguments, Rousseau penned “A Letter to Voltaire on Optimism,” in which he refutes Voltaire’s case against the belief in divine providence:

You reproach Pope and Leibniz with showing contempt for the evils we suffer when they claim that all is well, yet you make us more miserable than before. […] The optimism that you find so cruel consoles me. […] Pope’s poem alleviates my suffering and encourages me to be patient; yours increases my suffering, incites me to complain, and taking from me everything but a shattered hope, leaves me to despair.

Rousseau argues pragmatically: “How does your pessimism and atheism help anyone?” he asks Voltaire. Not only is denying providence not practical, as it does not help to alleviate suffering, but by taking away the potential of hope and optimism, it actually makes suffering worse than it has to be.

Hersh echoes Rousseau’s position in his reply to Vilner:

Without any doubt, I see providence everywhere and in everything, and at every moment. I could not remain on earth for one minute without the Almighty. How could I endure without Him in this murderous world? (p. 36)

Inverting Vilner’s question of “how can you” to “how can I not,” Hersh’s personal confession shifts the reader’s perspective significantly. Hersh helps us see that to deny the possibility of providence on philosophical grounds decreases the ability to endure life’s tribulations. And since we have no real access to metaphysical truth anyway, taking such a hard line with regard to providence may not be rational after all. The better approach to suffering may be one which provides the greatest comfort to those in pain.

The Source of Morality: Dostoevsky and Nietzsche
The question of ethical culpability for the Holocaust, specifically the culpability of Western culture at large, concerns Grade even more than the question of God’s justice. Grade portrays his two characters as foils – in their dress, speech, and expression – to craft a sophisticated literary presentation of his ideas on this question.

The biographical point of Grade’s move away from Novardok and the Mussar Movement is relevant here. Running through his novels and stories is the theme of how religious zealotry corrupts the very ethical principles it is trying to instill. The mussarist framework in which Grade had been educated aspired to perfect the human character by resorting to harsh means such as criticism and shame to achieve betterment of the self. Outgrowing his Mussar upbringing and overcoming his embarrassing flirtation with Communism, Grade, David Fishman observes, has realized the strange similarity between these two utopian approaches to human nature, referring to the mussarniks as “pious Bolsheviks.”[3] The character of Chaim Vilner, however, represents the author’s alter ego at a much earlier and more naïve stage in his life. Burned by his experience of Novardok, and harboring a personal claim against its rejection of him as a writer and secular Jew, he turns to Western culture. He blames Hersh for turning his back on “all the good that culture has to offer,” while teaching “contempt for the world” (p. 41).

Hersh assigns moral culpability for the Holocaust directly to Western culture. We learn that his repeated attempts to convince Vilner to return to Jewish observance are not so much to compel him to fulfill the commandments, but to save Vilner from the association with a culture that Hersh deems evil. Hersh argues that he cannot fathom that a Jew whose people had just witnessed one of the worst crimes committed by civilization would choose to give up the traditional Jewish way of life for the culture of the Jews’ oppressors. Seeing the Holocaust as proof for the moral failure of Western culture, Hersh maintains, as Ruth Wisse explains in her introduction to the translation, that “the Jewish way of life is there to prevent one from becoming an accessory to evil” (p. 13).

Hersh’s argument is a familiar one: the fact that the perpetrators of the Holocaust belonged to the most cultured nations in Europe with the highest achievements in the realms of music, art, literature, philosophy, and science, suggests that their cultural achievements failed in cultivating proper ethical standards. He argues that the very precepts of Western culture, reason included, were used to justify moral transgressions:

…a man is dazzled by his own reason, but as soon as a little desire stirs him, he forgets all his learning. His senses are stronger than his reason. A man can justify whatever he wants to. […] The only way is this: a man should choose between good and evil only as the Torah chooses for him. That is how he can guard against the time when his reason will have no power to command him. (pp. 45-46)

The position which Grade assigned to Hersh echoes the philosophical arguments presented by Dostoevsky, who dedicated his work to exploring the problem of evil, human and divine culpability for it, and the role that reason plays. Dostoevsky, whom Grade read and admired, was critical of Enlightenment rationalism. His masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, included Dostoevsky’s central idea that “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky’s novels presented literary thought experiments which showed, with great psychological clarity, the process by which an intelligent person, who is not by nature a violent monster, turns reason into an accessory to justify the most heinous crimes.

Dostoevsky’s conclusion, of course, is precisely Hersh’s view that without faith in a divine law, which tells humans to do things that are not necessarily rational or profitable, no ethical life can be consistently achieved. Like Dostoevsky, Hersh asserts that the suppression of human desires and urges – the mussarist’s grand project– is precisely what is required to keep sin at bay.

Vilner’s position, on the other hand, echoes the position of Nietzsche, who questioned the very concepts of good and evil and the motivations behind them. In the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche narrated a history of morality that shocked the world. The tradition of religious self-denial in the West, a product of Judeo-Christian values, which urged people to sublimate their passions in the name of morality, Nietzsche argued, was one of the biggest shams played on mankind. The proponents of the morality of self-denial, the representatives of what he called slave morality, created a moral system which favored the weak. Those who were unable to reap all of the pleasures of life because they fell short of the Graeco-pagan world’s metrics of success, such as physical strength, beauty, and daring, became jealous of the strong “birds of prey” among men, and conspired against them by creating a new moral system of virtue and self-denial. Nietzsche’s work described a revaluation of values in the West in which success, conquest, and pleasure had been supplanted by moral prohibitions. To Nietzsche’s mind, the Jews had initiated this upheaval. As if returning to the origin point of the genealogy of morals, Hersh tells Vilner that “[the Western nations] hated us from the start because we came into the world saying that some things were forbidden” (p. 43).

Ironically, this is precisely the narrative with which Vilner tries to condemn Hersh:

When you see that the world doesn’t run after you, you get angry and cry out: ‘Nobody enjoys life.’ You want to console yourself with that idea. When you go off to your solitary garret it’s because you would rather have nothing at all than take the crumb that the world throws you. Your modesty is really pride—not self-denial. (p. 25)

Turning Nietzsche’s cynical view into an ad hominem argument here, Vilner claims that Hersh only chose the Torah’s life of self-denial with the ulterior motive of making himself feel better regarding the life of pleasure that he knew he could not have.

Nietzsche’s ideas and neo-paganism more broadly appealed greatly to secular pre-Holocaust Jewish writers, most prominently Micha Yosef Berdichevsky and Shaul Tchernikhovsky, who were looking for new ways to inspire their Jewish creativity from outside the bounds of Jewish tradition.[4] Vilner’s Nietzscheanism is evident from his attraction to the statues at the Hotel de Ville representing “great men” and the “miracle of western culture” (p. 39), and in the pleasure he derives from observing freely kissing couples on the streets. He seems seduced by the Dionysian and electrifying flow of life in Paris:

Under the electric lamps the raindrops looked like millions of fireflies rushing earthward from the sky. I felt the urge to melt into the human stream flowing along the surrounding lighted streets. (p. 65)

The urge to melt with the surrounding culture is the desire to become one with Western culture. At the same time, this very desire betrays the ethical shortcoming of Vilner’s position. Heeding the maskilic call to be “a man in the street (and a Jew at home),” the westernized Vilner finds himself embarrassed by the overtly Jewish appearance and behavior of Hersh “in the face of these smiling Frenchmen, who were looking at us curiously” (p. 40). The greater irony is that Vilner’s affinity for Western culture is mediated through Nietzsche, who advocated the primacy of power over ethics – a position co-opted by the Nazis. Grade is clearly critical of Vilner’s embarrassment amidst the “smiling Frenchmen” observing Hersh, the impassioned Holocaust survivor who embodies the traditional Jewish culture destroyed in Europe.

Does Torah Observance Assure Ethical Conduct?
Analyzing the strength of the presented arguments, Grade’s readers are moved to ask: Why did Grade assign the stronger arguments to Hersh rather than to Vilner, who so closely resembles Grade? Following Wisse, I maintain that Grade gave Hersh the arguments which he himself could not make in the context of his life. In the milieu of the secular Yiddish writers who surrounded him, Grade was not willing to voice his critique of the secular enlightenment as a moral failure. Nor was he ready or willing to jump back into the fold of observance. Ideologically unsettled, literary fiction provided Grade an outlet for what the writer could not say in life.

Although Hersh makes the stronger arguments in My Quarrel, Grade does not let him off the hook entirely. Grade delivers a critique of Hersh indirectly, through the character of Yehoshua, which Wisse’s translation recovers from the original Yiddish. The encounter with Yehoshua – a rude and arrogant yeshivah student who shows contempt for Vilner due to his secular appearance – accomplishes much more than arguments do. The instant condescension with which Yehoshua treats Vilner, a fellow Holocaust survivor whom he had just met, demonstrates that, in many cases, religious observance is also not enough to cultivate ethical behavior. Vilner immediately capitalizes on this in his response to Hersh after the unpleasant encounter:

Is this what you teach? Hatred and scorn for the whole world? […] It’s your fault that we moved too far away from Jewish tradition! You bolted every door and gateway and let no one out into the open. (p. 40)

While Hersh excuses Yehoshua’s behavior because the latter is young and has gone through much suffering, he partially concedes to Vilner’s critique. Hersh ultimately admits that even within the world of Torah observance, it is certainly possible to miss the mark in terms of ethical behavior toward others; however, the laws of the Torah would still prevent humanity from straying off the moral path so egregiously as did the secular ideologies of the twentieth century.

How does Grade’s treatment of the problem of evil differ from the major thinkers presented above? In the Jewish context, the problem of evil touches on the issue of Jewish chosenness. Hersh and Vilner approach the question differently than Rousseau and Dostoevsky. Instead of asking why evil afflicts the innocent, the question becomes much more personal. With the belief of being God’s chosen and beloved nation, cultivated by millennia of Jewish life, the Jewish question becomes: “How can You, our God and our father, allow this to happen to us, Your nation and children?” For Vilner, as for Elie Wiesel, the answer to this question in the wake of the Shoah centers on abandonment. Hersh, on the other hand, finds macabre meaning in the uniqueness of Jewish suffering and martyrdom throughout history, as in the verse from Proverbs, “Whom the Lord loves, He rebukes.” While Hersh and Vilner do not arrive at a philosophical reconciliation – and it would be unconvincing if they did – experience has taught both of them to agree on one thing: the importance of Jewish unity. Vilner argues vehemently for Jewish unity and acceptance of differences from the very start, and Hersh, it seems, also makes progress in this direction over the course of the dialogue. Thus, with the big questions unanswered, Grade draws the reader’s attention to the importance of ahavat yisrael, Jewish unity, leaving his characters in a warm, lasting embrace.

[1] All textual citations of Grade are from Chaim Grade, My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner, trans. Ruth Wisse (New York: Toby Press, 2022).

[2] For Voltaire’s poems and Rousseau’s response, see Candide and Related Texts. Voltaire, t. Wootton (United States: Hackett, 2000), pp. 95-108.

[3] Fishman, David, “Chaim Grade: Portrait of the Artist as a Bareheaded Rosh Yeshiva,” Review of My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner by Chaim Grade, Jewish Review of Books, (Fall 2022).

[4] On Jewish writers’ interest in Nietzche, see the first two chapters in David Biale’s Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (Princeton University Press, 2011). See also chapters five and six in my book, The Yeshiva and the Rise of Hebrew Literature, (Indiana University Press, 2022).

Marina Zilbergerts is a scholar of Jewish literature and thought. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University, and from 2016 to 2022 taught as the Lipton Assistant Professor of Eastern European Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of The Yeshiva and the Rise of Modern Hebrew Literature (Indiana University Press), a work of scholarship, and of the poetry book You Were Adam (Wipf & Stock, 2022). She teaches and publishes on Jewish ideas, culture, music, and literature for Tradition, Lehrhaus, and Prooftexts.