Righteousness as Commitment

Randy Rosenthal

In Review | Books Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 592 pages, $28 hardcover, $17 paper.

 

Abraham's Sacrifice

Cyril Satorsky, Abraham’s Sacrifice. Linocut, 20th century. Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum,
gift of Owen and Miriam Gingerich, student print rental program, sr1920.

 

True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.
—Albert Einstein

The title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ambitious novel Here I Am is taken from chapter twenty-two of Genesis, otherwise known as the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac.

Most of us know the story, but, like much in the Bible, we’re not sure what it means. Abraham is one hundred years old and living in Beersheba when his wife Sarah finally bears him a son, Isaac. One day some years later, Abraham hears what he thinks is the voice of God. “Abraham!” the voice calls. And Abraham answers, “Hineni,” which in Hebrew means “Here I am.” Abraham doesn’t say, “Yes?” He doesn’t answer, “What do you want?” He replies, “Here I am.” Here I am, God, I’m at your service. Whatever you want, I’m here for you. Abraham is fully present. Committed. No excuses. No explanations. Drop everything here I am.

 

In the tradition of divine command theory, our idea of morality is destabilized.

God tells Abraham to take Isaac to the land of Moriah, climb a mountain there, and sacrifice his beloved son as a burnt offering. What’s Abraham supposed to do? He has a duty to his son, and he also has a duty to God. Abraham chooses God over his son, and for that many of us condemn him. After all, murdering your own child is the most unreligious thing a person could do. But for Søren Kierkegaard, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac characterizes the most profound faith, requiring “a teleological suspension of the ethical.” In the tradition of divine command theory, our idea of morality is destabilized: God does not command an action because it is good; rather, an action is good because God commands it. Obedience is placed above morality. “Faith,” Kierkegaard writes in Fear and Trembling, is “a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God.”

 

Foer’s novel Here I Am isn’t about Abraham or Isaac, or even God. But it is about commitment. To lift a line from a character in the book, it’s “about who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.” Specifically, Here I Am explores the interplay between being in a marriage and being a parent and also being an individual. It asks why we let go of contentment in search of happiness. It also asks what it means to be a Jewish American, or, more specifically, what American Jews owe Israel. And, in asking all this, it asks what it means to be religious.
 

In some ways, Here I Am is similar to Foer’s earlier novels, mainly in that it’s set within the framework of a catastrophe. Everything Is Illuminated explored the Holocaust, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close dealt with 9/11, and this novel features an imaginary war in the Middle East that threatens the survival of Israel. But it’s been over a decade since Foer came out with a novel, and Here I Am is written from the perspective of a more mature person who has married, raised two children, and separated.

The novel centers on Jacob Bloch, a 42-year-old writer living in Washington, DC. When he was 21, Jacob won the National Jewish Book Award. He now writes an award-winning television series watched by millions. Jacob is married to Julia, a residential architect who only makes model houses. They have three sons, Sam, Benjy, and Max, sharp as splinters. They drive a Subaru and live in a bougie house on Newark Street filled with fancy appliances and tasteful decorations. Privilege galore. And yet Jacob is unfulfilled. He’s unable to be present for his children, his wife, his work. Hiding behind witty, sarcastic humor, he’s only half-committed to being there. In Saul Bellow’s fourth novel, Seize the Day, his non-hero Tommy Wilhelm prays: “Let me out of my thoughts, and let me do something better with myself. For all the time I have wasted I am very sorry.” These very words could be Jacob’s.

Jacob’s father, Irv, is a notorious blogger, and the right-wing Zionist position is delivered through him:

“The Germans murdered one and half million Jewish children because they were Jewish children, and they got to host the Olympics thirty years later. And what a job they did with that! The Jews win by a hair a war for our survival and are a permanent pariah state. Why? Why, only a generation after our near-destruction, is the Jewish will to survive considered a will to conquer? Ask yourself: Why?

He’s not really looking for an answer. To Irv, the answer is the same for any question: the world hates Jews. “The world will always hate Jews,” he tells Jacob. “On to the next thought, which is: What to do with that hatred? We can deny it, or try to overcome it. We can even choose to join the club and hate ourselves.”

It’s bad enough Jacob has to deal with his father’s obsessive Zionism, but what’s worse is his father’s disappointment. “I think you’re wasting your life,” Irv tells his son. Jacob writes a successful show, but, according to his father, it’s “a dumb show.” He’s not doing something that befits his abilities. “Jacob,” Irv commands, “you should forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race.” Understandably, Jacob asks, “What do you want from me? To spy for Israel? To blow myself up in a mosque?” No, that would be too easy. Instead, Irv says, “I want you to write something that matters.”

In fact, Jacob has been trying to forge something meaningful in the smithy of his soul: for years he’s been secretly writing a show about his family. But he’s never shown it to anyone. Anyway, Jacob doesn’t need this pressure from his bigoted father. He’s got a lot on his plate. His son Sam is about to have his bar mitzvah, but the boy sees through the hypocrisy of the family’s shallow Judaism and doesn’t want it. Like many Jewish kids in his situation, Sam feels he’s being forced to learn to chant meaningless words for no reason. The ancient rite of passage means nothing to him. Worse, the 13-year-old gets in trouble at school for writing the n-word and other slurs on a piece of paper. Sam denies doing it, and Jacob and Julia aren’t sure how to handle the situation. On top of this, Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, a Holocaust survivor, is unable to take care of himself and has to be put into a home. But he doesn’t want to go. He’d rather die. Jacob knows he should invite Isaac into his home and take care of his grandfather, but he can’t commit to doing so.

And where’s Julia? She’s out flirting with Mark, a recently divorced parent of Sam’s friend. Mark is so wealthy “he had the physical confidence of someone who doesn’t know within one hundred thousand dollars the contents of his bank account at any given moment.” For years, Julia’s been doing a mother’s job without the mother’s joy. In the privacy of her own mind, she fantasizes about building a new life for herself. What if she had girls instead of boys? Such thoughts make her feel “unmotherly,” even though she knows she’s a good mother. She thinks Jacob deserves someone better than her, someone who “didn’t sniff food before eating it. Someone who didn’t see pets as burdens.” (They have Agnes, a dog Julia takes care of but didn’t want; it’s Jacob’s dog, but he can’t even be there for Agnes.) No, these aren’t terrible traits, and Julia knows that “every blessing that was promised the barren heroines of the Bible had fallen into her open hands like rain.” And yet, here she is, flirting with a man who’s trying to convince her she’d be happier alone.

But let’s not feel too sorry for Jacob. He, after all, has a secret phone. And when Julia finds this phone she discovers Jacob has been sexting a co-worker uncharacteristically explicit statements, such as, “I want to lick the cum out of your asshole.” When Julia confronts him, Jacob admits he’s been having an affair—but only over the phone. He hasn’t actually done anything. But isn’t texting porn-talk actually doing something? Julia thinks so. And when she asks Jacob why he’s doing it, he doesn’t know how to answer.

Here’s what many readers will find to be the most disturbing part of Here I Am: its portrayal of contemporary marriage and parenthood, and how fragile commitment actually is.

According to Jacob’s shrink, Dr. Silvers: “Most people behave badly when wounded. If you can remember the wounds, it is far more possible to forgive the behavior.” So what are the wounds? What’s the problem anyway? Why aren’t Jacob and Julia just happy being together? They respect each other’s intelligence, make each other laugh, and don’t fight. Okay, maybe she belittles him sometimes, and maybe he’s emotionally distant, but is that enough to explain their behavior? Is that enough to threaten their marriage? There’s nothing obviously wrong, but there’s definitely something wrong, and they talk about separating. And here’s what many readers will find to be the most disturbing part of Here I Am: its portrayal of contemporary marriage and parenthood, and how fragile commitment actually is. What does it mean to commit to marriage, if we can divorce whenever we don’t feel like being married anymore, whenever it’s difficult, and we’re just tired of it? Like so many parents, Jacob and Julia are always tired:

 

Before they had kids, if asked to conjure images of parenthood they would have said things like “Reading in bed,” and “Giving a bath,” and “Running while holding the seat of a bicycle.” Parenthood contains such moments of warmth and intimacy, but isn’t them. It’s cleaning up. The great bulk of family life involves no exchange of love, and no meaning, only fulfillment. Not the fulfillment of feeling fulfilled, but of fulfilling that which now falls to you.

They’re living their lives, but they’re not really there to live it. And so they want to create a new life to live—a life without each other.

Perhaps the problem is their nonexistent sex life. Despite Jacob’s threats of sodomizing the receiver of his secret text messages, he’s impotent with his wife. She, at 44, naturally feels he’s no longer attracted to her. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that he’s balding, and taking medicine to prevent hair loss. The medicine causes impotence. But because he’s embarrassed about balding, and embarrassed about being vain enough to take pills to prevent balding, he doesn’t tell her the real reason for his impotence. Similarly, Julia is embarrassed to call herself an architect, since she hasn’t actually built anything. Rather than express this feeling, she buries it behind a facade of enjoying the sacrifices of motherhood. If they had gotten over their shame and communicated with each other, if they had expressed themselves, then perhaps their marriage could have been saved. But they don’t, and without any dramatic breaking point, their decade and a half of marriage slowly dissolves. After it does, Jacob looks back with cold eyes and thinks, “all those years felt worthwhile while they were happening, but only a few months on the other side of them and they were a gigantic waste of time. Of a life.”

On top of everything, in the midst of the separation, Jacob’s Israeli cousin Tamir visits from Tel Aviv. Jacob tries to be a good host, but Tamir has always known how to press his buttons. He’s always making obscure comments, looking smug, and talking about how much money he has. He’s confident, rude, and unabashedly casual. And yet, somehow he’s more authentic than Jacob, a more integrated person. He’s fully himself, fully there. And so Jacob envies the very thing he hates about Tamir. “Why couldn’t Tamir be more like Jacob? That was the question. And why couldn’t Jacob be more like Tamir? That was the other question. If they could meet halfway, they’d form a reasonable Jew.”

“You know what your problem is?” Tamir asks Jacob. “You don’t have any problems.” Jacob is American, and therefore doesn’t have the existential problems an Israeli faces. Because Jacob can live a safe, secure, privileged life—a “tchotchke existence”—he and his wife can create problems for themselves and their children. Using Tamir as a foil, Foer probes what it means to be a contemporary American, and how we’re unable to commit to anything. We surf the web while talking on the phone. We text while we work. We listen to music while we read. We’re unavoidably distracted, perpetually divided. We can’t even commit to one activity, so how can we fully commit to a partner? Or to our children? Or even to our self?

One thing that makes Here I Am grander and more ambitious than Foer’s previous books is his hard look at marriage. But the other thing is the war.


About halfway through the novel, a massive earthquake strikes the Middle East. It’s a natural catalyst that causes an eruption of a sleeping volcano, releasing generations of pent-up tension. The epicenter is under the Dead Sea. Tens of thousands of people die immediately. Thousands more are trapped in rubble; synagogues, churches, monasteries, mosques, and madrassas are in ruins. Electricity is out in all of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Highways, railways, and ports are functioning minimally. Cholera, dysentery, and typhoid sweep Palestine. Millions of refugees flee to shelters. Medical supplies intended for the West Bank and Gaza are held at border crossings. Israel abruptly withdraws from the Palestinian Territories, leaving millions without power, water, or other resources. Then the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) takes over the Temple Mount, expels the waaf, raises the Israeli flag over the Dome of the Rock, and everything explodes. More than thirty countries declare war on Israel.

Israel pulls back to its defensible borders, allowing disease to do the killing. As Arab armies penetrate the Negev, the Israeli prime minister goes on international television and proposes a “Reverse Diaspora.” He calls on Jews all over the world to come home and defend the Holy Land. The goal is to bring one million Jews to Israel, because “the president of the United States could watch eight million Israeli Jews be slaughtered, but not one hundred thousand American Jews.” The United States has remained militarily neutral, and the ploy is to force America’s hand to enter the war.

Like Abraham in Beersheba, here is where Jacob is called. He’s been hiding from himself, hiding from his wife and his children. He’s been devoted to his work but isn’t fulfilled by it, because he’s been using it to hide. He even hides from the woman he’s having “an affair” with, for while she pleads with him to consummate their sex-talk in the flesh, he keeps it digital. He hasn’t been fully present in any aspect of his life. And now he can say, Here I Am. Whatever you need, Israel, I’m here for you.

Unlike his cousin Tamir, Jacob has no military experience. And, in his 40s, he won’t be much use as a fighter. Israel is Tamir’s home, so he must go home and fight, no questions. His son Noam has been fighting, and Tamir will fight alongside his family and fellow Israeli Jews. But while Jacob is Jewish, he’s not Israeli. And though he belongs to a temple and observes the major holidays, he can’t fully claim to be religious. Like his creator, he’s not a believer.

At one point in the book, Jacob and his youngest son, Max, are staying in Texas, and out on the roof of their Airbnb, they look at the stars. They whisper back and forth, and then Max asks, “Why are we whispering?” In an interview with NPR, Foer explained that this inherent tendency to whisper under the stars is being religious. Einstein said: “What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”1 Going further, Einstein wrote:

To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties—this knowledge, this feeling . . . that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.2

Okay, but what does it really mean to be religious? Jacob struggles with this question, as do many of us. If Jacob is not actually “religious,” what does he really owe Israel? If he gets on one of those transport planes to fight in Israel, he’ll most likely die. He’ll be sacrificed. He wants to be like Abraham and respond to a call by saying, “Here I am.” But if he does, he’ll actually be like Isaac: sacrificed as an offering. And yet if he doesn’t go, he’s admitting that Israel is dispensable. For Israelis like Tamir, fighting is a question of existence. For Jacob, it’s a question of identity.

By the time of the war, he and Julia have separated, living in nearby homes so the kids aren’t traumatized. Their decision to separate, too, is a question of identity. When Julia first lets Jacob know she’s begun an affair herself, Jacob looks at her: “She wasn’t his wife, not right then, she was the woman he married—a person rather than a dynamic.” This is their question of identity: to remain a dynamic, or choose to be a person. It’s a choice anyone in a stagnant relationship has to make. Do I honor my commitment, or do I dissolve it?

When Jacob brings up the idea of going to Israel as part of the Reverse Diaspora, Julia laughs. She then sees he’s serious, but she doesn’t tell him to stay, even though that’s all he wants to hear. While it’s a difficult choice, it’s also his easy out. If he dies trying to save Israel, he’s not only a hero in his children’s eyes, he won’t have to suffer the pain of divorce. He’ll prove himself to his Zionist father, and he’ll make his grandfather proud. He’ll also be able to be there, to become a fully present, more integrated person. By going to Israel he will be saying, Yes, I’m Jewish. Yes, I am religious. And so he goes to the airport with Tamir. He endures questioning by the Israeli defense coordinators.

And then he goes back home.

He fails to be fully present. He and Julia divorce. They move on, establishing separate lives. Their sons grow up and become successful. Julia marries again. Jacob lives alone. Israel is destroyed. Not the land, not the people, but the idea.

The name Israel means “struggles with God.” In Genesis 32, Isaac’s son Jacob is out on the road and struggles all night with a mysterious man. The man happens to be God. In the morning, the angel gives Jacob the name “Israel.” After the destruction of Israel, Jacob Bloch, of Washington, DC, has stopped struggling. He now owes God nothing.

If we understand that there are things even more important than being alive, we look at Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in a new light.

In the middle of Here I Am, precisely when the earthquake hits the Middle East, Jacob’s grandfather Isaac dies. The family is saved from having to make the choice between putting him in a home or bringing him into their own. At the funeral, the rabbi giving the eulogy says:

“So much of Judaism today—regarding Larry David as anything beyond very funny, the existence and persistence of the Jewish American Princess, the embrace of klutziness, the fear of wrath, the shifting emphasis from argument to confession—is the direct consequence of our choice to have Anne Frank’s diary replace the Bible as our bible. Because the Jewish Bible, whose purpose is to delineate and transmit Jewish values, makes it abundantly clear that life itself is not the loftiest ambition. Righteousness is.”

If we understand that there are things even more important than being alive, we look at Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in a new light. We look at everything in a new light. “Abraham argues with God to spare Sodom because of the righteousness of its citizens,” the rabbi continues. “Not because life is inherently deserving of saving, but because righteousness should be spared.” At the end of the eulogy, Foer steps it up and uses the rabbi as a megaphone: “How much greater the Jewish people might be today if instead of not dying, our ambition was living righteously. If instead of ‘It was done to me,’ our mantra was ‘I did it.’ ”

Rather than being a critique of the Jewish people and the premise of Zionism, perhaps this is Foer’s prayer. He knows that verbal expression is generative. Let there be light, God said, and there was light. “I do,” we say, and then we are married. Words have power. “Prayer may not save us,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “but prayer may make us worthy of being saved.” It is through verbal expression that we are made righteous.

Here I Am is an expression of Foer’s struggle with what it means to be a fully present human being, a prayer for us to be as committed as Abraham. And perhaps we can also see it as the author’s own attempt to become worthy of righteousness.

 

Notes:

  1. Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses from His Archives, ed. Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann (Princeton University Press, 1979), 39.
  2. Cited in “Albert Einstein, Selected Writings on Religion,” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2007), 160.
 

Randy Rosenthal is one of the founding editors of the literary journals The Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, the New York Journal of Books, the Daily Beast, Bookslut, and other publications. He is currently studying religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School.

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