Vidal in 2009

Upon learning of Gore Vidal’s passing, I immediately thought of this highbrow celebrity’s flirtation with antisemitism. But an illuminating article in The Forward gave me pause about seeing him as fundamentally antisemitic. It mentioned that his live-in companion from 1950 to 2003, Howard Austen, was Jewish and that he assisted him to overcome the antisemitism of the advertising industry that had excluded him from a job in the 1950s. Vidal’s suggestion to change his Jewish-sounding family name of “Auster” to the WASP-y sounding “Austen” got him hired at a prominent firm.

The NY Times obit did not mention his Jewish controversies, but rather covered his remarkable record as a novelist, playwright, essayist and acerbic wit, often featured on late-night television talk shows. Vidal was something of a left-wing isolationist, who was even quoted as belittling Pres. Clinton’s apology for not having dispatched troops to end the genocide in Rwanda. His opposition to such humanitarian interventions was likely a result of losing the reputed love of his life, a prep school classmate who became a Marine killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

The Forward article mentioned the foreword he wrote for the anti-Zionist Israeli writer Israel Shahak‘s 1994 book that attacks Judaism as the hateful wellspring for Zionism—Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years. As it happens, Werner Cohn, now a retired professor of sociology with whom I’ve dialogued and argued over the years, published a review of this book in 1994, in Israel Horizons, a left-wing Zionist publication that I edited at the time. Despite my differences with Prof. Cohn on Israel and other matters, I value his perspective on Shahak:

Much of Shahak’s book, and all of his Chapter 5, are given to the allegation that the Talmud requires or permits Jews to commit crimes, including murder, against non-Jews. …

There are gravely offensive passages in the Talmud. (And there are, as we know from our most recent history, some Jewish fringe groups who interpret traditional Jewish writings in a hateful, xenophobic manner.) …. There are many mutually contradictory passages in the Talmud, and a great deal depends on methods of interpretation. … Moreover, the Talmud is not unique in containing offensive material. As many scholars have pointed out, a hostile commentator could easily produce a Christianity Revealed to provide a basis for a (similarly unjustified) anti-Christian campaign. The problem of hostile Talmud interpretation is very thoroughly discussed in the first chapter of the scholarly work by Jacob Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction. Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933.

I was recently curious to learn how Talmudic teachings concerning non-Jews are actually transmitted to our generation of Jews. The Encyclopedia Talmudica, founded by Rabbi Meyer Berlin (Bar-Ilan), has a full discussion (volume 1, pp. 274-5). This source teaches that non-Jews are to be loved in the same manner as Jews; in particular, robbing a non-Jew is the same as robbing a Jew; the non-Jewish sick are to be visited just as the Jewish sick; and so forth. All this is in very direct contradiction to the assertions by Dr. Shahak, who tells us, over and over, that all religious Jews teach hatred (and worse) of non-Jews.

With very little trouble, anyone can learn for himself that the wild accusations by Israel Shahak have no foundations whatever. …

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

For his part, Gore Vidal [in his forward to Shahak's book] tells us that an (unnamed) “American Zionist” brought Harry Truman two million dollars in cash in 1948 and that as a result US recognition of Israel went through very fast. Nevertheless, says Vidal, he himself is not an anti-Semite. Somewhat later, he finds that Shahak is particularly “…a joy to read on the great Gentile-hating Dr. Maimonides.” ….

That the great Biblical scholar, Moses Maimonides, was a “hater of Gentiles” would surely have surprised the Muslim royal courts he served as physician, including that of the renowned Sultan Saladin. But before this, according to Wikipedia, he and his family suffered exile from Spain at the hands of an Islamic dynasty (the Almohads) that persecuted Jews, and he had organized payments from Egyptian Jews to secure the release of Jewish captives held by Christian crusaders. Vidal was blissfully ignorant of these injustices he had weathered.

Antisemites and other people who should know better have long used the Talmud as a basis to attack Jews and Judaism. Gore Vidal was not at his best in lending credence to one such effort. The beauty of the Talmud is that it is a treasure trove of text-based argumentation that validates the principle of debate, respectfully recording dissenting views and endorsing the notion that texts and laws are subject to rational discussion. It does not rigidly adhere to any one perspective.

Celebrating Talmud study at MetLife stadium

As it happens, it is just the other day (Aug. 1) that Orthodox and other observant Jews celebrated the completion of the seven and a half year synchronized cycle for reading the Talmud by the “daf yomi” (a page a day) method of study. Ninety thousand primarily ultra-Orthodox Jews jammed into the MetLife football stadium in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City.

I certainly have my disagreements with many aspects of ulra-Orthodox life and do not generally agree with them politically, but there was something both sweet and awe-inspiring in this gathering, as covered expertly by Arun Venugopal, a reporter for WNYC radio, the New York affiliate of NPR. There certainly wasn’t a hint of meanness or hatred detected by Venugopal, a dark-skinned individual of South Asian heritage.

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