What is true of religious thought specifically also appears to be true more generally: Much of our inner lives occur “wrapped up in imagery, beyond the reach of language.” And while that conviction might be the source of a healthy realism about the limits of argument, in religion and politics alike, it can also warrant a disengagement from the hard work of persuasion.
Images can do any number of things. They can startle. They can stir. They can overawe. But they can’t argue, and they can’t persuade, at least not in a manageable or predictable way. If the image that you find compelling does nothing for me, there’s little you can do to win me over beyond pointing at it more insistently. If Gelernter’s montage of the Torah scroll, the synagogue, and the Red Sea fails to speak to you as it speaks to him, there’s little he can do, in his own terms, to change your mind. Those images are only powerful as part of a living and lived-in system, but in the absence of that system, they are inert.
Gelernter’s book begins, in fact, with his fear that American Judaism, given its struggles with assimilation, secularization, and intermarriage, is ceasing to be such a system: “Unless the essence of Judaism is written down as plainly as can be, the loosening grip most American Jews maintain on the religion of their ancestors will fail completely, and the community will plummet into the anonymous depths of history.” (Gelernter posits that Zionism can act, for a time, as a kind of backup generator for Jewish solidarity; but given liberal Jews’ growing disaffection with the Israeli government, this seems even less plausible today than it was in 2009. Nor is he optimistic that the Orthodox can sustain American Judaism on their own; despite their high birthrates, they remain a minority within a minority.) So Judaism is a work of conservation, an attempt to encase in language a set of impressions, a way of being, before it is lost.
It can’t be done. Or at least, what Gelertner is trying to conserve is hollowed out in the process of saving it. The mental images that accumulate when you practice a way of being are so quietly powerful because they are unspoken, because they are free of language and its demands—for consistency, for sense. At the moment at which the prospect of cultural loss forces you to fix them in writing, to pin them down, you’ve already become alienated from them. Gelernter’s ambitious response to cultural loss—to launch a long, shared effort to fix in writing the “Torat ha-lev, the Torah of the mind and heart,” or the book of Judaism as a lived experience—is not the action of someone who believes his community is in good health. Such a project could only seem necessary against a background of loss and fear; but to fight the battle is to lose it.
Gelernter’s struggle is distinctive, but it is not unique. It stands in for the struggle of any number of traditionalists confronting cultural change, and facing the prospect that the beauty they see in their particular way of being fails to “translate.”