Dostoevsky offends me but I’ll live with it

THINK OF Rome’s debt to ancient Greek culture, literature, religion and law.

By
September 7, 2019 20:25
4 minute read.
Dostoevsky offends me but I’ll live with it

RUSSIAN ARTIST Slonov touches his creation at the Museum of Modern Art in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, first published in Russia in 1864, is one of the few works of fiction that takes pride of place in my library dominated by non-fiction Judaica. For many years I have identified with the Underground Man – I first encountered Dostoevsky’s short and prophetic masterpiece in college – and my empathy with a misfit who dares to challenge the philosophy of his day has only grown with the passing of years.

The nameless protagonist engages, especially in the work’s first half, in slamming both the radical materialism of the socialists and the spirit of industrial capitalism. For the Underground Man, the object of his fierce polemic is the “crystal palace,” a cast-iron and glass exhibition hall built in London in 1851 for the Great Exhibition. Dostoevsky’s outcast condemns this structure as a false symbol of modern unity, calling it a tenement house and a chicken coop. He tears down the illusion of human progress leading to utopia and foresees the rise of nihilism and totalitarianism. In the age of the high priests of the algorithms and the Communist Chinese suppression of human freedom in Hong Kong, Notes from Underground is as relevant as the day it was published.

I guess the time has come for me to run to my safe space and burn this book to ashes. You see, Fyodor Dostoevsky hated Jews, and I am a Jew. The product of a Czarist Russia and Russian Orthodoxy that were stridently and proudly antisemitic, Dostoevsky mirrored the realities of the time in which he lived. It is time for the thought police to destroy the Russian author’s genius as the embodiment of hate speech. The time has come to remove Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov from courses on the great books that have shaped our civilization. After all, Dostoevsky is an evil Christian white male who is the embodiment of that evil patriarchy that must be destroyed.

Let’s add Saint Augustine, Voltaire, TS Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. The social justice warriors are prepared to censor these geniuses because they do not conform to the political correctness of the first quarter of the 21st century. Jew-hatred has been a reality for thousands of years. It has seeped into the cultures of the West – and that includes Islam. That Jews are offended by the attitudes and prejudices of non-Jews is no reason to reject the West. Ridiculous charges of “cultural appropriation” negate a history of humankind in which individuals and societies are influenced by ideas that are foreign.


THINK OF Rome’s debt to ancient Greek culture, literature, religion and law. Think of the influence of Chinese Buddhism on Zen in Japan. Jews are one of the peoples whose culture and religion have been most appropriated. I do not read the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament and a harbinger of Jesus coming as the messiah. I reject the Koran’s adoption of Abraham as the first Muslim.

Do I resent America’s Founding Fathers adopting an identity as the New Israel? Do I reject the theme of Israelite liberation from slavery that African slaves made part of their culture and religion in the American South? Actually, I am flattered that non-Jews based their life and thought all over the world in the Scriptures and history of the Jewish people. There is enough moaning about “cultural appropriation.” Cultures influence each other, and foreign ideas are incorporated into various societies to strengthen them. That is how societies develop and prosper.

We can condemn the ancient democracy of Athens as being null and void because a quarter of the city-state’s population were slaves and because of rampant misogyny. We can censure Thomas Jefferson for advocating equality while owning slaves. These are legitimate criticisms. But to ignore the achievements of the Athenians and Jefferson is to dismiss the genius of the past because it does not conform to a modern litmus test.

Genius has predated modernity by thousands of years. We moderns do not have a monopoly on brilliance. It has been a long evolution toward societies free of racism and hatred. That the past does not live up to our expectations today does not mean we should dispose of it. We can learn much from our ancestors, from those who came before us. If an aspect of past religion, culture and ideology offends us, we must search for the good in the past and overcome the bad. Dostoevsky hated Jews and he would have hated me. But I am an adult. To dismiss this great novelist and thinker is to dispose of history, or worse, rewrite it to bolster modern ideology. We betray ourselves by arrogantly claiming that truth is only in the domain of 2019. Dostoevsky offends me. I will live with it.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.


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