I discuss this novel with Monica, an English Literature professor.
We were prompted with these questions by another English Lit professor — a Christian — who’s teaching the book to her class:
1. Early on in My Name Is Asher Lev, Asher sees his father reading a passage from the tractate Sanhedrin which says that “Any man who has caused a single Jewish soul to perish, the Torah considers it as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and any man who has saved a Jewish soul, it is as if he had saved a whole world” (11). Asher, in response, asks if this concept applies only to the Jew, to which his father replies that “No . . . . Elsewhere the same passage appears without the word ‘Jewish.’” Nevertheless, throughout the novel, both Asher’s father and the mashpia ascribe a special worth to the Jewish soul which they deny to the goy; for example, Asher’s father at one point, in imagining Asher will soon become a goy, asserts, “Better you should not have been born” (176). Can we read such instances as distortions of genuine Judaic principles? What distinctions does the Jewish tradition, at its core, make between Jews and non-Jews, and are these distinctions identical to those held by the Hasidic sect?
2. What would you say are the chief characteristics of Hasidism that distinguish it from regular Judaism?
3. One student, in observing the copyright of My Name Is Asher Lev (1972) and the fact that the novel is set even a bit earlier, wonders if the view of art within the Jewish community has changed at all in the past few decades. Do you think there has been even the slightest move towards finding value in art, or would you say the Jewish community’s view of it, as presented in Chaim Potok’s novel, is representative of the current view?
4. In watching members of a religious community, one often gets a skewed vision of that religion as far as its precepts and the fundamental spirit of those guidelines. How accurate, in general, do Potok’s characters present the spirit behind the Jewish tradition? In other words, do you see Potok enabling readers that are familiar with Judaism or Hasidism to evaluate characters based on their alignments with, or departures from, the religion in its ideal form?
5. How much room for interpretation is there, regarding commands, in Judaism or Hasidism? Are there laws outside the Torah that the Jewish person observes? What other texts have an authority similar to that of the Torah for the religious Jew?
6. One student was curious about the number of Jewish holidays mentioned in the novel. Could you comment on the role and function of these holidays, or perhaps the rituals surrounding them, and maybe briefly discuss a few of the holidays most cherished within the community?
7. What about the figure of the Rebbe, as presented in the novel? Does he play a role only in Hasidism, or does the Jewish community at large have such a figure? And is there ever more than one Rebbe in the world, at any given time?
8. How does the Jewish or Ladover community regard questioning, challenging, or doubting? Is there any line between what is appropriate or acceptable to question and what is not? Is anything too sacred to be challenged?
9. Could you discuss the binary presented in the novel between the world of the Ribbono Shel Olom and that of the sitra achra? Early on, Potok shows characters struggling to determine from which side Asher’s gift comes. Does the religion, at its base, categorize all things this way, or are some things viewed as neutral, morally, leaving it up to the individual to determine its moral end?
10. How would you describe Judaism’s relationship to sensuality? On the one hand, much of its ritual seems to engage the senses very deeply; yet members of the community often seem uncomfortable indulging the senses outside a scripted ritual form. For one, Asher’s parents do not want to embrace or touch in front of him. Can you comment on this?
11. At one point in the book, the mashpia mentions to Asher that they do not regard the second commandment the way others do. Is the Hasidic community more tolerant of images than other sects of Judaism? How would other sects of Jews, for example, regard the framed pictures of the Rebbe found in all the classrooms and offices within the Ladover building?
12. What do you think readers unfamiliar with Judaism miss out on in reading this novel? Are there any specific passages or moments you’d like to comment on?