Tradition, Suffering, and Art

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Individualism vs. Community

Everybody grows up inside a particular, almost invariably small world. Everybody, without exception. Very early in our lives we learn the "banking system" of that world: family, small town, neighborhood, church, community. At the same time, ideas begin to come to us from outside this small particular world. These ideas are often alien to those values we are being taught in our particular world. We learn to behave and act in a certain way from our fathers, mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. We learn if we behave incorrectly, certain things follow from that incorrect behavior. We turn on the television set and someone is behaving incorrectly. Nothing happens as a result. It's a joke. It's a laugh. It's accepted. When we experience this sort of thing in an ongoing way, we develop a certain method of handling this constant clash of values.

What I'm trying to explore in my books is one kind of such confrontation of ideas. Of cultures in tension with one another. A kind of tension that I experienced as I grew up and made my way into this world. All of us have one kind or another of ongoing culture confrontation almost every day of our lives. We don't think about it often because by the time we're out of our teens we learn to handle these confrontations almost in the same way as we walk and breathe. It's a kind of choreography that we develop without thinking about it too much. Then along comes the novelist and looks at it, opening it up so that we can more or less see what it is we are really doing without thinking about it. The novelist forces us, if we read the novels, to look at what it is we are doing and urges us to think about it, to see if something can be learned or understood about ourselves and our species by observing this confrontation.

One of the things we are taught very early is that each of us is a unique creature. We need that sense of uniqueness to take us through the travail of existence. We are taught that we count as individuals, that the group we belong to is a unique group, and that this group counts in the spectrum of the broader community in which all of us live. That uniqueness is then challenged by ideas that inevitably impinge upon us from other kinds of uniqueness.

When individuals are brought up in the heart of such a community or culture, they learn and commit themselves to its values. They usually understand the problems inside that community and are willing to cope with those problems. They see the world through the systems of values of that unique community. At the same time however, they experience important ideas or values that come to them from the general world outside their community. These ideas come to them from the core, the heart of that general world. When a person finds his or her own inherited values to be in conflict with those of the general culture, he or she experiences what I have come to call "core-core culture confrontation." All of my books are an attempt to explore the dimensions of this kind of confrontation.

One thing absolutely fundamental to an appreciation of the core of one's community is a sense of identity with its core, a sense of the uniqueness of that community. This sense of identity is born out of the following elements:

(1) You learn early on in your life the stable values of your particular community. (2) You learn early on in your life that your life makes sense, that it's important, it counts. (3) You learn that human actions are meaningful. They resonate. One cannot act without in one way or another affecting. (4) You learn early on in your life that action and value ought to be in harmony. You cannot have a viable sense of self worth if you value one thing and act contrary to what it is that you value. When this happens, a dichotomy or split in the self is established. Finally it seems to me that fundamental to an awareness of the nature of a core of both a tradition and an individual in that tradition is (5) that the individual be made aware of what is right and what is wrong, as far as the community is concerned, and that the individual be able to choose between the two. These are the components that go into the making of a healthy, well-adjusted individual. With this firm sense of identity an individual finds his or her place in the core of the tradition of a community and, out of it, establishes a sense of his or her particular uniqueness as an individual..

Sooner or later, if that individual is a thinking person, if that individual ends up in a college somewhere, that individual is going to come across alien elements from the general civilization in which all of us live. These elements are referred to as Western Humanism, Western Secularism or Western Secular Humanism. It is a civilization born about two to three hundred years ago in western-central Europe out of what we call the Enlightenment. A civilization whose founding fathers are people like Voltaire, and Diderot, Kant, Hume, Darwin, Marx, and, closer to our time, people like Kafka, Joyce, Stravinsky, Picasso. Ideas from this secular world inevitably impinge upon an individual born in a church community or a synagogue community, especially when that individual embarks on a college experience. And then tension is generated. He or she begins to look at those, alien ideas and wonder whether they speak in a meaningful way.

With this dynamic in mind, I would like to now show how the books that I've written explore this confrontation of cores of cultures and how in some instances a resolution is reached, and in other instances point out that the resolution may well be impossible to achieve.

Chaim Potok (taken from Chaim Potok website)


  1. How is this struggle expressed in Asher Lev?
  2. What claims does the Hasidic community make on Asher?  What claims does art make?  Can the two be reconciled?
  3. What do Asher's dreams of his ancestor signify?
  4. Is this tension ever resolved in the novel?
  5. Is Asher a good Jew?  Why or why not?
  6. Are there similar tensions in the evangelical Christian community?

Theological Uses of Nakedness

  1. naturalis: reveals the natural state or humility
  2. temporalis: reveals the temporal state of poverty, either voluntary or involuntary
  3. virtualis: reveals unfallen or restored innocence
  4. criminalis: reveals lust, vanity, or lack of virtue in general

Art and Truth-telling

Opening Questions:

  • What is Kahn's view of art and the artist?  Do you agree or disagree? 
  • Does the artist have to suffer and cause suffering?
  • Does the artist have any responsibility to others or community?

Along with the paintings offered at the University of Dayton website, look at these paintings:

Guernica (large)

Question: Does Picasso's painting reveal the truth?   Why or why not?  How can we know when a painting reveals the truth?

John Marin

Edward Hooper

Question: Compare and contrast the light in these two works.  Does either tell the truth?  Does one do a better job?

Chagall-White Crucifixion

Question: Why does Chagall use an image of a crucifixion in the context of Jewish suffering?  Is his purpose similar to Asher's?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding