23 Jan 2010

Sam ple Essay: The Depiction of the Rebbe in My Name is Asher Lev

Novels often allow readers to delve into the world of the writer and the cultural surroundings at that time. My Name is Asher Lev is no exception to this. In My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok is both the “rabbi and the psychologist” as he explores the conflicting character of Asher Lev (Sgan 63). Potok’s novel takes readers into the world of Asher Lev as he struggles with his Jewish heritage and his desire to paint and the surrounding conflicts that come from these two different beliefs. Readers are able to see how the Jewish community works and the problems that arise with the Western world. Throughout the novel, Potok uses the Rebbe as a symbol of omniscient divinity who has the answer for life’s questions. The Rebbe guides Asher and the rest of the community on their journeys. It is through the depiction of the Rebbe is his religious and cultural standings, his dealings with Asher’s family, his conversations with Asher and his reactions to Asher’s artistic gift, that readers develop an understanding of the Rebbe in the Jewish community.

The Rebbe is a spiritual leader in a Jewish community, and is highly regarded and respected by the members of the community. The Rebbe is a leader of the Chassidim order of Judaism and the word dates back to 1881 (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary). Pronounced “re-bay”, the word comes from the Yiddish rebe and the Hebrew Rabbi (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary). Although the “reb” in Yiddish translates to “Mister”, the Rebbe is most likely a translation of “Grand Rabbi” or “my rabbi” (Rich). Often referred to as an “admor” for “admoneinu, moreninu, veRabbenu” which translates to “our master, our teacher and our rabbi” (Rich). The people of the Chassidim order believe that the Rebbe is the closest thing to God that they have.

In terms of the religious cultures surrounding the Rebbe, the Rebbe is a god-like person who acts as a leader, a psychologist, a healer and a guidance councilor. To become a Rebbe, you must possess certain characteristics and the “position is usually hereditary” (Rich). In the Chassidism community, the “Rebbe has the final word over every decision” (Rich). The Rebbe, different from a Rabbi because he “does not wait for anyone to approach him, he reaches forth among the people” and “tires to awaken them and inspire them”, is the “power plant” that lights up the entire community (The Rohr Chabad House). While both the Rabbi and Rebbe are master teachers, the Rebbe is considered divine in a certain sense. According to the Rohr Chabad House at the Cambridge University, the Rebbe has divine powers but “the Rebbe tries to apply the most simple method and only after medical help does not prove successful will the Rebbe use his supreme powers” (The Rohr Chabad House).

The duties of the Rebbe are threefold. First of all, a Rebbe must act as a “tzaddik” which is a “righteous individual and generally indicated that the person has spiritual or mystical power” (Rich). In this sense, the Rebbe must perform the duties of God. The Rebbe must also be responsible to guiding their members of the community “into a world of religion” (The Rohr Chabad House). In this way, the Rebbe is also a teacher, a priest and a guidance councillor all in one. Furthermore, a Rebbe is like a psychologist and a doctor. A “Rebbe gives himself completely over to the person,” when studying someone and trying to heal or help them (The Rohr Chabad House). Because of this extremely powerful role, a Rebbe is given god-like characteristics and is the most important person in the community, often considered more loved than one’s own family members.

By understanding the religious standings of a Rebbe, it is easier to see how this relates to the Rebbe in My Name is Asher Lev. Chaim Potok creates a character who is the overruling leader of all members. He is listened to by all members of the community no matter what and acts as a father to everyone. People go to the Rebbe for everything, including permission to follow a path outside the norm. Because “everything is in the hands of heavens” the people in the community do not know what is in store for them (Potok 284). They look to the Rebbe to guide them. However, the Rebbe admits that he “does not know what The Master of the Universe had waiting for us” but somehow, he is able to guide people in the right way (Potok 284). He acts as a security blanket when it comes to following ones path in life.

The Rebbe’s power is demonstrated in how the Rebbe has influenced the Lev family. The first example comes from when “his mother was given permission to attend college” which is outside the norm as Rivkeh is female (Schiff 76).  Another example comes from the Rebbe’s decision to “choose Aryeh for a mission to Vienna” (Schiff 78). Readers can see how important the Rebbe’s words are when Asher Lev recount that his father “had been as torn by [his mother’s] illness as by his inability to journey for the Rebbe” (Potok 324). It is as if the Rebbe’s guiding words are more important to Aryeh than his dying wife. This demonstrates how the Rebbe was considered not only a respected community member, but a member of the family as well.

However, the true importance of the Rebbe is fully demonstrated in the connection between the Rebbe and Asher Lev. The Rebbe considers Asher “as a son” and takes pride in guiding Asher towards his vision (Potok 244). The protagonist, Asher Lev must undergo a serious journey to cross the “boundary from Master of the Universe to the other side” (Kauver and Potok 304). In other words, Asher must find the balance between his religion and his passion for art. Throughout his life, Asher struggled with the oppressive feelings his conflicting desires bring him. The Rebbe explains that “anguish comes from crossing the boundary” from “being an artist and being Jewish (Kauver and Potok 304-305). It is through the Rebbe that “the tradition that oppresses Asher also provides him with a savoir” for it “is the Rebbe who breaks the deadlock” (Schiff 78).

The Rebbe acts as two conflicting symbols in My Name is Asher Lev. First, he acts as the religion figure and the Jewish tradition that Asher is struggling with. Second, he simultaneously acts as his savoir, his guide and his answer for escapism. It is the Rebbe who introduces Asher to artist Jacob Kahn and tells him to follow art regardless of what his father thinks. The Rebbe “solves his dilemma” and leads Asher down the artistic path towards freedom (Schiff 79). The Rebbe admits to Asher that “certain things are given, and it is for man to use them to bring goodness into the world. The Master of the Universe gives us glimpses, and only glimpses. It is for us to open our eyes wide” (Potok 285). It is through his connection with the Rebbe that Asher grows into the person he becomes. Furthermore, the Rebbe teaches him that life is all about struggle and balancing who you are and who you want to become.

Potok spends a great deal of time explaining the conflicts between art and religion in My Name is Asher Lev. As explained by Potok, “the Jewish tradition simply did not participate in Western Art” and “had a problem with images” (Kauver and Potok 296-303). Furthermore Potok suggests that “artists posses the power to create metaphoric visions of reality” which is demonstrated in Asher’s crucified picture of his mother (Kauver and Potok 296). The art work of Asher threatens the religious aspect of his life and it is through his paintings that his two worlds collide and eventually divide. The quote, “the block of stone moved through me like a cry- like the echoing blasts sounded by the Rebbe” demonstrates this collide to perfection (Potok 313). When Asher views the Pieta for the first time, it moves him into a wondrous cry, the very same cry that he usually feels by the Rebbe and his religion. The power of the Rebbe is being compared to the power of Michelangelo’s sculpture, both incredible, both important and both a big part of Asher’s life.

The Rebbe’s understanding and acceptance of Asher Lev’s desire to become a painter further demonstrates the role of the Rebbe in the Jewish community. One would assume that the Rebbe would be against anything that swayed away from the Jewish religion and history, especially “the confrontation of Western Art” (Kauver and Potok 296). However, this is not the case. The Rebbe takes an impartial and unbiased approach to Asher’s chosen path. The character of the Rebbe shows readers the true spirit of the Jewish community and the power that the Rebbe has. In comparison with the corrupt priests of the Catholic religion and the intimidating nature of the Christine doctrine, the Rebbe shines a different light on religion. Although Asher feels oppressed and pressured from his father, the Rebbe give shim nothing but genuine honesty, compassion and understanding.

The Rebbe has already accepted Asher’s chosen path in life by introducing him to Jacob Kahn and allowing him to study with Jacob. He then blesses him in the quote “I am certain you understand. I wish you a long and healthy life, my son. I give you my blessings for greatness in the world or art and greatness in the world of your people” (Potok 285). It is through the Rebbe’s understanding and guidance, and even banishment that Asher Lev is able to find his identify and become “Asher Lev, the painter”. He is able to carve out a life for his own.

Chaim Potok explains that My Name is Asher Lev acted as a “metaphor for how far a writer can take his material” (Kauver and Potok 303). Although this quote relates directly to Chaim Potok as the writer, it also relates to his character Asher Lev and his quest to cross the boundary of tradition into the world of art. It is through the character of the Rebbe, however, that Asher is able to complete his journey and cross the boundary into his own life. The Rebbe is a spiritual leader in the Jewish community, respected by all with divine-like characteristics. He is stereotyped by his cultural representations as an all-seeing, all knowing spiritual leader who can guide people to a world of religion. However, in My Name is Asher Lev, readers see several different sides to the Rebbe in his interactions with the Lev family, his guidance to Asher Lev and with his acceptance of Asher’s artwork. The Rebbe may be a divine-like person in the Jewish community, but he is also compassionate, understanding and honest which makes him both god-like and humane simultaneously. It is through the representation of the Rebbe that Potok allows readers to see the true world of Jewish religion and to understand the power of acceptance.

Works Cited:

Kauvar, Elaine M and Chaim Potok. “An Interview with Chaim Potok.” Contemporary Literature. Vol 27.3. Autumn, 1986. Pg 291-317. http://0-www.jstor.org.innopac.douglas.bc.ca:80/stable/1208347

Merriam Webster Dictionary. “Rebbe.” Merriam-Webster Online. 2008. 14 November 2008. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rebbe

Potok, Chaim. My Name is Asher Lev. Published Place: Publisher Name, Year it was Published.

Rich, Tracey P. “Rabbis, Priests and Other Religion Functionaries.” Judaism 101. 2001. 15 November 2008. http://www.jewfaq.org/rabbi.htm

Schiff, Ellen. “To Be Young, Gifted and Oppressed: The Plight of the Ethnic Artist. Oppression and Ethnic Literature. Vol 6.1. Spring, 1979. Pg 73-80. http://0-www.jstor.org.innopac.douglas.bc.ca:80/stable/467521

Sgan, Arnold D. “The Chosen, the Promise and My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.” The English Journal. Vol. 66.3. March, 1977. Pg 63-64. http://0-www.jstor.org.innopac.douglas.bc.ca:80/stable/815815

The Rohr Chabad House. “Rebbe.” Chabad at Cambridge University. 2008. 17 November 2008. http://www.cuchabad.org/templates/articlecco_cdo/AID/168147

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