Professor of English Warren Rosenberg
of Violence: From King David to David Mamet
by Steve Charles
Fifteen minutes after we sat down to talk at the Scarlet Inn, Professor of English Warren Rosenberg and I hit on the common denominator of our childhoods: boxing.
Rosenberg was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised by a second-generation Jewish immigrant father who used to regale him with tales about the early days of Murder, Inc., the Jewish gangsters he'd known personally and who were made famous in the movie Bugsy.
I was raised in Steven Spielberg's neighborhood of Scottsdale, Arizona, was an acolyte in the Episcopal Church, and most of the violent conquests that entertained me were on Gunsmoke and The Virginian.
But we both used to box with our fathers. We'd lace up the gloves and trade jabs. It was a ritual in which a father coached his son in the necessity of harnessing anger and venting rage before it became an uncontrollable, destructive act--an introduction to the razor-thin line between socially acceptable sport and violent aggression.
Crossing that line is the "coming of age" rite for scores of male characters in modern American fiction and film, and it's Rosenberg's concern over this "attraction to violence" in his own life and in Jewish and American culture that drives his soon-to-be-published book, Men of Blood: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture.
In Men of Blood, Rosenberg explores the Jewish cultural and literary sources that both support and negate the notion which states that to become a man, you must be willing to commit violence. He also focuses on the work of contemporary Jewish artists who have promoted that notion, then seeks alternative literary models that transcend the attraction to violence. The book is scheduled for publication in late 1999, the close of history's most violent century, and could prove controversial in both Jewish and academic circles.
Rosenberg spoke with Wabash Magazine in late December about Men of Blood, his efforts to come to terms with an attraction to violence, and some of the questions his students have raised in their own struggles to negotiate within themselves the line between anger and aggression.
WM: I understand that this project began with your observation that, in much of American literature and film, committing an act of violence was a prerequisite to manhood.
Rosenberg: I began to think about this when I first came to Wabash. I had my choice as to what to teach for my first freshman tutorial, and what did I decide? "Violence in America."
Later, I began exploring and writing articles on the distinctive differences [between men and women] I saw in my studies of novels in my "Violence in America" course. In those books and films (Native Son, Deliverance, Platoon, The Godfather, among others) the distinguishing factor that makes a man a man in our society is the ability and willingness to kill.
I didn't realize that violence was an issue in my life, though, even as I was beginning to teach these courses.
WM: When did the research became more personal and more focused on your Jewish heritage?
Rosenberg: I had already written a book proposal about men and violence, but I wasn't focusing on any specific group and their reaction to this cultural message that masculinity [required a willingness to commit violence]. Then I saw the movie Bugsy. I'd always liked gangster movies. But what attracted me to this movie was that, for the first time, the central gangster figures were identified for me as clearly Jewish.
I had known about Siegel from my own upbringing, because I was born in Brooklyn in this area where there were a lot of Jewish gangsters I learned about from my dad. He was born in 1919 on the lower east side, and out of that area came a group of mobsters called Murder Incorporated—Bugsy Siegel being one of them--who did a lot of the murders for the Italian mob. My dad knew these guys, and my uncle hung out with these people.
As a kid I thought this was cool. But I'd never seen Jewish gangsters in the movies. In the movies before Bugsy, they were Italian. Of course, I understand why. The last thing the Jewish film moguls who ran Hollywood wanted to do was to present Jewish gangsters.
So Bugsy was the first in a big budget movie.
WM: You've written that you liked the idea of Bugsy, played by Warren Beatty, as this violent but "sexy" Jewish gangster.
Rosenberg: I believe the appeal of violence to men is that there is something sexual about it, something physical and visceral that provides a release.
Violence allows you this justified release into physicality that is contrary to the way I and most other Jewish men were brought up. The Jewish tradition is one of study, of complete control of yourself and your body. Everything is watched. What I put in my mouth has to be kosher. There are rules for every aspect of your life. It's all covered, every minute. I see that as a breeding ground for men, and women, too, to be frustrated and to say, "I'm going to break the rules."
WM: What are the markers in Jewish history for this attraction to violence?
Rosenberg: When I was originally going to write this book, it was going to be almost entirely based on 20th-century references. I saw it starting in the lower east side of New York, where these Jewish men of peace came from Europe and got stuck in the city with all these tough kids. They saw that toughness was part of the American way of life, and that's where it started.
Then I realized that, of course, it started thousands of years before that. It's in the Bible.
WM: You're thinking of King David?
Rosenberg: David--and God Himself. God is the Father. God smites. And how do men learn about being men--they learn from looking at their father. And who is the primary father? God. We look to God as a model, and the God of the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptural God, is a very unpredictable, secretive, loving, but also violent God. And I thought, That's a lot like my dad. You're never quite sure what's going on there.
Of course, there's Cain and Abel. And why does Cain kill Abel? They're fighting over the father's love. Both gave an offering to God, only one is accepted, so God is immediately establishing preferences. Cain made his mark--he got God's attention. He did the worst thing he could do--he killed. And even though he was marked by God, he wasn't killed. But Abel is gone. Right in the first few pages of Genesis there's a murder.
WM: But in Judaism there's also the rabbinic tradition that resists the romantic and violent masculinity of the West. How did that develop?
Rosenberg: That came much later, after the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and there was no longer an entity called Israel.
But let's back up a bit. There are plenty of instances in the Bible where God punishes violence. When violence is started, it's also immediately punished. "Thou shalt not kill" is passed on to Moses directly. So within the tradition of ancient Judaism there is both murder and anti-murder right from the beginning.
The rabbinic tradition picks up on the nonviolent part of that, and from the beginning of the rabbinical period in 70 A.D. to at least the development of the state of Israel, you have a rejection of violence. You will not kill. The Talmud describes very few situations in which you are permitted to kill another human being. If someone is in the act of killing someone else, you are within your Judaic rights to kill that person first. But if someone is about to kill you, you're still not supposed to kill that person. There's no capital punishment.
WM: You hold to the rabbinic tradition?
Rosenberg: I do believe it. [Note: Rosenberg was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.] I'm very strongly against violence. But I'm still attracted to it. That seems to be the problem for many of us.
WM: Didn't Daniel Boyarin's Unheroic Conduct, which you cite in your own work, talk about how the rabbinic tradition addresses that problem?
Rosenberg: Boyarin believes the rabbis saw their development of this nonviolent tradition as a countertradition to the Western, masculine, romanticized views of violence such as the medieval idea of knighthood, where it's okay to kill if it's for the highest reasons--a beautiful woman or for Christianity. It's not only good, but it's your obligation to get on your horse and go down there to make Jerusalem safe for Christianity. That tradition greatly affected Jews because as the Crusaders were heading for Jerusalem, they saw the Jews as just another pack of infidels that needed to be destroyed.
So the rabbinic tradition develops a countertradition--that killing is wrong. Ironically, the same view is held by Christianity. Jesus was a rabbi who strongly rejected that strain of Judaism that seemed to permit or encourage violence.
WM: Ironic, then, that 1,000 years after Jesus' teaching, the Jewish people should have to defend themselves from those claiming to be his followers.
Rosenberg: It's one of the most amazing historical ironies. But it also managed, from the Jews perspective, to put the Jews on a higher moral plane.
WM: But you seem to believe that the hold of this rabbinic tradition on Jewish men is slipping.
Rosenberg: Oh, yes.
WM: What initiates this turning away?
Rosenberg: The development of what I see as a Western masculinity. The Jewish male was in both camps. Being brought up across the world during this period, he is never totally insulated from the prevailing culture. So a Jewish man in the rabbinic tradition is, from the perspective of these cultures, feminized in some way. It's not masculine to talk and study. To talk is what women do. The tradition of study and talk is not how Western male heroes act.
WM: So the movement of Jewish men toward a more Western masculinity is a result of the diaspora.
Rosenberg: It is the cause. That's why Jewish culture is so obsessive about The Book and studying The Book. The Book counteracts the diaspora. If you keep studying the true word of God, the nonviolence, you can avoid the touch of this external culture.
As the diaspora progressed, and as the Enlightenment progressed, a growing number of Jews crossed over, wanted to be assimilated, to be Europeanized. And if you want to be Europeanized, what do you do? You take on the definitions of masculinity that culture professes.
WM: Including violence.
Rosenberg: That's part of it. It's very hard to selectively take on the values of a society.
WM: Who are some of the modern American Jewish writers and filmmakers whose work takes on this Westernized masculinity?
Rosenberg: David Mamet has been one of the strongest of them, though Mamet is now returning to Judaism after not being identified as Jewish. So many of us go through a period where we reject our roots so that we can be assimilated and then realize we need to go back to know who we are.
WM: If Mamet is looking back to his Judaism now, he didn't seem to be looking back to the rabbinic tradition and non-violence in movies like The Untouchables.
Rosenberg: In The Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, he's looking at American culture as an American male, not as a Jewish male.
I see Ness [in The Untouchables] as Mamet's projection of the good Jewish boy. An incredible goody-goody, he absurdly orders a room full of Chicago cops not to take a drink, even in private, because they must remain "pure." But as he soon learns, the pure cannot win in the real world. The rest of the film depicts Ness's growing commitment to violence. Just like Charlie Sheen's character in Platoon, he goes over the line and kills as evidence that he has lost his innocence; he has become a man.
WM: One truly Talmudic response to violence that you mention in your book is the Jewish legend of the Golem. You also suggest, I believe, that it may offer a way of transcending the attraction to violence. How so?
Rosenberg: [In the Middle Ages, the rumor] was started that the Jews would actually kill Christian babies to use their blood in their passover rituals. It was used as an excuse to start pogroms. To protect themselves from this blood libel, Jewish writers developed the legend of this man of clay who would physically protect them from the pogroms.
Violence was not supposed to be part of their tradition, so how do they protect themselves? They imagined this man of clay. In the story, they created him with God's help. And then, as the legend goes, it got out of control, as violence always does.
It's much like the Superman fantasy, which was developed by two Jewish men. In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster came up with Superman, the first comic book. It's so clear why two Jewish boys in Cleveland, hearing about Hitler and his persecution of the Jews for the first time would imagine a Superman--something that would counter the Aryan super-man. He comes from a far off place, wears glasses and is mild-mannered during the day, just like a good Jewish boy, but underneath he's a man of steel.
I see Superman as a play on the Golem legend--this fantasy that we really can stand up for ourselves, that we really can fight and win. And that's what the appeal of the Golem is--this protection that also allows you to remain who you are and let the Golem do the fighting for you.
WM: But how does this transcend an attraction to violence?
Rosenberg: The rabbi who creates the Golem realizes that he's connected to it in some way. The Golem is only a projection of the rabbi's inner humanity that wants to fight, even kill, to protect itself. But the spiritual side of the rabbi knows that that is wrong and knows he can't indulge in that.
There's tradition behind you--this ritual is in The Torah. But there's always some ambivalence in the process. Should the rabbi really be doing this? Does God want us to be so nonviolent that we just give ourselves over to our attackers? Or does God want us to defend ourselves?
That's one of the reasons the Holocaust was so problematic and why a lot of the Jews did die. There was an internal resistance to fighting back. That's why it took three years in the Warsaw ghetto for them to develop the willingness to fight back, at which time the Nazis had one hell of a time trying to clear that place out.
WM: But isn't that initial resistance to fight back heroic.
Rosenberg: It is. That's the martyr side that says "I'm not going to fall down to their level." But there's the other side that comes from the Old Testament and the "David" image of the Jewish male. That says: "No, we're not going to lie down in front of the Phillistines or we lose our identity. God said 'You are the chosen people.' How do you prove that? You create an army and you wipe out these other people.
Now, God says, 'I'll help you, and don't think for a minute it's all your fighting.' It can't be personal. It has to be God-sanctioned.
WM: And there's often a price to be paid for the violence. There is retribution in the end for those who cross that line. Elliot Ness may beat Capone, but he doesn't walk away clean from his decision to use violence to bring him down.
Rosenberg: No. But in many of the movies we see in American culture today, there is no price to be paid.
WM: Do your students talk about these topics with you?
Rosenberg: This struggle that I talk about in my book is a problem that a lot of men share but won't talk about. The more in touch I am with my own struggle over violence, the more students respond to that, and I've had a number of students come to me who have issues about violence and just want to talk about it. Other students don't want to talk about it. They see that talking about it is going to somehow undercut their ability to be violent.
WM: To lose the edge they need to make it in the world?
Rosenberg: Exactly. That's part of the whole package at Wabash. We're going to go out and be competitive and win, whatever it takes. Now I'm a very competitive person. I like boxing and football. But I worry about where this competitiveness will ultimately take us. That's really at the core of this. It's not labeling a certain activity as bad or good. It's saying that we are always negotiating the limits.
WM: And your book is suggesting that some of the products of our culture are pushing way past those limits.
Rosenberg: Yes. I don't want to get into blaming, to say that we, as Jews, are all at fault here, because we're not. But because we are such strong cultural figures, in areas such as the creative arts, we do play a role in articulating those limits and pushing them a little further than they ought to be.
WM: What have Jewish people who've seen your manuscript said about it?
Rosenberg: There's a sense from them that I need to be careful, because there's the potential for betrayal. There's going to be some resistance to this book in some Jewish circles. Paul Breines' book Tough Jews was seen in certain Jewish circles as a betrayal.
I'm very concerned that this not be seen as adding one more piece to the attacks on Jews, because it is not.
WM: What will you say to those who do see it as such an attack? How do you hope the Jewish community will see this book?
Rosenberg: I hope they see my purpose as the same as Breines'--to expose and illustrate an important but often-denied strain of violence in Jewish culture. Only by facing the pervasiveness of this theme (and behavior--because it isn't all symbolic) can we hope to move beyond it.
Obviously my influence, and that of any academic, is limited. But when someone like Steven Spielberg comments, as he did in a recent interview, that he made Saving Private Ryan with the kind of ultra-realistic violence he did to work against his own life-long tendency to romanticize it (e.g. the Indiana Jones movies), we are seeing some of our cultural trend-setters becoming self-conscious about this issue, and that can make a real difference.