Page 118 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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welcomes the beggar, and answers his rival by picking up the tune
of rejoicing in the Torah. Although Muraviov responds by sing­
ing the refrain celebrating the renewal of the well, he is suspicious
of Mende’s motives; but the porter is convinced that the two
celebrations have joined. The tension is thus brought to a high
point — but left largely unresolved, since it is only in the credu­
lous Mende’s perception that any synthesis has taken place.
Neither is there a pretense of any permanent smoothing over of
all the other, individual conflicts. In typical Grade fashion, the
brief, temporary syntheses serve mainly to highlight the plethora
of oppositions.
While Mende the porter is a figure who promotes harmony and
cooperation (at least for a short time) among the characters of
, the heroine of
The Agunah,
Merl the seamstress, is the focus
of division and controversy. The rabbinic authories and the Jew­
ish communities of Vilna split over the issue of whether Merl, a
grass widow whose husband has been missing for more than
fifteen years, should be permitted to remarry under Jewish law.
As a result, Merl is driven to wed a man for whom she hardly
cares. The couple and the Rabbi who grants them permission to
marry become social outcasts, and Merl finally commits suicide.
But the dispute rages on, even after her death, for it has become
the focus for a confrontation between the people and the rabbinic
authorities, and more importantly, for a clash between two oppos­
ing philosophies of the interpretation of traditional Jewish law,
which represent, ultimately, two radically opposed outlooks on
Merl is a simple but stubborn woman, who is content to remain
a grass widow until she is egged on by her sisters to take a second
husband. She meets the meek, pious Kalman, a cemetery cantor
and house painter, who decides that he wants to marry her.
Seeking permission for Merl to remarry, Kalman goes to Reb Levi
Hurvitz, the Vilna rabbi in charge of agunahs — grass widows.
Reb Levi Hurvitz is known for his harshness and strict interpreta­
tions; he refuses to grant the permission. Because of her own
stubbornness, Merl herself goes for a second opinion to Reb
David Zelver, the religious leader of her neighborhood of
Zaretche, who is known for his lenient attitude. When the reversal