Page 119 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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of the matrimonial decision becomes known in Vilna, it exacer­
bates Reb David’s already adverse relations with the rabbinic
Over the issue of Merl’s marital status, and through all the
intricacies of Vilna rabbinic politics, the conflict between Reb Levi
Hurvitz and Reb David Zelver unfolds. Although Merl’s case
becomes a topic of public gossip, and even the focus of a confron­
tation between the “common Jews” and the rabbinic authorities,
the social aspect of the situation is actually a side issue, a kind of
popular echo of the central, essentially philosophical, dispute.
The “masses” are fickle, at first siding with Kalman and Merl,
then turning against them, then reversing again, after Merl’s
suicide, to turn against Reb Levi Hurvitz, whom they see as the
murderer of the agunah.
The clash between Reb Levi Hurvitz and Reb David Zelver is
more than a clash of personalities; it is an opposition of two
diametrically opposed systems of belief and modes of behavior.
The two rabbis are set up as parallels in terms of their reputations
and family situations, and this juxtaposition underscores the
ideological difference that is the core of the dispute, and of the
conflict of the novel as a whole. Reb Levi Hurvitz sees the Torah
and its laws as a rigid system that allows for no exceptions; the
letter of the law is, for him, the unchangeable absolute. Any
exception to this system, according to his view, would undermine
the whole, and lead to the backsliding of the Jewish community
and to the erosion of rabbinical power. Reb David Zelver, on the
other hand, understands the same Torah tradition as a system
that is flexible enough to bend in order to embrace even periph­
eral adherents, and permit compassionate exceptions to be made
in order to ease the sufferings of starving children or a lonely
woman. There can be no dialogue, no real communication, even
in the form of a debate, because there is no common ground
between these two ideological positions.
It would seem that Reb David Zelver has the final victory. The
merciful interpretation and its proponent has proven to be the
stronger of the two. But as in
The Well,
the final juxtaposition of
the competing figures reveals no clear resolution. The two
philosophies remain autonomous and distinct, with no synthesis
or compromise. While the actions of Reb David Zelver are ulti­
mately vindicated, and the philosophical position of Reb Levi
Hurvitz is undercut by his resignation which seems to be an