kosher bookworm

Herman Wouk: A great American, a great Jew


When I was growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, one of the greatest American literary figures was Herman Wouk. His reputation was great because of the books he wrote, which are cited in the guest essay below. However, the novelty of his legacy for “our crowd” was that of his religious commitment to our shared religious faith.

We all cherished his frequent visits to Rav Moshe Feinstein, both at his home on 455 FDR Drive and at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on East Broadway, to learn with Rav Moshe. His visits were a legacy that will forever be cherished by this writer and my contemporaries who, whenever we get together, recall those eventful days.

Wouk’s recent passing has brought back these recollections. Among them, and one of the best, is one written by Rabbi Harry Maryles of Chicago. His take on Wouk surely deserves your attention. Sit back, read and learn a most cherished history of our people.

By Harry Maryles

Marjorie Morningstar, The Caine Mutiny, Youngblood Hawke, Winds of War, War and Remembrance … What do these titles have in common? They were all major motion pictures or major television mini-series. They were based on novels written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Herman Wouk, who passed away in May at the age of 103.

I first discovered this author as a young teenager through a lesser known work entitled This is My G-d (published in 1959). It was a bestseller (Number 2 on the New York Times Bestseller List) despite its subject matter: a defense of Orthodox Judaism.  Apparently a lot of non-Jews read that book!

In what is perhaps the best column ever written by Eytan Kobre in Mishpacha Magazine, he describes some details about Professor Wouk about which I had no idea. I knew he was a professor at Yeshiva University. That is because back in the 1980s, when Rav Hershel Schachter was a scholar in residence at my alma mater, HTC, he quoted his professor, Herman Wouk, at the concluding event — a Melave Malka that I chaired. But I had no idea that Professor Wouk also attended shiurim by Rav Moshe Feinstein in Tifereth Jerusalem and became pretty close with him.

Kobre quoted HTC’s current dean, Rabbi Zev Eleff, whose 2018 monograph about Wouk demonstrates that one cannot overstate the significance of This Is My G-d. It was a “watershed moment for Orthodox Jewry in the United States,” which until that time was considered to be a dying relic to be replaced by the then-more vibrant movements of heterodoxy.

Not only were predictions of Orthodoxy’s demise premature, the exact opposite happened. It is heterodoxy that is in the throes of death. Orthodoxy is on the rise! Professor Wouk is in large part responsible for putting Orthodox Jewry on the map.

For the most part, that book was lauded by impartial critics. But not everyone loved it, for reasons which will become evident shortly.

Kobre notes that Wouk’s labeled heterodox rabbis as “dissenters,” “departures,” and “shock absorbers of the enlightenment.” It is therefore unsurprising that the book was panned by their leaders. One prominent Reform leader excoriated Wouk for his “flippant parody of Reform.” 

Professor Wouk was unrelenting. He once said that a typical heterodox sermon was “a digest from the past week’s liberal newspapers and magazines with a few references to the Bible.”

Herman Wouk was living proof of how a Jew could thrive in the modern world without sacrificing his principles.  A Jew could live the American dream, achieve the pinnacle of success and remain completely devout. He was in fact a role model of Torah u’Mada or Torah Im Derech Eretz.

I believe he could best be described as a centrist. He was a man who not only lived those ideals but also made it almost cool to be an observant Jew. He was fearless in his legitimate criticism of Jewish movements that surrendered to the zeitgeist with compromises. Even though I am nowhere close to his level of achievement, I nevertheless believe that we are kindred spirits in that sense.

Professor Wouk’s contributions to authentic Judaism have long ago been all but forgotten. I believe that is largely due to the ascendancy of a right wing that no longer values success in the modern world. 

That mindset was articulated by Beth Medrash Govoha Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Malkiel Kotler in his remarks about the passing of Bernard Lander. Lander created the Touro University System, which caters to those on the right seeking higher education for purposes of providinh for their families. While Rabbi Kotler referred to Dr. Lander as an adam chashuv, he nevertheless called Dr. Lander’s greatest accomplishment, Touro, the antithesis of Torah lishma. I doubt that Herman Wouk would even register as a blip on the radar screen of any right-wing rosh yeshiva today. Most probably do not even know who he was.

I therefore give credit to Eytan Kobre for giving Wouk a proper eulogy. The sad thing is that now that Professor Wouk is gone, I see no one like him on the horizon.