September 1, 2010
Hersh: If I knew God, I’d be God.
Chaim: If I knew God, I’d put Him on trial.
This key snippet of dialogue from the 1991 movie “The Quarrel” goes to the heart of some of the most important issues facing the Jewish people in the post-Holocaust world. Jews have always believed in an all-powerful, just God, yet have been innocent victims of some of the most unimaginable cruelty.
How can this be reconciled? Jewish atheists, believers, agnostics, and theologians have tried to make sense of this—some are quite satisfied with their answers while others, it seems, can never be. Yet the answers to this conundrum are of vital importance, for they determine our view of the world and our reactions to it.
This film, which is based on a play by Joseph Telushkin which, in turn, is based on a short story by Chaim Grade, does a great job putting this theological argument into concrete terms, as it introduces us to two deeply passionate characters, both of whom are survivors of the Holocaust.
When we first meet Chaim (R. H. Thomson), he is struggling to eat his breakfast of bacon and eggs. He is clearly a tortured soul; though it is three years since the Holocaust, he has not been able to find much peace in his new life on a new continent. It’s Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year, but he has no intention of going to synagogue. But neither can he find solace in the bacon.
That afternoon in the park, whether by pure chance or by divine guidance, he runs into his old friend Hersh (Saul Rubinek), whom he hadn’t seen in well over a decade. Each had thought the other had perished. When the two first see each other again, it’s a powerfully emotional moment.
There’s quite a backstory here. They had grown up together and were best friends in the yeshiva; Hersh was the Rebbe’s son and Chaim was his prize pupil. But the more Chaim questioned, the more he came to reject traditional Judaism and eventually left the yeshiva in a major uproar which tore apart their friendship.
Though they never saw each other again until this day, they frequently thought of each other. Each managed to beat the odds and survive the Holocaust. Chaim rejected God and became a writer; Hersh’s commitment to Judaism deepened and he founded a new yeshiva.
Over the course of the afternoon, the two renew their friendship but then quickly slip back into their old ways, arguing with, and at, each other. But this time the issues are monumental. Chaim blames God for abandoning the Jewish people and allowing the Holocaust while Hersh tries to defend God’s ways as mysterious.
He suggests the possibility that it may be the fault of the Jews for abandoning the sacred laws. Chaim bitterly retorts, “Since when was the punishment for assimilation death by gas?”
Their debates lead them to the question of where morality comes from. Hersh argues that it’s faith in God and that following rational logic can lead to bad ends. Chaim, on the other hand, puts his faith in humanity and our innate love for one another. It seems a bit odd coming from what he experienced, but is it no more odd than Hersh’s faith, given what he witnessed?
The two friends also spend much of the afternoon discussing their past and telling each other some of the things they experienced. One of the most touching stories is one that Hersh shares about his father and their inability to reconcile their differences before he was murdered. They also keep going back to the painful incident when they parted.
Although they ultimately rejected the other’s point-of-view and never spoke again until this meeting, their relationship obviously continued to have a profound effect on their identity as they faced the horrors of the Holocaust. Neither could shake the memory of the other, even if they wanted to.
Though their subsequent experiences deepened their divide, they continued to have a profound respect for each other and could not walk away from each other—even though they try several times during their quarrel.
Three times during their talk, they are interrupted by other characters who come between them. The first is a woman whom Chaim had slept with the night before. This offends Hersh’s sensibilities a bit. The second is a novice writer who admires Chaim; he showers him with praise while completely ignoring Hersh.
The third, and harshest of these encounters, comes from one of Hersh’s students. When the student realizes who Chaim is, he rips into him for abandoning God and spewing secular poison upon the earth. Hersh is embarrassed by his student’s remarks while Chaim shouts, “Go torture someone else!”
Chaim is deeply wounded—not because anything the student said is accurate, but rather because he realizes what Hersh has been telling his students about him.
The film is engaging, passionate, and deeply involved with what may be one of the most important Jewish issues of all time. But it does have some technical flaws. The pacing is a bit uneven. Sometimes the characters seem to lose their humanity and revert to mere mouthpieces for theological opinions (fortunately this doesn’t happen too often or for too long).
In some close-up shots of Hersh, his beard looks fake. And I’m also rather disappointed in the poor quality of the print on the DVD—it appears to be a copy of a second or third generation video. But because of the vital nature of the film, I can overlook these flaws.
A year-and-a-half ago, I presented “The Quarrel” at my synagogue as part of our Jewish Film Series. At the end of the discussion I asked the audience which character they thought won the debate; quite frankly I was surprised by the answers I got.
While I had been convinced that the character with whom I sided won the argument, it turns out everyone thought as much—those who sympathized with Hersh thought he won, while those who took Chaim’s side felt he won. How interesting!
So on second thought, looking back, I now realize that both characters and their viewpoints are presented fairly and equally. Both have their moments of triumphs and both have their flaws. Few works of fiction, in my view, are as fair to such radically opposing ideas as is “The Quarrel.”
At one point, during their afternoon together, Hersh and Chaim are briefly lost in the park and they find two paths. They argue which one will get them back; they each take a different path. But guess what. Both paths lead to the same place.
Perhaps all paths do.
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