Friday, July 28, 2017

The Day the Rabbi Resigned by Harry Kemelman

The Brass Quintet No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 5, Allegro Moderato by the Russian composer Victor Ewald is playing.  A jaunty little tune to see you through this review.

The Day the Rabbi ResignedThe Day the Rabbi Resigned by Harry Kemelman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is one of a series by Harry Kemelman, most of which are titled by a day of the week, e.g. Monday the Rabbi Took Off; Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red; Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet et al.. eventually he ran out of days and simply title his books "The Day the Rabbi" or "That Day" or "Some Day".

The Rabbi is David Small the leader/teacher of a Conservative Synogogue and he is a part time sleuth or perhaps more accurately, an extremely intelligent man who is able to put clues together quicker than his good friend Police Chief Lanigan, an Irish Catholic.

The books are a little like a Soap Opera, the positive aspects of Soap Operas, that is to look at ordinary people's lives inside their families and at work and watch as they struggle through the normal conflict/ resolution that all families experience.

Each book also contains a mild mystery but the main thrust of Kemelman's writing is to present life in a synogogue, the congregation that populates it and their surrounding environment and interaction with people of other ethnic backgrounds, primarily Catholic, since the stories take place in certain Boston neighborhoods where the demographics are primarily made up of these two people groups.

I belong to neither people group and I find Kemelman's observations very interesting. Kemelman uses the one people group, Catholics, to highlight the beliefs of the other people group, Jews. He does this through conversations between people from both backgrounds, which at times can border on lecturing. However, it is informative.

He also uses the members of Small's synagogue to clarify the purpose of worship. Or rather that observing the Sabbath is not about worship. What is it about? He answers that question through his stories.

In Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet, a group of men in the synagogue want to buy a retreat in the country in order to have prayer services. And by prayer services, it is meant where each person prays to God according to how they feel led, not memorized prayers or in any kind of traditional sense.

Rabbi Small lets them know that their congregation does not engage in prayer services in the manner of Protestant or Catholics. That is not the point of the congregation and if they persist in this endeavor he will resign.

In The Day The Rabbi Resigned, again Rabbi Small makes it clear that the purpose of synagogue is not to worship God or study the Torah. He was not called by God to his vocation. He is there to study the Talmud and to share his research with his congregation. Again, for what purpose?

To better understand Jewish tradition in order to preserve their heritage. Every rule, tradition, from observing the Sabbath to wearing yarmulkes is about expressing one's Jewish identity. According to Rabbi Small, God is unknowable and it is not the goal of the synagogue to develop any kind of relationship with Him.

Whether this is the general consensus of all Jews or their Rabbis, I have no idea. It is certainly a foreign concept to me. As a Christian my whole belief system is centered around knowing and experiencing God, which we believe is only attained through Jesus Christ redeeming our sins, because otherwise our sins would obstruct that relationship.

Every Rabbi book will in some way develop these basic concepts as expressed through Rabbi Small with, as I said, other Jews and Catholics used as foils to allow the Rabbi to expound.

He even has an atheist Jew, a relative of Small, explain how he practices being an observant, Conservative Jew without believing in God. The atheist in The Day the Rabbi Resigned is a professor at the University of Chicago and is asked to reconcile this seeming dichotomy.

The professor, going into lecture mode explains that Moses made up all the rules himself because he sensibly saw that boundaries are needed for a society to function and flourish. Because he knew he would die, he made up the concept of God so the Jews would continue to follow his rules after he was gone.

Well, that's one way to completely misread the Bible. There are so many ways to refute that but this is a book review not a theological debate. It does remind me of Jeremiah where God tells him that His people have circumcised bodies but uncircumcised hearts (Jeremiah 9:25,26)

As far as the precise plot of this book, several interesting plots circle around each other and, as I mentioned, the actual mystery is rather peripheral.

Donald Macomber, the president of Windermere Christian College wants to get rid of the "Christian" in his college's name. Using his normal strategy for conveying messages, Kemelman informs us of the plot premise through a conversation between Macomber and his friend Mark Levine. Levine, naturally is Jewish. We are not informed of Macomber's beliefs, other than that he is committed to increasing student enrollment.

Macomber asserts that the college was never Christian and the nomenclature was conceived through a desire to make the college seem "morally upright". When the college first started this was desirable to increase enrollment. Now the opposite is true. Macomber feels it is stifling enrollment, perhaps this is Kemelman's observation of modern culture and its shifting values.

The problem is that one of the board members, Cryus Merton, is a "fanatical Catholic" and is influential enough to veto the motion to change the name.

We get to know Merton, who is a faithfully observant Catholic but, if I may say so, another "uncircumcised heart". It turns out that Merton finds keeping "Christian" in the college's name is good for business because his good friend, Father Joseph, sends clients his way and he doesn't want to sabotage that in any way.

Merton also has a niece, a shy, plain, sheltered thing that has just graduated from a Convent school. He sees that a Catholic professor, Victor Joyce, is up for tenure. He thinks that if Joyce got tenure, he would help him influence Macomber. He decides that Joyce should marry his niece in order to produce such a result.

Joyce, desperately wants tenure, he understands that Merton would make sure he got tenure if he marries the niece. Whatever. No problem. It's not like Joyce has to be faithful or anything, which he's not.

The mystery, which takes place after a hundred pages, is when Joyce is killed in a car wreck. He was intoxicated, soaked in fact, after coming from a college dinner. But upon investigation it looks like the wreck did not kill him. If not, who did?

That is what Chief Lanigan is determined to find out and, with the help of Rabbi Small, he does. Or rather Small does and Lanigan is grateful.

One final thought. In a 1973 article in People's magazine, Kemelman said that friends of his who were Rabbis wondered if he was basing his Rabbi on them. Kemelman said no, that if he knew a Rabbi Small he wouldn't like him because he "tended to be cold and stuffy."

View all my reviews

Question:  All books reflect the worldview of the author. What books have your liked that use their story lines as a method to share the authors beliefs? Did you agree or disagree with the author? Does it matter?  Can you enjoy books even though the author's religion (or non-religion) may be diametrically opposed to your own convictions?


  1. i have a copy of the Ewald played by the Empire Brass; i like it... my reading preferences have less to do with belief systems than just good writing skills and interesting information...
    i've read 3 or 4 of the Kemelman books; they're pretty good, i thought... it's always interesting learning new things from an entertaining raconteur...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle! I need to listen to that recording as well.

      I agree with you. Now if someone gets ugly, I don't care to read their work, but I read lots of authors that don't share my beliefs and I still love their work.

  2. Great commentary and thought provoking questions Sharon.

    My family came from a mixed Catholic - Jewish neighborhood so I can relate to some of that part of the book.

    As I think you know I love books full of ideas, even of I do not agree with them. That includes religious ideas.

    he Professor's theory on The book of Exodus sounds interesting. However, I agree with you that it does not reflect what the text is actually trying to say.

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Hi Brian. I find these kinds of books interesting as well. I'm neither Catholic nor Jewish but when I lived in New Jersey, the neighborhood I lived in was primarily both. I liked how ethnic it was in the northeast. Down here it's more homogeneous and not quite as interesting.

      Hope you have a good weekend also!

  3. Re: your question. Hands down, my favorite author who uses fiction for her worldview is Flannery O'Connor. I should feature her in some blog posts soon.

    1. Hi R.T. You'll get no complaints from me. I love O'Connor. She's one of the liveliest writers I know.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.