What Would the Chofetz Chaim Say?


By the early 90s, Philip Roth had been shocking readers for decades with his depictions of Jewish-Americans. Among his more controversial efforts were Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award in 1960, and, most famously, Portnoy's Complaint, which provoked widespread outrage for its explicit scenes of masturbation. For these and other works, Roth had been called an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew, and worse. So perhaps one can see the 1993 publication of Operation Shylock, Roth's novel that prominently features the idea of loshon hora—the prohibition against making derogatory remarks, better known as slander—as an inevitable product of the same mind that created, and suffered for, the many provocative works that came before it.

Operation Shylock unfolds in Jerusalem, where the main character, Philip Roth, is dispatched to interview fellow novelist Aharon Appelfeld. Complicating his assignment is that he is being impersonated by a man advancing Diasporism, an anti-Zionist movement that advocates the resettlement of Jews to Europe from Israel. The impersonator—who calls himself Philip Roth but whom the real Roth refers to as Moishe Pipik—haunts Roth in mind and deed. Harangues, desperate letters, and bizarre confrontations ensue, while in the background the trial of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-born, naturalized U.S. citizen accused of operating the gas chamber at Treblinka, growls on.

What heightens the theme of loshon hora in Operation Shylock is that many of the events in the book took place. The trial of Demjanjuk is absolutely real, and in places Roth reports its proceedings verbatim. Two chapters feature the Roth interviewing Appelfeld, dialogue that is excerpted from a formal interview published in the New York Times in 1988. Even more perplexing is that Roth claimed that the book is, essentially, nonfiction. "Look, let me tell you something that a lot of people have trouble believing. This happened," he told the New York Times in 1993. "When I wrote Portnoy's Complaint, everybody was sure it was me, but I told them it wasn't.... And now when I tell the truth, they all insist that I made it up."

The layers of loshon hora in Operation Shylock are multitudinous, as complex and interwoven as the plot itself. They begin with the impersonator, who pretends to be the writer Philip Roth and, under those auspices, grants interviews to Israeli newspapers about Diasporism. Although Roth's wife, Claire, warns him not to get involved (fortunately for the sake of the plot, she travels to Kenya and never returns), Roth quickly becomes enmeshed in the scandal. He phones his impersonator and pretends to be a journalist ("You are a Jew," he tells him, "who in the past has been criticized by Jewish groups for your 'self-hatred' and your 'anti-Semitism'"). But Roth's tongue-in-cheek attitude soon gives way to an almost total suspension of his own identity—a fine example of how a person can be entirely consumed by gossip.

Roth's indulgence in loshon hora—and by extension, his loss of self—occur by increments. First he accepts a donation from a man named Smilesburger for the Diasporist movement: "There was more than enough time to stop him and direct his contribution to the legitimate recipient," writes Roth, "but instead I allowed him to hand it to me." After Smilesburger departs, Roth opens the envelope and finds a check for a million dollars. Soon Roth is actively pretending to be his impostor, espousing his ideas about Diasporism. In so doing, he subjects a host of other characters to his identity play, including George Ziad, an old friend who lives in the West Bank; a young Israeli army lieutenant who "that very afternoon had read the whole of The Ghost Writer"; and finally even Jinx Possesski, the impostor's girlfriend.

Only when Roth's cousin Apter is harmed does Roth pause to acknowledge the harm wrought by so much talk. Roth's impersonator has invited Apter—a Holocaust survivor and Jerusalem resident who, terrified of Arab violence, refuses to leave his home—to move into his (Roth's) home in Connecticut. When Roth finds out, he is enraged. "Did you really do this to him?" Roth thinks. "Did you really excite in this banished being who can barely maintain his equilibrium the beautiful vision of an American Gan Eden where he will be saved from the blight and din of the past?... Is there nothing that you will not pollute with your mouth?" This instance of real, personal harm exerted on an innocent bystander supersedes all of the public lies and machinations that have come before. Roth concludes, "I imagined myself ripping the tongue out of Pipik's mouth with my own two hands." But Roth's outrage is not sufficient to stop the engine of slander; characters and institutions continue to be felled by it.

It is left to Smilesburger, the writer of the million-dollar check (who turns out to be a Mossad agent) to call loshon hora by its proper name, which he does in a speech to Roth about the origins and parameters of the sin. But what Smilesburger really wants is for Roth to join an operation aimed at discovering whether Jews funnel money to the PLO, and if so, who they are. Although Smilesburger's lesson on loshon hora reveals a breadth of Jewish knowledge—he cites the Chofetz Chaim and the Vilna Gaon by heart—he undoes his argument with a single, incontrovertible statement: "What is the worst loshon hora compared to putting Jewish money in the pockets of Arab terrorists who machine-gun our youngsters while they play on the beaches?" In other words, in some cases—this being one of them—deed is worse than talk.

Ultimately, and in spite of all the bad brought about by loshon hora, Roth cooperates with Smilesburger. Of course, readers never see the operation unfold; the events take place entirely off camera. Roth had written about it, he tells us, but Smilesburger urged him to delete the chapter describing those events, out of consideration for the protection of others. At the novel's close, one is left to reflect that Roth is finally following the Chofetz Chaim, who proclaimed that "'the world rests on those who silence themselves during an argument'" and prayed "'that I should say nothing that is unnecessary and that all my speech should be for the sake of Heaven.'" But true to Roth's style, he's complying in a way that scrambles the reader's expectations and with that coyness intrinsic to so much of his art.