In “Defender of the Faith,” author Philip Roth explores the role of deliverance as it relates to Jewish Americans living during World War II. Born the second-generation son of Jewish immigrants, Roth spent his early years watching his father battle anti-Semitic prejudice in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey (Roth, 18). These early experiences served as inspiration for several semi-autobiographical works of fiction, including “Defender of the Faith.” This short story focuses on the conflict of holding on to cultural practices while still defining oneself as an individual separate from that culture. “Defender of the Faith” is steeped in moral qualms related to opposing views of redemption as something one should obtain through direct action, or as an end that can only be achieved when its reward is not the primary goal. After flitting between the two perspectives throughout the course of the story, the reader concludes that the active pursuit of redemption is rooted in selfishness, even if it initially appears to benefit others.
The varying interpretations of redemption in “Defender of the Faith” are expressed through the interactions of decorated war hero Sergeant Nathan Marx and rebellious soldier Sheldon Grossbart. Both men are of Jewish ancestry, but their respective involvement in the religious community differs greatly. Marx experienced a traditional Jewish upbringing, as is evidenced by his understanding surrounding Passover dinner and other important traditions. However, Marx’s failure to attend Friday night shul and his willingness to flout dietary restrictions reveal a clear lapse into secularism. In contrast, Grossbart initially appears to cling to his cultural heritage, claiming to take comfort in the religious services that “give one a sense of his Jewishness.” (Roth, 8) He plays up his Jewish faith in a forged letter from his father, which states that Grossbart is “a very religious boy,” willing to “suffer the pangs of religious remorse for the good of his country and all mankind” (Roth, 15) He further exaggerates his religious devotion by appealing to Marx’s sympathy through stories of his friends’ tribulations. For example, Grossbart plays the concerned friend by informing Sergeant Marx he and his kosher friends throw up each time they eat the military’s meat hash. Upon securing special meal accommodations, Grossbart admits to “eat[ing] like a hound at chow.” (Roth, 14) This is just one of many ruses that demonstrate just how hollow Grossbart’s “Jewish” faith really is. He justifies this deceit by pointing to the benefits provided for his Jewish peers (such as eating dinner without vomiting) and reasoning that the Jews will only avoid persecution by refusing to “let themselves get pushed around.” (Roth, 8)
No matter how persuasive Grossbart’s claims, his goal is not to help the “suffering” Jewish soldiers . Fishbein and Halpern often come out ahead, but that is just an added benefit. Grossbart’s less than honorable impetus is suggested through his constant use of dishonesty and manipulation, it is made clear in the end of the story, when he declares he “owe[s] nobody nothing,” that he has “the right to watch out for himself.” (Roth, 26) With this statement, he admits that his calculated actions are motivated solely by the possibility of personal profit. And Grossbart certainly profits from his behavior, at least in the short-term. He manages to get out of cleaning the barracks without the “other guys in the barracks” thinking he’s “goofing off” (even though the majority of the “service” consists of partaking in chit-chat and refreshments). Other achievements include obtaining multiple passes off the base and avoiding shipment overseas.
Others might experience guilt or remorse following such selfish behavior, but Grossbart encounters no such feelings. His actions are justified, because he feels persecuted, by his Sergeant, by the “goyish” soldiers and by society as a whole. It’s okay to lie and manipulate others and abscond from any responsibility, because “it’s a hard thing to be a Jew,” (Roth, 19) Insubordination is perfectly acceptable in light of his perceived daily struggles, and special treatment seems fair recompense for the persecution suffered at the hands of non-Jews and “ashamed” secular Jews alike.
In “Defender of the Faith” Grossbart further eliminates any existing feelings of guilt by playing the part of a “regular Messiah.” (Roth, 15) The soldier pursues “justice” for the Jewish soldiers by allowing them to share in his personal spoils, such as custom menus and passes off the base. As the self-ascribed “defender of the faith,” Grossbart plays up his religious fervor to more effectively advocate for the “suffering” Jewish soldiers who are singled out to miss barracks cleaning and forced to eat “foods unclean and offensive to the palate.” (Roth, 7) This advocate role allows Grossbart to mask the selfish desire for special treatment that drives his behavior. By projecting his own wishes on fellow Jewish soldiers and manipulating his superiors, Grossbart forces society to pay its debt for the many transgressions against Jewish soldiers in American, and those being slaughtered abroad. Marx finds this attitude frustrating, for he feels that one should be awarded or penalized based on his or her own actions, not as a reaction to society’s mistreatment. Grossbart’s and Marx’s contrasting ideas surrounding redemption fuel their ongoing conflicts throughout the story, and ultimately, determine their respective fates. Marx’s brand of redemption ultimately triumphs, as Grossbart’s dishonest behavior is rewarded with shipment to the Pacific.
In many ways, Grossbart’s definitions of morality and justice reflect those of the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Like Grossbart, the Misfit feels he “ain’t been treated right” (O’Connor, 14) and has suffered unjust punishment for crimes he didn’t commit. Following his experiences in the penitentiary, the Misfit draws the same conclusion as Grossbart: his sufferings entitle him to “enjoy the few minutes” available. Of course, Grossbart and the Misfit hold vastly different ideas of what is enjoyable. Grossbart finds satisfaction in humiliating his superiors and simultaneously escaping from his responsibilities as a soldier. The Misfit, on the other hand, only sees pleasure in “killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.” (O’Connor, 15) Still, even if they find enjoyment in different crimes, they share an identical justification of criminal behavior as deserved redemption. But both stories demonstrate that such a definition of redemption is untrustworthy. In Grossbart’s case, it results in a tour of duty in the Pacific, and for the Misfit, it ultimately leads to a lonely life, devoid of pleasure. In this way, both stories highlight true redemption as the unintended consequence of altruism, with no expectation of personal reward.
Roth, Philip. “Defender of the Faith.” The Art of the Short Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.