4.23. Thomas Mann, novella ‘The Tables of the Law’ (1943)

In the summer of 1942, the American literary agent Armin L. Robinson invited Thomas Mann (1875-1955) and nine other writers from several countries to cooperate in a film about the Ten Commandments, meant to denounce the systematic violation of the Commandments by Hitler’s regime. Instead of a film, a collection of short stories or novellas was made, under the title The Ten Commandments: Ten Short Novels of Hitler’s War Against the Moral Code. Each novella dealt with one commandment and the collection was provided with an introduction by Hermann Rauschning, a prominent ex-Nazi, who had emigrated to the United States and became famous for his book The Voice of Destruction: Conversations with Hitler (1940). *Later, Rauschning’s book turned out to be largely a compilation of other writers’ conversations with Hitler. According to the historian Ian Kershaw, it is “a work now regarded to have so little authenticity that it is best to disregard it altogether.” (Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris xiv).

Thomas Mann’s novella, which opened the collection, was entitled Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods before Me (Das Gesetz, “The Law,” in the original German) and was later published separately as The Tables of the Law. It is the only contribution which is set in a biblical milieu; the other nine novellas are about the meaning of a commandment in a non-biblical setting. *The nine other authors were, in the order of the book and of the Ten Commandments: 2. Rebecca West, 3. Franz Werfel (also librettist of Kurt Weill, cf. Chapter 4.21), 4. John Erskine, 5. Bruno Frank, 6. Jules Romains, 7. André Maurois, 8. Sigrid Undset, 9. Hendrik Willem Van Loon, and 10. Louis Bromfield. Unlike the title suggests, Mann not only deals with the first commandment, but with the revelation of all Ten Commandments and the history which preceded it; he adds various fictional complications and details, while omitting many details, including all digressions about the miẓvot.

More than the book of Exodus, Mann’s novella is centered on the man Moses, his character and way of thinking, and Mann’s interests as a writer are clearly recognizable in the biblical prophet. For example, God does not give the Ten Commandments on the tablets, but instead Moses has to write them down himself. As the language of the Israelites has never been written and as Moses does not want to use the Egyptian hieroglyphs, he has to invent a Hebrew script himself; it is easy to see the similarity between Moses, who had fled Egypt, and Mann, who had fled Europe and lost his German readership. Another example of a modification of Exodus by Mann’s literary and aesthetic approach is the destruction of the stone tablets; as the literary historian Hannelore Mundt puts it:

When he destroys the first set of commandments by smashing them on the golden calf, he not only does so out of anger and in order to destroy the idol, but because of his high aesthetic standards. Because his letters were not perfect, he erases not only his inferior artistic product but its moral message, the blueprint of Western civilization. Mann rectifies this slip into aestheticism. As the second set of stone tablets satisfies Moses’ artistic standards, he can give his moral lecture based on their content and demonstrate his social responsibility at the end of the narrative. *Mundt, Understanding Thomas Mann 171.

In the same way, the passage in Exodus 19:18-19, in which God’s great shofar appears, is not simply retold by Mann, but instead expanded and given a different character. The passage in the Bible reads as follows:

18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 The blare of the horn grew louder and louder.

Below, Thomas Mann’s adaptation in Chapter 17 of his novella:

The foundations trembled. The earth jolted and vibrated and lurched under their feet so that they could not stay upright, and all three [Moses, Aaron, and Miriam] staggered back and forth in the tent, whose support poles were shaken as if by gigantic fists. The structure did not reel in one direction only, however, but to all sides at once in a terrifyingly intricate and dizzying motion, while at the same time was heard a subterranean roaring and rumbling and, from above and without, a blast as from a blaring trumpet, along with more booming, thundering, and crackling. It is very strange and singularly embarassing if you are just about to erupt in anger when the Lord takes the words out of your mouth and erupts Himself—much more powerfully than you could have done—shaking the world, while you could only have shaken your fists. *Mann, The Tables of the Law 85-6. In the German original, Chapter 17 is Chapter 15.

First, a translation issue. In Mann’s original German text, “ein Schall wie von einer sehr starken Posaune” is heard. The above quoted new translation by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann (2010) translates this as: “a blast as from a blaring trumpet” and omits the adjective stark (“strong”), which distinguishes God’s “great” shofar, sounding in the theophany and at the end of days, from ordinary shofarot, blown by man. George Marek, the first translator of The Ten Commandments (1943) translates the phrase as “like the blare of a great trumpet” *The Ten Commandments 37 and is more accurate at this point.

Second, an issue of style. Whereas Mann describes God’s impressive shofar simply as eine sehr starke Posaune, he qualifies the earthquake acoustically as Brüllen (“roaring”), Poltern (“rumbling”), Dröhnen (“booming”), Donnern (“thundering”), and Prasseln (“crackling”). This is not only disappointing from an author with so much affinity with music, but it also compares unfavorably with his other renditions of acoustic phenomena in The Tables of the Law. Moses, inventing a script for the Hebrew speech sounds, “tried out on the rocky wall the signs for the babbling, banging, and bursting, the popping and hopping, slurring and purring sounds, and when he had artfully assembled the distinctive signs together—lo and behold, you could write the whole world with them[.]” *The tables of the Law 96. The music around the golden calf is “a muted, squealing noise” with “whooping and banging of drums . . . the crash of cymbals and the beat of timbrels . . . shrieking, baying.” *Ibid. 100-2.

One reason for his meager description of the shofar sound might be Mann’s aestheticizing approach of Hebrew culture, which was already apparent in his description of the aesthetically inadequate stone tables. Furthermore, many educated classical music lovers in Mann’s lifetime were still far from having the typically modern feeling for primitive instruments, as is evident in Abel Herzberg’s story De geschiedenis van mijn sjofar (“The History of My Shofar”): “To modern ears, especially if they are spoiled by the harmony of Western classical music, the sound of the shofar is hardly bearable. One wonders where the deep respect, or even fear comes from, with which so many generations have heard the tekiʿah, shevarim, and teruʿah.” *Herzberg, De geschiedenis van mijn sjofar 261. Chapter 4.39. Quotation translated from the Dutch by KvH.

Moses’ conversation with God about the commandments, which in Exodus includes no fewer than 13 chapters (19-31) and is repeated in Deut. 6-26, is absent in The Tables of the Law. God speaks in 29 of the 40 chapters of Exodus, and in Deut. 4:12, 4:15-16, 4:33, 4:36, 5:4 and 5:19 He speaks with a voice from the fire; in Mann’s novella, however, He speaks only once, and moreover not at Mount Sinai but in a human body, as a kind of ventriloquist: “From within Moses’ breast, God loudly ordered him to carve out two tablets of the mountain and to write His dictates there.” *The Tables of the Law 92. In his description of the theophany, Mann writes an ironic aside, in which he compares the quaking of Mount Sinai with the rising rage of a man: “It is very strange and singularly embarassing if you are just about to erupt in anger when the Lord . . . erupts Himself.” Here, the God who reveals Himself is reduced to a visitor coming at an awkward moment. The comparison of the Lord, “shaking the world, while you could only have shaken your fists” with a man is not in line with the Bible, nor does the Bible compare the dimensions of a ram’s horn with those of God’s great shofar. Exod. 19:18 compares Mount Sinai with a smoking furnace, not because that was the biggest fire that man knew, but because an oven is meant to melt ore or to bake pots, in short, to turn raw material into something useful. And in a metaphorical sense, this is God’s purpose with the people of Israel.

The shofar blast on Mount Sinai is directed to three different addressees: that of Exodus to the Jews and the Christians; that of The Tables of the Law to the readers of literature, and that of The Ten Commandments to the antifascists. In Exodus, the shofar blast is the supreme moment in the story of the theophany; it is a most powerful authoritative discourse, arousing fear and calling for unconditional obedience. In The Tables of the Law, the shofar blast is no longer the central moment, but only a detail in the elaborate description of the earthquake.

The weakness of the shofar blast might have an underlying cause in Mann’s distance from the element of revelation in religion; not by accident, in his Editor’s Foreword Armin L. Robinson discusses “Thomas Mann’s story of the man who gave the world the Ten Commandments.” *“Editor’s Foreword.” The Ten Commandments v. Here, God withdraws in favour of the man Moses. “It was my artistic intention,” wrote Mann in a letter, “to bring these far and legendary figures close to the modern reader in an intimate, natural and convincing manner.” *The Tables of the Law, Introduction vii-viii. In his novella, the shofar episode suggests a situation with the people concerned standing right in front of the thrilling natural phenomena; in Exodus, however, the painfully achieved confidentiality between God, Moses and the Israelites has a deeper meaning. In Exod. 20:17, Moses says to his people: “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, so that you do not go astray” and “So the people remained at a distance.” God Himself adds in Exod. 20:21: “in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.” In a letter to his son, Mann writes in a straightforward manner: “the realistic-grotesque story, whose subject, of course, is nothing less than the formation of civilized morality . . . greatly amuses me.” *Mann, letter to his son Klaus, March 9, 1943. Letters of Thomas Mann 416. Though the biblical story of the theophany may make a grotesque impression, it is certainly not realistic and even less meant to amuse the reader or hearer. Therefore, The Tables of the Law can be considered a double-voiced discourse with both the deep seriousness of the biblical authors and the ironic distance of the literary author. As the literary historian David Horton puts it, “Mann’s text potentially runs counter to the overtly polemical aim of Robinson’s anthology, by virtue of both its ironic tone and its problematic depiction of Moses and the Israelites.” *Horton, “‘An acceptable job’? The first English translation of Thomas Mann’s Das Gesetz” 156. This certainly applies to the ironic distance in the description of the great shofar on Mount Sinai.

As an artistic and political project, the collection of novellas The Ten Commandments (1943) can be compared to the oratorio The Eternal Road (1936). *Chapter 4.21. Both great projects were initiated by businessmen and realized in spite of great financial and organizational problems. Both Armin L. Robinson and Meyer Weisgal succeeded in bringing together a group of internationally renowned artists in order to raise a protest against the persecution of Jews and the violation of the Ten Commandments by Nazi Germany. In Kurt Weill’s oratorio and Thomas Mann’s novella, the Past of biblical stories is altered by the Present in the form of a protest against the immorality of fascism. However, the differences between the two enterprises stand out: despite their many differences of opinion, the artists of The Eternal Road constituted a collective, whereas the group of authors of The Ten Commandments lacked coherence and, sometimes, even mutual appreciation—it is known that Thomas Mann “was contemptuous of the others’ contributions.” *Faber and Lehmann, “Introduction.” The Tables of the Law ix. With regard to the content, the superaddressee of The Tables of the Law is Thomas Mann’s humanist ideal, whereas the superaddressee of The Eternal Road is God, and perhaps Zionism. In the former work, the shofar sounds at the beginning, in the theophany on Mount Sinai; in the latter, the shofar sounds in the Finale, at the end of days.


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