Thomas Hardy in Judea

Why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot.
Thomas Hardy in Judea
From The Story of Ruth, 1876-7, by Thomas Matthews Rooke.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
May 28 2014 4:11PM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


It’s impossible to describe the sound of good preaching in Hebrew. It’s not like the sonorous English of the King James Version, and it doesn’t have the soaring voice or the roars and whispers of preaching in the Baptist tradition. But in the hands of a master preacher and teacher, the Hebrew language yields colors, textures: the fields of the Bible take on shades of red and gold, and the women in the fields have names.

I once heard such a master, Rachel Keren, teaching the biblical book of Ruth to a group of seminary girls. I was the only man in the room; I can’t now remember why. She spoke about the dangers the widowed Ruth, a Moabite, faced on behalf of Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, when she went in the dead of night to lie in a harvest field in Judea. She was there to try to persuade Boaz, a cousin of Naomi’s late husband, to marry her and impregnate her with an offspring, thereby continuing the family line and incidentally saving both her and her mother-in-law from death by starvation.

So far, so convoluted. But Rachel Keren taught the Bible as if it were a slightly scandalous novel for young women. In fact a novel by the great and not so pious Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), set not in rural England but dry, rural Judea. There the color of the land was red or yellow unlike England’s green and brown, but scandal, hostile fate, and an ever-present chorus of gossiping neighbors were facts of life just as much as in Hardy’s fictional Wessex. There was also in Rachel’s version a full sense of the looming danger of rape or other injury as the young widow picked her way among the sleeping shepherd boys to the only one who counted, the one she had to marry in order to put her family history right. As Rachel told it, this was a living and immediate story that could have happened anywhere (but not, she gave the girls to understand, just between us, in Jerusalem where she came from, and certainly not if the mother-in-law had had her wits about her).

 

The story starts with Elimelekh, a rich man who leaves Israel at a time of famine. The rabbinic commentators ask: why? The answer: Elimelekh wasn’t leaving because he would starve, since he was too rich to starve. He was leaving because he didn’t want to meet his social responsibilities and help his neighbors. That’s not only why he left, but why he was wrong to leave, and why things went downhill from there.

It was in the days when the Judges judged
and there was hunger in the land
and a man went from Bethlehem in Judea
to stay in the fields of Moab,
he and his wife and his two sons.
And the man’s name was Elimelekh
and his wife’s name was Naomi
and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Kilyon
of the house of Efrat, in Bethlehem, in Judea.
And they came to the fields of Moab and stayed there.

And Elimelekh Naomi’s man died
and she was left there with her two sons.
And they married themselves Moabite wives
one named Orpah and the other named Ruth
and they settled there for ten years.
and they, too, died, both Mahlon and Kilyon
and the woman was left without her two sons or her man.

And she rose with her daughters-in-law and returned from the fields of Moab
for she heard in the field of Moab
that God had remembered his people to give them bread.
And she went out from the place where she was
and her two daughters-in-law with her
and they walked on the way back to the land of Judea.

And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law,
“Go, return each woman to her mother’s house,
may the Lord deal kindly with you
as you have done by the dead and by me.
May the Lord give you something and find you rest
each woman in her husband’s home.
And she kissed them and they raised up their voices and wept.

And they said to her, “But we’ll return with you to your people.”
And Naomi said, “Return, my daughters?
Why should you go with me? Have I more sons in my belly
who could be husbands for you?
Return, my daughters, go
for I’ve grown too old to be with a man.
For even if I said I have hope
and this night could even be with a man
and then should bear sons too,
is it for them you’ll waste until they grow?
Is it for them you’ll be tied down, not being with a man?
Don’t do it my daughters for it is far bitterer for me than for you
for the hand of the Lord has come against me.”
And they raised their voices and wept more
and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye. . . .

Up till now we have a fairly simple story of a man who leaves his home in Judea to “stay” in the province of Moab. He takes his wife and two sons. He dies and his widow chooses to extend the stay by settling in Moab when her sons take wives there. Then the sons die, and the three women start on the road back to Judea, the only place Naomi has anything left. And so far, it is a dog-eat-dog world that is exhibited. There are no social ties that bind, and the Almighty is not mentioned in the narrative until Naomi laments that He has struck her down. We are about to watch her be abandoned by the second of her daughters-in-law when the story takes an unexpected turn: 

But Ruth clung to her.
And she said, “Look,
Your sister-in-law is going to her people and her gods,
go back after your sister-in-law.”
And Ruth said, “Do not chide me to leave you,
to go back from following you
for wherever you go I will go
and wherever you sleep I will sleep.
Your people is my people and your God my God:
Wherever you die I will die
and there I’ll be buried.
So help me the Lord,
for only death will come between me and you:

This declaration of Ruth’s has been taken as the prototype of conversion to Judaism. But there doesn’t appear to have been a conversion in any sense understood by contemporary Orthodox Judaism. There is no rabbinical court before whom the convert makes a promise to obey the commandments. There is no ritual immersion. No subsequent adherence to Jewish practice is mentioned. So where is the conversion? The commentators find it in Ruth’s statement, “your people is my people and your God my God,” a contract sealed by her proceeding to take an oath using the Lord’s name—something that a non-Jew, the commentators observe, would not do. Ruth became a Jew by means of her statement, and as a Jew she took her oath, invoking the judgment of the Lord she had just invited to be her God, and knowing full well that He was not the easiest deity to get along with—as amply demonstrated by the experience of her mother-in-law.

What was in it for Ruth? To answer this question, you have to follow the story:

And she saw that she was firm to go with her
and stopped speaking to her.
And they both walked until they came to Bethlehem
and it was as they came into Bethlehem
all the city buzzed about them
saying, “Is that Naomi?”

And she said, “Don’t call me Naomi,
call me Bitter Woman
for Shadai has made me very bitter:
I went away full and the Lord brought me back empty.
Why should you call me Naomi
when the Lord bore witness against me
and Shadai repaid me ill?”

And Naomi returned with Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law
who had returned with her from the fields of Moab
and they came to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest.

These lines, at the end of Chapter 1, emphasize the problematic nature of Ruth as prototypical convert. Although she has taken an oath to join her mother-in-law’s people, she is still identified as a Moabite. And here we have the crux of the two women’s challenge. Ruth wants to join the Jewish people and Naomi wants a son, because only through a son can she eat. How will they achieve their goals? We still don’t know, any more than we know what role Ruth, in particular, is playing in the story.

Now Naomi knew a connection of her husband’s,
a great and noble man
of the family of Elimelekh and his name was Boaz:
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and I’ll pick ears
behind whomever I take the fancy of.”
And she said to her, “Go, my girl.”
And she went and came there and picked in the field behind the reapers
and by happenstance she happened on the length of field
of Boaz who was Elimelekh’s relative.
And along came Boaz on the way from Bethlehem
and he said to the reapers, “God be with you.”
and they said to him, “God bless you.”
And Boaz said to his lad who was watching the reapers, “Who’s that girl with?”
And the lad watching the reapers replied,
“A Moabite girl who came back with Naomi
from the fields of Moab, and said, ‘Let me pick and gather between the sheaves
Behind the reapers,’ and she came and she’s been standing since dawn
and till now she’s hardly been home.”

And Boaz said to Ruth, “Do you hear, my girl?
Don’t go picking in another field
and don’t even wander out of this one
and that way you’ll stick with my girls.
Keep your eyes on the field they’re reaping in
and walk behind, because I told the boys not to lay a hand on you
and when you get thirsty go to the barrels and drink
from what the boys draw.”

And she fell on her face and bowed to the ground
and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes
to honor me when I am a stranger?”
And Boaz replied to her and said,
“I heard all about what you did for your mother-in-law
after your husband died and how you left your father and mother
and the land you were born in
and went to a people you didn’t know
the day before yesterday.
The Lord will pay you your due
and may your full reward come from the Lord God of Israel
under whose wing you’ve come to shelter.”

And she said, “Have I found favor in your eyes, milord?
For you’ve comforted me and bucked up the heart of your poor servant
and I’m not even fit to be one of your servants.”
And Boaz told her, “At eating time
you come right here and eat some of the bread
and dip your slice in brine.”
And she sat to one side of the reapers
and he gave her a pinch of roast oats
and she ate and was filled and left some over
and got up to pick and Boaz told his boys,
“Let her pick between the bundles, too,
and don’t make her feel embarrassed.
And even let drop a few drops for her from the bales
and leave them for her to pick and don’t say anything.”
And she picked in the field until evening
and she sorted what she had picked
and there was about ten days’ worth of food.
And she carried it and came back to town
and showed her mother-in-law what she’d picked
and brought out and gave her what she’d left after eating her fill.

And her mother-in-law said to her,
“Where did you pick today, and where did you stay?
May whoever distinguished you be blessed.”
And she told her mother-in-law who she’d worked with
and said, “The man’s name that I worked with today
is Boaz.” And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law,
“Bless the Lord
who did not withhold His kindness from the living and the dead.”
And Naomi told her, “He’s our relation, the man is one of our redeemers.”
And Ruth the Moabite said, “Not just that,
but he told me—Stick with my boys till they finish all the harvest.”
And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law,
“That’s good my girl
because you’ll go out with his girls
and they won’t hurt you in another field.”

And she stuck with Boaz’s girls as they picked
to the end of the barley harvest and the oat harvest
and she settled with her mother-in-law.

Here at least there is a nod to the presence of the Lord as someone other than a legal authority and a harsh judge. When the text says Ruth happened to chance into this particular field and Boaz happened to come along just then on the road, we have a strong suggestion of what in the Bible turns out to be benign divine intervention and what in Thomas Hardy inevitably signals the workings of malevolent fate. Which way will this novel turn out: Judea, or Wessex?

And Naomi her mother-in-law said to her,
“My girl, haven’t I always been on the lookout for you to find a resting place
that’ll be good for you: and now isn’t Boaz our relation,
whose own girls you were out with,
sifting the barley grain right now, tonight?
Now you wash yourself and get yourself perfumed and put your best dress on
and go on down to the grain store.
Don’t let that man know about you till he’s done eating and drinking,
and when he’s lain down and you know where he’s lying
then come and uncover his legs
and lay yourself down
and he’ll tell you what to do next.”
And she said to her, “Whatever you tell me—I’ll do.”
And she went down to the grain store and did all her mother-in-law said.

This is the racy part of the novel, the part that reads most like scandalous Hardy. And in translating it I find the voice of Naomi coming through like one of those wise women in the blues, lamenting her woes and advising her sisters not to make the same mistakes she did. But we still can’t quite make out Ruth as she follows these worldly instructions. Why is she going to do what her mother-in-law tells her to?

And Boaz ate and drank and his heart was feeling good
and he came and lay down at the end of the pile
and she came softly and uncovered his legs and lay down.
And it was come the middle of the night that the man started up and reached out
and here was a woman lying at his feet.
And he said, “Who are you?”
And she said, “I am Ruth
your handmaid
now spread your cloak over your handmaid
for you are a redeemer.”
And he said, “God bless you my girl
you’ve done a better deed with your last than your first
by not running after the boys
neither rich nor poor: and now my girl you have no fear
all you’ve said I will do for you
for everyone who comes in the gates of town knows
that you’re a noble woman.
But now for all that I am next in line for redeemer
there is still a closer redeemer than I am.
Stay the night and come morning
ff he will redeem you, well shall he redeem
and if he doesn’t care to redeem, I’ll redeem you personally
I swear to God.
Lie you down until morning.”

And she lay at his feet until morning
and she rose before a man might know his friend
and he said, “Let it not be known
the woman came to the grain store.”
But he said, “Give me the kerchief about you
and hold it”—and she held it out
and he measured six measures of grain
and hung it about her neck
and he came to the town and she came to her mother-in-law
and she said, “Who are you, my girl?”
And she told her all that the man had done for her
and she said, “He gave me these six lots of grain
for he said, ‘Don’t come empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’”
And she said, “Wait my girl until you know how it falls out
for the man won’t rest without settling it all this very day.”

In this passage we have both an explicit and an implicit answer to our questions about Ruth. In her bold offer to accompany her aged mother-in-law back to her home and her people, Boaz sees something essential about her character. He perceives it as an act of pure kindness, an act from which Ruth has nothing to gain. Likewise, he perceives, she has nothing to gain from offering marriage to an older man rather than one nearer her age. Though she is a foreigner, the kindness she has shown to Naomi and the diligence of her work has made an impression, as he notes, not just on his own harvest boys but on all the people of the city.

Unlike Elimelekh, but like Abaraham the founder of Judaism, Ruth is a generous person who goes out of her way to find and perform acts of kindness for others. It was in response to Abraham’s generosity to guests that God both promised him a son and consulted him about destroying the wicked city of Sodom. Because she behaves like Abraham, Ruth is the prototypical convert: one who in Judaism is called a son or daughter of Abraham.

That is the explicit answer. The implicit answer lies in the curious transaction that takes place after Boaz both accepts and sets a condition on Ruth’s marriage offer. On the one hand, he insists on legality, saying he must first offer her to his cousin who is a more direct heir and therefore should be offered the chance to redeem her. But then he does a curious thing, asking her to hold out her kerchief and weighing out six measures of grain that he ties about her. And the next thing you know, when Ruth goes back to her mother- in-law, Naomi does not seem to recognize her. What does this mean?

In giving Ruth the grain, I suspect Boaz has made a type of kiddushin, a betrothal—something the Talmud tells us can be done with a ring, a coin, or a gift of specific value. And why does Naomi not recognize her? I think it is because Ruth is no longer the same person.

Evidently, when she married Naomi and Elimelekh’s son back in Moab, Ruth did not thereby become connected either to the Lord or to other Jews. Then, later, she voices her wish to join her mother-in-law’s people and swears by the Lord. Her conversion is indicated by the declaration and the oath; but only now, in Chapter 3, does the text acknowledge her personal transformation. The declaration lies far behind, and the wedding is still to come, but in some mysterious way Ruth becomes a different person when Boaz weighs out those grains and gives them to her. With this betrothal she has truly joined the Jewish people as a Jew betrothed to a Jew who is connected to other Jews. So deep is the change, her mother-in-law doesn’t recognize her for a moment. I can find no other explanation for Naomi’s question, “Who are you, my girl?”

 

And so we reach the end, with its momentary shock of suspense before the final resolution: 

And Boaz went up to the gate and sat there
and along came the redeemer Boaz spoke of, passing by.
And he said, “Turn aside and sit here, man who shall remain nameless,”
and he turned and he sat.
And he took ten men of the elders of the town
and said, “Sit here”—and they sat.
And he said to the redeemer, “The section of field
that was our brother Elimelekh’s
is for sale by Naomi who’s come back from the fields of Moab.
And I said I’d have a word in your ear
to say, ‘Buy it’ before those sitting here and before my elders.
If you will redeem, redeem
and if he who should redeem will not redeem
tell me so I know
for there is none but you in line to redeem
and I am after you.”
And he said, “I will redeem.”

And Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from Naomi
and Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s wife,
you buy also to raise the dead man’s name on his estate.”
And the redeemer said, “I could not redeem for myself
lest I ruin my own estate.
You redeem for yourself what I would redeem, for I cannot myself redeem.”

And this was in the days of old in Israel
when to redeem and to exchange and seal a deal
a man would slip off his shoe
and give it to his fellow
and this was the contract in Israel.
And the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself,”
and slipped off his shoe.
And Boaz said to the elders and all the people,
“You are witnesses today that I have bought
all that was Elimelekh’s and all that was Kilyon and Mahlon’s
from the hand of Naomi.
And also Ruth the Moabite, wife of Mahlon,
I’ve bought to be a wife for me
to raise the dead man’s name on his estate
so the dead man’s name shall not be lost among his kin
and from the gate of his town
you are witnesses today.”

And all the people at the gate and all the elders said,
“We are witnesses:
Let the Lord make the woman entering your house
like Rachel and like Leah who built the house of Israel
and do well in Efrata and make a name for yourself in Bethlehem
and may your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore for Judah
from the children the Lord gives you by this girl.”

And Boaz took Ruth and she was his wife
and he came to her and the Lord let her be with child
and she bore a son and the women said to Naomi,
“Blessed be the Lord who did not still your redeemer today
and may his name be renowned in Israel
and may he be a balm and succor for your old age.
For your daughter-in-law who loved you bore him,
who’s been better to you than seven sons.”
And Naomi took the child and put him in her lap and was his nursemaid.
And the neighbor women called him by name
saying, “A son was born for Naomi.”
And they named him Oved,
who is the father of Jesse
father of David.

When Abraham makes his contract with God in the book of Genesis, it is a contract to behave in a certain way. People who behave badly, for instance in Sodom and Gomorrah, bring down devastation upon themselves. Even Lot, who behaves decently but chooses to live in the wrong place, brings devastation on his family. In the book of Ruth we have a picture of Elimelekh who is selfish and chooses to live in the wrong place and brings devastation on his family.

Ruth, by a series of acts of kindness, restores the connection between Elimelekh’s family and the land of Israel, and indeed with Judaism. She helps Naomi return to the land, she gives her a child, and by her kindness builds the house of Israel, not coincidentally producing its greatest king: a king who survives everything because, whatever else he does, he loves the Lord and walks in his ways.

 

The question then arises: why is this particular book read aloud in the synagogue on Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah? After all, nowhere in the entire book of Ruth is there any mention of the Torah.

The story is read on Shavuot because receiving the Torah is not enough. Ruth’s accepting the Lord as her God and swearing by Him: that is a theoretical business. Only when she performs an act of kindness, the act to which Boaz responds with a betrothal, does the contract become binding. By not acting like a Jew, Elimelekh had severed himself and all of his family from Judaism. It takes Ruth to come along and right that wrong. In the divisive times of the Second Temple, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, a leader of the Jewish people—and one of Ruth’s direct descendants—would put it succinctly by saying that the world stands on three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.

__________________

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. His previous essays in Mosaic are “The Preacher’s Air” (on Ecclesiastes), “Esther in Des Moines” (on the book of Esther), and “The Love of Their Youth” (on the Song of Songs), all accompanied by original translations.

More about: Biblical commentary, Book of Ruth, Shavuot, Thomas Hardy, Translation

 

An Israeli Writer’s Great American Novel

In his prize-winning new novel, Reuven Namdar asks whether American Jewry is a house on fire. His answer is. . . .

An Israeli Writer’s Great American Novel
Photo by Reuven Namdar.
 
Observation
March 5 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University, and the editor and translator of Letters to America: Selected Poems of Reuven Ben-Yosef (forthcoming from Syracuse University Press). He is a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books, and he also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies.



Israeli reviewers have repeatedly invoked the word “ambitious” to describe Reuven Namdar’s Hebrew novel, Habayit asher neḥerav (“The House That Was Destroyed”), which in January won the Sapir prize, Israel’s equivalent of Britain’s Man Booker award. The term is richly deserved. In The House That Was Destroyed, Namdar, an Israeli of Persian descent who for the past fifteen years has made his home in New York, has given us, simultaneously, four kinds of novel. Each is worth describing in order to grasp what may be the book’s culminating, if most elusive ambition: to be read one day by the American Jews who are implicated in its pages.

First, Habayit asher neḥerav is a campus novel. Andrew Cohen, its American Jewish protagonist, is a successful, fifty-two-year-old professor in the “department of comparative culture” at New York University. A popular teacher, he writes highly regarded academic essays in the fashionable postmodern mode; his current effort bears the provisional title “Woody Warhol and Andy Allen: Representations of Inversion or the Inversion of Representation.” When not hosting dinner parties in his elegantly minimalist Upper West Side apartment, he fills his social calendar with gallery openings, museum exhibits, and meals at fashionable Manhattan restaurants. Still, bad trouble looms: his standing at the university is challenged when his politically correct colleagues protest that a white male lacks the moral authority to chair the department. They also suspect him as a Jew who, while known to protest Israeli policies, does not display quite as great a passion as theirs for the Palestinian cause. Satire, or realism? It is fair to ask.

At the same time, Habayit asher neḥerav is a novel of domestic life or, more accurately, post-domestic life: a probing and somber depiction of divorce. Although Cohen seems to enjoy his bachelor life, and has acquired a girlfriend half his age, he dreams frequently, even yearningly, of his ex-wife, and slowly comes to comprehend the emotional damage his decision to leave has caused her and their two daughters, not to mention the psychic rootlessness to which he has consigned himself. Notes of sadness and loss creep in gradually, as when Cohen finds himself wondering what became of his old wedding ring:

The last time he saw it, it lay in a little box in the top drawer of the end table in the living room. Probably still there. You don’t throw out wedding rings, right? Antique stores are full of them: old gold rings, smooth or carved, studded with diamonds or inlaid with sapphires, engraved with old-fashioned names in scrolling letters, names whose bearers haven’t been among the living for a long while. Not worth melting down; the metal has minimal value. People will buy them, perhaps even use them as wedding rings. How strange, such ghost weddings, the living wearing the dead.

Third, the novel is a horror tale, its creepiness quotient lying somewhere between Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and a David Cronenberg movie. In what constitutes the book’s main plot line, Cohen is visited by increasingly hideous visions having to do with the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Our protagonist may be a third-generation American and an indifferent bagels-and-lox Jew, but his name—Cohens are descendants of the ancient Israelite priesthood—has claimed him with atavistic force. Initially, he suffers hallucinations of the Temple’s sacrificial rites; these soon evolve into an acute sensitivity—experienced as a series of skin conditions, bizarre allergies, and inexplicable mood swings—to non-kosher food, pagan imagery, and ritually impure bodily discharges. (One night, sensing a monstrous presence in the room, he awakes to discover the sheets stained with his girlfriend’s menses; even after she removes the offending sheets, the blood “was still palpable, frightening and repulsive, as if the entire room were tainted.”) By the end of the novel, now in the grip of mental and physical breakdown, he envisions ghastly images of Jerusalem ablaze, the heads of tender babes dashed upon its walls.

 

So far, the questions raised by Namdar’s novel seem to arise out of the anxieties and fragile condition of many an introspective urban liberal, Jewish-style. What has been lost in the rush to slough off or repudiate traditional forms of sanctity and community? Why are we yet haunted by phenomena we thought safely relegated to the attics and storage lockers of human experience? Among its many charred and smoldering rooms, the “destroyed house” of the title contains the desiccated yet doctrinaire thought-system propagated by the postmodern academy, the imploded state of contemporary marriage, the terror of living in a godless world. But in the end Namdar has more particular concerns, which fully inhabit the fourth and most important strand of his novel.

Above all, Habayit asher neḥerav is a keenly observed meditation on the failing inner resources of American Jewry at the dawn of the 21st century. What Namdar’s novel asks is whether American Jewry is another house on fire. To this, his answer is equivocal.

Before getting to that answer, we might briefly consider two literary parallels to the enterprise of this book. Almost inevitably, Habayit asher neḥerav recalls the work, and the temperament, of late-period Saul Bellow, and indeed it includes a telling reference at one point to Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow’s fiercely unblinking threnody to Western civilization circa 1970. Yet its truer precursor may be another Hebrew novel that is also set in New York City: Shimon Halkin’s 1945 Ad mashber (“Before the Crash”). Halkin, a poet, novelist, and scholar who lived mainly in the United States from 1914 until 1949, when he was appointed to a professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, similarly explores the psychic crises of his Jewish characters and, by extension, the American Jewish community. In another common feature, both Ad mashber and Habayit asher neḥerav offer lyrical paeans to Manhattan even as they grimly survey the crumbling topography of American politics, race, and spiritual and erotic life.

Unlike Halkin, however, Namdar gives his novel a partially redemptive ending, holding out the possibility of an American Jewish restoration. Several times, Andrew Cohen notices an Israeli who bears a more than passing resemblance to Namdar himself, and, though they never meet or speak, at one point the American professor is struck by the “absurd thought” that this anonymous Israeli “holds some kind of key to the perplexity lately filling his life.” Resorting to a different literary mode, Namdar also offers a charming faux-rabbinic tale of his own devising that renders Cohen’s tribulations as necessary but temporary payback for a sin committed by an ancestor 2,000 years earlier. In interviews, Namdar has explicitly voiced the hope that American Jews, including his own wife and children, might one day be able to read and heed the message of his book, if not in the original then at least in translation.

The hope is assuredly noble, if all but belied by the accumulated record of spiritual and psychic fissure that fills the 500 pages of Namdar’s novel. Indeed, it is difficult to put down this book without concluding that the troubles besetting American Judaism are in no way comparable to a residual attack of ancient bad karma that might pass like a breaking fever. Whether or not his intended readers will ever be able or willing to hear or heed his words, however, Reuven Namdar’s great Israeli and American Jewish novel shows that he has been listening with stunning fidelity to theirs.

More about: American Jewry, Arts & Culture, Modern Hebrew literature, Reuven Namdar

 

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance

God wanted all of Amalek dead. Saul thought he knew better. What happened next?

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance
From The Death of Agag by Gustave Doré. Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Feb. 26 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


Most weeks, the haftarah—a reading selected from one of the prophetic books of the Bible—is chosen because it shares some theme with the weekly Torah portion. This Shabbat (known as Shabbat Zakhor) is one of the exceptions: since it’s the Sabbath before Purim, the reading, taken from the book of Samuel (I, 15:1-34), involves Agag, the king of the Amalekites and the ancestor of Haman.

But the haftarah isn’t really about Agag, and it isn’t at all like the plot-driven book of Esther. It’s a character study, in which two personality types are examined. Unlike the story of Jacob’s sons, Judah and Joseph, where the difference was one of what you might call “learning styles,” here there’s a straightforward contrast between what you might call inner-directed and outer-directed leadership.

The prophet Samuel is not altogether interested in what the people want. He warns them against this whole king business right off the bat. But they want a king, so he asks God on their behalf for a king. What they get is Saul. Saul cares rather too much about the people:

But Samuel said to Saul, me it was God sent to anoint you
as king over his people, over Israel,
and now obey the words of God.
So said the Lord of hosts: I will repay what Amalek did to Israel
That ambushed him on the way as he rose out of Egypt:
Now go and beat Amalek and eradicate all he has
And have no mercy on him
And put to death whether woman or man, from newborn to suckling babe,
From bull to lamb, from camel to ass.

And Saul called up the people and counted them using patches,
Twelve-hundred infantry and ten-thousand men of Judea.
And Saul came up to the Amalek camp and lay in wait at the river.
And Saul told the Kenites, Go, turn away, get down from Amalek-land
Or I’ll lay you to waste with them, whereas you dealt kindly
with all the children of Israel as they went up from Egypt,
and the Kenite turned away from among Amalek.

And Saul beat Amalek from Havila to Shur across from Egypt:
and he captured Agag king of Amalek alive
but all the people he eradicated by the sword.
But Saul and the people took pity on Agag
and on the best of the sheep and the cattle
and on the second-born and the horses and on all the goods
but all the livestock that’s scorned and melts away, that they eradicated.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with outer-directed leaders. They take their eye off the ball. They get distracted by what the people want or, to take a more charitable view, have bouts of compassion. Unfortunately, neither what the people want, nor compassion, is high on the agenda of the Lord of Hosts.

But the word of the Lord to Samuel was to say—
I regret having crowned Saul as king
For he’s turned from following Me and has not fulfilled My words.
And it troubled Samuel and he clamored to the Lord all that night.
But Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning
And it was told to Samuel to say, Saul is come to the Carmel
and here he is erecting himself an altar,
and he turned and he passed and went down to Gilgal.

And Samuel came to Saul and Saul said to him,
God bless you, I have fulfilled the word of God.
But Samuel said, And what is this sound of sheep in my ears
And sound of cattle I hear?
And Saul said, They brought them from Amalek-land
For the people took pity on the best sheep and cattle
In order to sacrifice to the Lord your God,
but the leftovers we eradicated.
But Samuel said to Saul,
Leave off and I’ll tell you what the Lord said to me tonight.
And he told him, Speak.

And Samuel said, If indeed you are slight in your own eyes
You are head of the tribes of Israel and the Lord anointed you king over Israel:
And the Lord sent you on your way and told you
But you shall eradicate the sinners, the Amalekites,
and fight until you have finished them.
And why did you not obey the Lord but rather fall on the spoils
and do what’s wrong in the eyes of the Lord?
But Saul said to Samuel, indeed I obeyed the Lord
And went the way the Lord sent me,
And I brought Agag king of Amalek, but I eradicated the Amalekites
And the people took from the spoils sheep and cattle,
the first of the offerings, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.

But Samuel said, Does the Lord want offerings and sacrifices
as much as obedience to the Lord?
Look, obedience is as superior to sacrifice
as obedience is to the fat of rams.
For a sin-offering is a rebellious charm: sin, and casting lots for pleading.
So you tired of the word of the Lord and he’s tired of you being king.

The other problem with taking your eye off the ball to listen to the people is that the consequences can be lethal and instantaneous. The commentators point out that from a legal point of view, Saul’s argument is perfectly valid: both he and the people took some spoils away to sacrifice at a more dignified time and place. But that’s not how Samuel understood it, and that’s not how the Lord sees it.

The crucial difference is in understanding the point of the exercise. The Lord wanted to exact a terrible vengeance for what He describes as an unprecedented and immoral attack on Israel at its time of weakness. There are many other tribes the Jews encounter in their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, but Amalek is singled out because they attacked like bandits at a time of weakness, not like an army defending tribal territory and giving the Jews a chance to fight back. Neither Samuel nor the Lord regards this military campaign as mere business as usual.

But Saul said to Samuel, I’ve sinned for I transgressed what God said and his  words
For I feared the people and I obeyed them,
But now pray you forgive my sin and return with me and I’ll pray to the Lord.
But Samuel said to Saul, I will not return with you
For you tired of the word of the Lord
and the Lord is tired of you being king over Israel.

And Samuel turned to go but he gripped the tail of his coat and it tore apart
and Samuel said to him, the Lord tore the kingship of Israel from you today
and will give it to your friend who is better than you.
Though the victory is Israel’s, He will not lie and will not reconsider
For He is not a man to reconsider.
But he said, I’ve sinned, now, pray you, honor me before the elders
of my people and before Israel,
And return with me and I will pray to the Lord your God.

And Samuel returned with Saul and Saul prayed to the Lord.
But Samuel said, Hand me Agag king of Amalek
And Agag walked to him in delight
and Agag said, indeed the bitterness of death has gone.
But Samuel said, Just as your sword bereaved women
So shall your mother be bereaved among women.
And Samuel skewered Agag before the Lord at Gilgal. . . .

And Samuel didn’t see Saul again until the day he died
because Samuel mourned over Saul,
and the Lord regretted having crowned Saul over Israel.

The aftermath comes a few pages later in the book of Samuel, in a passage not read in the haftarah. We are introduced to David with three separate stories, beginning with Samuel going to look for him and finding him the smallest and least impressive of his father’s sons, yet still being told by God to anoint him though he’s not tall and impressive as Saul was. Then there’s another story where David comes to court as a rather talented harp player summoned to minister to Saul and make him feel better because he’s rather depressed (and I think we know why). That’s a great testament to David’s therapeutic gifts but still doesn’t explain why the Lord wants him to be king.

But then finally we have the story of Goliath coming to curse the entire massed armies of Israel and nobody daring to take his challenge. Goliath then repeats his challenge while David is bringing food from home for his older brothers and, the story notes, David heard him. Whenever I read that line about David hearing Goliath, I always imagine a sound effect of scary music. You get this definite feeling the text thinks there’s going to be trouble. But why should there be trouble from this puny harpist? When David offers to accept Goliath’s challenge, Saul tries to dissuade him:

But Saul said to David, you can’t go to this Philistine and fight him,
For you’re a boy and he’s a man of war since youth.
But David said to Saul, Your servant was a shepherd to his father’s flock
and the lion and bear came to carry away a lamb from the herd
And I went after him and beat him and saved it from his jaws
And he rose up against me and I held him by the bristles
And beat him and killed him. Your servant beat both the lion and the bear
And this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them
Because he cursed the armies of the living God.

One thing you do not need to worry about with David, as this lyrical evocation of his days back on the farm makes clear, is that he’ll have mercy on somebody the Lord asks him to kill. David does not even think Goliath is human—just  another critter out there in the field, and he’s already killed plenty of critters. David, we see now, has been nominated as king because the Lord looked inside his heart and found him both spiritually gifted and entirely ruthless. As the high-holiday service notes, the Lord may be my shepherd, but sometimes the shepherd has to decide which sheep has to die.

What Samuel shows Saul at Gilgal when he hacks apart the king of Amalek is what happens to kings who don’t obey their inner voice, the still, small voice that cries in the night—let alone the voice of their prophet. David eventually sins and pays a terrible price for his unbridled appetite in private life, but he always obeys the Lord as King and never loses sight of his function. Even if he falls victim to his own passions, he never falls victim to the passions of the mob. That is why he remains the one wielding the sword. Obedience is better than any number of offerings. Those who don’t obey but let themselves be ruled by the people may find themselves crossing the line from sacrificer to sacrificed.

More about: Amalek, King David, Samuel, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate

A common and dismaying misconception.

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kobi Gideon, GPO
 
Observation
Feb. 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

“Until a few years ago,” wrote the New York Times’ Israel correspondent Jodi Rudoren in a recent dispatch commenting on the lack of substance in the current Israeli election campaign,

there was no Hebrew word for debate. Then in 2012 linguists adopted the term “mamat,” whose root meant “confrontation,” which Yoni Cohen-Idov, an international debating champion, sees as symptomatic of what ails his nation’s political discourse. “Debate, the English word, consists of two elements—one is confrontation, the other is discussion,” he said. “If you’re rivals and you only shout at one another and make slogans, and you don’t discuss them in depth, that is not a debate.”

About the dismaying triviality of the politicians bidding for Israelis’ ballots on March 17, I couldn’t agree with Rudoren more. Nor would I blame her for her faulty Hebrew, even though had she bothered to check, she would have known that the neologism in question is ma’amat, not mamat, from the root ayin-mem-taf, found in the Bible in l’umat, “across from” or “facing.” Ma’amat was indeed adopted as a term for debate several years ago by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an official body of linguists and scholars entrusted with coining new Hebrew words.

No, the real culprit here is Cohen-Idov—and the Academy. The first is ignorant, the second misguided.

No Hebrew word for debate? This would be passing strange if true, since debate lies at the very heart of the Talmud and of the rabbinic tradition that is based on it. One would as much expect Hebrew to lack a word for debate as one would expect Arabic to lack a word for sand or Inuit a word for snow.

And in fact, it’s completely untrue. Hebrew has, quite apart from ma’amat, at least five words meaning “debate,” some going back 1,500 years or more.

The oldest of these is plugta, an originally Aramaic word deriving from the Aramaic/Hebrew verb palag, to divide or be divided from. Plugta is regularly used in the Talmud to denote a running argument between two rabbis or schools of thought and yields bar-plugta, a debating partner. This term is applied, for example, to Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon in the tractate of Bava Metsiya, in which the two take opposing sides on a series of questions pertaining to the return of stolen property.

A second word for debate with ancient roots is pulmus, which comes from Greek polemos, “war.” In the Talmud, where it appears as polmos, it actually means war, but in later ages, like its English cognate “polemic,” it took on the meaning of a war of words. For the early rabbis, polmos Adrianus denoted the Bar-Kokhba rebellion against the Roman emperor Hadrian; in contemporary Hebrew, pulmus Bar-Kokhba refers to the ongoing scholarly debate over that rebellion’s causes and justifications.

Next comes nitsuaḥ, from the verb natsaḥ, “to triumph over.” In an oft-cited talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who performs a series of miracles to prove he is right in a halakhic dispute, the forces of nature that collaborate with him are scolded by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who tells them: “If rabbinical scholars are debating [menats'ḥim, literally, "striving to triumph"] in a matter of law, what business is it of yours?” From this comes the noun nitsu’aḥ, a debate, first found in the Middle Ages. In modern Hebrew, it has been joined by its synonymous reflexive form of hitnats’ḥut.

“But,” Cohen-Idov might counter, “none of these words designates a debate in the sense of a formal contest held in the presence of an audience and judges.”

True enough. Yet Cohen-Idov has apparently never heard of various medieval religious debates between Jews and Christians in which precisely such conditions prevailed. Probably the best-known of these took place in Barcelona in 1263, at the court of King James I of Aragon, between Naḥmanides or Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman and the Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani. Remarkably for the times, a panel of Christian judges ruled Naḥmanides the victor and awarded him a monetary prize. In Hebrew this event is traditionally known as viku’aḥ Bartselona, the Barcelona debate or disputation, from the biblical verb hitvake’aḥ, “to argue,” and other similar disputations were called vikuḥim, too.

“Surely, though, Hebrew deserves to have two separate words, one for an argument and one for a debate!” one imagines Cohen-Idov persisting, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language would clearly agree. Let viku’aḥ mean “argument,” let ma’amat mean “formal debate,” and we can all sleep better at night.

But we should have been sleeping well already. No two languages have identical semantic fields, and the fact that there are distinct words for W and X in Language Y is no reason to require them in Language Z. If Hebrew uses the verb lavash for putting on a coat and ḥavash for putting on a hat, does this mean that English needs different words for putting on hats and coats, too? And if Hebrew speakers do want to differentiate more explicitly, they have the option of saying viku’aḥ tsibburi, “a public vikuaḥ,” just as one speaks of “a public debate” in English.

Of course, English is a world-dominating language and Hebrew is not—and implicit in the Academy’s coining of ma’amat when viku’aḥ is available is the assumption that while English needn’t behave like Hebrew, Hebrew should and must behave like English. This is the truly objectionable part of it. If Hebrew speakers knew their own language better and took more pride in it, they wouldn’t think a new Hebrew word was called for every time an old one was not a precise equivalent of a word in English. It’s not only Cohen-Idov who is suffering from a linguistic inferiority complex. It’s the Academy of the Hebrew Language, too.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew, Medieval disputations

 

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?

What does the underread text of the ancient Hebrews have to do with the Jews of today?

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?
Photo by Josh Evnin/Flickr.
 
Observation
Feb. 12 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Alan Rubenstein is the Hanson scholar of ethics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.


Is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—a Jewish book? At first glance, the question is absurd. The Bible is written in the language of the Jews, sections of it are read aloud, year in and year out, in synagogues and prayer groups, its words and thoughts permeate the Jewish liturgy, and its laws and commandments, its festivals and holy days, form the axis of the traditional Jewish way of life. So it has been for millennia.

But there are large parts of the Hebrew Bible that do not get read in the synagogue or in religious schools. Are these parts “less Jewish”? And more than this: does the Hebrew Bible, as a whole, play a role in shaping the character and formative ideas of the living, breathing Jews of today, their ambitions, their loves, their notions of the good? Or is it simply a gift to humanity from the ancient Hebrews, and in that sense no different from the gifts bequeathed by the ancient Greeks?

 

This question became important to me because of some accidents of my own history. I was raised in a Jewish home but not afforded much of an education in Jewish sources. I did not really pay attention to the Bible until I encountered it as one of the “great books” of the Western tradition that I and my fellow students read diligently, not to say reverently, at St. John’s College in Maryland. There, it took its place in the syllabus after we’d already encountered Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Tacitus, and before we moved on to Augustine, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Kant, Hegel, and the rest.

Reading the Bible in this context meant, in one sense, treating it with profound respect: it was wisdom-rich literature of the highest order, every bit the equal of Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and Kant. But this also meant regarding the Bible as something much less exalted than its “religious” readers took it to be: for us, after all, it was a creation of human genius—and nothing more. True, at St. John’s we were spared the vices of historicist and deconstructionist approaches—we took the Bible seriously and as an artistic whole, with important things to say about enduring issues of human life. But we were given no clue about the people who wrote it—or, as they would have said, received it—and what it meant to them. And we certainly never asked the question that would later become extremely important to me: what did those ancient people and their text have to do with the Jews of today, and to me as one of them?

Later on, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself somewhat more fully with the Jewish textual tradition and to learn the basic contours of Jewish history. Here I discovered something commonplace for learned Jews but remarkable to me. The “people of the book” are really the people of the bookshelf—the shelf in question being primarily the vast corpus of rabbinic writings, primarily the Talmud and its many later commentaries and supercommentaries devoted mainly to issues of halakhah, or Jewish law. Other works on the shelf belong to the category of midrash—homiletical narratives explicating or elaborating upon the biblical text; still others may be philosophical or mystical in nature; and works of biblical exegesis abound. All look instinctively to the Tanakh and cite it as the ultimate source of authority. But seldom is a Jew encouraged to encounter the Bible as we were encouraged to encounter all great books at St. John’s: in a spirit of unmediated, literary-philosophical inquiry.

And so I was still left seeking an answer to my question: is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish book—and therefore my book as a Jew?

 

Last December, I took this question with me to a seminar I led in Jerusalem on the theme of “The Hebrew Bible and Jewish Excellence.” The seminar’s faculty, all of them Israelis, included Micah Goodman, a highly acclaimed public intellectual who has written books on Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, and, most recently, the book of Deuteronomy. The other faculty members were also of the first order: Asael Abelman, head of the history department at Herzog College; Aryeh Tepper, author of a recent study of Leo Strauss and Maimonides; and Rabbi Chaim Navon, a prolific writer on Jewish law, philosophy, and related topics.

With Goodman as chief exegete, we spent roughly half our time looking closely at episodes from the Bible that touch on God, human nature, politics, and the self-understanding of the Jewish people. The other half was spent looking at the works of some of the great men of 20th-century Jewish history, especially David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, and Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik. Where we could, we asked how each of these men read the Bible, how that reading may have informed their personal excellence, and how that influence contributed to their distinctive impact on Jewish history.

Looking at the lineup, one quickly notes a pattern. With the exception of Soloveitchik, the story of these men forms part of the story of Zionism. And with the exceptions of Soloveitchik and Kook, all are (broadly speaking) secular figures. The focus on Zionism was heightened by the fact that, although the participants were a mix of Americans and Israelis, and the seminar was conducted in English, there we were, sitting in ancient/modern Jerusalem, studying with an Israeli faculty. And here, in the real Jerusalem, I learned to read the Bible like a Zionist.

Now that the state of Israel has been around for over six decades, it is easy to forget what a radical and revolutionary movement Zionism was. A part of this revolution entailed a revolutionary way of reading the Bible. In the eyes of men like Ben-Gurion, Tchernichovsky, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, and, perhaps most significantly, Kook, the Zionist approach to the biblical and indeed the entire Jewish past, and to its proper interpretation, represented a revolution of life against text. Consider this passage from a 1950 letter written by Ben-Gurion:

Not one biblical exegete, Jew or gentile, medieval or modern, could have interpreted the [biblical] book of Joshua as it was done by the deeds of the Israel Defense Forces during this past year.

The paradox is striking: Ben-Gurion is here rejecting the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation even while claiming that interpretation itself remains the key to Jewish existence. But interpretation now takes a new form: not the accretion of additional text but the performance of exegetically-inspired deeds. The actions of the IDF, of the halutzim (Zionist pioneers), and of the other builders of the new Jewish commonwealth are themselves to be understood as interpretations of the Bible—though a Bible that had been lost and was in need of being recovered and experienced afresh within its reclaimed geographical and historical environment.

In an essay entitled “The Bible is Illuminated by Its Own Light,” Ben-Gurion makes this explicit:

I do not understand the denigration of the natural history and geography of the Bible. [The Hebrew literary critic and poet A.Y.] Kariv . . .  wants to know about King David only what is written about him in Psalms, chapter 89: “I have discovered David My servant; I have anointed him with My holy oil.” From this we see that “David was a discovery of God.” But this isn’t the only verse written about David in the Bible. The end of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel, and the beginning of 1 Kings deal with the life of David and his actions, and they say what they say, and no midrash of yours or Kariv will expunge these words. The authors of the Bible wanted us to know the entire truth; let us, too, be respectful of that truth.

The “truth” about David that Ben-Gurion is alluding to is that he was more of a Mafia don, albeit a deeply humane one, than a talmid hakham, or Torah scholar. (And one might note in passing that the “entire truth” about David is that the Bible is also severely censorious of him, and not just of him alone.) Yet Ben-Gurion was right: raw and unadorned encounters with the Bible of the kind he was advocating—and in particular with the “historical” books like Samuel—had been, with certain scintillating exceptions, a rarity in the Jewish textual tradition. For the young revolutionaries of the Zionist movement, here were Jewish tales of men engaged in the rough and dirty business of life itself—the same business, many felt, that Zionists had to deal with every day while building and defending the new Jewish community in the land of Israel. The Bible was, effectively, a treasure hidden in plain sight.

In our week’s study in Jerusalem, the life-versus-text distinction, in its Zionist iteration, was a recurring theme. I’ll describe just one other instance because it comes from Rav Kook, a man with a radically different set of “first principles” from the politically-minded and theologically agnostic Ben-Gurion. Could any Orthodox rabbi have endorsed the idea that a renewed Jewish national life could involve a return to the Bible without a return to Jewish observance, and without rabbinic intermediation? Well, no. But Rav Kook came close.

In an essay entitled “The Road to Renewal,” written in his customary philosophical-mystical mode, Kook criticizes “the excessive focus on the study of texts” that had become necessary once the truly healthy conduit to the divine light—namely, the influential personality of the ancient prophet—became obstructed. After walking his readers through a dialectical history of the Jewish people, Kook reaches his own time:

The psyche of the nation is showing signs of renewal. At first she tends to be drawn to the external trappings of the nation’s life, without embracing the inner essence of the nation, her divine soul. At first she is content with the revival of the language, the land, the knowledge of history, and an undefined nostalgia for the past. But without a divine light shining, the soul will grow troubled.

This is Kook’s complicated take on the secular settlers whose vitality and attachment to the nation he admired and lauded publicly to the point of seeming a heretic to other religious leaders. The way these pioneers embraced life over texts made them, at this historical juncture, true agents of Jewish spiritual renewal, even if at some point they would have to see the error in their rejection of Jewish law and “the divine light.” As Kook put it, “The inspiration of an active spiritual influence”—that is, the spirit of Zionism—“exerts its effect on practical life more than the method of studying texts.” In the end, though, “the functioning of spiritual inspiration will restore to the nation its ancient honor by restoring the patriarchal dignity of Israel’s princes, who were distinguished by a personal spiritual quality of a higher order.”

If secular Zionists like Ben Gurion saw the ultimate goal as a return to the vital humanism that one finds exhibited in the historical narratives of the Bible, Kook saw the ultimate goal as a return of biblical Israel’s prophetic leadership. But, for all their differences, the two were united in their embrace of Israel’s national destiny as conveyed in passages of still-urgent immediacy in the Tanakh.

 

Here, then, we have an emphatically Jewish way of reading the Bible: that is, a way emphatically committed to seeing the text as a lever that can change the course of Jewish history—of Jewish life. When we began planning the seminar, we did not envision its main theme to become the Zionist revolution in reading the Bible. By the end, though, I couldn’t help wondering what it might be like to stage a similar seminar except this time with Diaspora figures in the foreground. How can the Bible be read for the sake of the life of non-Israeli Jews, and Jewish communities, that (to borrow from Rabbi Soloveitchik) seek to transform their fate into their destiny? What are the innate potencies of Judaism, of the Jewish spirit, that can become actualized as historical circumstances require? What does Judaism have “in it,” so to speak?

Admittedly, the Zionist case is easier. Who would have known, 100 or 1,000 years ago, that Judaism had within it the resources to create so vivid, dynamic, humane, and modern a Jewish state? Micah Goodman’s lectures were particularly inspiring in this respect, showing how only now, in the context of a modern Jewish state, several ideas in the Bible have revealed themselves as live options for an actual polity. Thus, the central thesis of his forthcoming book on Deuteronomy is that Moses’ final oration offers, in the form of a midrash-like retelling of the Exodus and wilderness story, a significant source of ideas for the managing, and moderating, of religious and political power in a Jewish state.

This would not be the sort of “Jewish excellence” one would expect to discover by creatively reading the Bible for the sake of Jewish life in America. But might not some visionary thinkers find alternatives equally inspiriting? If one is sold on the idea that Jewish history is really happening today only in Israel—as many men and women of learning and intelligence believe—then the quest is by definition futile. Still, a number of non-Israeli thinkers have in fact devoted themselves to studying and explicating the Bible as moderns and with the dilemmas of modern Jewish life in mind. One thinks, for example, of Leon Kass, Robert Sacks, Leo Strauss, Robert Alter, Aviva Zornberg, and rabbinic leaders like Joseph Soloveitchik and Jonathan Sacks. Can their and others’ investigations point to some program for Jewish life that might complement and even enrich the transformation accomplished by Zionism?

That, as I say, is a matter for another seminar.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Liberal arts, Micah Goodman, Religion & Holidays