Beth Kissileff recently spoke with David Wolpe about his newest book, David: The Divided Heart, published by Yale University Press
At one point during our phone interview, I asked Rabbi David Wolpe, author of a new book on King David, about why he wrote on the famously lustful Israelite king. He replied that he told his editor not to worry about the timeliness of the book: there would be a political scandal along the lines of the David and Bathsheba story at some point when his book was coming out. In fact, he was so confident of it, he would write the editorial now! The timelessness of human foibles when power is gained, coupled with the extraordinary human ability to grow and change and write about it as King David did in the Psalms, personal poetry and prayer traditionally attributed to him, is the subject of Wolpe’s latest book, David: The Divided Heart, the newest volume in the Jewish Lives series by Yale University Press.
Wolpe is the author of seven previous books, all like this one, in which he attempts to engage with serious Jewish ideas for a general audience. He is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and known by many for his huge Facebook and Twitter followings, as well as holding the accolade of being many years on the influential rabbi list that had been compiled by Newsweek, hitting the top slot in 2012. In our interview, he spoke of how he brought his work as a rabbi to his telling of David’s story, relating his ability to understand people’s lives at different ages and see not only the effect of parents on children, but as they age, children on their parents. The book comes from a deeply personal place too, dedicated to his uncle David, after whom he is named, the man who raised his father (also a rabbi, Gerald Wolpe z”l) after his father’s own father passed away at a young age. When David Wolpe graduated high school, he writes in the book’s introduction, his father inscribed his yearbook with a pastiche of ideas about his Biblical namesake. He writes that although his father did not quote any particular verse he conveyed an “essential message” about the David who “sang many songs.”
It is fitting that the character of David, who encompasses both the national aspirations of the Jewish people as well as his own personal family struggles, has these different aspects, both public and private, for the writer as well. Here are some highlights of Jewish Book Council's phone conversation with this most articulate rabbi.
Beth Kissileff: You say in the book that in the rabbinic text Pesikta DeRav Kahana, the rabbis confessed, “We are unable to make sense of David’s character”. If even they are unable to, what got you to write this book?
David Wolpe: Because he was so intriguing. I was also trying to unravel the central mystery: Why does David get to be the most important character, the ancestor of the Messiah?
In one sense, the tradition is split between David and Moses. We have a good idea of the legacy of Moses, but know less about David, even though the Bible tells us more about the character. The David stories feel historical, they don’t feel like myth. So much apologizing for David only makes sense if there are people around attacking him.
For me at least, David is the most intriguing character.
BK: How did you decide to divide up the chapters and create the themes for each of them? Each chapter is a role: Fugitive, King, Sinner, Father, Caretaker, and The Once and Future King.
DW: Because as I read through it, I thought it is such a big, messy,F wonderful story that it will help the reader to have some thematic breakdown, as opposed to running through the narrative.
I thought of David the way I think of someone when I conduct a funeral. This is the same person, but with lots of different roles. You hear from the spouse, the kids, they can be a lot of different things to different people in their lives. That’s what David was.
BK: Why does David speak to modern Jews?
DW: He speaks to modern Jews about the state and all the contradictions of the state. War and savagery and plotting and manipulation and all of that. But at same time, he is a central religious figure. He is credited with writing the only personal prayers in the Bible, the Psalms. If you are looking for a book to express the individual human soul, you have only the Psalms in the Bible.
His legacy endures – Jerusalem is celebrating the 3000th year as the City of David.
And finally and most powerfully, David is a deeply flawed figure who is still a hero. That idea, that we don’t think a person can be great and flawless, is something we struggle with every single day. There will soon be a David and Bathsheba scandal – I should write the editorial now! He is an exquisitely relevant as well as fascinating character.
BK: What are the top three books to read to learn more about the David story?
DW: If they want a fuller account, read Samuel I and II. I think Jonathan Kirsch’s book King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel is fuller and easily read. Then, it depends how serious you want to be. The most comprehensive and learned book is Bible scholar Baruch Halpern’s David’s Secret Demons. He deals with the archaeology, but tells you where to skip if you don’t want all the detail. An effective case against David is Stephen Mazckenzie, King David: A Biography.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.