The ProsenPeople

Reconciling the Inconsistent Word of God

Thursday, January 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Gavriel Savit introduced the spiritual mysticism contained in uncertainty and pondered the corporeal existence of God. With the publication of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Quite a while ago, my fiancée and I decided to undertake the systematic reading and study of what Western tradition refers to, absurdly (if in Greek), as THE BOOK. I had never before come to the Bible in a systematic and sustained way, reading from cover to cover, and as someone with the humble ambition of contributing to the wild, out-of-hand fracas of Western narrative art, I felt it would be in my best interest to have a bit of a cultivated familiarity with the great patriarch of that art. My fiancée, a critic and scholar of Victorian era British literature, thought it would be in her best interest to have a similar familiarity with the cornerstone of its great patriarchy.

And so we were well matched. The only problem was methodological. I, coming from a Judaic background, wanted to work on the khevruta model, reading together out loud and entering into discussion whenever something interested or troubled one of us; she, well used to the silent if disorderly decorum of the library carrel, would have preferred to read silently in parallel and then to come together for discussion after the fact. In general, I can see the appeal of this approach—it must be nice to thoroughly formulate one’s opinions before beginning the process of discussion—but the fact of the matter is that the Hebrew Bible seems explicitly designed to frustrate certainty. For a book that has so commonly been appealed to for definitive answers, it hardly seems to contain any, from a narrative perspective. No, no—no certainties to be found here, only competing, incommensurate, equivalid alternatives. It has to be discussed as it’s read.

The Book begins with two successive, irreconcilable accounts of the creation of the universe: in the first, God creates life in general, both flora and fauna, and then, only after this does God create the human being, presenting to it in all its bounty the comestible world of fruit and vegetable. Less than ten verses later, in the second account, the creation of man is related again, this time expressly predating the emergence of vegetal life. Shortly thereafter, the creation of animals will also be found, in this second account, to come after the creation of human life.

There’s nothing for it. There’s no way to reconcile the two expressly and exclusively different stories.

If you are a contemporary rationalist, this might well prove your disdain for the archaic, superstitious tome of falsehoods known as the Bible. How can it equally assert the veracity of two contradictory accounts?

If you are a philologist, you will likely interpret this conflict between texts as indicative of the presence of more than one pre-existing source. Neither, of course, could be altered in the combination because of the sacred status of each, and neither, by the same token could be excluded. As a philologist, one might easily say “Forget the cognitive dissonance, forget the conflict, forget the juxtaposition. Read each on its own merits.”

If you are an adherent of rabbinic exegesis, perhaps you will choose to interpret these two pieces of narrative as predominantly allegorical or symbolic writing. After all, when we adjourn to the hazy arena of symbolism, we need no longer consider contradiction threatening—it’s, y’know, art.

I would like to offer an alternative reading, one that I hope can extend far beyond this first section of the Hebrew Bible to encompass it entirely:

There are two stories. They are both correct and valid—equally articulated in the authoritative voice of the text. They both take place within a literal realm, and they contradict one another.

There. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult. It’s provocative. And I think that’s precisely the point.

It is in this state of uncertainty that one looks closely, and one sees. You begin to see the face of God in the flickering, dimly lit open space only when you stand between twin certainties—that God has absolutely no visible form, and that God absolutely does.

There’s a reason this gigantic compilation of stories opens on contradiction and uncertainty, and as a writer, I would posit that it’s a lesson in reading the rest of the book: there are two, oppositional positions. Do you smash them together, trying to make them into one? Do you look for ways to discount certain portions of each?

Or do you take one in each hand, and feel them counterbalance one another in the weight of your step?

This mode of reading might be most strongly resisted by those people who point to its essential duality—after all, we are a people of One God, and Singularity, Unity, Oneness presents itself as temptingly contradistinctive. People can so easily say, God is One, and God is mine. If you disagree with me, then God is not yours. My minhag, my family or communal custom in the observance of tradition, one might say, is exclusively correct, and all others are at best to be tolerated, and at worst, heretical. (Looking at you, here, Israeli Rabbinate…)

But this is clearly not reflective of historical Jewish tradition. The Talmud was, in some deeply critical ways, formed in the crucible of the disagreement between the twin philosophical approaches of Hillel and Shammai. Moving backwards, one could easily read an interest in dueling perspectives in the simple notion of the Oral Law, given alongside the Torah on Mount Sinai, for the purposes of elucidation and interpretation—why a separate corpus if not expressly to create distance and discrepancy between the two?

And there are all sorts of incommensurate alternatives in the Bible. David, paragon of majesty, progenitor of Messianic salvation, is, in some very real ways, a usurper of Saul’s kingship. The theme of rival claims is threaded throughout the Bible, particularly in the foundational stories of our patriarchs.

After all, who deserves primacy? Ishmael, the firstborn, or Isaac, the legitimate? The supremacy of the elder son, so axiomatic in the Ancient world, will continue to inform and enlarge the successive stories of each great patriarch—mainly in its violation. Jacob, the wily (younger), or Esau, the mighty (elder)? Joseph, the brilliant (far, far younger) or Reuben the dutiful (eldest) and his corporate brotherhood? Aaron, the priest (elder) or Moses, the leader (younger)?

In none of these cases—looking carefully, honestly—is one party clearly the preferable. It is, particularly from an antiquated perspective, always unclear.

And perhaps this is obvious. After all, we as Jews are known in the collective as the Children of Israel, Israel (“Struggles-with-God”) being the alternative name given to Jacob after he strove and fought all night against an agent of God—crucially, to an indecisive conclusion.

Neither God nor Israel prevailed. This was not the point. The struggle was the point.

The renaming of Jacob in the wake of this conflict is well-known and oft-quoted. What is less frequently repeated is that something else was renamed in the wake of the conflict: the open space in which Jacob and the Agent of God struggled.

The place was named Peniel, or “My-face-is-God.”

It is, of course, indispensable to have two well-matched and equally viable candidates in order to enter into the sort of furious, infinite, ongoing, and indecisive conflict that our narrative tradition so favors. Just as indispensable as the conflicting parties, though, is the arena in which the contest is to take place.

And this, finally, is the utility, the virtue of uncertainty.

A certainty is an insuperable obstacle. It’s solid and heavy and doesn’t move much of its own accord. Certainties, of course, have great utility of their own—they can block off dangers, you can climb up atop them, reaching for new intellectual altitudes—but if you’re looking to stage a fight, it’s hard to do so inside a block of marble.

I, like many young Jews, once visited Israel on a Birthright trip, and the entire thrust of Jewish thought and history was never so legible to me as the time we were encouraged to go off into the midnight desert for a little, quiet, solo reflection—not so far that we couldn’t still see the lights of the tent, but far enough that we could imagine we couldn’t.

The sky is so big, out there, and so full of stars. Unified and simultaneously multifarious—monotheism doesn’t seem like an innovation in the desert, it feels like an observation.

Because these are the uncertain spaces, the open (empty?) arenas in which we Jews are used to seeking for (and finding, hopefully) our God: the desert, monolith of sandgrains; the synagogue, light flickering, prayer shawls flapping, eyes covered to ward off blindness; the genealogy of our Fathers, so knotted and ambiguous that even a family tree is nothing so much as an argument.

These are our plains of Peniel, mottled and dappled by striving footprints, by wingtips dragging through the sand. This is the Face of God: the constant contest of uncertainties in an arena uncrowded by decision, unmarred by conclusion. The endlessly repeated gesture of young men peeking out from behind their father’s prayer shawls, of elders squinting through their glasses across the dimly lit space, generation after generation, of looking so closely that you start to see something in the struggle and bump, in the flicker and flash, in the dim and shade—a Single, emergent Entity.

Just don’t you dare become certain what it looks like.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

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The Historical Me

Monday, January 18, 2016 | Permalink

Mary Glickman is the author of the Home in the Morning, One More River, Marching to Zion. With the upcoming release of her new novel An Undisturbed Peace, Mary is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Over the course of publication of four novels, I have become aware of a personal truth that eluded me in the previous thirty odd years of writing seven unpublished ones. Hold your breath. Here it comes.

I write historical fiction. That is, historical fiction is my métier. I am it and it is me.

When I look back on my writing career—battle-scarred veteran that I am—I can see that whenever I wrote novels of the present era or ventured into the more rarefied territory of allegory, there was something missing, at the very least from the marketing point of view. But there may have been deeper flaws than market. It may be that my sensibilities are most harmonious with cultural tropes gone by. It may be that my gut finds indigestible modernist poses, especially about things Jewish, the current antipathy towards all things Israeli, for example, or the general lack of respect for the pious life, one I fail at living but greatly admire. Or it may be something entirely different.

I have always been enchanted by the past. I grew up on a diet of music, books, and film from my parents and grandparents eras, their libraries and oral traditions. Long before I knew something of Rashi, my spiritual guides were Frank Capra, Verdi and Puccini, Dickens, the Brontes, Hugo, and Balzac. Enshrined in their work were icons of virtue, blessing, and tragedy: The Working Stiff, The Fallen Woman, The Mother, The Child, The Drunken Poet, The Kindly Grandfather, The Tortured One, and The Villain, who could take many forms including The Fat Cat, The Overseer, The Seducer, The Strong Arm. I also learned from the same sources that each of these icons could contain bits and pieces of its opposite, that nothing was as simple as it seemed in a manner very different from both melodrama and postmodern cynicism. There was always a universal humanity, classic set pieces of contradiction, in my childhood icons. They had resonance for me, even as a precocious child absorbing stories above her grade level. Sixty years later, I admit I still find them the truest models I know of real life.

But on whom were they modeled? One need look no further than the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, to find the most glorious array of human archetypes ever gathered in one place. Take human frailty for example. Where in all of literature are there better examples than an angry Moses, a lustful David, a jealous Cain, a drunken Noah? I don’t think it’s an accident that before Dickens, before the Brontes, my first childhood books were picture books of Bible stories, stories and characters that consumed my imagination even then.

At present, we live in a world where the common wisdom has it that truth is elusive and personal, good is defined by political desires, evil judged nonexistent, at least in the traditional sense. No small wonder then that a writer of my proclivities needs to travel back in time to exercise her favored images of heroes and heroines, antagonists and forces of nature in which the Voice of God bellows warning into deaf, unwilling ears. Back then, I am home. My historical people can breathe, walk, love, sin, expiate, and sacrifice. In the present, they might only be objects of fun. But when they are set in the past, readers find resonance, recognition, and are moved.

Mary Glickman was born on the South Shore of Boston, Massachusetts, and studied at the Université de Lyon and Boston University. She now lives in Seabrook Island, South Carolina.

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Seven Surprises While Reading the Torah in English Translation

Thursday, September 10, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Aviya Kushner wrote about the “smashing, positively dashing spectacle” of modern theater performed in Hebrew. She is the author of The Grammar of God and is blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In Monsey, New York, the religious Jewish community where I grew up, no one was reading The King James Bible. And I certainly wasn’t either.

My mother is Israeli, and so my first language was Hebrew; naturally, I read the Torah in Hebrew. At home, we often discussed the Torah around the dining-room table—its language, its humor, its grammar, and its tendency to contradict itself. At yeshiva day school, which I attended six days a week, the Torah and its commentaries were taught for hours each day. I memorized many passages, and was quizzed on others. I didn’t think I could be surprised by anything Biblical.

Then I drove a thousand miles, across the Mississippi River and through miles and miles of corn, and enrolled at the University of Iowa’s MFA program in creative writing. There, I took a Bible course with the novelist Marilynne Robinson. In that graduate course and in the community church class I attended, I encountered the Bible in English translation for the first time. And the translations I was reading obsessively weren’t just in English; they were also Christian.

It was an entirely new world, and I was often lost in it. On many occasions, I did not recognize passages I knew by heart in Hebrew. I found seven recurring surprises:

1. Verses in the Wrong Place. The verses, or psukim, are not always the same as they are in Hebrew. I first realized this when reading Job; a verse I was looking for was literally in a different chapter in English. But this really hit home with the Ten Commandments. One verse in Hebrew becomes four in The King James. The change in versification affects tone, but it also makes it hard to understand a lot of the commentators’ writing on the importance of adjacent words and ideas—because the location has been changed.

2. Headings, Titles, and Other Unexpected Explanatory Info. Reading the King James Bible, a Jewish reader might be surprised to encounter the heading “The Tenne Commandments.” Similar headings occur in other older influential translations, like The Geneva Bible and Tyndale’s Bible. For Jewish readers who may have spent hours poring over rabbinic commentary on which commandments count in the Ten Commandments, or what is commandment one, this heading can be jarring. Similarly, it’s strange to be told in a heading what a psalm is about.

3. Names Often Mean Nothing in Translation. In Hebrew, names are a big thing—laughter is part of the name Yitzchak (Isaac), and holding on to a heel is the source of the name Yaakov (Jacob). One strangeness of reading the Bible in English is realizing that names mean nothing in translation, because they are generally transliterated, not translated. So an English reader can’t hear a tie between Eve and life, or Adam and earth.

4. Body parts are sometimes erased or flattened. Looking for Moses saying that he is arel sfatayim, or literally uncircumcised of lips, and figuratively not up to the speaking aspect of leadership, in English translation? Good luck. The lips are sometimes edited out. So too is yerech Ya’akov, literally the thigh of Jacob, and other evocative bodily moments.

5. Punctuation can be jarring. There are no question marks in the Hebrew scroll, but there are plenty of them in English translation. Ditto for exclamation marks, periods, and colons. Sometimes punctuation can change the entire meaning of a passage, since there is a big difference between a declarative sentence and a question.

6. Grammar often evaporates in translation. Sometimes a verb becomes a noun, as in the infamous case of Moses with horns as opposed to his skin beaming with light. And sometimes, when there has been centuries of discussion on what is happening grammatically in a particular phrase, the translation picks one option—and the English reader has no idea how much of a challenge that phrase is.

7. Complexity doesn’t always come across. Difficult sections in Hebrew are often simpler and clearer in English. It’s interesting to think about whether it’s a good idea to translate ambiguity, or whether the translator’s job is to pick one meaning and go with it. Whatever the reasons, many of the passages that have stumped rabbinic commentators for centuries, and have created pages and pages of commentary, become easy-to-understand declarative sentences in English.

It is this definite, clear tone that I found most surprising of all. This tone gives the misleading impression that there is only one way to understand a text. Many English translations only translate the pshat, the simplest understanding of the Torah text itself, and do not translate commentary. The reader of English may not realize that there is a rich tradition of Hebrew commentary that is thousands of years old, and that there is a long lineage of argument and discussion. Instead, the English reader often encounters one single authoritative Biblical text, presented alone.

The final surprise for me was how I felt during this reading project. Reading translations of the Hebrew Bible into English was sometimes a sad experience; I was overwhelmed by all that had been lost. But I still recommend that Hebrew-speaking readers spend time with translations of the Bible, especially translations from different faiths and centuries.

Why is it worth it?

The Bible in translation is the most important text in Western culture, and it can be dangerous to ignore it. Reading translations should be seen as a window into what millions of readers throughout the world think and feel; at the very least, whether we are Jewish or Christian, religious or secular, we should all be talking about how the particular Bible we read affects what we believe, and how language and translation have shaped us all.

Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, to be published September 8th by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House.

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In Search of Theological Modesty

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 | Permalink

by William Liss-Levinson

I wrote In Search of Theological Modesty: Biblical Lessons to offer some perspectives that may enable readers to re-conceptualize themselves as thoughtful, spiritual Jews. The twenty-first century is emerging as a challenging time for people with faith-based traditions who also seek paths of openness to pluralistic voices and streams of spirituality. I have been personally troubled by fundamentalism, extremism, triumphalism and an intolerance that is garbed in the certitude of how one person or one group speaks the “The TRUTH” in contradistinction to the views and beliefs of others. In Search of Theological Modestyis deeply rooted in traditional Jewish approaches to biblical exegesis, but also finds new ways to support a commitment to tolerance and respect through examination of key stories and commandments in the Torah.

Blending homiletics with psychological insights, with this book I sought to create images, themes, and lessons that are both particularistic and global. Through analysis of Biblical texts in the Five Books of the Torah, I illustrate three special themes I see within Judaism: placing God, and not ourselves, at the center of the universe; understanding the boundaries and limitations we have as human beings; and, recognizing the dangers inherent in the certainty that one’s beliefs and perspectives are the only ones reflective of God’s truth and will. This book will hopefully paint backdrops of possibilities for Jews, regardless of their particular beliefs, rituals, and practices, to be open to the potential validity and worthiness of the views and perspectives of others, a concept which I call “Theological Modesty.”

This book is intended primarily to raise questions and suggest some possible answers that require one to look through a different lens. Because the chapters are each relatively brief, the book is well-suited to be incorporated into synagogue adult education programs and in a variety of other educational forums, through which these issues can be explored. Finally, for theologically committed people of other faiths, I have hopefully presented the Jewish texts and other Jewish sources in a manner such that they, too, will find value in these chapters. Issues of pluralism and openness to differing views are certainly very much alive in other faiths as well. Intra- and inter-religious understanding is a challenge we all share. I invite people of varying backgrounds and understandings to join in my own search to more humbly approach my beliefs, other people, and their beliefs and faiths.

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E-Luminating Bedtime

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

If you're interested in innovations in the ebook community, you should probably familiarize yourself with Orson & Co., a New York-based company that rejects the idea that ebooks need to be aesthetically uniform. The company has created a reading application for their "e-luminated" editions called "e-lume." The app is pretty interesting, as it allows readers to "choose [their] own level of imaginative stimulus." The company outlines their basic premise by explaining:

At Orson & Co. we believe the fundamental pleasure of reading comes when an author's imagination ignites yours.

They accomplish this by allowing readers to tap windows on the app to reveal 'behind the scenes' footage, a gallery of curated images, the historical context of the work, along with any additional features that might be relevant to the book. Find out more information about Orson & Co. here.

Now, the reason we found out about this great company: The Oldest Bedtime Story Ever

This title is one of the debut titles from Orson & Co. and is set to pub next month. It's the first title in The Bible Beautiful Series, written and illustrated by Benjamin Morse. The Oldest Bedtime Story Ever features narrative, Morse's collages, and is intended for children ages 5-10 (and their parents, of course!). Check out the book's official website for a preview, information on the whole series, and downloadable templates for children to make their own collages.