The ProsenPeople

A Travel Tip

Friday, February 26, 2010 | Permalink

In his last posts, David Rosenberg, whose latest books are A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, wrote about the possibility of a Judeo-Christianity bookstore section and writing about writers. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A little gem, Hotel St. Michel is where we used to stay before we moved down to Florida. It was recommended by poet Yehuda Amichai, who called it “old Tel Avivi.” Around the corner from Books&Books, the most author-centric store in Florida, its owner, along with the manager of the St. Michel, both friends, teamed up to provide a copy of  A Literary Bible: An Original Translation for each hotel room, in lieu of a Gideon’s Bible. (You can google the Miami Herald story.)

Although I’d rather recommend the original hotels in Tel Aviv (and wish we were there, too), my point is that literary risk-taking is somewhat out of fashion. It’s stuck to the page, not to real life; it’s not to be found in Bible-less hotels. It’s even hard to imagine anything you can put into a memoir that would seem risky these days; for instance, a literal Oedipus-complex confession—sleeping with mother and killing father—is rather routine, and probably wouldn’t get you on Oprah. The real life of the author is most often bought and spent in university classrooms, so a real risk might be to imagine the ivory tower as nightmare or Kafka’s castle. We’re still waiting for that.

In a recent piece in the L.A. Times, the wonderful writer Dani Shapiro describes “the writer’s apprenticeship” as a soulless slog through “uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment.” Still, although there’s a safety net in academe, Shapiro neglects to mention it, arguing that lawyers and doctors have it easier upon graduation, while “writing school guarantees [writers] little other than debt.” If that were all too true, we might get some riskier writing—and thinking about writing—that walks the edge of financial ruin. Writing that goes against the grain, like the Bible’s Psalm 6, where the poet finds himself in the gutter through no fault of drugs or crime. The authenticity of his or her voice is so startling because the reader who is appealed to is something completely other—God or a soul. What kind of a writer is that, who can create such soul-shaking contrasts?

I’d say he was a lost writer, deeply lost to our culture. A biblical writer whose original Hebraic culture has been erased by tradition, but that a love of real history can begin to restore. Not long ago, after the Holocaust, not only individuals had been erased but also European Jewish culture. And far deeper into the past, after the destruction by the Assyrians of the first Jewish kingdom, the fountainhead of Hebraic culture and its great writers—fundamental to Western art—were erased. So I would ask: Should restoration not be properly called “the Jewish art?” And should not the ironies of loss, as in the Prophets and the great Jewish moderns, be called “Jewish Soul?”

Furthermore, doesn’t the writer of today need the lost Hebraic culture as classical bedrock for contemporary imagination? And isn’t Western culture today, as it is built upon the Renaissance of ancient Greco-Roman culture, or humanism, missing its counterpart: a classic Hebraic culture in need of restoration? If we call it “Judeo-Christianity,” can it become vital again? Or, as David Gelernter responded to me: “If the author of Job were named Sophocles, our whole understanding of classical antiquity and Western civilization would be different.”

I’ve also had a dialogue on this with poet Reginald Gibbons, who teaches classics at Northwestern and who has recently published a translation of Sophocles’ poems, many of them extracted from his dramas. You make a case for the sensibility of Sophocles, I said to Reg, and you’re able to locate it in both the poems and the dramas. Yet when it comes to the Bible, the assertion of an author’s sensibility is considered chutzpah. Instead, it is all explained away as aspects of the “text,” not of human beings.

“Now imagine that there was no Sophocles,” I continued, “but only an anonymous author to the poems you translated. Imagine too that the age of composition, not to mention the methods, was in doubt over a six century span. And further, imagine that Sophocles was mixed in with Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Sappho,, with no names, and that it was all considered part of ‘the biblical tradition.’ So you begin to have an idea of what happened to the Hebraic classical period in retrospect, to the degree that a tradition of pious anonymity was invented to take its place.”

And here is one vivid example from the major reviews of the past few weeks: the current fiction bestseller, The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason, enters into the Homeric text at a level of psychological interaction (and reverence) that no secular Jewish writer is known to attempt with biblical text (as in the manner of passages in the Midrash). Surely AgnonSinger and other lesser writers revere biblical “stories” and text, echoing and retelling, and there can be complexity and “spirit” there, but the complement of Hebraic culture is missing—not only the writers but their colleagues in other arts and ancient intellectual fields, including translators and historians.

Isaac Bashevis Singer tried to account for this—only half-humorously—in the disarming essay I barely coaxed out of him on Genesis (included in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible). Singer identified the Creator as the author of all of us, yet far from writing God out of the Bible, Singer put him more deeply inside, by empathizing with all the mishigas that the Creator endures, when it comes to humans as his collaborators. So there it is, Singer’s trace of lost Hebraic culture, the author-as-creator and the collaborators of history. Today, whatever meshuganah misinterpreters of our own work that we writers have to endure, according to Singer, it’s nothing compared to Genesis, let alone what came after.

In An Educated Man, as in my biblical translation of A Literary Bible, I hoped to build upon Singer’s intuition and evoke the sensibilities of our original Jewish writers. By considering the biblical figures of Moses and Jesus (and the historical authors behind them) as seriously as we consider major writers today, I’m perhaps risking too much. But it’s a risk like a wish: Philip Rieff’s posthumous wish for a bridge of reading between the sacred text and the secular.

So how do you encourage risk—as a writing instructor might wonder—without danger? You can make risk “successful” by turning it into a critique of success, constantly testing it. We have only to look at the Israelis, to consider how any Israeli in their lifelong army service has assimilated risk into his or her normal life. An Israeli “writer” transcends genre: she can be a software writer as well as a poet, yet in either case failure is honored, as it is in the sciences, when a greater success is risked—as it is often in the name of survival. We in North America now seem to honor success in the arts first and foremost; we may have lost our taste for risky failures.

Consider the Israeli poet Michal Govrin’s latest bookAnd So Said Jerusalem: Poems and Hymns, (Hebrew), published by Devarim/Carmel. It comes complete with subtle drawings by Orna Millo and an attached CD of Michal reading her work. That CD is necessary because her voice risks the allegory of the “Voice of Jerusalem” speaking, echoing the biblical voices of Rachel’s lament, for instance—but more importantly, in Michal’s own physical presence suggesting the flesh and blood Jerusalem authorship of the Bible. I believe she succeeds, though the risk itself is breathtaking enough.

Finally, I’m ready to answer the question I posed in my last post. What we should expect of a general reader’s education is no more nor less than a religious believer expects from the Biblical text: truth, honor, art. The difference for the secular reader may be simply that we tolerate failure to a greater degree. And yet that is something we can transform into sublimely human experience when we risk imagining the struggles of the original writers of the Bible. But allow me to leave you with a travel tip: check your hotel drawer and prepare to deal with failure, whether a Bible is missing or it is there, complete with the buried authors.

Read Jonathan Kirsch’s (Moses: A Life) review of Rosenberg’s An Educated Man in the Jewish Journal here.

David Rosenberg’s newest books, A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, are now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The Judeo-Christianity Section

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 | Permalink

In his last post, David Rosenberg, whose latest books are A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, wrote about writing about writers. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

We were in the South Miami Barnes & Noble the other day when Rhonda called me over to say that they’ve already got the book in. An Educated Man was sitting cover out — but smack in the middle of the “Christianity” section.

Oh no, I thought, nobody would be looking in there. It would be like putting Karen Armstrong in Judaica. But then Rhonda reminded me there would hardly be a Judaica section in Dubuque and a thousand other medium-sized cities in North America. Even so, this thought made me feel even more uncomfortable. No, I wouldn’t want to lobby for Judaica sections the way Jewish academics had to once lobby for Jewish Studies departments at universities. As it is, in most places largely Christian, the few Jewish books can be lumped together with Buddhist and Hindu tomes under “Eastern Religion.”

So it came to me that what we need is something altogether nonexistent and counter-intuitive: a “Judeo-Christianity” section, for some of the books in Judaica and some in Christianity that are more broad-based — and where history starts in Jewish history, or at least acknowledges it as bedrock. Reading in this section requires a Hebraic cosmic theater. Even the Pope’s bestseller biography of Jesus could go there, since it makes a large effort to excavate Jesus’s Jewish background, as well as withholds a cross from the cover. Furthermore, it does not proselytize. It could sit right next to Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers and Moshe Idel’s last book, Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism. Eclectic it may sound, but just think, every new Jewish book and every new Christian book about to be published would have to be rethought: Can it fit in “Judeo-Christianity”? And before these books are even written, the thought of a potential fit there could alter, however slightly, an author’s consciousness. Best of all, it would render the strictly Jewish and Christian sections more self-conscious, as they should be.

Of course I am dreaming. Better to start with building the argument from scratch, and that’s what I’ve hopefully begun in An Educated Man.

David Rosenberg

When I think of contemporary literary history, I find a source for Judeo-Christian studies in Edmund Wilson’s book on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s hard to imagine another literary critic like Wilson back in the 1960s who would feel it necessary to read Hebrew. A more current example is the poet Peter Cole, who is completing a study of the Cairo Genizah with his wife, Adina Hoffman. This 19th-century discovery of a treasure trove of buried fragments of Jewish texts in some ways parallels the Dead Sea Scrolls in significance, though its material dates from a millennium later, and much is in Hebraic-Arabic. The Genizah attracts Cole’s interest in a heterodox Levantine history, Jewish as well as Christian and Muslim. In both cases — the Hebrew scrolls of Qumran and the Hebrew or Hebraicized books of Cairo — Jewish history is bedrock, as the Hebrew Bible is to the New Testament and Koran.

In more recent history, poet Adam Kirsch’s fresh biography of Disraeli exposes Jewish and Christian relations in 19th-century England, while poet Grace Schulman goes further back, in two scintillating essays on Biblical books she includes in her new volume, First Loves and Other Adventures. Each of these books belongs with An Educated Man on a newly minted Judeo-Christianity shelf, which encourages a broad education, yet one based in Jewish history.

I rest my case, though surely the guardians of the status quo will object that I am muddying the religious waters. On the contrary, by strengthening self-consciousness, we enlarge our cultural perspective. It is, after all, a deeply Jewish matter when we dig into the historical authors of the Bible and just who—what kind of writer and reader — was their ancestral author Moses. And when some officials complain that we should only care about the “text” and not how it came to be, I wonder: Would they give the same advice to their grown children, not to look back on family history but to swallow it on face value?

A sentence from Phillip Lopate’s touching new study, Notes on Sontag, haunts me. He writes of his college days at Columbia: “I had a foolish adolescent-atheist animus toward religion as a subject, not yet understanding its possibilities as a gateway to cultural study,” which he suggests was a reason he did not enroll in Susan Sontag’s course in Religion. But Sontag’s emphasis on the cultural was reductive; her argument was with an existential interpretation of Christian thinkers, starting with Paul and Augustine, thus hanging our Jewish antecedents out to dry. Indeed, the Jews of ancient (and modern) Israel and Judea only existed for Sontag as a home to run away from — how else can one attain the glamour of exile, in which she self-identified as “an international Jew?”

This is beautifully argued in David Gelernter’s seminal new book, Judaism: A Way of Being. Gelernter is from a parallel universe of the Ivy League (Yale rather than Columbia), arguing that “the Bible’s eye for (and obsession with) deep psychological truth is uncanny.” He goes on to evoke that uncanniness as has rarely been seen since Rosenzweig’s Star, and ultimately he turns Sontag’s exilic fantasy inside-out: “Throughout the long Diaspora Israel would show its devotion to its Creator—and to its childhood home.”

Yet now we are grown up, Gelernter continues, and we know that the expression “you can’t go home again” was also a Sixties generation fantasy. Israel, as the biblical exemplar of “home,” exists today precisely as a universal testament to complex historical fact; however fraught its existential situation, it requires a creative stance both canny and uncanny — a self-awareness that a Susan Sontag never had to employ.

In An Educated Man, I probe beyond cultural meaning to the border between natural and supernatural worlds. A typical border-town ambience exists there: everyone is thoroughly confused but too intoxicated to notice. Anything can be had for a price, except honor — and the Torah, our historical guide to honor. Speaking of price, I’m put in mind once again of the Torah’s writers and those Jewish writers who came after, myself included. A friend reminded me of a pious midrash that warns not to make a profit from Torah. If factual, then the sages could not have tolerated writers per se, but only in disguise, such as writers of commentary. Let me reply as I do in my book, but this time outside of the lives of Moses and Jesus, each of whom I have evoked as a writer. First, this midrash comes from an era in which the Hebrew Bible was already canonized and the memory of its original authorship by ancient Hebraic writers long forgotten. The earlier writers lived in a Hebraic culture perhaps more sophisticated in its borrowings from world cultural history. They could read, translate and transform from many languages and genres. So these biblical writers had to be among the educated elite and thereby have no problem making a living (one hopes). A modern fad in history-telling, however, focuses on ancient life in terms of the “average” person, under the subject heading “daily life.” And yet, the educated elite were also part of daily life, so why does their education still go unexamined? It’s somewhat uncanny, don’t you think? Because Jewish culture has a long historical emphasis on education. So that is one aspect of the cultural mystery I had to dig into, in detail, in An Educated Man.

And that’s why I’ve taken pains as well to give context to the literary educations of Moses and Jesus, and not only to the writers who came after. They too were among an elite—in Joshua Ben Joseph of Nazareth’s (Jesus’s) case, among the fifty thousand educated souls in Galilee alone. Why should we expect less, when his broad range of allusion to historical sources is written into the New Testament? And my reply to the “profit” motive is that making “a living” is a different thing altogether. Even the rabbis of the Talmud made a living from teaching, bare as it may have been. And if not, then they were supported by their communities, perhaps by alms, as some clergy are today. But the earliest biblical writers, living for the most part in a broad-based national culture, had a wider range of patronage, in particular by the royal government as court writers. And the schools of the prophets who came after were no doubt patronized by many communities, elite and average alike.

Now that you know I have to stand as a writer beholden to a public community—peopled namely by you, the readers—what should I expect of your own educations? The answer, I hope, will be in my next post.

David Rosenberg’s newest books, A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, are now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The Writer of Writers

Monday, February 22, 2010 | Permalink

David Rosenberg, whose latest books are A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My two new books are both about Jewish writers in times when we like to pretend there were no Jewish writers—just Jewish prophets, priests, and proto-rabbis or “sages.” Even today, it’s fashionable to claim that a writer of the Middle Ages such as Yehuda Halevi is among the first Jewish writers. But I ask you: Is not the Hebrew Bible also Jewish writing? Are not the myriad apocryphal books of Hellenistic times Jewish writing? Is not the Talmud and Midrash?

The answer I most often hear is that writers of all these foundational works of Jewish literature did not identify as writers but, as I said, “sages”—or even, according to a popular trope among Biblical scholars, as pious “invisiblists,” men and women who were so humble they preferred anonymity, so that even their wives (or husbands) didn’t know what they were doing all those long hours up in the attic. Of course, today we are so backward that writers actually expect to make a living from writing. And not only that, but to be recognized as thinkers and invited to lecture and blog, just as I am doing now.

Already I am thinking: two long paragraphs and I haven’t even mentioned the titles of my books. If readers don’t have the titles stamped into their foreheads, they will find something better to do than check my author page at and maybe order a book. And then, when the rent comes due and the account balance hovers near empty, what will I say to my wife? That I was too idealistic to care?

So let me assert, as justification for my newest title, how for Moses or for Jesus there were no old or new testaments, but rather a long history of writers and writing. Their access to this history is so pervasive that their literate educations should not be in question. To ask where and how they got their education is to ask how the Bible was written. And yet the subject we are most absent-minded about today is precisely this one: how and in what writers were the biblical authors themselves educated? It is a historical question, but Jewish history is the proof of revelation itself, as most ironically elucidated in the twentieth century by Franz Rosenzweig, in his The Star of Redemption. And now I’ve already named another book, a guiding inspiration, before my own.

Since we live in an era when history, especially ancient history, seems a quaint subject beside our modern social progress and intellectual self-regard, a lack of Jewish education works to the advantage of our modern Jewish writers. Whatever they may have known, the writers often named as our American Jewish forefathers, BellowRoth, and Mailer among them, showed little interest in Jewish history prior to the twentieth century. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, even modern Israeli authors echo (if they do) biblical “stories” or “text”—which are timeless—rather than flesh and blood biblical writers. The actual biblical writers, in order to be imagined in their living Hebraic culture, require a sense of historical context, and even a love of Jewish history.

And to conclude for now, perhaps I have arrived at the point where the title of my newest book is necessary to sum up this first of three posts to the Visiting Scribe. An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, presents Moses as the core writer-figure of the Torah—and indeed, in his influence, of the entire Bible, including New Testament. Biography is the appropriate approach because it forces us to acknowledge the later biblical writers who transformed the work of Moses into the Torah (and its further elaboration) in Jerusalem. There can be no life of Moses without knowing where “his” words come from, both in his own historical education, in Egypt and in Midian, and in the ancient Hebraic culture that produced so many profound writers we have lost.

In the next post, I want to dig deeper into why I believe a Jewish writer today needs history more than ever. In a review last week of Jeffrey Herf’s new book, Nazi Propaganda in the Arab World, Adam Kirsch writes that the anti-Semitic lies can be “so shameless, so contrary to every evident fact, that they seem to render facts meaningless.” But the Jewish education in history, already embedded in Moses’ Torah, is about the struggle for facts and origins. Even today, I ask in the final chapters of An Educated Manif we can truly call a liberal university education and any of its degrees meaningful—if it remains ignorant of the biblical passion for origins and how our Jewish heritage came to write itself into history. Yet further, can we now, all of us caught up in Western culture, risk forging a new definition of Judeo-Christianity? And can our Jewish writers help us, risking the time off from our success-oriented careers to immerse ourselves in Jewish historical consciousness?

David Rosenberg’s newest books, A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, are now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.