The ProsenPeople

My First Midrash

Friday, June 12, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julie Baretz wrote about leading Christian tours of Israel and why she decided to make aliyah. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The idea for my book, The Bible on Location, grew from a study project designed to enrich my professional capacity to guide biblical sites in Israel. I set out to delve more deeply into the post-Torah books of the Tanakh – the ones that chronicle the Israelites’ trials and tribulations after arriving in the Promised Land – so that in addition to reading the stories on site, I could also provide commentary and food for thought.

Just as my teacher and I opened the Book of Joshua to the story of Rahab and the Israelite spies, an article appeared in the weekend newspaper about a rehab program for prostitutes in Israel. This led to an intriguing discussion of Rahab’s possible motivations for assisting the spies and betraying her people. As we read on, many fascinating questions arose, often in response to current events but also in the wake of cryptic information provided by the biblical authors and editors. Why is it stated that Ehud Ben Gera was left-handed? Why did Samson reveal the secret of his strength to the obviously manipulative Delilah? Why didn’t David punish his son Amnon for raping his sister Tamar? Did Ahab and Jezebel have a good marriage despite the zero-tolerance campaign she waged against his prophets?

Early on in the study process I knew I wanted to share what I was learning by writing a book. I chose twelve stories with compelling questions and set off to the library in pursuit of the answers, wading through books and articles on history, archaeology, literary criticism and rabbinic thought. I gathered threads from myriad sources and then wove them into commentary that answered my questions.

The process of literary sleuthing was exhilarating, but I soon realized that twelve sites didn’t sufficiently cover the biblical narrative arc or the geographic diversity of Israel. I chose eight more stories to complete the picture, but ran into a wall with the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s successor. I wasn’t able to connect to him, but as the subject of fifteen biblical stories, I couldn’t ignore him. I eventually found two illuminating articles on the story of Elisha and the wealthy Shunemite woman (II Kings 4). One lucidly explained the prophet’s role in the birth, death and resuscitation of the woman’s child, and the second discussed a commentary by an Israeli politician who, in a modern interpretation infused with Israeli political reality, accused Elisha of adultery. Good stuff, but neither article answered a curious question: why did the Shunemite woman, who had no sons, rebuff the prophet’s attempt to reward her with the birth of a baby boy?

I sniffed around for hints in the text. Shunem is mentioned a few times in the Tanakh, most notably as the hometown of Abishag, a beautiful young woman who was selected to warm the elderly King David in bed (I Kings 1). Maybe Shunem was well-known for its fetching females? Perhaps a limited but protected gene pool was producing outstanding beauties with similar features? It may then follow that the same inbreeding resulted in a tragic genetic mutation which caused death in infant males, which might explain why the Shunemite woman didn’t jump for joy at the prospect of conceiving a boy (I know, it’s a stretch). Yet, if the biological father came from a different gene pool the results could be different. This theory wouldn’t hold water academically, but I could respectfully present it as a midrash – traditional Jewish creative interpretation of text.

In a significant departure from the other nineteen chapters of the book, I wrote the commentary on II Kings 4 in the voice of the Shunemite woman. In presenting her version of the story, the two biggest challenges were explaining the genetic reality without using the word ‘genetics’; and elucidating how she conceived without specifically naming the father or casting aspersions on her husband or the prophet.

Is this modern midrash convincing? Read chapter 17 and decide for yourself.

Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Read more about her and her work here.

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Reading Tanakh with Christians

Wednesday, June 10, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julie Baretz wrote about why she decided to make aliyah. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

A man once got on a bus I was riding in Israel. He greeted the driver and a conversation ensued. Rapidly, however, the tones escalated until the two gentlemen were bellowing at each other. I didn’t speak much Hebrew at the time, but it looked like the passenger was about to sock the driver in the teeth. Yet, when we reached the next stop the tension evaporated as quickly as it had materialized. The driver opened the door, the two men shook hands and the passenger alighted with an amicable wave. I then realized I had just witnessed a thrilling round of Israel’s favorite national sport – the friendly argument.

A major impetus for writing my book, The Bible on Location, has been my work guiding Christian pilgrims in Israel. Christians who come to experience the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus comprise about 70 percent of incoming tourism - bread and butter for Jewish tour guides. I work frequently with American evangelicals; they are fervently interested in the context of Christian scripture and anything that will shed light on the Israel and the Judaism that Jesus knew. But their interest is not limited to the Gospels; they are just as passionate about Hebrew scripture. Most of them know the Tanakh very, very well; way better, in fact, then most Jews. Many of them have read it numerous times from cover-to-cover and almost all of them attend Bible study groups at their churches.


Jordan River Baptismal Site

How embarrassing it was, then, for me to realize that my Jewish smarts didn’t count for bupkis if I was only superficially acquainted with my own family history, the same one which the gentiles had so warmly adopted as their own. Serious study was in order, so I found myself a rabbi and together we dove deeply into the biblical texts. I was so intrigued by the timelessness of the biblical characters and by the endless associative modern parallels, that early on in the study process I knew I wanted to share my discoveries by writing a book. Meanwhile, I honed my commentary on my Christian pilgrims.

It’s been said that for Christians the Bible is the last word, while for Jews it’s the first. Jews like to question, to deconstruct, to dissect the biblical personalities, to up-end assumptions. In the attempt to crack the true meaning of a text we relish a difference of opinion and delight in debate. The smart aleck is king and there’s nothing we love more than a good argument l’shem shamaim, for heaven’s sake. But before I can spin an irreverent riff on Elijah the over-zealous prophet or the conniving, skirt-chasing murderer King David, I must first expound on the roots of our tradition to my gentile audience. That’s when I call on the undefeated champion of challenge, the super-hero of squabble, the Hebrew hammer of haggling: Abraham.

Abraham was fearless. When God threatened to destroy the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18, Abraham called him on it. “What if there are fifty righteous people there – will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” God conceded and Abraham boldly bargained Him down to a far better deal, convincing Him to save the two corrupt cities for the sake of a mere ten righteous people. This well-known and beloved story helps to explain that when justice is at stake, not only are we permitted to argue with the Creator, but we are obligated to do so. Hence our Jewish penchant for noisy disagreement. It’s helpful to point out that Jesus was a man of this culture; living at a time when Jewish law had not yet been finalized, he took an active part in the national discussion on how to interpret and understand the Torah.

After giving this explanation about Jews and arguing recently, a young pastor approached me with a concerned look on his face. It seemed he had something important to say. He took me aside. “Julie,” he said. “I think my wife is Jewish.”

Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Read more about her and her work here.

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Organic Zionism

Monday, June 08, 2015 | Permalink

Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Israeli tour guides are legendary. With their encyclopedic knowledge, hyper-enthusiasm and salt-of-the-earth dedication to the Zionist enterprise they magically draw you into a parallel universe where everyone’s Jewish, accomplished, and proud of it. Watching them in action thirty years ago, I knew this job was a perfect fit for me.

In truth, I didn’t have too many options. I was on my way to Israel a year out of college, my English literature BA wound tightly under my arm. I had no professional experience and no practical skills. Just stars in my eyes – the kind with six points.

My poor parents never understood me. They raised a fine Jewish family but making aliyah was not part of their game plan for us. Until his dying day my father insisted I moved to Israel to run away from my problems. My mother still maintains I was brainwashed by Young Judaea, my "fanatical bund." How else to explain this peculiar child who abandoned her family, boarded an El Al plane, and never looked back?

It certainly wasn’t nurture; I was the first person in my family to visit Israel. It wasn’t a religious awakening; I was done with synagogue services the day after my bat mitzvah. It wasn’t for love, either; I found that later. Ultimately it was nature, pure genetics; a mutation of the Jewish double helix as it spiraled down through the Diaspora over the ages. My Zionism is organic, the manifestation of a gene whose volume is dialed up really, really loud. “Julie,” it booms, “you’re Jewish. Get your butt over to Israel where you belong!” Some folks have a driving need to save the environment, or the animals. I feel compelled to save the Jewish people.

I share this gene with such notables as Moses, Ezra the Scribe, Golda Meir and Shimon Peres, although we are a select bunch. Of the 1.5 million Jews who left Eastern Europe from the turn of the twentieth century to the First World War, only 33,000 of them turned eastward to dusty Palestine, a meager two percent. A member of my family who was destined to join them was somehow bamboozled, or drugged, or dragged by the hair and ended up on the shtetl wagon heading west. That’s how I mistakenly wound up in America.

Don’t get me wrong – America is a wonderful place. I feel privileged to have been born and bred there, and I will never be Israeli in the way that I am American. But the two parts of my identity struggled with one another for years, and ultimately the Jewish side overpowered the American one. By a knock-out.

It’s undeniable. My neshama longs to be in Israel, surrounded by other Jews and immersed in Hebrew culture. It revels in the reverberations of antiquity humming down the pavements of the streets, through the books in the libraries and the in pots simmering in the kitchens. It pulses with the imperative to mold the work-in-progress that is the Jewish state. It aches to know all there is to know about Israel.


Ein Gedi

So, tour guiding was a calling waiting for me to answer. What do you seek in Israel - a spiritual experience at the Western Wall, or a mystical revelation in the mountains of Tsfat? The discovery of a historical thread beneath the stones of an ancient mountain fortress, or maybe a desert link to an ancestor who stood at Sinai? Tales of heroism, moral dilemmas or the juxtaposition of the words ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’? Would you like to meet a ‘new Jew,’ or perhaps an old one? Come. Take my hand. I promise to tell you everything.

Read more about Julie Baretz and her work here.

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