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What Would a Jewish Narnia Look Like?

Friday, May 26, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Noah Beit-Aharon exposed the Biblical inspirations behind his epic fantasy series, Godserfs. With the release of Among the Fallen, the second volume in the series, Noah is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


There have been many intelligent responses to Michael Weingrad’s 2010 essay, “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” This should come as no surprise— it’s a provocative piece, at once insightful and maddening, falsifiable in its particulars and yet, on a basic level, essentially true. As many have pointed out, Weingrad’s essay fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of what kind of book would count as, in his words, “profoundly Jewish in the way that…The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian.” Wouldn’t the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer count? Weingrad’s very narrow definition of fantasy seems to exclude magical realism and other popular fantasy subgenres, while classifying only high fantasy and epic fantasy—those two subgenres most dominated by the influence of Lewis and Tolkien—as valid.

But even with the deck thus stacked in Christianity’s favor, Weingrad’s main question remains worthwhile: is the backward-looking sword-and-sorcery stuff that so many of us grew up with so inherently Christian that it’s impossible to produce great “profoundly Jewish” works within that context? In short, is a Jewish Narnia impossible?

In order to answer that question, I think we must first ask ourselves what makes the original Narnia so Christian. That may seem silly, but in this case I think stating the obvious is worthwhile: The Chronicles of Narnia are Christian allegory. Neither Jesus nor Satan nor any ministering angels appear in the novels, except as symbolized by Aslan and the like. I bring this up because Weingrad is very clearly not demanding more Jewish characters in fantasy—he wants a story that feels Jewish in the same way that Lewis’ work feels Christian. As such, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis’ books are not about the trappings of Christian mythology. They’re about its essence.

But if the essence of Christianity can be seen in themes like divine self-sacrifice, original sin, and Satan’s continued rebellion after the fall, what is the essence of Judaism?

I recently picked up Matthew Kressel’s King of Shards, a fun portal fantasy set in a multiverse that drips with Kabalistic theories and other Jewish symbols and trappings. Yet my mind still went back to Mr. Weingrad’s essay while reading, because although the setting and premise of King of Shards are indeed profoundly Jewish, the guts of the story are still those of a classic epic fantasy story: a Quest to Save the World. It was hard not to see there the powerful influence of Tolkien, and of Lewis, on the fantasy genre: even an undeniably Jewish fantasy novel is propelled by a plot that borrows more from the Christian ethos than a Jewish one.

Our founding documents do not deal with the power of humans to redeem the world: only God can redeem the world, and on that front God seems content to wait until the end times. Nor do humans (or demons, for that matter) threaten God’s creation in any serious way—God is the sole Granter of life and death, the Creator of both darkness and light, Master of good and evil.

The Jewish spirit does not worship God and fear the devil. It worships God, and fears God too.

It is notable that in the Torah, God is distinctly not engaged in a struggle for supremacy. It’s not that other gods don’t exist—Tanakh accepts the existence of gods other than our own, but insists that our own God is dominant over them. Even in Exodus, where one might expect some real conflict between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel, the latter seems to run roughshod over the opposition without any semblance of resistance. But if that sounds undramatic, if you’re wondering how such a dynamic could possibly lend itself to a good fantasy story, then perhaps you should read the Book of Exodus again. There’s plenty of drama! It’s just that the drama of the Torah resides not in the opposition of other divine beings to God, but in the constant struggle between God and the people of Israel.

When I began the Godserfs series with my first book, Silent Hall, my plan was to set the story in a world reminiscent of the Biblical one. I’d always been fascinated by the strange and horrifying world of Tanakh, where tricking one’s brother out of his birthright is okay but accidentally touching the Ark of the Covenant is a death sentence, and I wanted other readers to share my experience of the text in all its disturbing glory. I know that at least with some, I’ve succeeded. I have a friend who receives drashot from her favorite rabbis via email, and she keeps forwarding them to me every time some concept reminds her of my writing.

If one were to go searching for Biblical parallels in my series, one would find them by the ark-full: a Sinai generation made up of dragons, a Leviathan-like primordial plant monster, a godly pursuit as troubling and mysterious as the Bridegroom of Blood story, plus more midrashic references than you could shake a lulav at. The gods in Godserfs are mysterious and frightening, willing to wipe out a population or smite an individual over the pettiest of slights. There are also a whole lot of them, and they are frequently in conflict with each other. I chose to start the story in that polytheistic mindset because Judaism didn’t arise in a vacuum: it developed in reaction to the popular local religions of its day. The characters only start moving toward a monotheistic viewpoint over the course of the first book, when they discover the existence of a God Most High, and look to that god to save them from their divine enemies.

Importantly, the character of God Most High is no Enlightenment deity, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. That god may seem familiar to us, but is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible. In case we need a reminder, the God in Tanakh kills one of Judah’s sons for masturbating (or perhaps for using the pull-out method), smites Uzzah for having disastrously quick reflexes, tortures Job just to prove a point, punishes Moses for hitting a rock in frustration (and Miriam for criticizing her brother), and sends numerous plagues down upon the people of Israel. He also intentionally allows His people to be enslaved, just so He can show off later by freeing them. The point of Israelite monotheism is not that our God is kinder than Baal, it’s that He’s more powerful, and He’s the one we made a deal with.

The struggle in the Godserf series, as in the Jewish liturgy, is not to resist temptation or overcome the devil. The struggle is for the characters to convince God Most High to take their side and rise to their aid.

I make no claim to have a “Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds of the Oxford and Cambridge dons Tolkien and Lewis.” I am neither a Jewish Studies professor nor a yeshiva student. But for those who are interested in my vision of fantasy with a Jewish core, Silent Hall and its sequels will not disappoint. The Jewish Narnia awaits.

Noah Beit-Aharon lives in Waltham, MA, and is a member of Temple Beth Israel in Waltham. The first two installments of his Jewish-inspired epic fantasy series Godserfs, published under the pen name N. S. Dolkart, are available in paperback from Angry Robot Books.


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The Biblical Inspirations for My Fantasy Series

Monday, May 22, 2017 | Permalink

Noah Beit-Aharon is the nice Jewish boy behind the Godserfs epic fantasy series, published under the penname N. S. Dolkert. With the release of Among the Fallen, the second volume in the series, Noah is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


(Author’s note: in this essay, I use male pronouns while discussing the God of the Tanakh. I do this not because I believe that God is male, but because I am talking specifically about the Tanakhic God, and the Tanakh uses male pronouns.)

The setting of my fantasy series Godserfs is heavily influenced by my reading of the Tanakh, and the world evoked by the many conflicting stories and traditions within that text. While the first two books, Silent Hall and Among the Fallen, are rife with allusions and reimaginings, I want to take the opportunity to discuss three passages in the Hebrew Bible that directly influenced my writing.

Before we even begin, it is important to note that the Tanakh accepts and assumes the existence of multiple gods, besides the one “true” God. In Exodus 12:12, God says to Moses: “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” Numbers 33:4 confirms that God “executed judgments against their gods.” These other unnamed gods are less awesome (e.g. Psalms 86:8, “Among the gods there is none like you, Lord”), but they’re around, opposing our God and each other, and generally doing no good in the world.

This is also the case in my series, where the characters begin their journeys as polytheists completely unaware of God Most High, in this case the ancient god of the dragons. That god may turn out to be more powerful than all the other ones, as the name would imply, but the others are the ones that my main characters have to worry about. It’s unclear whether God Most High will protect them, or is even watching them at all. The Cartesian ideal of God as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent does not apply to the world of Silent Hall and Among the Fallen, any more than it applies to the world depicted in Exodus or Kings. At any time, God Most High might not be watching, might not be able to do anything about the characters’ problems, or might not care to.

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A biblical passage that particularly stands out as inspiration for the setting of the Godserfs series is this one from Exodus 32, where God sees the golden calf that the Israelites have made and decides He’s done with them:

Now leave me alone, (He says to Moses in verse 10,) so that my anger can blaze against them, and I can put an end to them! I will make a great nation out of you instead.

This passage echoes the Abrahamic covenant, but with a very dark message: if made sufficiently angry, God is willing to discard His own people. For all the promises to the avot (our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) that He would make them a great nation, the fact is that the Israelites are just a means to an end, and God is willing to start over with one or two of them as many times as He has to.

The gods of my novel are equally willing to discard their own peoples, and there is not always a Moses figure handy to talk them down. The action in the first book, Silent Hall, begins hundreds of years after a Moses-like character is betrayed and imprisoned by his own people (the dragons), causing their god to abandon them for good. By the time the main characters are born, dragons have been extinct for generations: their god decided to start over again with the draconic human hybrids that are the prophet’s descendants.

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Hopping backwards a bit, let’s look at one of the strangest and most confusing scenes in the entire Bible, Exodus 4:24-26: And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that the Lord met [Moses] and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and she said: “Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.” So He let him alone. Then she said: “A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.”

This bizarre passage, known as the Bridegroom of Blood episode, has befuddled commentators for centuries. These verses come immediately after God finishes giving Moses instructions on how to speak to Pharaoh—so why, after spending all this time grooming Moses to be His servant and messenger, would God suddenly seek to kill him? How does Moses’ wife Zipporah know that circumcising their son is the appropriate response, and just as importantly, why is it the appropriate response? Does God seriously mean to kill Moses for neglecting to circumcise his son?

The God in this passage is more than just mysterious, He’s terrifyingly fickle. He may talk to you one moment and smite you the next over something as small as a foreskin. I imagine the panic that Moses must have felt, not knowing what he’d done wrong or how to atone for it until his wife took over and saved the day.

I brought this mental image to my first novel, where a character who has inadvertently slighted a god is pursued through the woods and begins desperately trying to atone for whatever it is he’s done. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but here, too, the insult turns out to be small and strange. It takes some time to discover what my character has done to insult this god, especially since, like Moses, he’s already committed a murder.

(People forget that about Moses, but I think you can see why it’s Zipporah and not him who figures out the circumcision thing. When you’ve left your homeland because you killed a man, it’s kind of hard to go, “Oh, God must be mad because I neglected to circumcise my son.”)

If there is any lesson to be drawn from these first two passages, it is that divine jealousy plus inscrutability equals a very frightening world for its inhabitants. Such is the world my characters inhabit.

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There is one last biblical passage that bears mentioning. From Numbers 10:35:

Whenever the ark set out, Moses said: Rise up, Lord, and your enemies shall scatter, your foes shall flee before you.

This exhortation is crucial in the Jewish liturgy: we hear this passage whenever the Torah scroll comes out of the ark on the Sabbath, holy days, and before weekday readings. As Jon D. Levenson points out in his excellent scholarly work, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, the use of the imperative is crucial in our understanding of ancient Israelite religion. The continued existence of Israel’s enemies—and, by extension, God’s enemies—is seen as evidence of God’s delinquency, not His weakness or lack of existence or “working in mysterious ways.” The purpose of prayer is to shake God from His divine complacency and convince Him to help out.

This is also the quest undertaken by the characters of Silent Hall: to “awaken” the only god that can save them from their enemies. That god isn’t really asleep, of course, but that doesn’t make their quest any easier. They still have to get God Most High off the couch, as it were.

For those who love Bible-reference treasure hunts almost as much as they like fantasy novels, take heart: other parallels and allusions to midrash, the Talmud, and Jewish history are sprinkled throughout. But if I had to choose just one lesson readers should take away from my writing, it’s this: the Bible is a scary place to live.

Noah Beit-Aharon lives in Waltham, MA, and is a member of Temple Beth Israel in Waltham. The first two installments of his Jewish-inspired epic fantasy series Godserfs are available in paperback from Angry Robot Books.


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