Bruce Feiler’s latest title, Where God Was Born, almost flirts with the irreverent. Didn’t God exist before time for Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike? Still, the title almost suggests that God’s “birth” sprang from the mind of man, not the other way around. Was God born?
However, there’s nothing irreverent about the book. Clearly, it is written by someone who doesn’t claim to be a “traditional” (orthodox) observer of Judaism — in the sense of praying thrice daily, eating only glatt kosher and the like. Nonetheless, the author’s travels through the Holy Land and time demonstrate the agile strength of Feiler’s ties to his past along with his commitment to our present and future. He beautifully merges the three tenses of his culture and religious beliefs into a unifying volume — danger-ridden experiences of the present along the way that lend insight into what life might have been like in ancient times too for our forebears.
No Jew who has ever visited the Western Wall hasn’t been drawn to touch and rub his palm against it in some longing way to link himself to the past. In doing so, he, if only in his mind, travels to the precise place where, in tradition, the world began — where Abraham offered up Isaac and where God’s spirit resided when the Temple stood. In other words he “travels” to where, for Israel at least, God was born!
True, one must rely on his faith alone to believe these things, just as both Jews and Muslims must rely on faith alone to believe that Abraham is actually buried in what is accepted by both as the Machpeleh. But even those who don’t possess that blind, immovable faith during their pilgrimmage to Hebron recognize the importance of the tradition that says “It is so!” In a word, it’s the stuff that makes them Jews or Muslims, respectively.
And it’s the stuff of Feiler’s excellent new work — the latest in the fine pattern of Walking the Bible and Abraham before it. Without bragging, it presents the magical Middle East, where all the earthshaking events of the three monotheistic religions occurred, in terms both ancient and modern, by telling the reader of whatever denomination that we’re all in this together: that God was, indeed, “born” there for all of us. We just happen to see Him differently.
Joel Cohen is a former prosecutor, practices white-collar criminal law at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP and teaches Professional Responsibility at Fordham Law School. He has written Moses: A Memoir (Paulist Press, 2003) and David and Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes(Paulist Press, 2007).