Earlier this week, Beth Kissileff shared the experiences and conversations that inspired Reading Genesis, a collection of essays on the Hebrew Bible by experts in range of non-rabbinic fields. Beth is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
Allow me to set evening scene: an up-and-coming neighborhood of Tel Aviv, inside an art gallery. An exhibit of jewelry, modish and elaborate made from of stones and leather, precious metals and gems. A talk by a leading Israeli fashion designer in a courtyard decorated with lights and hanging lanterns; an open bar and savory Mediterranean appetizers and desserts beckon. The high-heeled fashion crowd listens raptly as the winners of the jewelry competition are announced.
This is not what you think. This is a jewelry exhibition organized by 929, a website devoted to getting Israelis from all backgrounds to read just one of the Hebrew Bible’s 929 chapters a day, five days a week, to complete the cycle of reading in a little over three years, culminating in July 2018. Not only is the project commissioning jewelry inspired by the designs for the tabernacle and other decorative items in Exodus, but a different popular songwriter has been invited to write a song for each book. Artists have created animated movies and murals on themes around the stories from the Hebrew Bible at such venues as the First Train Station in Jerusalem and the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. The project is permeating Jewish Israeli culture with its religious heritage in a way that does not seem possible in the Diaspora.
929’s cultural network and access is proof that there is a unique liveliness and connection to Torah in Israel. Still, I’ve long wanted to import from Israel that holistic excitement around the ancient text. I want to contribute to the idea of the Bible as a text ready and willing to be possessed and interpreted by all, even those in the English-speaking world.
I don’t have the budget to start a jewelry design competition, but I did bring together writers from different perspectives to use their own expertise to say something about the Bible in my anthology Reading Genesis. In addition to the contributing anthropologists, historians, critics, psychologists, sexologists, culinary historians, and others, I asked two poets for pieces on the language and flavor of Genesis. Alicia Ostriker tackled the stories of Sarah and Hagar and the value of imagination in exploring the text:
To reimagine biblical stories is to discover more profoundly what a sacred text is capable of meaning. We dive into the text, we enter it, we find meaning like a deep-sea diver finding pearls. At the same time, the text dives into us, headlamp shining, illuminating the lives we are living.
Jacqueline Osherow added that “reading the Bible that turned me into a poet” since “it always seems to me, no matter what I’m trying to say, that the Bible has already put it perfectly.”
I asked two novelists, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Dara Horn, to discuss different characters from a writer’s perspective. Goldstein forges a unique explanation of what motivated Lot’s wife, her own combination of reason and human desire causing her to ask, “Voyeurism or skepticism, nostalgia or bravado: who was Lot’s wife and what had moved her to look back and risk all?”
Three law professors, including Alan Dershowitz, wrote on different aspects of code and statute in the prose. Geoffrey Miller elucidated some of the more perplexing aspects of how contracts operate in Genesis including what he calls the ‘”first blessing rule,” in light of the ways law operated in the ancient world.
I’m not asking anyone to take on the commitment of reading all 929 chapters of the Bible, only to engage with essays about the first 50. I do think that readers will come away with a fresh and lively sense of what the text can mean in the modern world, worth all the gems and pearls collected in Tel Aviv.
Beth Kissileff is an author and journalist, and frequent reviewer for the Jewish Book Council.
Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundraising and writing grants to develop a program to assist rabbis of all denominations with writing and publishing books. Kissileff is a rabbinic spouse and author of the novel Questioning Return as well as editor of the anthology Reading Genesis: Beginings.