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.