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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.