Beth Kissileff is the edi­tor of Read­ing Gen­e­sis: Begin­nings, 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.

Your ideas come too much from else­where,” was one of the com­ments I received on a paper about Deuteron­o­my in grad­u­ate school, atten­dant to a dis­ap­point­ing grade. 

I was writ­ing about the Bible’s first mur­der mys­tery. Deuteron­o­my 21:1 – 9 talks about a corpse found by itself in a field, no trace to iden­ti­fy the slay­er. Foren­sics in the ancient world not being quite what they are today, the best solu­tion was in a rit­u­al to expi­ate those in the adja­cent towns from any guilt they might bear in the case. After all, if a body is found in your town, you may not have accom­pa­nied the per­son prop­er­ly or giv­en suf­fi­cient food or water to the trav­el­er. In my mind the rit­u­al was more of a social form, to encour­age the group to work togeth­er and per­haps pro­mote future safe­ty of those jour­ney­ing in its envi­rons. I did a great deal of care­ful research and had proof to back up my claims, yet my teacher remained uncon­vinced of my interpretation.

After a while, though, I real­ized my Bible pro­fes­sor was doing me a favor in stat­ing the obvi­ous. Yes, my inter­est in the text was main­ly in how it inter­act­ed with ideas swirling around and through it, ideas from else­where. So I didn’t do my dis­ser­ta­tion on the Bible itself, but on its trans­la­tions and their effect on Renais­sance Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, to see the sacred text in the ver­nac­u­lar set­ting of yet anoth­er language. 

But even though my degree wasn’t in Bible, it was still my text as a Jew, some­thing I con­tin­ued to read, write, and think about, and to see as a pow­er­ful source for cre­at­ing mean­ing, a way to inte­grate into the Jew­ish con­ver­sa­tion of the ages. I couldn’t pub­lish on the sub­ject as an expert in the field, for I am not, but was look­ing for a way to make this text that I loved so much mean­ing­ful to a larg­er swath of read­ers than just those who can read schol­ar­ly work.

I won­dered what would hap­pen if I took peo­ple who had exper­tise from else­where, plen­ty of it, and asked them to use that knowl­edge and apply it to the text. What if a lin­guist wrote on the Tow­er of Babel? Or a lawyer on con­tracts in Gen­e­sis? A polit­i­cal sci­en­tist on lead­er­ship and group cohe­sion? A sci­en­tist who stud­ies eat­ing behav­ior on Adam, Eve and the con­sump­tion of the fruit? An ethi­cist on the nature of forgiveness?

I did just this in edit­ing my anthol­o­gy Read­ing Gen­e­sis: Begin­nings. Like myself, none of the writ­ers are Bible schol­ars, but mix­ing things up and bring­ing in ideas from else­where gives new mod­ern mean­ing to the text. I have enjoyed the process of edit­ing the essays and com­pil­ing the vol­ume, find­ing an out­let for my desire to see the text from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive — and giv­ing oth­ers a chance to do so, too.

I don’t know whether my pro­fes­sor would approve of a dis­cus­sion of the text with­out schol­ar­ly appa­ra­tus (of a back­ground in ancient Near East­ern, knowl­edge of philol­o­gy of anti­quat­ed lan­guages, and a com­plete sense of the tex­tu­al vari­ants among ancient edi­tions and trans­la­tions). But, in an odd coin­ci­dence, I just inter­viewed his son, a jour­nal­ist, whose book I am reviewing. 

When I tell the professor’s son about my vol­ume and how in a round­about way I got the idea from his father, he tells me excit­ed­ly how he remem­bers as a kid over­hear­ing his father on the phone in his study, ask­ing ques­tions of farm­ers and butch­ers and crafts­peo­ple. My pro­fes­sor was inter­est­ed in details from out­side the text, want­i­ng to know how farm­ers did things, what imple­ments they used, to learn from them and get details so that he could get the tex­tu­al realia right.

So maybe then this sense of else­where I’d thought my pro­fes­sor was say­ing was neg­a­tive wasn’t at all, but a nec­es­sary part of the toolk­it of the schol­ar. I am just deploy­ing the tools in a dif­fer­ent way than I would have in grad­u­ate school as the edi­tor of my own anthology.

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.