Twenty-Three Ways (and Counting) of Looking at the Bible
By Martin Green
Review of Reading Genesis: Beginnings, edited by Beth Kissileff (Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2016)
Beth Kissileff’s recent anthology Reading Genesis: Beginnings presents twenty-three ways of looking at the first book of the Hebrew Bible. Well, perhaps not twenty-three distinct ways of reading Scripture, but twenty-three authors weigh in, applying tools, many from secular disciplines, to find new meanings in these ancient texts. And these approaches, including game theory, leadership studies, and cognitive science, probably don’t exhaust the possibilities. “There are seventy faces of Torah,” maintains a traditional Jewish saying quoted by legal scholar Alan Dershowitz in his essay. Dershowitz also quotes Rabbi Ibn Ezra, the towering medieval genius, to the effect that “anyone with a little bit of intelligence and certainly one who has knowledge of the Torah can create” his or her own interpretations. These essays illustrate Ibn Ezra’s insight with varying degrees of success.
Interpretation in traditional Jewish sources can take many forms. Rabbi Ishmael, a famous Talmud figure, maintained there were thirteen rules for textual interpretation, all of which involved clarifying and expounding a text by some reference to some other text (a proof text) or by some interplay of verbal resemblance. For example, a Talmudical passage, included in the daily prayer book of Conservative Jews, Siddur Sim Shalom, raises the question of how doing justice is equivalent to the act of creation. Compare the King James versions of Exodus 18:13 and Genesis 1:5:
And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening. (Exodus)
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. (Genesis)
The argument is that since the two events are described with similar language, they must be connected.
Midrash—invented narratives that fill in the spaces of the text—is another and familiar form of interpretation, often resulting from Rabbi Ishmael’s methods. Kissileff, a journalist, novelist, and Jewish studies teacher, appeals to these traditions when she discusses the motivation for her putting together this volume: her desire to connect the “sacred text with ideas from ‘elsewhere.’”
In fulfilling her goal, she calls upon a variety of writers, ranging from social science experts (Steven Brams, Geoffrey Miller, Ronald Krebs) to novelists and poets (Dara Horn, Alicia Suskin Oistriker, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein), with a sprinkling of pop culture icons like sex guru Dr. Ruth Westheimer and food writer Joan Nathan. Some of the essays are excerpts from previously published works (some not well integrated into the anthology; Bram’s piece, for example, has footnote numbers from the original but no footnotes). Some, like Westheimer on sex in the Bible and Nathan on food, are pleasant reads but are more like apologias for the Bible rather than interpretations that move our understanding to a higher plane.
For a literary scholar like me, the strongest essays in this collection are ones that are grounded in the texts themselves. This is not to suggest that others lack interest, although I found some (like Bram’s application of game theory to the creation narrative) apt illustration of the Roman poet Horace’s warning about the mountain laboring to give forth a mouse.
The main sources of inspiration for many of the essayists are modern literary readers such as Erich Auerbach, Robert Alter, and Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, rather than the traditional pantheon of interpreters known by their acronyms: Rashi (Shlomo ben Yitzhak), Rambam (Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides), Ramban (Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides), and Radak (David Kimchi). Each of the first trio receives more entries in the book’s index than the latter group does.
I was especially struck by the homages in the book to Auerbach’s famous essay, “Odysseus’ Scar,” the first chapter of Mimesis, his legendary study of realism in the Western tradition. I first read this piece more than 50 years ago as a first-year graduate student and it was a delight to become reacquainted with it here. Written while Auerbach (photo at right) lived and taught in Istanbul as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, Mimesis has become a classic of twentieth-century literary study. More than 70 years since it was first published in German it still commands attention, not only for the audacity of its composition (lacking adequate libraries, Auerbach relied on his prodigious memory to write the book), but also for the clarity and grace of its insights. His thesis in “Odysseus’ Scar” is stunningly simple but also rich and complex. The thesis: Homer’s famous description of Odysseus’s scar in Book 19 of The Odyssey and the Akedah story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in Genesis 22 are contrasting and framing poles for traditions of realism in Western culture. The former presents a world all on the surface, in which details concatenate to foreclose interpretation or at least to make it somewhat redundant, while the latter is sparing of detail, in effect demanding interpretation.
“It would be difficult to imagine,” Auerbach wrote,
styles more contrasted than those of the two equally ancient and equally epic texts. On the one hand, externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and in a definite place connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground. . . . On the other hand, the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent. . . . [T]he whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal . . . , remains mysterious and “fraught with background.”
Notwithstanding that Auerbach may have underestimated scholarly ingenuity—interpretations of Homer are as legion as those of the Bible—his insight holds true, as generations of Jews have found in the countless sermons and interpretations of the Akedah preached annually at Rosh Hashanah (New Year) services.
In Kissileff’s volume, literary critic Sander Gilman provides an eloquent and moving tribute to Auerbach in his opening paragraph and then plays off him by looking at what appear to be peripheral characters in the biblical story: Abraham’s two servants who accompany him and Isaac on their three-day journey to Mount Moriah. Why are the servants mentioned at all? They play no role in the subsequent action. It would seem to be a needless detail in a tale that is sparing of detail. From this curiosity, Gilman builds a meditation on the idea of waiting in Jewish tradition (and in Western culture, too). His text abounds with echoes of the modern condition, with allusions to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Beckett’s tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, and all the rest of us “who sit and wait . . . while others are acting, while others hear and answer the divine.”
“There is an old cliché,” Gilman writes, “that being Jewish in the modern age is simply being modern and that being modern is simply being a Jew; that all the anxieties that modern man experiences—alienation from the world to the sense of impotence in action—define both states.” For Jewish tradition, waiting for the Messiah is the ultimate form of Jewish waiting. But, he reminds us, in conclusion, that there is a more purposive sense of waiting in Jewish tradition. “The act of waiting,” Gilman writes, “for Jews is not being impotent or passive; it is engaging in the meaningful activities of daily life, those so often dismissed as the activities done to pass the time.” This sense is embodied in the traditional mitzvoth that guide and shape Jewish life. “Being Jewish,” Gilman asserts, “is waiting productively.” According to Maimonides’ exposition of the traditional mitzvoth (commandments), the 497th Mitzvah is “to help others load their beast,” like Abraham’s servants.
Novelist Dara Horn provides one of the strongest essays in this collection. Like Gilman, her piece is inspired by Auerbach, but also indebted to Robert Alter’s approach to biblical narrative. Horn weaves the verbal echoes within the long cycle of tales of Jacob and his sons—the Jacobiad, as it were—to trace Jacob’s development as a character, from a manipulative youth to a mature man of humility and responsibility. In this regard, Horn sees the Bible (or at least Genesis) as a revolutionary document in that “its narratives involve character development. . . . The implications of this purely literary fact are vast, entailing nothing less than a complete reshaping of the idea of human potential.”
Similarly, Judith Osherow, a poet, responds to the verbal texture of the saga to come to an appreciation of the centrality of the character of Judah in the unfolding narrative. For both Horn and Osherow, it is primarily a human story, with recognizable human motivations and conflicts, with recognizable human flaws. What gives their readings their distinctive quality is the way they are alert to the nuances of the Hebrew text. Osherow, for example, finds verbal echoes in the narrative of Judah’s emerging as a central moral force in the Joseph story that link him to his ancestors and to his descendant, King David.
Osherow’s text-based approach is contrasted by Renan Levine’s take on the same story. Deploying a formidable bibliography of leadership studies, political theorist Levine sees the story as one of emergent leadership in a group. He traces the development of ancient Hebrew society from its origins in a nomadic culture of small-scale units to its later complexity. His conclusions about Judah’s central role are similar to Osherow’s, however, and it’s not clear to me whether Levine’s exercise illuminates the Bible or if the Bible is being used to illuminate leadership theory.
Another attempt to deploy an external theory to illuminate the Bible (the heart of Kissileff’s enterprise) is Ronald Krebs’ interpretation of the Akedah through the lens of “resistance” theory. Krebs attempts to answer the vexing question of why Abraham, the embodiment in traditional Judaism of the virtue of chesed (loosely translated as “loving-kindness”), does not question God’s injunction to take “your son, your favored one, whom you love, Isaac” and offer him up as a burnt offering—and this when only a few chapters earlier Abraham had offered God a spirited argument to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Krebs’s answer, partially based in the verbal peculiarities of the text such as the convoluted sentence just quoted, is that Abraham does resist in a manner akin to the resistance of the weak, going about his grim task with deliberate slowness until the angel intervenes. Krebs’ elegant solution to this troublesome tale (with its central role in Jewish liturgy and literature) is compelling if not completely convincing.
Are there any boundaries to interpretation? Some of the interpretations of traditional Midrash might suggest a negative answer. This is a question that has also been the focus of the last half-century of debates over literary theory, and Kissileff’s book raised it for me anew. One essay in this collection seems to me to veer close to the edge of interpretive limits. Jeffrey Shoulson, a professor of literature and Jewish studies who has written extensively on conversion in early modern Europe and on John Milton, links Woody Allen’s character Kuglemass (who inserts himself into Madame Bovary, both the novel and the character) to the biblical character of Joseph, the first assimilated Jew. Along the way, he comments on the academic study of Milton by Jews as a paradigm of assimilation: Jewish scholars reading one of the strongest of Christian poets, as Harold Bloom might say, who himself was steeped in Jewish tradition. The result is an amusing mélange, almost a parody of academic cleverness, but one that takes us far away from the text.
I am reminded of the famous scene in Jules Dassin’s delightful 1960 film Never on Sunday in which the visiting writer Homer takes his Athenian prostitute companion to see a Greek tragedy. Much to Homer’s dismay, for his companion with her sunny optimism, the drama she witnesses (probably Medea) is a heartwarming tale of family reunion and happiness complete with a trip to the seashore. With the exception of Shoulson’s piece, none of the essays in Kissileff’s book goes as far off the track as this “misreading,” but the best are the ones that are rooted in the biblical text itself with its subtleties of expression and all its fissures and silences.
Martin Green taught classical and medieval literature and mythology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is professor emeritus and is currently writing a book on popular American magazines of the 1920s.
Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translation by Willard R. Trask. Princeton University Press, 1954. 50th Anniversary Edition, Introduction by Edward Said, Princeton University Press, 2004.
Rabbi Ishmael’s Thirteen Rules of Textual Interpretation. Sifra Chapter 1. Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays. New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2002.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Sacrificio di Isacco (The Sacrifice of Isaac), 1603. In the collection of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. (Note: This is one of two paintings Caravaggio made with this subject and title.)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Abraham en Isaac (Abraham and Isaac), 1634. In the collection of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
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Earlier, Abraham was not commanded to do anything, so he could argue with God as a bystander, as it were, asking that the cities be spared. To argue with God as he was asked to climb Moriah would be to directly challenge a ‘direct order’ — which he was unwilling to do. He probably did ‘trudge’ reluctantly — Kierkegaard offers the absurd possibilities that he raced up the mountain, or delayed a few weeks, or said “You do it, if it means so much to you that Isaac die.”