“Am I Gentile? Am I a Jewess? Both and neither. What am I? I am what I am.”
One way of telling the story of rabbinic Judaism is to say that it was born in a conversation between Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Roman general Vespasian, in the shadow of a besieged Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan had feigned death in order to be smuggled out of the walled city in a coffin despite the opposition of the Jewish zealots, who were not interested in negotiations with the enemy. Vespasian, impressed by Rabbi Yochanan’s bravery and his prediction that Vespasian would eventually become emperor of Rome, asked him what he wanted. Rabbi Yochanan’s famous answer was “give me Yavneh and its [Torah] sages,” thus establishing a center of Jewish learning independent of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan’s foresight transformed the brick-and-mortar reality of a Temple-centered Judaism into the port- able diaspora-ready religion with which we are familiar, and thus granted a powerful second wind to a Jewish nation that might have been otherwise brought to its knees by Roman oppression.
Dara Horn’s mind- bending new novel, Eternal Life, takes place from the perspective of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s heretofore unknown mother Rachel. Rachel embodies a gruelingly literal interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s lofty project. Like a Judaism that endures beyond destruction, Rachel cannot die because of a vow she took at the Temple in order to save an ailing Yochanan. With the Temple’s destruction she is left in this liminal state, along with her lover, Elazar ben Haninah, the son of the high priest and the child’s real father. The novel, and Rachel and Elazar’s occasionally intersecting lives, span the centuries between Second Temple Jerusalem and modern-day New York…
This review appeared in the Fall issue of Jewish Action Magazine
The Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, authored works of modern Hebrew literature that are steeped in the language of the Torah and hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish history and tradition. His stories, set in his Galician hometown of Buczacz, transport the reader into the vibrant world of Polish Jewry before World War II. There are probably few readers outside of the Orthodox Jewish community who have the cultural literacy necessary to recognize many of the Jewish allusions in Agnon’s stories. Yet Agnon’s works have not made the deep inroads into the Orthodox world that one might imagine they would.
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As temperatures rise and flowers bloom, we can feel the holiday of Shavuot approaching – perhaps our sweetest holiday – when the Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue. For a unique and even paradigm-shifting reading of Ruth, I highly recommend Rising Moon, by Rabbi Moshe Miller of Jerusalem. It is one of the most fascinating books of modern biblical interpretation I have come across. Rising Moon is structured like a drama in four acts, reflecting Ruth’s four chapters. It weaves together Biblical, midrashic and Kabbalistic sources, along with a wide range of insights from outside Jewish tradition – Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and the novel Dune all make key appearances. This eclectic mix of sources is employed to make a provocative claim about about the Book of Ruth in particular and about the history and destiny of the Jewish nation more broadly.
“It’s hard to be a Jewish poet,” Yehoshua November wrote in his first collection of poetry, God’s Optimism, published in 2010. Indeed, it must be difficult to juggle November’s identities as a Lubavitch Hasid, a family man, a poet, and a professor. In that poem, November explores some of the challenges inherent in writing religious poetry. These include the fear of confusing readers who are unaccustomed to encountering sincere expressions of Orthodox Judaism in verse, the problem of writing about forbidden or impure material, and the anxiety of trying to create new poems “when there is already the one great book.
In his new collection, however, it turns out that the difficulties of being a Jewish poet do not primarily flow from being either Jewish or a poet but from the underlying difficulties of life itself.”
Since March of this year, the Met Breuer, a new annex of the Metropolitan Museum, has hosted a remarkable exhibit called “Unfinished.” The works of art exhibited consist primarily of unfinished work from the Met’s permanent collection, including paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Van Gogh, Klimt and many other noteworthy artists. Some of the works included were abruptly abandoned by their creators for various external reasons such as death, illness, or a more lucrative commission elsewhere. They feature unpainted spots of canvas, rough blurry lines or pencil sketches that are still visible. These pieces are striking in how they display the creative process of the artist at work – many display a startling unintended beauty in their incomplete form. Other paintings displayed, particularly the more modern works, were intentionally created with an unfinished or provisional quality, similar to a piece of jazz music.
Many of the pieces in the exhibit don’t fit neatly in either category however – they were neither accidentally abandoned nor purposefully designed to feel incomplete. These are works that an artist stops painting because he or she decides that it captures something essential in an unfinished state that would be lost once completed. Often these paintings were not made at the behest of wealthy patrons, or for the purpose of commercial gain, but rather remained in the artist’s personal collection. See John Singer Sargent’s outdoor scene of his sister and her friend for example, or Rembrandt’s intimate portrait of his housekeeper turned life partner Hendrickje Stoffels.
At their best, all three types of paintings challenge the notion that a “perfect” piece of art is always the most effective one. The unpainted spaces and rough backgrounds of these pieces give them a raw or urgent quality. There is a dynamism to them that would be lost in a more refined, yet calcified, final product. Continue reading ““Unfinished-ness” in Art, Judaism and the Poetry of Eve Grubin”
Marilynne Robinson is one of the very few contemporary American novelists to be held in near universal esteem. Her readers have the sense that, as with poetry, not a single word is wasted or extraneous. Additionally, Robinson’s concern with Christianity, unusual in contemporary fiction, also contributes to the rapture that her work inspires. In the tradition of American Protestant poetry, Robinson’s novels don’t simply allude to religious experiences, rather they seek to create such experience for the reader. Robinson’s fiction can open your heart to the possibility of change, of divine grace and redemption. For the Jewish reader, then, encountering Robinson can be a complicated experience.
However, Jewishly literate readers may actually be positioned to appreciate Robinson’s fourth novel Lila in a way that others would not. Its eponymous heroine is the least Christian character we have encountered thus far in Gilead, the fictional Midwestern town featured in two of Robinson’s prior novels. Lila even goes so far as to call herself a “heathen,” though this does not prevent her from finding strength and solace in the words of the Bible. Lila is particularly drawn to the Hebrew Bible, as opposed to the New Testament, especially the books of Ezekiel and Job. There is a way in which the entire novel may function as a midrash on, or extended imaginative interpretation of, Chapter 16 of Ezekiel. This chapter contains the famous prophecy which likens the Jewish people to a newborn girl abandoned at birth, covered in blood in an open field. In the prophet’s vision, God passes by this scene of desolation and repeatedly declares, “b’damayikh hayi,” or “in your blood you shall live.” There are various ways to translate this evocative phrase, and it’s striking that in her extended literary meditation upon this verse Robinson ultimately departs from the King James Version and other Christian translations in order to read it in a manner similar to the Jewish tradition. This choice, as well as a general celebration of the Hebrew Bible in this work, makes Lila of particular interest from a Jewish perspective.
The Book of Exodus contains some of the most fundamental religious-historical narratives of the Jewish people. However, as significant as these narratives clearly are, the book’s largest component verse-wise describes a detailed set of instructions for how to build, and then the actual construction of, the Tabernacle, or Mishkan. The looming presence of the Mishkan in such a central text, with its gold, precious gems and other valuable materials, challenges certain medieval and/or modern assumptions about Judaism. Judaism has come to be conceived of as a religion of ideas, a textual rather than a visual tradition that is more concerned with matters of the spirit than physical decoration and embellishment.
The connection between contemporary “Jewish” art and our religious tradition may feel tenuous at times. While there is something to be said regarding Jewish cultural output in all of its eclectic manifestations, many modern Jewish authors in particular seem to draw on Jewish motifs or symbols without engaging in the internal discourse of Judaism itself. That is, most of their work can ultimately best be understood within the context of broader secular Western culture. However, the poetry of the modern Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) maintains a more delicate relationship with traditional Judaism, one which has always intrigued me as a religious reader. The following poem, translated by Chana Bloch, speaks to the complex interaction between Judaism, art and the associations and attachments we bring to religious life in the modern world:
Circle Arrow Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism by Miriam Kosman Targum Press (2014)
Review by Sarah Rindner
Recent debates about women and the Orthodox rabbinate yielded a range of interesting, impassioned and also banal observations by various Jewish professionals and laypeople. Although sociological and legal arguments abound, a broader philosophical discussion of the nature of gender roles within Judaism is lacking. The assumption in these debates seems to be that the challenge before us is how this issue in Judaism will play out alongside a movement from inequality to equality, from backwardness to progress, in American or Western society. Those who resist this movement and believe that a straightforward march toward gender egalitarianism is neither desirable nor in the spirit of traditional Judaism have yet to articulate what, precisely, a theory of Jewish gender difference could, and should, look like. That is, with the exception of a small coterie of mystically inclined haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, women based in Israel who have been exploring precisely this question for years