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.