Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's Day

It’s always interesting to me how completely different the secular New Year’s holiday and Rosh Hashanah feel.

Rosh Hashanah, for one thing, is so much more about the inner self, about regretting the indiscretions and misdeeds of the past and resolving to do better in the future, about the conflict between being self-guided individuals who are—I just saw and enjoyed immensely Invictus with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon—the masters of their fates and the captains of their souls and owning up to the sometimes grim, always sobering, implications of that same thought.

New Year’s Day, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that way at all. It’s not about the inner self as much as about accomplishments yet unaccomplished, about goals as yet unattained, about failing to live up to one’s own self-expectations. In our American culture, New Year’s resolutions are generally about lamenting all those things still left undone in our lives. They’re about weight not yet lost (or, to speak personally, re-lost), about novels not yet written, about foreign languages not yet mastered. New Year’s Day is about promotions at work still unearned, about great cities still unvisited, about dreams that languish unrealized, about golf or bowling scores still real only in the realm of self-flattering fantasy.

Rosh Hashanah is “how could I be my age and still so flawed, still so enslaved to my own baser inclinations, so little able to chart my own destiny?” New Year’s Day is “how can I still not have started those piano lessons, still have not found the time for that crucial second appointment with the trainer at the gym, still not have told my boss how I really feel about him or her and about this job?” Rosh Hashanah is about the heart within. New Year’s Day is about the world without. I actually find both experiences productive in terms of thinking about my life and about my future, just in slightly different ways.

Is it strange for a rabbi to admit to finding meaning, even pleasurable meaning, in the advent of a new secular year? The beginning of January, after all, doesn’t mean anything in our tradition. And even the alternate opinion voiced in the Talmud regarding the date on which the universe was created supports a date in early spring not in mid-winter. (The debate itself pits the first of Tishrei—the date of Rosh Hashanah—against the first of Nisan, the day the Bible itself calls the first day of the first month.) Still, our tradition does indeed nod to the concept of there being a government-sponsored new year that isn’t Rosh Hashanah: the Mishnah specifically makes reference to the “royal new year,” a date something like what moderns would call the secular new year. (It’s also interesting to note that it falls on the first of Nisan, the “alternate” creation date mentioned above.) So why shouldn’t I find some meaning where meaning seems to me to be findable? And, speaking honestly, don’t most of us take note of the passing years of our lives far more meaningfully in terms of the secular calendar than in terms of the Jewish one? Before answering, ask yourself what the Jewish year of your birth was and try to answer without running for a calendar or figuring it out with a pencil and paper. I thought so! (Even I had to think for a second before concluding that I was born in 5713.)

I find myself approaching the coming year wearing all my hats at once and looking forward to lots of different things. As a husband, I’m looking forward, please God, to celebrating my 30thwedding anniversary next December. As a dad, I’m looking forward to watching Emil, my younger son, march in his college graduation in May. As a rabbi, I’m looking forward to completing my eighth year of service to my congregation and embarking on a ninth. And as an author I’m looking forward to putting the finishing touches on The Observant Life, a behemoth of a book by myself and thirty-two other rabbis that’s been in the works now for more years than I care to admit to in public. As a reader, I’m looking forward to finishing the last of Kenzaburo Oe’s novels and telling you all about what I’ve found there and want to share—some other time—with my own readers.

But there’s also the larger picture that New Year’s Day inspires me for some reason to consider differently than does Rosh Hashanah. Do things change? It sounds like a bit of a klutz-kasha, the kind of thing undergraduates debate after a few beers. But it’s also the kind of question that actually does bear some occasional consideration even from the non-inebriated and long since graduated…and New Year’s Day is the perfect moment to have at it. Again.

The honest answer is that they do and they don’t. A few weeks ago, I quoted the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus to my readers and specifically the passage in which he famously summed up his worldview in two Greek words, panta rei, meaning that everything is in a constant state of flux, that nothing stays, nothing remains, that you can’t step into the same river twice because the water is constantly flowing, constantly moving towards you and away from you…and never returns and therefore cannot pass again between your feet even if you think that you are stepping into that “same” stream you stepped into a day or a week (or a lifetime) ago. I’ve always liked that thought. If I remember correctly (and, of course, I do) I quoted it from the bimah of the Park Avenue Synagogue on the day of my rabbinical ordination during a torrential downpour which added, if not profundity, then at least a lot of flowing water to the larger picture for the assembled to contemplate as they headed back out into the street with the philosopher’s words still ringing in their ears.

And yet…you can’t step into the same stream twice? Can’t you? With all due respect to the Greek, if the same you goes hiking along the same mountain trail you wandered a year earlier and that same you finds the same stream flowing in the same place, then why exactly is it that you can’t step into it a second time? So the water is different water…so what? Doesn’t context count for anything? If I were to sneak into your home tonight while you’re asleep, find your wallet, remove twelve one-dollar bills and replace them with twelve different one-dollar bills, wouldn’t you still have twelve dollars? The water is new water, but your feet are still going to be just as wet. The bills are different bills, but you haven't really been robbed. Content and context are different things…and that’s why New Year’s Day has some meaning in my life. Because although you can’t live the same day twice, you can still lose twenty pounds and keep them off. Because although you can’t be seventeen again, you can still learn Italian well enough to ask for directions in Rome or Milan. Because although you can’t now have gone to a different college from the one you actually did go to, you can still find the time for that third trip to the gym each week instead of constantly whining about being too busy to go. In other words, Heraclitus was right and he was also wrong. Right, obviously, because you clearly cannot get your feet wet a second time with the same water even if you are standing in the same place in the same stream at the same time of day. But also wrong…because, speaking honestly, why in the world would anyone care if the water cooling his or her feet on an unbearably hot summer’s day was the same water that cooled them a year earlier or different water? How could you even tell? And even if you could somehow tell…why would it possibly matter? Your feet, no less wet and no less cool than they would be even if you somehow could step in the same stream twice, your feet certainly would not care. And, speaking honestly, if your feet wouldn’t care, so why should you?

Somewhere in the warp and woof of those ideas is the part about New Year’s Day that I like. Rosh Hashanah is about the moral underpinnings that must be set right if we are to evolve into ever-finer iterations of ourselves as we grow older. But New Year’s Day is about doing more than being, about remembering that we inhabit the world of dust and mud just as really as we do the world of ideas, about understanding that for all our lives are characterized by the endless struggle between the appeal of doing good and the allure of corruption and sin, we can still will ourselves to keep our New Year’s resolutions. We don’t have to smoke. We don’t have to overeat. We don’t have to succumb to every bad idea that pops into our heads as though it would be an act of hypocrisy and moral self-betrayal not to do so. We can understand the cosmic value of teshuvah and the truly unending struggle it represents between the finer and baser elements of the human soul…and still go to the gym more often.

2010 doesn’t mean much to me as a number and whatever it does mean is rooted in the mythological understructure of someone else’s religion. So what? 5770 isn’t that much better, although it does have the advantage of being rooted in our own mythology as opposed to someone else’s. Still, what’s in a number? The bottom line is that whatever prompts us to notice the passage of time…and to respond to the inexorable flow of moments that characterizes our lives from cradle to grave not by wallowing in introspective dithering but simply by resolving to do some specific thing differently and better…whatever prompts us to act in such a productive, positive way with respect to our own lives and futures does not deserve to be condemned merely because it arrived on our calendars from beyond the outer reaches of our private Jewish zodiac. Sometimes, the best things come from outside our own cultural sphere, after all. Think egg rolls. And baseball. And opera. And, yes, New Year’s Day.

I wish you all a very happy New Year. May it bring us all the resolve to do better, to reach higher, and to strive to weave the values we already hold dear into the fabric of our fragile, brief lives. That’s an idea I can endorse, wherever the origin of the stream that brought it to us.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Chanukah 2009 (Iconoclasts)

Like shoes, iconoclasts come in all sizes and shapes. But unlike shoes, iconoclasts—people who either regretfully or gleefully attack traditional beliefs or practices they consider to be based on false information or mere superstition—mostly fall into two broad categories: those who direct their comments primarily towards the kind of religious leaders and scholars who study religion intellectually and (at least ideally) dispassionately, and those who address themselves to the faithful themselves. In both cases, however, the basic goal is invariably said to be just the same: to rid religion of the burden of fantasy, thus allowing it to flourish both in the pulpit and the pew in an atmosphere of unfettered intellectual integrity.

This two-tiered approach to spiritual skepticism is easily discernable out there in the world. And thus is it that the same Christian world that has to deal with Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan, the academic founders of the famous/infamous Jesus Seminar devoted to uncovering the truth about the historical Jesus, also has to deal with John Shelby Spong, one of my personal favorite authors on Christian theology (and one of the truly great iconoclasts of our or any age) whose books are almost exclusively directed towards lay readers. Within Islam, the situation—although less overt and dramatically less well known—is similar: the same Muslim world that has to grapple with the books of Nasr Abu Zayd, the great Quran scholar who was forced to leave his native Egypt and settle in Holland because of his insistent view that the Quran be read in light of the society and age in which it was produced, also has to deal with the writings of Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam whose writing about her faith is solely directed at a non-academic, lay audience. (The book is very well worth reading, by the way…and I think I’d think that even if the author hadn’t grown up in Richmond, British Columbia, where I myself served a congregation for thirteen years in the 1980s and 90s.)

And so do we too fit into this two-tiered concept: the ground-breaking, deeply iconoclastic 2008 book by Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology, is written specifically for an academic audience and in a style that will be difficult for any non-specialist to pierce. (This is a special shame, I should add, because the book itself is just as stimulating as it densely written.) And then, writing for hoi polloi, we have people like David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, whose iconoclastic piece on Chanukah was published about a week ago.

Brooks apparently thought his readers (and, I can’t keep from thinking, especially his readers in the Jewish world) might be interested in hearing the “real” story about Chanukah. And so, basing himself at least partially on the writing of Jeffrey Goldberg (a staff writer for The Atlantic Monthly whose earlier work you may have read in The New Yorker or The Forward), he sallied forth into the mine field that is the effort to focus traditional observance through the prism of historical accuracy. A few years ago, David Wolpe, the rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, attempted to do the same thing with respect to the exodus from Egypt. The responses—vitriolic in Rabbi Wolpe’s case almost to the point of being violently so—were no less predictable than they were disheartening and distressing. And the responses to David Brooks’ piece in last week’s paper, although distinctly less ferocious, have been equally unsurprising. He’s ruined Chanukah. He’s destroyed our faith in Chanukah. He’s made Chanukah into something ordinary, something banal, something unworthy of annual commemoration. He’s denigrated our traditions by subjecting them to the unfairly harsh light of historical realism. He’s rained on our parade. And those are just the responses I myself either heard personally or read on-line!

And what was it that David Brooks wrote that was so shocking? He wrote that the “real” story of Chanukah is that the king of Seleucid Syria, the slightly mad Antiochus IV, was not just acting on his irrational, anti-Semitic own when he enacted his famous decrees outlawing the traditional observance of the most famous Jewish rituals. (“Seleucid” is the name historians have assigned to the empire founded by one Seleucus, a general in the army of Alexander the Great who seized the opportunity to have his very own country when Alexander’s death and the absence of any credible heir jointly opened the door to his seconds-in-command to set themselves up as the kings of any number of discrete pieces of their late master’s formerly gigantic empire.) And also that Antiochus was basically siding with one side in what was rapidly on its way to becoming a fierce civil war between two opposing groups of Jews: those who wished to embrace what they considered the finest parts of Greek culture—Greek drama, for example, or Greek gymnastics or Greek philosophy or poetry—and layer it over the foundation of Jewish culture as it had evolved to their day, and those zealots who wished to remain totally unaffected by alien culture and who wished to retain Jewish ritual and practice precisely as it had been bequeathed to them by their ancestors. For a while, people were able to agree to disagree. But both sides went over the top eventually.

It’s the rest of the story that seems truly to have rankled, however. The Hellenist types (that is, those drawn to Greek culture) didn’t find reading Homer and Sophocles to be quite enough and ended up insisting also on transforming the Temple itself into a kind of Greek sanctuary and, to take the books of their foes at face value, on worshiping totally in the Greek style. And it went even further than that—since the Greek ideal of the perfect male body did not include the absence of a foreskin, it became fashionable in at least some radical quarters to attempt surgically to reverse the effect of circumcision. And the traditionalists did their part to widen the gap as well, marring their devotion to tradition with real xenophobia, insisting that nothing of value could be imported into Jewish culture, that everything Greek—even the sublime works of Plato or Aristotle—needed to be wholly rejected by any who would see themselves as faithful to the Torah.

One thing led to another and soon enough the discontent each side felt when considering the other’s position morphed into real acts of violence. A civil war, if it did not quite break out, was clearly in the offing. And that, apparently, was when Antiochus chose to step in and to attempt to restore order. That he did so by issuing decrees intended to bolster the side in the dispute he considered more consonant with his own worldview was regretful (because it only sharpened the resolve of the traditionalists not to compromise at all), but not all that impossible to understand. And the rest, more or less, is history.

The irony, also referenced in David Brooks’ essay, is that the Maccabees themselves—the very family that produced the military leaders that defeated Antiochus’ army—that they themselves ended up unable to keep at least some trappings of Greek culture from insinuating themselves into Jewish life. They invented a festival to commemorate their military victory, which was certainly more of a Greek than a Jewish thing to do. The Books of the Maccabees report that they used the language of Greek constitutional law to establish their right to govern despite the fact that there was no precedent at all for that kind of secular governance in Jewish tradition. Within a few score years, their descendants had taken the throne of Israel for themselves despite the fact, as I mentioned last week, that they were neither of the tribe of Judah nor descendants of King David. But they never lost their inability to tolerate religious pluralism or to appreciate the concept of religion as a matter of personal choice. Eventually, the Maccabees’ descendants became so disunited that the Romans were able to annex their kingdom and make of it a part of the Roman Empire.

When it comes to war, the great perk of winning is that you get to name the conflict and write the “authentic” account of its outcome. If the British had beaten the colonists in the 1770s, the American Revolution would have been named the Colonial Revolt and it would be as little famous now as the Anglo-Powhatan War of 1610-1614 or King Philip’s War of 1675-1676, wars that led nowhere and have more or less long since been wholly or almost wholly forgotten. If the South had won the Civil War, it would now be called either the War of Confederate Independence or the Second American Revolution. And so the Maccabees, by winning the war, got to frame the story their way. And, indeed, so to this day we teach our children that the Maccabees were good guys fighting against an evil king out to destroy Jewishness, even to obliterate Judaism itself. Had they lost, of course, we’d be remembering things entirely differently...and we’d be celebrating the victory of culture over intolerance. And then, of course, there’s also the slightly unsettling question of which side we ourselves would have been the more likely to support had we been living at the time, we who have somehow managed to integrate baseball and the theater and secular literature and membership in gyms and health clubs into our traditional pattern of Jewish observance. (There’s an important thought there too, but I’ll leave it unexpressed. After all, I don’t want anyone to accuse me of ruining Chanukah for them!)

I liked David Brooks’ piece. I thought it was clever, interesting…and ultimately more or less correct. The great lesson of Chanukah—or at least the great lesson that Chanukah bears for adults—doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, come from contemplation of the Maccabees’ famous victory over Antiochus’ armies, but from a serious owning up to that victory’s distinctly less famous back story featuring an almost complete lack of mutual tolerance between Jews of differing opinions and the way that lack of tolerance quickly turned into violence. There’s a profound lesson to be learned here, but like most great lessons this one will only be heard by those willing to listen carefully and closely…and to allow what they learned about history to displace what they’ve always supposed to have been the case regarding events they imagined were clear-cut and simple but which turned out not only to be far more complex than supposed, but also to be incredibly more stimulating.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah 2009 (Miracles)

Who doesn’t know the story of the miracle of Chanukah? It’s a trick question. Everybody knows the story of the miracle. And even if some of the story’s details may be a bit obscure (and its historical background even more so), the one thing about the story that absolutely everybody does know is its much vaunted happy ending: the oil for the great menorah that only should have been enough for a single day somehow ends up lasting for a full eight days, Jerusalem rejoices, and the Jews agree to commemorate the miracle with an annual eight-day holiday. How many times have you heard that story? And it’s always about the oil! How else can cholesterol-conscious people like ourselves justify eating all those pan-fried latkes and deep-fried doughnuts? But it turns out that it’s also about something else…something unexpectedly interesting.

It’s true, as some readers may know, that the story of the miracle is mysteriously absent from the ancient Books of the Maccabees, both the one written in Hebrew towards the end of the second century BCE commonly called First Maccabees and also the contemporary, but unrelated digest of a much longer work by one Jason of Cyrene originally written in Greek and commonly called Second Maccabees. (Both cover the events of the 160s BCE that led to the rededication of the Temple, but neither mentions the oil story or appears to know of it.) Nor, even, is there any clear reference to the miracle even in the Al Hanissim prayer we add to our recitation of the Amidah and the Grace after Meals during the festival. (That passage, ancient in its own right, concludes just a bit vaguely with a reference to the Jews re-entering the Temple courtyard, cleansing the sanctuary of the idolatrous accouterments that had been installed there, then “kindling lights in the holy courtyards and appointing the eight days of Chanukah as an annual occasion to give thanks to God.”) And it’s also true that even the meticulous Josephus, the most important post-biblical Jewish historian of ancient times, includes nothing of the miracle in the account of the story he included in his magnum opus, The Antiquities of the Jews.

But who cares about any of that? And who needs fancy historians anyway when every Jewish school child knows that the Maccabees and their followers only found one single cruse of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest when they entered the Temple to purify and rededicate it? And that the Maccabees and their supporters, understanding that there was really only enough oil to burn in the great Temple menorah for one single day, resolved to light the menorah anyway. And that the most amazing thing then ensued as the single day’s worth of oil somehow managed to burn for eight days instead of just one.

Where this story originally came from, who knows? Its oldest attestation in any even remotely familiar form is in the Talmud, a work published six or seven centuries after the events under discussion. Still, the Talmud clearly serves as the repository of much older traditions, so the fact that a story was only preserved within the talmudic corpus hardly means that it isn’t very old. Or that it wasn’t told for centuries before being recorded. Or, supposing one believes easily in miracles, that it wasn’t true or that it never happened. The only thing is that the story as it actually appears in the Talmud is not precisely the tale as told. And that brings me to the story’s “other” point, the one I’d like to raise with my readers today for their Chanukah consideration.

The way the story is almost always told, the oil burns for eight days instead of only one. That’s definitely how it was told to me when I was a boy, so I checked on-line to see whether they’re still telling the story the same way. And so they are! At, I found a reference to “the famous story of the miraculous jar of oil that burned for eight days.” At Judaism 101 (which is a little hard to find because the address is actually, they inform readers that “there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah.” So far, it all sounds familiar. Even that repository of all human knowledge, the redoubtable Wikipedia, tells the same tale, noting that, “the oil (miraculously) burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.” So everyone appears to be in agreement that the miracle was that the oil burned for eight times as long as it ought to have. Only that’s not what the Talmud says. Not exactly.

In Tractate Shabbat, the volume of the Talmud in which the lion’s share of the traditions relating to Chanukah are presented, we learn that the Maccabees only found a single cruse of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest when they seized the Temple and that this tiny jug appeared only to have enough oil in it to burn in the great Temple menorah for one single day. So far, that’s entirely familiar. But then the Talmud moves on and explains that a great miracle happened when the oil didn’t run out after a single day. Instead, the Talmud says clearly but subtly (and you really could miss this easily if you’re not reading carefully or slowly enough), the oil didn’t run out…and the tiny jug somehow ended up having enough oil in its tiny interior to burn for eight days instead of just one. So that’s the miracle as it appears in its oldest literary source: not that the Maccabees lighted the menorah and it somehow remained ablaze for more than a week, but that the tiny cruse of oil didn’t run dry for eight whole days and that oil somehow continued to pour from it into the cups of the menorah for as long as it took—eight whole days—for fresh oil to be prepared under the auspices of the High Priest.

Does it make any difference? It does! For one thing, it’s not a story we haven’t heard before. Anyone who’s been in shul, for example, when Parashat Vayera was read and listened to the haftarah knows that there’s another magic jug of oil in our tradition, the one in the story of Elisha (the prophet Elijah’s less famous disciple) and the impoverished widow. The poor woman had no money to pay her debtors and was in danger of having her children seized as slaves by her creditors. And so, totally distraught, she sought out Elisha for his help (or at least for his counsel) and he offered her some of both. Did she have anything at all salable at home? She had, she said, a single cruse of oil in her house…and nothing more. Then that, he assured her, would suffice. She was to borrow as many pans and pots as she could from the neighbors, then begin pouring oil into them. What she thought was going to happen, who knows? But when she followed Elisha’s instructions and started pouring, the tiny cruse only ran dry when she ran out of pots to pour the oil into. And the rest was history: she sold the oil, paid off her creditors, and presumably lived happily ever after.

By telling this particular story about the Maccabees, the rabbis of ancient times were saying something subtle and very interesting about how they viewed the world. Everybody knows that the Maccabees are the heroes of the Chanukah story, but not everybody knows that they ended up a few decades later as self-proclaimed kings of Israel. The rabbis weren’t sure what to make of that—the Bible could not be clearer that the only legitimate king would have to be a descendant of David, which the Maccabees, a family of kohanim, certainly were not—but they weren’t quite ready to condemn a dynasty that had nevertheless somehow managed not only to restore Jewish sovereignty but also to maintain it for almost a full century. Could there be such things as kings that were authentic without being legitimate? It sounds like a complicated issue that only a political scientist could love, but the question has its own biblical pedigree…and that pedigree has to do with, of all people, the prophet Elisha. It seems that Elisha was the one who sent his disciple quietly to anoint Jehu ben Jehoshafat (sometimes confusingly called Jehu ben Nimshi, although the latter was his grandfather not his father) as king of Israel and to order him to assassinate the sitting monarch, King Jehoram. This, he did…and he became king too.

Was Jehu a legitimate monarch? He too was clearly not a descendant of David! And yet Elisha’s instructions were that the disciple was to anoint Jehu’s head with oil and say, “Thus said the Lord: I anoint you king over Israel.” It’s true that Elisha was only finishing up work left undone by his own master, Elijah, but the point here doesn’t have to do with who technically was first commissioned to make Jehu king, but with the fact that there apparently is such a thing as authentic, yet illegitimate, kingship: Jehu was ordained in the name of God by a prophet of God acting at the specific behest of the Almighty…and he still wasn’t a truly legitimate king from the House of David.

By bringing Elisha into the Chanukah story subtly, the ancient sages were saying something subtle too about the way Jews could think about the Maccabees: that for all the latter eventually turned into self-appointed kings who ruled without the requisite Davidic pedigree and thus illegitimately, it was not necessary for the pious to look down on them or treat them as renegades or miscreants. They could be admired if not fully endorsed, appreciated without being fully accepted. And that, I submit, is why they told the story of the Maccabees as though it were a latter-day midrash on the story about Elisha and the widow. Given that the back story of Chanukah has to do as much with internecine hatred than it does with resistance to tyranny launched at the Jewish people from abroad, what better lesson could the festival offer us than the one hiding just behind its most famous story, the lesson that in politics it is sometimes necessary to compromise, that you sometimes have to be a bit flexible regarding what you’d prefer if you truly wish to get what you want!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

R. Crumb's Genesis

I suppose the cleaning staff they hire to tidy up at the Louvre after hours must get used to dusting off the Mona Lisa as though it weren’t the world’s most famous painting, but it doesn’t always work that way. During the several years in the early 1980s that I worked as assistant to the Library at JTS, for example, I never quite got to the point at which I barely noticed the indescribable treasures just sitting around in display cases and on open book shelves. Actually, just the opposite was the case for me: each time I entered the Rare Book Room I felt amazed at where I was, at where I was somehow allowed to enter not as a sightseer or as a scholar but just as a regular person doing his regular day’s work who just happened to do that work in the company of the world’s most famous—and, in many cases, most beautiful—Jewish books. Readers who have been to my home easily see the evidence of my life-long love affair with books. But there are books and there are books…..

I think the single biggest shock I had when I began work at JTS had to do with my personal discovery of the illuminated manuscript. Obviously, I had known that there were such things in the world. Here and there I’m sure I had read about them, but my own field of scholarly research was completely unrelated to the topic and I was therefore more than just a bit green about the whole concept. So there are books with pictures in them, I would probably have said—so what? Growing up in a culture that encourages children to feel good about growing past picture books, I never paused to imagine just what it could mean for a book to be illustrated by a true master, by someone so skilled as an artist and so equally insightful with respect to the meaning of the text at hand that the result is illumination in the literal sense of the word: the shedding of light, the making deeper and clearer of meaning, the drawing of (living) readers and (long since deceased) authors together in a way they would probably never be able to manage absent the artist’s skill, talent, and insight.

But there I was nonetheless working day after day in the company of volumes that by their existence alone wholly contradicted whatever I might previously have thought about the reasonability of letting artists draw in books. I remember having once to retrieve the Rothschild Machzor, created in Florence in 1490 and possessed of the most gorgeous illumination I had ever seen (take a look for yourselves at, and pausing to open it for a long moment while still all alone, then feeling drawn into the prayer book in a way that I hadn’t ever experienced, that I hadn’t even known could be experienced. I had a similar experience with the Prato Haggadah, another JTS treasure. Written in Spain somewhere around the year 1300 and for some reason left unfinished, just the experience of peering briefly into the Haggadah (and especially while holding it in my own hands) helped me begin to formulate the ideas I ended up putting forward in the introduction to the Shabbat and Festivals volume of Tzur Yisrael about the ability of liturgy to create a world outside of time in which human beings anchored in an unstanchable flow of moments can encounter a God who by definition exists without reference to time past and time future. (You can check out the Prato Haggadah on-line as well at

And now I come to the real topic I wish to write about today, R. Crumb’s edition of Genesis published earlier this year by W.W. Norton. I’d just finished reading it when I mentioned it from the bimah last week, but I didn’t pause to explain why exactly I was so enamored by the book. And that is what I’d like to write about here today.

Readers of my specific generation know Robert Crumb primarily as the originator of 60’s icons like Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, and as one of the originators of the so-called “underground comix” movement. Crumb was the “Keep on Truckin’” guy and the illustrator of 60s album covers by the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company, the artist whose erotic drawings—explicit almost to the point occasionally of bordering on the grotesque—offered an entire generation a new way (or so they thought) to think about sex. And he’s endured and remained creative and productive over all these intervening years as well. He’s in the New Yorker all the time. You can see a few images from the Genesis volume here:

By all accounts, he’s an unlikely candidate to provide much insight into the biblical text. And, indeed, I ordered the book when it first came out more out of curiosity than any real conviction that reading his book would deepen my understanding of Scripture. But I was wrong. I was completely wrong, actually. Reading Genesis as a graphic novel—and, at that, as a graphic novel with (as the banner on the book’s cover says) “nothing left out!”—has allowed me to understand some of the tales we all know almost by heart in novel, interesting ways…including in ways that now seem to me essential for any reader eager to encounter these famous stories in their own context and specifically not as they feel when encumbered by centuries upon centuries of after-the-fact interpretive baggage.

Crumb is a literalist. Therefore, he depicts the text as written. He does not bother asking himself what the text “really” means if that “real” meaning fails to correspond to the simple meaning of the words. The Bible says that Adam and Eve were both created in the divine image, so God is depicted fully anthropomorphically. (I should add that I’ve also just finished reading Benjamin D. Sommer’s terrific book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press, and that my thinking about biblical anthropomorphism has been drastically revised by the experience. Ben was my student in the JTS Prozdor program for high school students a million years ago and has gone on to become an exceptional scholar. I want to write about his book in detail on another occasion, but will pause here only to say that if there were ever two books to read simultaneously, it would be Ben’s book referenced just above and Crumb’s Genesis.) More to the point, however, Crumb sees things in the text that we generally nod to without really considering too carefully. But reading is reading…and although it is paradoxically entirely possible to read with your eyes closed, seeing things depicted graphically forces you to open those shut eyes and, to use the Talmudic expression, to let your eyes see what your ears have already heard.

The story, for example, about how Lot’s daughters, taking themselves and their father to be the sole survivors of a conflagration that they believe to have destroyed all humankind, conspire together to get him drunk and then to seduce him into impregnating them has always struck me as a kind of a literary bagatelle, a way for the text to say something vulgar and nasty about the Moabites and Ammonites who descend from this unholy union. (We generally skip this story in Hebrew School.) But when Crumb captures the image of ancient Lot, drunk, disheveled, and demented, in flagrante delicto with his own scheming daughters the picture is far more about Lot’s daughters than about the Ammonites…and the pathetic image Crumb draws leads me to think about that story in a different light, as a story not so much about the neighbors but about ourselves and our endless ability to self-delude and self-justify.

Similarly, we all know that Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born. The text says as much explicitly at Genesis 17:17 (“Then Abraham fell upon his face and, laughing, said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah bear a child at ninety?’”), but it was only when I got to Crumb’s version of Genesis 21—the chapter we read in synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and mostly know by heart—and I saw his image of a ninety-year-old nursing a baby that it fully dawned on me just how the text almost demands to be read. (Yes, of course, I know Rashi’s comment that Sarah retained her youthful beauty throughout all the days of her very long life. But Crumb isn’t illustrating Rashi, he’s illustrating the text as written and as received. And we Jews have a long history of venerating the pshat, the simplest layer of meaning, above all else when interpreting a biblical story.) It was while looking at Crumb’s drawing, in fact, that I felt for the first time that I really got that whole story. And the same could be said about the devastating picture of Simeon (or maybe it’s Levi) preparing to kill a defenseless child while his mother flees in terror when the brothers choose to avenge their sister’s disgrace on the entire population of Shechem—that’s also a story I know inside out, but never forced myself to imagine clearly in terms of what it would actually have looked like, what it would have felt like to see such a thing happen and not just to read about it in a book.

Those are just three examples among many that I could mention. Reading Crumb’s Genesis was rewarding precisely because he depicts the text as written, thus insisting that, before all else, readers consider what the text says…and only then (if they must) what it means. The idea is not to ignore the work of our venerable ancient, medieval, and modern commentators, but to start not with their insights and observations but with the simplest meaning of the text. What Rashi would make of Crumb’s images—and especially his erotic ones—I have no idea. Or maybe I do have some idea…but what the father of all commentators would have to say about an effort to force readers first of all to encounter the pshat and only then to move on to the interpretative level, I think I also know. My guess is that he would have endorsed that concept wholeheartedly. As do I. As, I think, will most readers willing to take a leap into a kind of pshat-based commentary that truly is unlike any other.

The Israelites in Crumb’s Genesis are sturdy types, as have been so many of his characters over the years. These people—most of whom, if they were only dressed up in shul clothes, look as though they could be found in the pews of any synagogue on Shabbos morning listening to their own stories—are not prettified, not gussied up to look like “biblical” heroes. They are clearly real men and women. The men have broad backs and hairy legs. The women have bellies and breasts. Some are attractive, but most are not…or at least not in the Hollywood sense. But they are real. And that reality—and the clarity of the artist’s vision—makes reading this book a worthy undertaking for all who love the first book of the Bible and its vast pageant of history, myth, and saga. If any of you reads it, let me know what you think. I’ll be eager to hear!