by Bennett Muraskin
Discussed in this essay: The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, by Adam Kirsch. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 407 pages.
LITERARY CRITIC, essayist, and secular Talmudist Adam Kirsch is a 40-year-old Jewish intellectual with an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge. He has a regular column in the online Jewish journal Tablet and contributes to the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker and other publications. At the same time, he directs the master’s degree program in Jewish studies at Columbia University. The People and the Books brings his perspective on the significance of eighteen Jewish books, from Deuteronomy to Tevye the Dairyman, in the space of fourteen chapters.
Deuteronomy is perhaps the most influential book of the Torah, a recapitulation of the earlier books delivered in the voice of Moses, with a strong emphasis on monotheism, morality and social justice. Kirsch properly notes that the book really dates from the 7th century BCE and that its appearance initiated a campaign by King Josiah to purge Judaism of pagan influences and to centralize all worship in the Jerusalem Temple. By modern standards, Deuteronomy is a manifesto against religious pluralism, culminating in God’s promise to bless the Jewish people if they obey his commandments and to curse them if they do not. (The length and ferocity of the curses are overwhelming.) It is also the book in which Moses is denied entrance into the Promised Land because he botched the performance of a miracle: Rather than supply water for his thirsty flock by talking to a rock, he hit it with a stick instead. According to Midrash, when Moses protests, the angels are too afraid to carry off Moses’ soul, so God has to do it Himself.
Kirsch cites a latter explanation for God’s arbitrariness by no other than the Vilna Gaon, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1920-1797), which only makes matters worse: If God had allowed Moses to enter the land of Israel, Moses, rather than Solomon, would have built the Holy Temple. When it came time for God to punish the Jews for their sins, as He did in 586 BCE, by dispatching the Babylonians to destroy the Temple, God would have left the Temple stand out of respect for Moses, says the Vilna Gaon, leaving God no choice but to wipe out the entire Jewish people instead. Kirsch finds this interesting. I find it in equal parts absurd and horrifying.
Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE), born Joseph ben Matathias, is the greatest Jewish historian known to us from ancient times. More than likely, he is also the only Jewish historian of ancient times; the Talmudic rabbis were so absorbed in erecting “fences around the Torah” that they did not even try to write history. Be this as it may, Josephus’ The Jewish War is a masterpiece that depicts a highly factionalized Jewish community, oppressed by the Romans but utterly incapable of self-government. As conditions deteriorate in Jerusalem, the fanatics take control, silencing opposition and resorting to ever-more desperate measures.
The book was written immediately after the events it describes, around 75 CE. Josephus originally fought with the Jewish rebels in Galilee, but surrendered when he realized that further resistance was futile. He claimed to have won the favor of Vespasian, the Roman general charged with suppressing the revolt, by accurately predicting that he would soon become the emperor. Josephus then served Vespasian’s son Titus as an advisor while Titus destroyed the Second Temple and put hundreds of thousands of Jews to the sword.
Many Jews understandably consider Josephus to be a traitor, but others recognize that fighting to the bitter end against Rome was a recipe for disaster. Ultimately history (and Adam Kirsch) have judged Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who escaped from besieged Jerusalem to establish a rabbinic academy in the countryside, laying the groundwork for rabbinic Judaism, more favorably that the Masada martyrs who committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans.
MOST AMERICAN Jews will never read the Talmud — and for good reason, as it mainly consists of commentary and argument over halakha (Jewish law) that attain degrees of obscurity that can scarcely be imagined. The non-legal portions (agada) have some edifying rabbinic wisdom and folktales, but these are not widely known because they are not incorporated in any synagogue service — with the exception of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) a short tractate from the Mishnah, which is read only for a few weeks per year during afternoon sabbath services (attended by virtually nobody but some Orthodox Jews). Still, passages from Pirkei Avot appear in the back of every siddur, and its aphorisms are often quoted by rabbis and other literate Jews. The one saying by Hillel known by most Jews — “If I am not for myself, who will be. But if I am only for myself, what am I, If not now, when?” is contained there.
Kirsch does well to include Pirkei Avot as an exemplary Jewish text. It is there that we learn to “love work, hate domineering over others” and not to “seek the intimacy of public officials” because they cannot be trusted. It teaches that “the world rests on three foundations: truth, justice and peace” and that Jews should not “separate yourself from the community.” None of these sayings are directly linked to worship or prayer — so it is also through Pirkei Avot that we come to understand that study, the performance of mitsvot, and ethical behavior take precedence over prayer and ritual in Jewish thought.
Kirsch quotes some but not enough of these proverbs, and leaves out one of the most profound: “He whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, to what is he compared: To a tree of many branches and few roots; and the wind comes and uproots it….But he whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with few branches and many roots, so that even if all the winds of the world blow upon it, they will not stir it from its place. As it is written (Jeremiah 17:8): And he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, that spreads its roots by a stream…” The citation from Jeremiah is the origin of the lyric in the spiritual that became the social justice/civil rights anthem, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
But Pirkei Avot, as Kirsch shows, has its drawbacks and should not be taken too far as a guide for Jewish living. Talking to women is frowned upon, even one’s own wife. Interrupting study to admire the beauty of nature is considered a sin. And the oft-quoted adage, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” has nothing to do with tikkun olam, healing the world. It is an exhortation to Torah study, ending with the promise that “the true reward of the righteous is the world to come.” In other words, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
NO ONE STOKES SHEER exasperation in this reader better than the Hellenic Jewish philosopher Philo (15 BCE-45 CE), who was obsessed with proving that Greek philosophy and Judaism were in complete harmony and, better yet, Judaism was the true source of Greek philosophy. Here Kirsch does not blink from stating that Philo’s Biblical commentary “does violence” to the “plain meaning of the text” in a futile effort to reconcile the irreconcilable. (Kirsch sees parallels to “liberal theologians today” who try to give progressive interpretations to regressive Jewish laws, customs and practices.)
Philo is more interesting as a historical personality, living in Alexandria in a large, Greek-speaking Jewish community in conflict with both the Roman authorities and the Egyptian population. He traveled to Rome as a representative from the Alexandrian Jewish community seeking protection from the emperor.
Kirsch notes that the rabbis boycotted Philo. Rather, his universalist message had appeal for early Christian theologians, who preserved his writings. What Kirsch fails to note is that Hellenic Judaism has better exponents than Philo, and that the one example preserved within the Jewish canon is the Book of Ecclesiastes, with its existentialist view of human affairs. That is the reason that a humanist like Pete Seeger chose it as a basis for his song “Turn, Turn Turn.”
Judah Halevi (1075-1141), the Spanish Jewish poet whose “heart was in the East,” made no bones about his loyalty to normative Judaism. To him, the Bible is the literal word of God, Jews are the God’s chosen people, and Judaism is superior to any other belief system. And Jewish laws do not have to make sense; since the Lord works in mysterious ways, they should be accepted on faith.
Halevi boldly espoused these views in Kuzari, a book inspired by the existence of the Khazar kingdom of Jewish converts that existed in Central Asia from around 800 to 1100. It is a work of fiction, but purports to be his dialogue with a Khazari king who explains why he chose Judaism for his kingdom over the alternatives.
Christianity? He could not accept that God could become a man, or that a woman (Mary) could give birth to a God. Islam? It is derivative of Judaism. Halevi’s king also dismisses the views of texts expounded earlier by Philo and later by Maimonides, that the literal language of the text is metaphorical and that religion could only be understood on the highest intellectual plane. The Judaism that appeals to Halevi has a compelling story of a powerful God who redeemed his people from slavery, brought them to his Promised Land, and gave them a body of laws to live by. Halevi even has the khutspe to tell the fictional Kuzari king that converts can never be fully equal to born Jews, and that only born Jews living in the land of Israel can truly attain holiness. Notwithstanding, the Kuzari king becomes a Jew and urges his subjects to do the same. Halevi is vindicated.
By the way, Halevi may or may not have fulfilled his dream of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He arrived first in Egypt and then sailed for Palestine, never to be heard from again. Some say that soon after his arrival, he was murdered by an Arab. As Kirsch relates, Benjamin of Tudela, the Jewish traveler who visited Palestine in the 1160s, claims to have visited Halevi’s tomb in Tiberias.
THE MORE one learns about Maimonides (1138-1204), the less there is to like. Kirsch’s focus is on the Rambam’s last book, Guide for the Perplexed, which takes a “frankly elitist approach” to Judaism, arguing that only philosophers can truly understand God. Although the God of the Torah appears to be intensely personal, constantly interfering in the affairs of men, Maimonides claims to have discovered the hidden truths behind the literal text that tell a more sophisticated story — and one to be kept from the masses.
After deep reflection, Maimonides concludes that there is no personal God and therefore there is no point to praying. There are no divine rewards or punishments, either. Since the people need to believe in a personal God to make them feel better and keep them in line, it is justified to feed them pabulum about God taking human form, performing miracles, demanding sacrifices or fasting, sending prophets to spread his word, etc. There is, of course, a God, says Maimonides, but the only person he revealed himself to was Moses, and the only supernatural event that actually occurred was the revelation on Sinai. After that, God retired to an ivory tower.
Maimonides was nevertheless devoted to Jewish law and believed that “a rational case can be made for just about all the laws, even the oddest.” What, then, does he make of circumcision? Its true purpose is to reduce the male sexual pleasure drive. Now there is a good reason to circumcise Jewish boys!
Kirsch never quite explains how this Maimonides is the same person who formulated the Thirteen Articles of Faith, which include revelation through the Prophets, divine retribution, the coming of the messiah and the resurrection in the world to come. Were these concepts a product of his earlier thinking — or just public relations for Jews who did not know any better?
WHAT ABOUT Jewish women? Kirsch devotes half of a chapter to the “Women’s Bible” known as Tsenerene, the Yiddish rendering of Tz’enah Ur’enah which means, “Come Out and See.” It is a quibble to note that he fails to inform the reader that the name is derived from a verse in the Song of Songs and is reprised in the popular Hebrew song, Tsena, Tsena. However, it is a major gaffe that he neglects to mention that it was actually written by a man, Rabbi Jacob Ben Isaac Ashkenazi.
Be that as it may, this book, published in 1590 in Poland, had enormous influence: It translated the Torah readings, haftarah and selected commentaries into Yiddish, so that women could read and appreciate them. Within a generation, it appears to have made its way into the hands of nearly every Jewish woman. The Tsenerene praises the Biblical heroines, softens the Torah’s misogynist themes, and stresses the positive role played by women in promoting peace in the home. Although women are taught to be man’s helpmeet, it is expected that men treat their wives respectfully. The Tsenerene has been credited with spreading Biblical literacy to men who could not read the original Hebrew, and is still in print today as “The Weekly Midrash.”
The second half of the same chapter is devoted to Gluckl of Hameln (1646-1724) whose memoirs clearly show the influence of the Tsenerene. Although written in 1690, the memoir was not published for another 206 years, so it cannot be said to have had any contemporary impact. It portrays a strong, pious wife who ran a business she took over from her husband after his death, while arranging good marriages for her dozen children. It was not easy to be a Jew in German lands during this period, even harder to be a Jewish woman. These memoirs are, as Kirsch reveals, a unique example of a Jewish woman speaking in her own voice.
For secular Jews the name “Spinoza” (1632-1677) has always been uttered with the utmost reverence. He was the son of Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Catholicism who fled to Holland, a newly independent republic that allowed religious freedom. By age 24, Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated by a Jewish court in Amsterdam as a heretic, which he undoubtedly was. He lived the rest of his life among freethinking Christians. His Theological-Political Treatise revolutionized philosophy with its critical analysis of the Bible as a flawed human document, and his advocacy of an open society based on freedom of conscience and self-government.
Was he “good for the Jews?” Not really. Spinoza saw Judaism as obsolete — a relic from bygone times when Jews had their own state and logically applied the Bible as its constitution. The ongoing preservation of Jewish separatism only encourages antisemitism, he said. Diaspora Jews would be better off assimilating, and if that meant conversion to Christianity, an option he declined for himself, it did not upset him in the least. Between Judaism and Christianity, he would choose the latter because while Judaism was, by nature, particularistic, Christianity was a universal creed. Kirsch might have mentioned Spinoza’s contemporary Juan de Prado, who was excommunicated within days of Spinoza by the same Jewish court yet asserted his right to remain within the Jewish fold.
SPINOZA was not the only heretical Jew. There was the 2nd century rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, the 9th century Hiwi Al-Balkhi, and the 17th century Uriel Da Costa, a predecessor of Spinoza — but Kirsch does well to choose Solomon Maimon (1753-1800), who left a remarkable autobiography. Born Shlomo ben Joshua in Lithuania (now Belarus), he chose the surname Maimon to honor Maimonides, but he was a far more radical and less systematic thinker. He left his home as a young man to escape what he considered a wasteland of Jewish ignorance, superstition and cruelty.
Arriving in Berlin in abject poverty, Maimon managed to meet the great Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, who tried to help him. But Maimon’s erratic personality and East European origins did not endear himself to the maskilim (Enlightenment activists). He even considered conversion, but when he admitted to a Christian minister that he was not really a believer, he was rebuffed. Maimon wrote that he was left with no choice but to remain a “stiff-necked Jew,” one who does not bow down to authority. His philosophical writings won the admiration of Immanuel Kant.
Theodore Herzl’s 1896 pamphlet, The Jewish State, placed Zionism on the world stage, and was fleshed out in his novel Altneuland (Old-New Land), published in 1902. But, as Kirsch reveals, the book was far from a blueprint for the state of Israel. According to Herzl (1860-1904), the Jewish state did not necessarily have to be in Palestine, the inhabitants would speak a European language, there would be separation of synagogue and state, and the work day would be only seven hours. Herzl envisioned the country as a haven for persecuted Jews, without giving much thought to its Jewish cultural content. As for the Arabs, he believed that they would welcome the Jews as benefactors, and the two peoples would live together happily ever after.
Herzl was a highly assimilated Jew who once urged mass baptism as a solution to antisemitism, but later swung to the opposite but equally untenable view that antisemitism would only cease with the establishment of a Jewish state. Toward the end of his life, he was willing to accept Uganda (today’s Kenya) as an alternative to Palestine. It may be that the idea of Zion interested him more than the place, because he visited there but once to parlay with the German Kaiser. Yet the Zionist movement, under Herzl’s leadership, began the process that led to the creation of modern Israel.
Kirsch ends with Sholem Aleichem (1858-1916), specifically his masterwork, Tevye the Dairyman. Because the novel was written piecemeal, over a period of twenty years, it touches on the major changes undermining the foundations of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during this period — the secular attack on religious and cultural traditions, the growing independence of women, and the emergence of a revolutionary movement and escalating antisemitic reprisals. Kirsch summarizes each chapter, including those ignored in Fiddler on the Roof (which was based, of course, on Sholem Aleichem’s novel) to show that Tevye the Dairyman was really a tragic comedy, with a progressive emphasis on tragedy.
Tevye is depicted as a mentsh devoted to his family, with a special talent for questioning God’s justice. When the authorities decide to expel him and his family from their ancestral home, and his gentile neighbors show their regard for Tevye by breaking his windows rather than his bones, he thinks to himself, “Is Tevye right when he says we have a powerful God?” The question, dripping with sarcasm, still lingers.
Kirsch’s exposition of these “classics of Yiddish literature” is clear, concise and compelling. In addition to those discussed in this review, he reckons with the Book of Esther; the Itinerary of the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela; the Zohar, the foundational text of the Kabbalah; Jerusalem by Moses Mendelssohn; and the Tales of the Hasidic rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. For a one volume, 367-page summary, The People and the Books cannot be surpassed. As Hillel said (although not recorded in Pirkei Avot, but elsewhere in the Talmud), “Now go study.”
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.