For Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, editor David Rosenberg encouraged thirty-seven contemporary American Jewish writers and critics to reflect on a book of the Bible in the light of his or her own lifelong experience as a Jew and a writer. The result is an uneven but ultimately engaging mosaic of emotion-edged insight, sometimes into the biblical texts, but more tellingly into the hopes and fears of the modern world.
As might be expected, there is a great range both in the quality of these essays and in their basic approach to the task. Some of the essayists treat their chosen books in great detail, showing themselves familiar with the thousands of years of commentary and controversy that surround their particular texts. Others take books only as starting or ending points for their own general reflections about the human condition. David Evanier writes a short story as his response to Zechariah. Gordon Lish does not mention his particular biblical text at all; instead, he produces a hysterical attack on the Bible, apparently regarding it as a threat to his very existence.
The most common and effective approach is, as the editor urged, autobiographical. Sometimes this approach is almost embarrassingly personal, as when Phillip Lopate uses his essay on Judges to expose the deficiencies of his still-living but enfeebled parents. Most of the powerful moments in these essays, however, result from personal reflection on the intersection of a Jewish upbringing, exposure to the Bible, and careers as largely secular writers and thinkers.
One of the best examples of the effective use of personal history to deepen reflection on an ancient text is the poet Robert Pinsky’s essay on Isaiah. The opening lines of Isaiah call attention to an eternal problem: rebellious children, in this case the people of Judah, who have turned away from those who reared them, in this case the Lord. Judah’s sin, in Pinsky’s view, is idolatry and empty worship.
To the contemporary mind, idolatry is a practice of remote primitive people before graven images. Pinsky rightly points out, however, that it is actually the common practice of our society, embodied for him in the colorful, sometimes violent life of his Grandpa Dave. Idolaters, says Isaiah, “please themselves in the children of strangers” and “worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.” This definition, says Pinsky with more affection than judgment, fits his grandfather, a rough and totally worldly man who “stood for the immense beauty and power of idolatry, the adoration of all that can be made and enjoyed by the human body, with breath in its nostrils.”
If Grandpa Dave, with his secular and sensuous love of the world, was an idolater, then Pinsky’s own immediate family, nominally Orthodox and observant, was guilty of that other sin of Judah in Isaiah’s time—empty or misguided worship. Pinsky suggests that he, taught as a young boy by pious but narrow men to chant words that he did not understand, was unknowingly participating in an idolatry as offensive to God as his grandfather’s. His ignorant chanting was not simply the temporary condition of a young boy too young to understand the significance of his words, Pinsky suggests, but emblematic rather of modern worship generally. Not only do people of the twentieth century no longer understand how to worship God, but they have also lost the desire to do so.
The power of Isaiah, in fact, comes from the realization that prophets, for all their fierce truth, will not change anything. It is the fate of the prophet to this day to be ignored even when his words are believed. The standards of God, observes Pinsky, are such that even the devout slip quietly away even as they acknowledge them.
What is God to do with such children, self-absorbed idolaters and practicers of empty worship? In Isaiah’s time and ours, Pinsky argues, God’s will is at the same time “punitive and urgent” and “impenetrable and mysterious.” It must be done, but it cannot be understood. The God of Isaiah destroys sinners, but the images of a restored Jerusalem are maternal and joyous. Only the structure of prophetic poetry, says Pinsky, is able to contain these apparent contradictions, and poetry is something which his boyhood synagogue and modern religion generally neither value nor understand.
As Pinsky’s essay would suggest, this collection inevitably reveals more about the contemporary world than it does the ancient one. Modern readers bring to the Bible their modern prejudices, insights, and concerns. Most of these writers are at pains to make it known that they see these books not as revelation from God but as stories of individual beings and an ancient tribal nation. In his essay on Leviticus, Leon Wieseltier’s accurate observation applies equally well to the entire collection: “Realism in history and immanence in theology...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)