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Jewish Journal

The Secret History

Jonathan Kirsch's new book celebrates the iconoclastic spirit of Judaism.

by Ruth Andrew Ellenson

November 15, 2001 | 7:00 pm

"The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People," by Jonathan Kirsch (Viking Press, $14.95).

Jonathan Kirsch lives a double life that many lawyers only dream of.

An attorney specializing in the field of publishing law by day, he is also the best-selling author of several books on Jewish history and thought, including the 1997 book, "The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible," and popular biographies of King David and Moses.

Kirsch speaks with the thoughtfulness of someone who has greatly considered the various angles on the subject on which he is speaking. On this occasion, he is speaking about his latest book, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People," an overview of Jewish history that attempts to reconcile what Kirsch describes as his "part-Labor Zionist, part-traditionally observant" Jewish background.

From the story of Sarah laughing at God when he promised her a son in old age (the idea behind the book's title), to the iconoclasm of thinkers like Sigmund Freud, the book identifies the strain of questioning and adaptability in Jewish history that has allowed Judaism to survive and flourish.

Jewish Journal: What do you mean by "The Untold History of the Jewish People?"

Jonathan Kirsch: I want to express a very simple idea -- at the heart of Jewish religious tradition, at the very beginning of the Torah, we are given as a role model a woman who is audacious, spontaneous, bold and even impulsive. Sarah encounters God with sheer chutzpah, and is not punished for it. Reprimanded, but not punished. So, for any Jew who feels that the proper stance towards God as recommended by the Torah is one of meekness and submission and blind obedience, they are overlooking what I would argue are some of the core values of Judaism as expressed in Torah.

So, the woman who laughed at God obviously is the matriarch Sarah, who laughs when she overheard God promising her a child in advanced old age. Sarah shows what I think of as an endearing and refreshing audacity, and symbolizes to me a spirit in Judaism of daring that has translated itself into a spirit of innovation and invention, which is the core value of Judaism and what has sustained Judaism for over 3,000 years. This is the theme of my book -- what has sustained Judaism through reinvention after reinvention are the Jewish men and women who felt empowered [to make those reinventions]. The rabbinical Judaism we practice now is itself an innovation of the kind of biblical Judaism which came before it.

JJ: You spend much of the book examining biblical stories about people who had the audacity you speak of, both toward God and their fellow Jews.

JK: I am viewing Judaism as a contest between tradition and counter-tradition. Eventually, however, one doesn't suppress or replace the other -- they blend. The dissident views are never fully exterminated, but are assimilated into what it means to be Jewish. There has always been a conflict in Judaism between those who are "purifiers" and those who are "diversifiers."

That idea comes up again and again in Jewish history. The Mitnagdim [supporters of rabbinical Judaism] thought they were better Jews than the Chasidim [supporters of an ecstatic and mystical movment in Judaism], and in some circles, I would venture to say they still do. There's an irony there because if you took the 90 percent of American [Jews], who are not very religious at all, the Mitnagdim and the Chasidim have much more in common with each other than with any secular or assimilated Jews. And yet they still find reasons to excoriate each other. Why? Because they each feel that they are the more authentic Jew.

JJ: Your book was written pre-Sept. 11, but it contains a very intriguing comparison of Judah and the Maccabees to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Why did you make the comparison, and would you reconsider the analogy post-Sept. 11?

JK: The reason Thomas L. Thompson, whose theory I quote about this, likens the Maccabees to the Taliban is because the Maccabees were fundamentalists who were willing to resort to violence against their co-religionists to enforce the strictest practice of faith. This is another example of why I call my book "The Untold History of the Jews," because most of us were raised to look at the Maccabees as freedom fighters. Chanukah has become the symbol of how Judaism is equivalent to Christian practice. This is a false idea in the actual history of the Maccabees.

The Maccabees fought against assimilation. Their most bitter enemies were not the Syrians -- they had a much hotter war against their fellow secular, Hellenized Jews. The Maccabees, or their followers, would go from village to village in the land of Judah, and any Jew who had failed to be circumcised, they would forcibly circumcise. They were willing to go beyond rhetoric and enforce religious law. That is why Thompson compares the Maccabees to the Taliban. I don't back away from it at all. I think it is an illuminating way for us to look back across history.

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