November 18, 1999
Moses: A Life
Kirsch beautifully demonstrates the notion that "Moses worked a revolution in the history of human faith when he rejected the funerary cult that so fascinated the ancient Egyptians." He rightly points out -- based on the insights of Gerhard von Rad -- that "through Moses the Torah creates a theology that had nothing at all to say about an afterlife and that 'this was a great achievement.'"
I think Kirsch, correctly and even bravely, takes the ancient rabbis and modern preachers to task for their "long and continuing tradition of emasculating the real Moses and turning one of the Bible's most potent and powerful men into something of a wimp." He attributes this softening of Moses' image to rabbinical authorities after the failed rebellion against Roman occupation adopting a survival strategy that would serve Jews well for 2,000 years. This survival strategy was simply "to go along and to get along," thereby making the Moses depicted in the Bible "awkward and inconvenient."
Kirsch strengthens the point in his analysis of one marvelous midrash: Moses saves the life of a dove by feeding a marauding hawk with "a bloody hunk of his own flesh." When he is at his best in this book, Kirsch arrives at the ironic insight that the Moses of the Bible "would not have recognized himself in the shimmering icon of the Good Shepherd that was fashioned by the teachers and preachers who came much later."
Kirsch does not spoonfeed the reader these analyses. To back them up he supplies copious amounts of midrashic narrative and other source material -- the man has done serious time in the stacks. If there is a problem with the book, it lies in the fact that it is perhaps too much of a collection and not enough of an analysis. Kirsch has assembled enough material here to answer some important questions. But most readers will want more. I would have preferred Kirsch to have arranged the commentaries thematically rather than chronologically, and that he had spent less time discussing how our image of Moses has changed, and more as to why.
Because Kirsch does it so well here and there, I would be interested in reading more as to what the "imagined" Moses reveals about our ancestors' values and about our own. What ideological, theological and political purposes were served by transforming and transmuting Moses from man to myth? What's happening to his image today and why?
In his study of Thomas Edison, Wyn Wachhorst has suggested that, "As a form of myth, the culture hero functions to resolve mechanically contradictory cultural values into a single paradoxical reality." This seems to be the case with Moses. The legend and lore surrounding him are an attempt to resolve tensions within and to reveal a unique truth about the Jewish people. That truth is hiding just beneath the surface of Kirsch's book, aching to be discovered.
If you find yourself squirming while reading parts of the provocative and fascinating "Moses: A Life," that's exactly what author Jonathan Kirsch hopes you'll do. "You will not find this a comfortable book," says the author.
The Moses of popular imagination --stern leader, upright moral icon, president of the NRA -- gives way to much more shaded character in Kirsch's book -- a man capable of great barbarity as well as breathtaking kindness.
In his Century City office, Kirsch, who is also a nationally respected copyright lawyer -- he represents The Journal on a pro bono basis -- eagerly defends the more complex portrait of Moses that emerges in his work. "The idea that a leader should be perfect is not a Jewish idea," he says. "It is a Greco-Roman idea." The Moses of the Bible and rabbinic literature is alternately cruel and angelic, saintly and bloodthirsty. When his soldiers return to say they have killed the men of an enemy nation, for instance, Moses berates them for sparing the lives of the women and children.
No, the man was not bipolar. As Kirsch discovered, the Moses character was the "puppet of various biblical authors," each with his or her own agenda. In the two years Kirsch spent researching the book, it was not the "flesh and blood" historical Moses he heard speaking to him, but the voices of these disparate authors.
Kirsch has carved out a welcome niche in publishing by focusing on the Bible's lesser known stories. A college history major, he entered journalism (Newsweek and the late New West), then law, before beginning a third career as popular biblical exegete. His first book, "The Harlot by the Side of the Road," explored the Holy Book's R -- and NC-17-rated stories, bringing to light not only the meaning of the texts, but the reasons for their suppression. The book was a best-seller. "One book led organically to the next," he explains. "The life story of Moses is filled with these so-called forbidden texts, which are among the most illuminating and challenging."
What the reader will take away, Kirsch hopes, is that the Moses story presents "urgent moral lessons to be learned. How do you deal with someone who's different? How do you treat the stranger?"
For Kirsch, the Mosaic "bottom line" is found in his parting speech to the people of Israel: "I have set before you the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life." Kirsch clearly revels in those last words. "'Therefore choose,'" he repeats. "Moses gives us clear choices. There are no clear answers." -- Rob Eshman, Managing Editor