Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
“Out on the Bimah” is a remarkable opportunity to see the Jewish world from a fresh and, for many of us, unfamiliar perspective. Co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal and Hillside Memorial Park, the event brings together five gay and lesbian rabbis in conversation with Susan Freudenheim, managing editor of The Jewish Journal. The event takes place at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills on March 2, 2010, at 7:30 p.m.
Other voices in the same conversation can be heard in the pages of two books that approach the question of sexual identity in Judaism by approaching the Torah from opposite directions. On one point only do these two books agree: “Turn it and turn it again,” the Pirke Avot puts it, “for everything is in it.”
The case for the open embrace of Jewish men and women of every sexual orientation is made in “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible,” edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Rabbi Joshua Lesser and David Shneer with a foreword by Judith Plaskow (New York University Press: $29.95, 337 pages).
The book offers commentaries on 54 weekly Torah portions and six Jewish holidays, each one contributed by a gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender or “straight-allied” writer, including some of the leading figures in contemporary Judaism, both straight and gay. The goal of “Torah Queeries,” as Jewish feminist historian Judith Plaskow puts it, is to establish the “Jewish legitimacy” of “formerly marginalized groups” by “enlarging the circle of former outsiders who now claim the authority to participate in the process of expounding on Torah and by demonstrating the fruitfulness of reading through queer lenses….”
A very different approach is taken by Arthur Goldberg in “Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality and the Power to Change” (Red Heifer Press: $36.00, 600 pps.). Goldberg is the co-founder of an organization called “Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality,” and he looks to some of the same Jewish texts that are studied in “Torah Queeries” for support in his mission of “help[ing] people affected by unwanted same-sex attractions.”
Goldberg rejects the spirit of tolerance that can be found in a book like “Torah Queeries,” and he argues that “the compass of right and wrong bequeathed to us by ancient wisdom” points only in the direction of heterosexuality. “[T]he Torah . . . condemns the homosexual act as a to’eivah — an ‘abomination’ to Hashem (G-d),” and he offers “Torah-based resources” for “the Jew seeking liberation from his/her homosexual fantasies and arousals” and “for those gay and lesbian Jews struggling to free themselves from a lifestyle they know is inconsistent with their inner spiritual voices.”
Tragically, no real meeting of the minds is possible between these two kinds of Judaism. On one side are Jews who respect and celebrate the differences in sexual orientation that have always been a fact of life in human civilization and who seek to understand those differences by reference to Jewish texts: “Reading the Torah through a bent lens opens up new insights and allows the text to liberate rather than oppress,” explains David Shneer in “Torah Queeries.”
On the other side are Jews for whom “tolerance” is itself a dirty word. “The moral relativists, in league with the gay rights movement and the ‘politically correct’, have done much to hide or misrepresent the answers, to obfuscate the issues, and, indeed, to smear traditional religion — especially Judaism — as hostile and discriminatory toward homosexuals,” argues Goldberg in “Light in the Closet.” “By doing so, they have not only fed the new antisemitism and antireligionism, but, with tragic irony, have placed many of their own in situations of unbearable ambivalence, conflict, suffering and mortal danger…”
Arthur Goldberg will never convince Judith Plaskow that she is wrong, and I fear that Plaskow will never change Goldberg’s mind. But I know what kind of Jew I am. For me, “Torah Queeries” glows with the compassion and lovingkindness, as well as the love of learning and the willingness to discuss and debate, that I regard as the enduring core values of Judaism and the keys to the survival of both Judaism and the Jewish people.
“We have, among other challenges and opportunities, the momentous task of understanding the contours of a society and its individual members who transcend binary gender identities,” writes Rachel Biale in her contribution to “Torah Queeries.” “Let us hope it will take less than forty years of wandering in the desert.”
To which I say: Amen.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road” and “The Woman Who Laughed at God,” is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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February 20, 2010 | 10:57 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
David Rosenberg is among the most audacious and compelling of the public intellectuals at work today. A former editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, he is a Bible scholar and translator, a biographer and essayist, and, perhaps most importantly, a poet. He is best known for his co-authorship (with Harold Bloom) of “The Book of J,” but he deserves even more attention and praise for “A Poet’s Bible” and “A Literary Bible,” his masterpieces of biblical interpretation for the contemporary reader.
Rosenberg’s latest book is “An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus” (Counterpoint: $26). In the opening pages of the book, Rosenberg sets himself the goal of excavating some of the innermost meanings of the Bible, both its Jewish and Christian versions, and he admits that the whole enterprise may seem to be at odds with the zeitgeist of our age, which values the 140-character Tweet above the classic texts.
“Those meanings, as we find them in the Bible, are often poorly described as the pillars of civilization,” writes Rosenberg. “Who wants pillars, in an age of fluid information and seemingly endless possibility?”
But Rosenberg offers us a way out of the apparent contradiction and, at the same time, a way into the Bible: “Judeo-Christian civilization must be defined as a cosmic journey, driven toward negotiating and enacting a sublime Covenant,” he explains. “Without it, an educated man can be as large as his library and yet, bereft of this essential compass, he is lost in an unknowable cosmos.”
The cardinal points on the compass include both Moses and Jesus, and Rosenberg is especially interested in the “creative tension” between these two foundational figures and the religious traditions that they symbolize. “Moses could not have existed without that compass of the Covenant,” he insists, “and Jesus could not have existed without Moses as his teacher.”
Thus does Rosenberg present us with what he calls a “dual biography,” although the line between biography and mythology must be very loosely drawn when it comes to personages who are revered as prophets and even, in the case of Jesus, as a deity. After all, any biographer whose principal source is the Bible must also be a working theologian: “In order to read the books of Moses properly, we must become believers in the supernatural — that is, while we read,” warns Rosenberg. “We should be prepared to see ourselves as God or an angel does: two-legged creatures who must die.”
Rosenberg himself readily concedes that he is treading atop a faultline between two tectonic plates: “[T]he border between natural and supernatural must be diligently probed,” he writes. “Not a defensive border but rather a meeting place — where each can probe the other in fresh cultural terms. And when Moses and Jesus took up the Covenant in their times, they represented such probing, educated men.”
The linkages between Moses and Jesus are fundamental to Christian theology, which insists that Christianity offers the fulfillment of a promise that God makes in the Hebrew Bible. In that sense, Jesus replaces Moses in the Christian reading of the Bible. But Rosenberg suggests that the historical Jesus revered the texts that were attributed to Moses and patterned himself after “the original prophet.” Like Moses, Jesus aspired to be a “reinterpreter of history” but not the founder of a new religion.
“Neither the word nor the significance of the term Christian was ever known to Jesus,” writes Rosenberg. “He saw for the Jews what Moses had first seen: a way to continue the trek out of slavery, mental and physical, in order to bring the new light of Jewish thought to the world.”
Fatefully, it was the authors of the Christian Scriptures, rather than Jesus himself, who willfully cut the chord that links Jesus to Moses and Christianity to Judaism. “We might say he was the last Jewish writer of the Covenant in the line of Moses, except that the Gospel writers were not as devoted as was Jesus to the written authority of Moses,” Rosenberg concludes. “[T]he Gospels prefer a Jesus who is no longer a reader or a writer in any sense.”
Exactly here we see Rosenberg’s real genius as a Bible scholar. He has mastered the texts, and he has a ready command of the accumulated scholarship of twenty centuries. He is both willing and able to plumb the theological depths of the Scriptures. And yet Rosenberg always looks for and finds the human fingerprints on the page, the evidence of flesh-and-blood authors whose work has made and changed history — what they knew, what they felt, what they feared and what they hoped for.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of “Moses, A Life,” is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
February 9, 2010 | 10:30 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Today, my friend and fellow author and book reviewer, Dora Levy Mossanen, reminded me about one of the things that I have always loved about books — the aroma of print, paper and binding, a scent that I have associated with bookstores and libraries since early childhood.
Dora was one of the participants, along with New York Times reporter Motoko Rich and tech journalist Peter Kafka, in a broadcast of “The Politics of Culture” that I hosted on KCRW. The subject was the ebook revolution in American publishing, and both Motoko and Peter talked expertly about price points, “e-ink” and “Buy” buttons. But it was Dora who spoke articulately and movingly about the experience of reading books, both in print and on the Kindle ebook reader.
“I do very much miss the feel of the book, the riffling through the book, the smell of the book,” said Dora, who is an avid ebook reader. “This is why I often go to bookstores when I am reading a Kindle ebook in order to see what the book looks like and feels like.”
Dora praised the speed and ease of buying ebooks, the remarkable ability to carry small library of books with her at all times, the convenience of having an ebook at hand whenever she finds a few moments to read. But, like so many of us, she affirmed that she values and misses the sensual experience of the book.
When I returned home from the KCRW studio, I picked up my most recent book purchase — a copy of Joseph Heller’s memoir, “Now and Then,” which I purchased on the day that Equator Books in Venice finally closed its doors. For a couple of decades, Dutton’s Brentwood Books was my favorite bookstore, but I occasionally dropped into Equator Books when walking on Abbott Kinney Boulevard, and I took pleasure in its pristine first editions of American and English authors, recordings on vinyl, a small gallery of original art, and a chicory-spiked iced coffee that was a real eye-opener.
My copy of “Now and Then” is a perfect example of what Dora was talking about on the radio today. The end-papers — a traditional element of the printed book that is wholly missing from ebooks — consist of charming and evocative photos from Heller’s family album. The paper is soft and thick, the typography is exquisite, and the sewn binding is a relic of medieval book-making that has survived for five hundred years.
At the very end of the book is a colophon that describes the typeface in which the book is set — “Granjon, a type named in compliment to Robert Granjon, a type cutter and printer active in Antwerp, Lyons, Rome and Paris from 1523 to 1590” — and provides the provenance of the book itself: “Printed and bound by The Haddon Craftsmen, Scranton, Pennsylvania.”
I wondered: Where are The Haddon Craftsmen today? What remains of the art and craft of book publishing? And how much longer will Dora or I be able to find a welcoming bookstore where we can pick up a book and hold it in our hands?
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Broadcasts of “The Politics of Culture” are archived at the KCRW website at www.kcrw.com.
February 3, 2010 | 5:15 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
When I reviewed Ronald Florence’s impressive and important book, “Emissary of the Doomed,” which focuses on a forgotten hero of the Holocaust named Joel Brand, I mentioned in passing the exploits of a man named Reszo Kasztner. At least one careful reader with firsthand knowledge of those exploits noticed that I had oversimplified my description of the so-called Kasztner affair, and he kindly brought it my attention as follows.
Dear Mr. Kirsch,
I read with great pleasure your book reviews in the JJ.
This week however I disagree with your review of the book “Emissary of the Doomed” by Ronald Florence.
You say: “Kasztner was able to ransom some 1600 Jews by paying bribes in cash, gold, jewelry, and he was later accused of collaboration with the Nazis after choosing to spare ONLY the lives of his own friends and relations.”
I was on Kasztner’s train from Cluj via Bergen Belsen and Switzerland. While I knew him well, I was neither family nor friend. I also knew Joel Brand and [his wife,] Hansi.
This is a serious story, [and] great historians like Yehuda Bauer, etc. have written about it. Kasztner did save a part of his family and a handful of his friends. He had been away from Cluj for many years and barely remembered names when Eichman requested a list of names for the train. This list had been composed by a number of Cluj Jews who lived in Budapest
I just received the book, “Emissary of the Doomed,” and cannot find the writer having made the statement “ONLY.”
As Mr. Bishop correctly points out, the word “only” was mine alone. Ronald Florence, the author of “Emissary of the Doomed,” offers a detailed and nuanced account of what Kasztner did and didn’t do, and he acknowledges that Kasztner saved the lives of more than just his own friend and relatives. I should have been more careful in summarizing the account as it appears in Florence’s book. And I thank George Bishop for affirming these facts and calling them to my attention.
For readers who want to know more about the Kasztner affair, my colleague, Tom Teicholz, has written a moving and illuminating review of the current documentary film, “Killing Kasztner,” in these pages. Tom, whose late father also knew Kasztner, points out that “Kasztner has been faulted on many counts: for whom he saved and how he chose them (even though Kasztner personally chose very few of the train’s passengers, he did put his wife and 19 of his relatives on the train).”
So I hasten to clarify my own review of “Emissary of the Doomed,” and I need to make it clearer than I did that I do not claim to sit in judgment on men and women whom we observe from a safe distance in time and space.
Indeed, one of the great outrages of the Holocaust is that Nazi Germany did not merely torture and kill its Jewish victims; the Nazis and their collaborators also seemed to delight in compelling at least a few of their victims to play a role in deciding who would live and who would die. The same awful predicament was imposed on Jews who were forced to sit on the Judenrate (“Jewish Councils”) that the Germans set up in Jewish ghettos during the Holocaust. But we should never allow ourselves to forget who initiated and carried out the carnage, and we should never blur the line between the murderers and their victims.
At the same time, the moral burden of Jewish history obliges us not merely to remember the Holocaust but also to extract some measure of meaning from the grim facts. It is not an easy task, and it requires the kind of exacting attention to detail that George Bishop has modeled for the rest of us.
We can only hope that we will be rewarded for our efforts with the occasional ray of light from the black hole of the Holocaust.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.