If you've ever tried to read the Bible, whether for religious or literary reasons, then you know that there are several points in the first five booksIf you've ever tried to read the Bible, whether for religious or literary reasons, then you know that there are several points in the first five books—that is, the Torah, Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses—that seriously induce (to borrow, again, Richard Ellis's term) MEGO syndrome (My Eyes Glaze Over). Be it the numerous mitzvot—strictures, edicts, dictums, commandments—of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, or the long lists of descendants' names in Genesis, there is some dry reading interspersed in with the gratuitous sex and violence and deep spiritual meaning. Of course, that which is dry in the Torah is usually much mored interesting given a second, deeper look.
One of the most mindboggling parts is Exodus's long description of the Tabernacle, the place built and carted around by Moses and the Israelites, where G-d's feminine attributes and spirit lived, leading the twelve tribes through the desert as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Basically, G-d is telling Moses how to build the Tabernacle, so these specific instructions are, well, specific. And archaic—what the hell is "shittim wood," anyway? Oh, I see, it's acacia wood.—wait, what the hell is "acacia wood," anyway? Just kidding, but you get my point, no?
Enter Moshe Levine, Holocaust survivor, master craftsman—woodworker, metalworker, textilist. This book documents a scale model of the Tabernacle in photographs, with commentary that documents the Biblical and Rabbinic sources Levine drew upon to make his model. He uses a scale of one centimetre to one cubit. This fact is not in your head as you flip through the pages—that you're looking, for example, at an Ark of the Covenant only a couple of centimetres long! Personally, I think it's a shame that this English edition is OOP—the only currently available edition is French. This could be a widespread text for Bible studies students of Jewish and Christian persuasion alike, were an affordable paperback produced.
My only complaint is that the book looks and feels as though it were printed out on somebody's printer at home and assembled by hand with Elmer's glue—an impossibility, given that the book was published in Israel in the late 1960s. The model get five stars, but the layout gets four....more
This was good, but add it to the ever-growing pile of Elie's minor stuff. Short though the book was, it could've been shorter—the rehash of Rashi's GeThis was good, but add it to the ever-growing pile of Elie's minor stuff. Short though the book was, it could've been shorter—the rehash of Rashi's Genesis commentary was fairly unnecessary. The best parts of the book were the history of Rashi's own life and the final chapter on the Crusades and the anti-semitism of the Gaonic period, some accounts of which filled me with rage and a palpable sadness. Wiesel's own musings on Rashi are cursory, introductory, begging to be expounded upon. I guess my main complaint was that this was marketed as an introduction to the man, and actually seems like a poor substitute for a more in-depth bio....more
Not the greatest. It wasn't broad enough for absolute beginners, because it assumed a lot of knowledge regarding Judaism aside from conversion. And yeNot the greatest. It wasn't broad enough for absolute beginners, because it assumed a lot of knowledge regarding Judaism aside from conversion. And yet it wasn't specific enough for the serious potential convert, because it skimmed over the specific details of pretty much everything. So this book is useful to someone in a very small window of time. It was also a little too "Oprah's Book Club" for me. A great Zen master once said, "I sell all kinds of things in my shop. If someone comes looking for pure gold, I sell him pure gold. If he comes looking for rat shit, I sell him rat shit." Yeah, well, call me pretentious, but I need the gold!
I did learn that Judaism has a theological opinion wherein sincerity is all that is truly required of a Tzaddik, a righteous man (or woman); you don't need to be Jewish, so long as you're a good person. I always felt that all the world's religions—I mean, if there is a God, which you have to take on faith, right?—were probably just the same numinous experience of oneness or God, filtered through subjective cultural preferences, giving rise to a sort of equivalence. And fair enough, my Rabbi said when I first approached him, "You know, you can be a good Gentile. There are only seven basic mitzvot that you need to follow." I'd take that a step further and add, why do you need to believe in God at all?—as long as your atheism comes from conviction, not apathy.
Final comment: useless if you're converting to Orthodox. More aimed at Conservative and Reform/Reconstructionist, those latter two being essentially atheist and viewing halakah (Jewish law) as "folkways."...more
The short version of this review is, "I liked it a lot."
In order to understand the longer version, you'll need to know a bit about the subject matter.The short version of this review is, "I liked it a lot."
In order to understand the longer version, you'll need to know a bit about the subject matter. Modern biblical criticism holds that the Torah, otherwise known as the Pentateuch, Chumash, or Five Books of Moses, and constituting the first five books of the Hebrew bible, that is (listed here in their Anglicized forms) Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, weren't really composed by Moses, as Jewish tradition would have it. Rather, they were composed by four different authors or sets of authors, each with a distinct tone and focus. Those authors were J (Jahwist or Yahwist), who wrote the stories that make up the literary backbone of the Torah, and focused on Yahweh, that is, God, and his antics; E (Elohist) who focused on the Angels or Elohim of God; D (Deuteronomist) who wrote Deuteronomy; and P (Priestly), who focused on laws, and was the author most likely to have actually been more than one author. These four were combined into the modern Torah, quite seamlessly, it might be added, by a fifth editor figure, R (Redactor). As stated, it is possible to separate, to some degree, the different texts, and that is what Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg have done here, isolated the J text, translated it, and slapped on some savvy commentary.
Both were quite controversial at the time of their publication, and today read quite shockingly to those among us familiar with the King James Version or a similar translation, myself included. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that the religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next, but what Bloom proposes here is that J's M.S., making up most of Genesis and Exodus, and some of Numbers, was never intended to have a religious significance, but was intended as literature. And literature it is. I found it very readable, the translation something akin to Stephen Mitchell's translation of The Book of Job, which I read earlier this year: a nice modern translation, truly attempting to peel off layers and layers of retroactive religious grime. What's underneath? A Moses that hardly lives up to the Patriarchal picture painted in the KJV, and an impish Yahweh, more reminiscent of Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream than of any "man in the clouds," that truly lives up to Richard Dawkins's words:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
The heroes in J's vision are Jacob and his son Joseph, but I won't summarize plots here. I should mention that the other major heresy in Bloom's vision is that he proposes that J was a woman, a sophisticated socialite writing in the reign of Rehoboam, an inept king following Solomon and David, whom to J are sacrosanct. Bloom actually makes a very persuasive case for this. Finally, Bloom helps with an understanding of Genesis' stories by honing in on the major themes in Rosenberg's translation: boundaries and the Blessing exist in a sort of dynamic tension, that is, Yahweh's Blessing is passed from generation to generation, but those that receive it are kept from fully realizing its benefits by waves of difficulty, usually in the form of an exile.
Read The Book of J, by all means. It's probably Harold Bloom's best work outside of The Anxiety of Influence, and the translation lets you see the Torah in a whole new light, whether Jewish or atheist or what have you....more
I grew up on Grand Manan Island in the 1990s, and the climate of the schools and churches was still like the 1950s. We prayed and got the daily BibleI grew up on Grand Manan Island in the 1990s, and the climate of the schools and churches was still like the 1950s. We prayed and got the daily Bible story in class up until grade five. I had a Baptist upbringing, and I remember being taught that the Bible really happened, that evolution had been disproved, and the like.
It's not that my parents were particularly religious; they just got caught up in the lot after they had their wedding there. My wife, who was raised United, tells me that for her, Sunday school was just cake and Kool-Aid and songs about mustard seeds; for me, it was something a bit different. It was a series of terrifying stories about so-and-so being raped and so-and-so being murdered. By 1997, a year before we moved to St. Andrews, New Brunswick, on the mainland, my parents had left the church. They wanted to have champagne on their anniversary, and the pastor said, "No. We don't drink at this church"
"But, Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine!," they protested.
"That was non-alcoholic wine," he responded, putting the last nail into that particular coffin with a real fervor.
And so, we secularized. My mother often lamented the leave, saying that we needed God in our family again, but it just never gelled, never took shape. We were all so different. My three younger brothers probably don't think of the Bible in the same way as I do, and have certainly been spared both the good and the bad of embarking on a lifelong spiritual quest; I don't think that "spiritual" is really a word pertaining to any of them, as of now, anyway.
I did remember a few things from Sunday school, but oddly enough, the book that I took the most out of was Job. First, it was the book with the Behemoth and the Leviathan, and I was way into dinosaurs, as I still am. One of my biggest questions was as to why there were no dinosaurs in the Bible, and I got a variety of answers, none of which were satisfactory, ranging from, "The dinosaurs were failures and God didn't put them on the ark and they weren't worth mentioning" to "There never were any dinosaurs, and the fossils were put in the rocks to test our faith"—special thanks to Mrs. Ingersoll, the owner of a Christian bookstore, for that one. I am now aware of Bill Hicks's answer to this nugget: "Yeah, well, I think God put you on earth to test my faith, buddy."
Then one day I got the good news. My mom's creationist friend Norman—who was cool, as creationists go, having had sat in the footprint of a Tyrannosaur as a child—informed me that, not only had dinosaurs existed, but that they were in the Bible, specific kinds were in the Bible. The Diplodocus, a long-necked giant, was called the Behemoth—"He moveth his tail like a cedar," informs the King James Version. The Mosasaurus, a sea monster, was called Leviathan—the same one that Hobbes would later refer to. Furthermore, this was proof that man and dinosaur coexisted. To this day, I picture these mythical beasts as Diplodocus and Mosasaurus, despite knowing that this is a bunch of hooey. Dinosaurs predated man by, at very least, 64 million years—unless, of course, you're talking about avian dinosaurs, or as we call them, pigeons, crows, cassowaries, and chickens: birds.
At the time, though—wow. I wanted to know more about this Job fellow. So when it came to the class on the book, I was all ears. One particular image stuck with me: that Job scraped at his boils with broken pottery. And, sure enough, the verse was intact in Mitchell's translation
"The Accuser covered Job with boils, from his scalp to the soles of his feet. Job took a piece of broken pottery to scratch himself with, and sat down in the dust."
Every kid who grows up in a fundamentalist church walks away with one harrowing image stuck in his head forever, and that was mine.
Some things, though, had changed—apparently, the word "tail" here is a euphemism for genitalia:
His penis stiffens like a pine His testicles bulge with vigor
In addition to this, the Behemoth and the Leviathan are now the Beast and the Serpent. These everyday names don't really convey the terror that they should. Some of the lines that sound so beautiful in the KJV don't hold up in modern verse; for example, the transition from, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord hath taken away" to "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken"; or "Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?"—the religious fundamentalist's taunt of choice in Peter Benchley's Jaws—to "Will you catch the Serpent with a fishhook?"; or the warhorse's change in sentiment from "Ha!" to "Ah!" in battle—In short, the literal reading takes away a little poetry.
Mitchell's translation, though, gets Job very right on several accounts, though.
The first is that reading this biblical work in the form of poetry is like seeing it for the first time. There are few if any such renditions of books in the biblical canon, even today, whereas poetic versions of the Koran and Bhagavad Gita abound. If the Bible is outmoded as a source of literal truth, it's certainly not outmoded as a source of wisdom, and its violent, quirky, and entertaining stories are meant to be taken metaphorically, as stories on the nature of faith, or, in Job's case, suffering. I see from browsing Amazon that he has also translated Genesis and the Gospels, and I'll look those up. But what I'd like to see is the whole Bible—or, at least, the Tanakh—rendered Iliad-&-Odyssey style for use as literature in classrooms. It's time.
Secondly it addresses the problem of evil well in its introduction. While "The Unnamed" of Mitchell's Job is as ridiculous as his OT counterpart, placing Job's well-being into the hands of the Accusing Angel on a sort of bet, the introduction shows that all that we see as evil is not necessarily so. We points out that we, like Isaiah, have a tendency to look at nature "red of tooth and claw" and condemn it as violent or evil (hence Isaiah's prophecy of the lion and the lamb). Of course, suffering and pain to one being is joy to another, and the cycle of life may require suffering. Listing carrion feeders and the like as evidence, Mitchell postulates:
When I was a very young Zen student, caught up in the problem of evil, I once asked my teacher, "Why does shit smell so bad?" He said, "If you were a fly, it would taste like candy."
I have always found that the problem of evil stands on weak ground, so this hits home with me. In Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, we learn that suffering may simply be a part of the human condition, and indeed, Job's friends are chastised for insinuating that it is not. If a God that may or may not exist allowed suffering, it might be to strengthen our characters as beings. If there was no bad, we would no nothing of good.
Ultimately my favorite quote comes from the very end of Job:
I have heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet comforted that I am dust.
From dust, to dust; from atoms, to atoms. It is my belief that Mitchell is correct in saying that Job has seen the justice inherent in the universe:
A man who hungers and thirsts after justice is not satisfied with a menu. It is not enough for him to hope or believe or know that there is absolute justice in the universe: he must taste and see it. It is not enough that there may be justice someday in the golden haze of the future: it must be now; must always have been now.
Read The Book of Job. Its imagery will burn into your retinas even more in Mitchell's version, despite its few flaws, than it did into mine in Sunday school as a child....more