Is my fiction Jewish? In my last blog post I came to a firm conclusion: yes—and no. Well, I think I can make the same bold claim for the creative process I go through when I’m writing. On the one hand, I have to do the things all writers do, whatever their background: I have to start with some promising, mysterious, uncertain thing (a line, a character, a mood), and work with it until something more whole develops, and keep things open so that I can revise and revise and revise, as drastically as is required, until I have a piece that I can comfortably call done. Again, this is what all writers do. Yet, when I look at it more closely, I have to say that I do those things pretty Jewishly.
What do I mean? Well, the creative process is a basically dead thing if it’s just a bunch of pre-ordained steps that you follow from start to finish. Creativity becomes powerful when it’s infused with purpose and meaning and direction—the distinct purpose, meaning, and direction brought to the work by each author—and that infusion, in my case, comes from the wisdom of Judaism.
There’s an old, old story (we’ve got some very old stories) that suggests that, when God was figuring out how to make the universe, God read the Torah for instructions. I love that. I also love the old wisdom of the Pirkei Avot, which says of the Torah, Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it. What all that tells me is that artists—folks who boldly engage in the act of creation—could get a lot out of that foundational text of ours.
As a matter of fact, one of my big recent projects was a book called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books), an attempt to take on the Torah, portion by portion, to see if each weekly reading had something—insight, reassurance, even instruction—to offer artists. I pretty much expected the project to fail. And yet it didn’t; portion after portion I found valuable ideas, images, and stories that were immensely relevant to my work as a writer. I found insights about the ties between creation and destruction; about how abundant inspiration and also the lack of it are both part of the process; about speaking out and silence; about the need to appeal to the senses in our work; about why we bother to create at all; about the dangerous attractions of publication and fame; about the close relationship between content and form; about fearlessly taking on difficult material; and so on.
I mean, the Torah is a rich and complicated book; you might be able to write something called The Lawyer’s Torah or The Parent’s Torah just as easily. (Take those ideas and run with them, someone.) So I’m not saying that the Torah is secretly just a message to artists, and that all other interpretations are misinterpretations. What I’m saying is just that artists have every reason to turn to some of our oldest sources of wisdom for aid and understanding in our own lives and work. One of the telling things was that I was simultaneously reading a lot of biographies—Jewish painters, choreographers, writers, etc.—and I saw them echoing the very things I was uncovering in the Torah, so I threw them in alongside the more ancient words and let the echoes speak for themselves.
I’ll make an example of the story that stands out the most for me: Adam and Eve. Not as traumatic a tale for us as for Christians, but still—it’s kind of a big deal when they eat the fruit and get kicked out of the garden. But why do they get kicked out? Because, so goes the story, they’ve eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what do they do right after they set up a new camp? They “know” each other and make a baby. In other words, as soon as they know the full range of potential in the world—good and evil both—they right away get started on the very first act of human creation. Which means our creativity might be fueled by the same kind of knowledge.
I carry that tale with me. As a Jewish writer, I think my job is, first and foremost, to come to know that full range of good and evil, beauty and brokenness, creation and destruction—to see it and to know it, and to start writing.
And that’s just the beginning.
Yehuda Kurtzer’s first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available
Do the Jewish People need more books? And are books the key to Jewish innovation? In the 1920s Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “It could hardly be asserted that the great urgency of the present moment is to organize the science of Judaism or to prompt both Jews and non-Jews to the endless writings of books on Jewish subjects. Books are not now the prime need of the day. But what we need more than ever, or at least as much as ever, are human beings—Jewish human beings, to use a catchword that should be cleansed of the partisan associations still clinging to it.”
Rosenzweig then, and we in the business of Jewish education now, sense that the conditions in which modern Judaism is struggling for a continuous foothold require something more than the perpetuation of Jewish knowledge for knowledge’s sake; that our seeking, studying, teaching and learning needs to focus on human outcomes. Accordingly, the trend in the so-called innovation sector focuses heavily on just the “Jewish human beings” that Rosenzweig calls for: on innovators themselves, on people with ideas who fall between the margins of the institutions.
And yet it has always seemed ironic to me that with all the advances in our knowledge of Jewish history, and the successes of Jewish Studies in the academy, that we know now more about the Jewish past than we have ever known before; but as a community, we tend to care about the past less than ever. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier, our collective ignorance of the classical Jewish past may be the scandal of contemporaryAmerican Jewry. I am concerned that the fixation on new programs – even in the embodiment of new individuals to lead the Jewish community – is alone insufficient to make a credible claim for the legacy of what this generation of Jewish life is going to leave behind, that we are substituting program leadership for the thought-leadership that ultimately has kept intellectual history in productive parallel with actual Jewish history.
I see the classical rabbis as the paradigmatic bridge-builders between the perpetuation of ideas and the programmatic work of innovation: they were architects not only of an extraordinary literature – one that they tied to the authenticity of the Bible through an ideology of calling it a second Torah, the oral Torah – but also of systems for Jewish life to enable Judaism to change productively through a period of existential challenge.
So I am not sure that a book – even if it is not the book that Rosenzweig derides – turns the tide for the innovation sector (which is not to say I was not grateful for the philanthropic experimentation that brought it about!). But it does make me hopeful that we are remembering the legacy of the transmission of ideas that has helped define Jewish life in the past as we do the work of redefining Jewish life in the present.
In a recent Commentary article, Jack Wertheimer once again takes on the trends in American Jewry – individualism, pluralism, universalism, anti-tribalism, non-judgmentalism – to attack these modern moves as anathema to the Jewish past and the tradition that modern Jews have inherited (and implicitly rejected). Wertheimer playfully positions his critique in the literary frame of the Ten Commandments, which is a useful straw-man in making these trends into inviolable beliefs held by his (mostly) unnamed opponents. Seeing as the article came out the week of Shavuot – the holiday that marks the receiving of the Decalogue (along with the rest of the Torah) at Mount Sinai, perhaps Wertheimer was seduced by the liturgical calendar.
But in telling the story of contemporary Jewry in this way, Wertheimer makes an ironic mistake. To truly traditional Jews, the laws of Bible co-exist with an interpretive tradition – an Oral Torah – that signals the constant way in which the values of the original revelation co-exist with the changing mores and morals of the societies in which Jews attempted to live out its mandate. In positioning the truths of the past (which he likes) as rigidly opposed to the truths of the present (which he hates), Wertheimer regrettably whitewashes the interpretive processes by which American Jews have remade their essential values.
The interpretive act of authentic change – even when it only comes about because it attempts to keep up with the pace of change of what the Jewish people are actually doing – is much more essential to the enterprise of Jewishness than is the canonical code itself which is being interpreted in the process. Our tradition fundamentally doubts the written tradition alone, aware that in its fixed state it is fundamentally limited in its ability to speak to present realities. The Decalogue requires both a parallel interpretive tradition, and an eager set of interpreters who live in the world, to make it applicable to contemporary realities.
So do contemporary Jews live by new rules? Sure – just as the Judaism of the Jews of 1950s America would have been unrecognizable to the people of the 1920s. I would welcome a healthy public debate about what Judaism should be in the face of the changing realities of the present. But the notion that Judaism should not let its core values evolve in response to changing world conditions? Well, that is not Torah-true Judaism at all.
In the few months since our book was published, women of different ages have come up to us with stories of their own experiences of bat mitzvah – the ceremony that marks a Jewish girl’s coming of age at 12 or 13. These stories have brought home to us in a personal way the trajectory of Jewish women’s experience in the last half-century in the United States.
Grandmothers of today’s bat mitzvah girls tell us that bat mitzvah was not available to them when they were girls. Some resented the discrimination against them, as their brothers and male classmates celebrated bar mitzvah as a highlight of the Jewish lifecycle; others didn’t particularly care. Although the first bat mitzvah took place in 1923 in New York City, it took the women’s movement that re-emerged in the 1960s and ’70s to enable women to look at their status anew, to try to create change, and to popularize the concept of a women’s coming of age ceremony.
But bat mitzvah still wasn’t analogous to boys’ ceremonies. Middle-aged mothers tell us that they had their bat mitzvah ceremonies at the synagogue on Friday night, a time when a boy’s bar mitzvah would rarely be held. In this way, the girl could chant the “Haftorah,” a reading from the Prophets, and not from the Torah, the holy scroll that contains the five books of Moses, a lesser kind of honor. In fact, sometimes the reading was known mistakenly as the “half” Torah.
Nowadays, girls and their mothers in Progressive branches of Judaism take it for granted that the bat mitzvah will be virtually the same as a boy’s bar mitzvah. Girls learn how to read from the Torah – not an easy task – and some wear a prayer shawl (tallit) during the ceremony, until recently a male-only prerogative. Religious transition is rarely so tangibly or so swiftly demonstrated as the generational change in bat mitzvah observance from grandmothers to mothers to today’s bat mitzvah girls.