How Jews became ‘people of the books’

CNN  — 

According to Jewish tradition, God is, among other things, a writer.

The Talmud says that, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, God inscribes our names in one of three books: The Book of Life for the righteous, the Book of Death for the devilish and a to-be-determined list for the muddy middle.

Likewise, Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic wisdom, instructs that Jews should keep in mind “all your deeds are inscribed in a book,” a work that, if it exists, surely stretches across several heavens.

No surprise, then, that Jewish tradition holds texts in such high regard. As poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch writes in his new book, “The People and the Books,” texts often became turning points in Jewish history. For a religion that lived in diaspora for more than 1,800 years, books took the place of temples and monuments, governments and great battle sites.

At times like Passover, which began Monday night, books are a bridge between Jewish present and past, linking modern Jews with the Israelites who escaped Egypt. At other times, books provided inspiration for the future, as in Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State,” a political pamphlet that prophesied the creation of the state of Israel.

Kirsch’s title is a play on the Quran’s name for Christians and Jews, “people of the book,” but as he deftly demonstrates, even Orthodox Judaism relies on multiple texts. The 18 books Kirsch explores were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Yiddish and German over a span of 2,500 years. They include fables and fiction, history and heresy, philosophy and aphorisms.

CNN spoke to Kirsch about his book on Monday. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You said you wrote this book in part to escape “present-mindedness.” What do you mean by that?

A: Judaism, as it is lived in America today, usually revolves around a couple of big questions: the observance of rituals and laws, our relationship with the state of Israel, and the Holocaust. But I wanted to go back further into Jewish history and see what Judaism meant before those current questions took their shape. I wanted to make things a little less familiar.

Q: You note, though, that four themes have remained fairly consistent over the centuries: God, the Torah, Israel and the Jewish people.

A: I think there are continuities, but also differences. One big difference is that for most of the period I’m writing about, Jews didn’t have any sovereignty in the land of Israel. Jewish sovereignty was speculative, it was about what might happen in the future when the messiah came. It wasn’t about how to relate to the Jewish state.

Another difference is the way we think about God. The way we think about God today is different from Jews hundreds of years ago.

Q: How so?

Well, it depends on who you ask. If you’re talking about non-Orthodox American Jews, they often think about God metaphorically, as a principle of justice or power leading us to make the world a better place. It’s not about God’s personality or what he wants in terms of following laws, which was a big question in Judaism for many years.

Q: What were the criteria for choosing the 18 texts you discuss in the book?

A: I wanted to write about books that are famous, and if you’re not a Jewish scholar, you might have heard about them, but not necessarily known what’s in them. They also all reflect major changes in Jewish thought, and do so in different eras, languages, and genders. It gives a sense of the diversity of Jewish tradition.

Q: Speaking of gender, you write that, like European Christians, Jews, particularly women, were profoundly affected by advent of the printing press.

A: Absolutely. The rise of Yiddish language printing was hugely transformative in terms of who got a chance to read. Traditionally in Jewish history, women were not taught to read Hebrew and couldn’t study the Torah and Talmud. But if they spoke Yiddish, as many women in Eastern Europe did, then all at once they had access to a universe of books, books that were written for or by women.

Q: You begin your book with the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, writing that it could be considered the beginning of Jewish history. Instead of the Book of Genesis?

A: There are lots of different places where you could start the Jewish story, with Abraham, or Moses or David. What I like about Deuteronomy is that it’s the transition for the Jewish people between exile and possession of the land, this moment of creation of the Jewish kingdom. It’s also the first time the Bible begins moving from something more like myth to something more like history.

Q: Reading the Book of Esther, you reflect that life for Jews in Persia 2,500 years ago bears some similarities to the experiences of modern American Jews.

A: There are moments in Jewish history when they live in big, wealthy multicultural societies, as they did during the Persian and Roman empires, and they tend to bring up the same questions: What was Jews’ relationship to other people, how did that affect how they think about God, and what did Judaism mean? For a number of people in this book, whether it’s Philo of Alexandria in Egypt or Baruch Spinoza in Amsterdam, what connects them is that they are all thinking about what it means to be Jewish.

Q: You call Judaism “technology” for collapsing history – collapsing the present moment and the moment Moses receives the commandments on Sinai, for example. What do you mean by that?

A: Passover is a good time to talk about this. At the Seder, you’re telling your child about why we study the Passover, and the answer is: because of what God did for me. God brought me out of Egypt, as if the Exodus had just happened. The re-enactment is reminding us every year to bring ourselves closer to that experience.

Q: Speaking of history, you write that, for centuries, books became the turning points of Jewish tradition.

A: Before 70 CE, Judaism was centered on the Temple, a physical place where they worshipped, sacrificed, celebrated holidays. It was the place where they connected to God. After it was destroyed, Judaism had to find other ways to connect to God. The answer was through the study of sacred texts, particularly the law and the Talmud. It was a major transformation from a temple-based to text-based culture.

Q: Some of those texts, particularly the Zohar, the book on which Kabbalah is based, can get pretty racy (for religious writing). In fact, you call the Zohar the most “sex positive” text in Judaism.

A: Sex has always been a divine commandment in Judaism. There’s no tradition of asceticism, or monks and nuns. There was always a commandment to be fruitful and multiply. In the Zohar, this becomes a cosmic principle. When married men and women have sex, they unify the different parts of God. It’s a mystical act, and very sex positive. It’s saying that sex, under certain conditions, can actually have an affect on God.

Q: In another surprise, you note that Theodor Herzl, before he proposed a Jewish state, thought Jews should convert to Catholicism rather than deal with European anti-Semitism.

A: Yes, he had this idea when he was younger that the way to solve the problem would be for all the Jewish people to meet the Pope and convert, and then there would be no more anti-Semitism. He soon realized that not only was that not a realistic possibility but also that the problem went much deeper than that.