A Not So Grand Good Book

Meir Shalev again trains his critical eye on the Bible - in which he sees a vibrant story of desires, urges and petty scores, but not a work of sublime grandeur

Meir Shalev again trains his critical eye on the Bible - in which he sees a vibrant story of desires, urges and petty scores, but not a work of sublime grandeur

Reshit Pe'amim Rishonot Batanakh (In the Beginning), by Meir Shalev. Am Oved (Hebrew), 268 pages, NIS 88

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made: Our times are in His hand Who saith "A whole I planned, Youth shows but half; trust God: see all nor be afraid!"

These are the opening lines of Robert Browning's poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra." There are several reasons to cite this quote in the context before us. It is not simply that the poet is dealing with questions of beginnings and aftermaths, as Meir Shalev, too, does ostensibly in "Reshit" ("In the Beginning"); and not simply that the subject supposedly relates to Jewish figures or Jewish cultural heritage. Neither Browning's poem nor Shalev's book is terribly interested in Jewish tradition or a particularly Jewish aspect of literature.

Rather, Browning's quote has to do with one fundamental component that characterizes, and practically defines, his poem about Avraham Ibn Ezra, and that is completely, or almost completely, absent from Shalev's book: the element of grandeur.

But surely, there are those who will say that this was Shalev's very goal. His new reading of the Bible was intended precisely to sever Jewish culture's most sacred text from its traditional "high" conception, which constructs the figures of the founding fathers and their exploits as a model story that is close, supposedly, to the heavens, and instead expose a human energy of doubts, yearnings and pain, which in his opinion are the authentic motivators of the real lives of people here on earth: From a bellows of institutionalized sanctity that is disconnected from real life and aims only to serve interested parties and systems of power seeking to benefit themselves, Shalev wishes to turn the Bible into a vibrant and convincing story about desires, urges and petty scores - one that we can understand, since we ourselves are rather small beings.

With his wit, Shalev indeed manages to render the narrative fairly ridiculous. It is almost as though we were dealing here with Boccaccio's "Decameron," albeit without the sharp turns into spicy sexual regions. And let it be said: He almost always does this with good taste, and in the spirit of genuine affection. Make no mistake: Shalev loves the Bible and its stories, and his knowledge of these is thorough, meticulous and reasoned. But he does not buy into the traditional package.

Tiresome Abraham

If there is anything great about this book, the Bible, so we are informed more or less, then it is the authors' immense talent for telling their fascinating stories by means of an ingenious choice of words, and not the ideas or major life issues that arise in it. Shalev particularly detests "all sorts of spokesmen, either self-appointed or in the agency of the Orthodox establishment, which they serve and from which they receive a salary," "who presume to represent him (God) and to understand and express his wishes."

Thus Shalev takes it upon himself to sort out the Bible anew in keeping with the current zeitgeist, which demands affirmative action for the underdog: He consistently saves his interpretive sympathy for the Biblical story's big losers, those whom the plot and conventional exegesis portray as wretched sinners, characters that are ostensibly unworthy of our admiration and attention. By contrast, with regard to those figures that have always been perceived as our national heroes, Shalev deals with them harshly, being at pains to interpret them in the least forgiving light. Such is the case with the timorous and tiresome Abraham, with the vindictive and grudge-bearing Samuel, with Jonah, who is preoccupied primarily with safeguarding his honor, and with the rest of the nation's high and mighty.

This trend, which fits in nicely with the spirit of Zionism's secular revolution, whose finest sons certainly include Meir Shalev, is not new of course. The aspiration to demythologize and reach a critical understanding of the Bible naturally marks most new Israeli literature. And Bible teaching in Israel has hardly sat idly by, it is well known, having done an excellent job of instilling in students mainly rejection, mistrust and denigration of Biblical figures and issues.

This is absolutely fine, so long as one continues dealing with this great literature. After all, better that people treat it begrudgingly and with reservations than not at all. From that standpoint, Shalev's new book, like his earlier "Bible Now," certainly does Jewish culture a great service by bringing readers who may have wandered back to their people's ancient stories. Shalev's tangible closeness to the biblical landscapes and language is impressive and enviable. The only question is why a reader of his refined tastes and irony feels such a need to insist that there is nothing great before us, merely small things that possibly become great by virtue of their having been written in a masterly fashion.

In other words, why must Shalev hedge himself almost fanatically against the possibility that the Biblical text's poetic force stems from, among other things, metaphysical questing and spiritual power? Is he afraid we will suspect him of secretly returning to the faith? Or is he worried that recognition on his part of the greatness of the Bible's ideas would be overly helpful to the local religious councils and to the rabbinic courts throughout the country?

Shalev's dual aversion to the traditional heroes of Jewish exegesis ?(possibly excluding King David?) and the Bible's metaphysics stands out in his depiction of Jonah. After asserting that "the author would like us to focus only on what matters to him - on the prophet rather than the prophecy, and more precisely, on his professional relations with his employer, God," Shalev proceeds to bombard Jonah with unsparing criticism, all of which he claims is implied by the storyteller's manner of writing. There is no room here to offer quotations, which might clarify the severity of Shalev's complaints against Jonah, and demonstrate how ridiculous, evil and foolish this wretched prophet is made out to be. The only question is what we, the readers, are to get out of this specific interpretation, aside from the satisfaction of sticking our tongues out at Jewish tradition. After all, the selfsame story of Jonah the prophet can naturally be given an entirely different interpretation (and many additional ones), from which readers might derive something a bit wiser and more profound, perhaps a contribution that is more spiritually uplifting than Shalev's clever insights about the selfishness and pettiness of Jonah (or Elisha, or Abraham and their ilk).

For example, Jonah's story can be read as a reflection of the ambivalence between the infinite element of reality, and the finite one, which is also death, and the place of compassion in such a dialectical reality: God, who embodies the infinite, dispatches Jonah to inform Nineveh of its impending doom. And Jonah does not understand what place finiteness and death have in God's world. But finite is finite! And so God, too, must be finite, and this will be expressed in fleeing from him. Except that God is really infinite, and he saves Jonah and sends him once again to accept the fact of death and finiteness in the world. This time Jonah accepts the verdict of dialectical reality, and proclaims Nineveh's demise. And once again the declaration is undermined.

God takes pity on the city and Jonah no longer understands God. After all, it was I, complains Jonah, who reminded you that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love. Why did you make me accept death if you intended life? Now I myself must die because I have accepted finiteness. In response, God does not nullify death's necessity, but rather teaches Jonah the meaning of compassion as the only way to connect the two contradictory axes of Biblical reality.

Good for a few laughs

I would not presume, of course, to compete with Meir Shalev in proposing interpretations of the Bible, and full disclosure require me to admit that I view God as a very significant part of human reality. But that is not the point; the point is that Shalev's belittling approach too often misses out on the Bible's sublime grandeur, which comes precisely from the fact that it deals with the big issues of life and death, morality and responsibility, betrayal and loyalty that preoccupy us all.

Turning these questions into trivialities of petty haggling - even if well written (by the Biblical author as well as by Shalev) - might be good for a few laughs. And in this sense, we can paraphrase Shalev and say he has written a text that in his eyes, presumably, is a nice book.

But the thing is that in any case we live out our small and petty lives, brimming with fear, deception and sycophancy. That is evidently our fate. It is only in great poetry or prose that we can find, admire and identify with that which is greater than us. And it is a pity to let such an opportunity slip by.

Dr. Tzvia Greenfield heads the Mifne Institute for Democracy and Cultural Identity.