God as Protagonist: Jewish Classics Through a Theological but Relevant Lens

In his rather radical survey of Jewish literature from antiquity to the last century, Adam Kirsch highlights the importance of eclectic religious and worldly texts and authors for synagogue-shy Jews today.

A New York production of "Fiddler on the Roof," based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Dec. 20, 2015.
Joan Marcus/Jeffery Richards Associates via AP

“The People and the Books: 18 Classics on Jewish Literature,” by Adam Kirsch, W.W. Norton & Company, 407 pps., $29

In 1936, the German-Jewish intellectual Erich Auerbach arrived in Turkey. Forced by Nazi race laws from his position as professor of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, Auerbach had come to fill a teaching post at Istanbul University.

Auerbach would probably be little remembered today if not for the book he wrote there: “Mimesis,” first published in Germany in 1946, is a collection of penetrating and luminous essays on the Western canon. The book, which charts the European literary tradition from the Bible and Homer until modernity, has become a foundational text of literary criticism. This is due to its insight and erudition, but also because it is an elegy to Western humanism before what seemed to be its final eclipse by Nazi barbarity, a defiant cultural counter-strike. "He was, in effect, building the very thing that the Nazis wished to tear down,” according to a 2013 review in The New Yorker.

Reading Adam Kirsch’s “The People and the Books” – the poet, critic and Columbia University professor’s just-published collection of essays on the Jewish classics – “Mimesis” is never far from the reader’s mind. Like Auerbach, Kirsch writes captivatingly on an eclectic mix of texts from antiquity to the 20th century.

The cover of “The People and the Books".

Beginning with the Bible’s Deuteronomy and Esther, the book’s 14 essays explore the biblical exegesis of the 1st-century B.C.E. philosopher Philo of Alexandria; Josephus Flavius’ history of the Jewish wars against Rome; the rabbinic collection of moral maxims “Ethics of the Fathers”; the medieval travelogue of Benjamin of Tudela; the philosophies of Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides, and Spinoza; the mysticism of the Zohar; the Yiddish memoirs of 17th-century businesswoman Glückel of Hameln; the Hasidic tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav; German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s “Jerusalem”; Theodore Herzl’s “Jewish State” and “Altneuland”; and Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Dairyman.

Some could argue, as critics have in Auerbach’s case, that Kirsch wastes time on some minor works and disregards essentials like the Babylonian Talmud or the 16th-century “Shulhan Arukh” code of Jewish law. However, this diversity makes “The People and the Books” all the more intriguing.

Like Auerbach, Kirsch is not engaged in a mere literary exercise. As he explains in the preface: “Reading the Jewish past can help us to escape present-mindedness. In the early 21st century, the Jewish world is still primarily shaped by the epochal events of the 20th: the mass immigration of Jews to America, the founding of the State of Israel, and above all the Holocaust. It can be hard to recognize that the very questions raised by these events — questions about assimilation, nationhood, and providence — are not new in Jewish history but have been part of it from the very beginning.

"That is why this book concludes around 1914, before those questions took their current, inescapable forms and predetermined polarities. My hope is that readers of ‘The People and the Books’ will find what I have found in writing it: a richer and freer sense of what Judaism has been and can be.”

Throughout the book, Kirsch drives this point home, highlighting the relevance of the texts and authors he discusses for contemporary American Jews. For example, his essay on Josephus’ “Jewish War” raises questions about the morality of martyrdom and the use and abuse of Jewish power — certainly central concerns in Israeli politics today. Similarly, Mendelssohn’s insistence that the separation of church and state is essential for Jewish emancipation provides an opportunity to consider that most American of ideals.

However, if Auerbach’s readers were intimately familiar with the Western canon, most of Kirsch’s potential audience is a blank slate, Jewishly speaking. The recent Pew Research Center survey has shown how increasing numbers of American Jews are disconnected from religion and synagogues, Hebrew schools, and other Jewish institutions where they would have learnt about Maimonides and the Zohar, not to mention the Bible and “Ethics of the Fathers.”

Romance and finance

Given Kirsch’s plea for the contemporary relevance of the Jewish canon, it is strange, perhaps, that the lead character in “The People and the Books” is God. To put things another way, theology is the thread that links the collection’s disparate essays. Some of the books’ chapters, especially those devoted to explicitly philosophical and mystical works, lend themselves to theological discussions of God’s nature, whether or not the divine intervenes in the course of history, miracles, and the purpose of the commandments.

Kirsch also approaches seemingly worldly texts through a theological lens. For instance, he sets Glückel of Hameln’s mundane account of match-making woes and financial ups and downs against the backdrop of the everyday piety instilled by the Yiddish women’s Bible commentary and almanac the “Tsenerene.”

He writes: “Like most of us, she is more concerned with respectability and success than with the fate of her eternal soul. But when it comes to ultimate values, she continually upholds what she learned from the ‘Tsenerene’ and books like it. She knows that wealth is meaningless, that God is watching over the universe, that the best Jewish life is one of prayer and study. Her achievement, like that of generations of Jews, was to be able to hold in productive tension the real and the ideal, the world she lives in and the world as God wanted it to be.”

Kirsch has a knack for making what could be dry and esoteric theological debates engaging and exciting. What’s more, the focus on God is the correct approach historically speaking. Until quite recently, most Jewish literature, like most literature in general, was about God and our relation to him. Even Herzl and the secular Zionists who followed did not remove theology so much as replace it with theologically inspired politics. The centrality of Israel for American Jews, far eclipsing the belief in God or religious observance as markers of Jewish identity, is a continuation of this same trend.

And yet, there is something radical about the book’s divine focus — and not only because it may be off-putting for some synagogue-shy Jews. We live in an age when literary readings of the Bible, the rabbis, and other sacred texts have become so widespread as to be mundane; the critical tradition “Mimesis” inaugurated, with its stylistic analyses of the realism of the Gospels and church fathers, bears no small measure of responsibility for this secular state of affairs.

To think seriously with Kirsch about God and his relation to human beings in general, and to the Jewish people in particular, is refreshing. It feels alive and arresting in a way that another analysis of plot and character that avoids the divine elephant in the room would not. “The People and the Books” is not only about the particular authors and works that Kirsch selected, but a way of seeing the world — and the word — with God at its center.

This fresh perspective is the reason why readers may regret that Kirsch ends his book too soon. The decision to conclude the “The People and the Books” with authors who lived and wrote around the time of World War I is understandable for all the reasons that he gives. For many Jews today, the Holocaust, Israel and the American experience certainly do overshadow the centuries of history that have come before.

However, it would be even more interesting and enlightening to see how Kirsch applies his keen critical eye to the work of contemporary Jewish writers. With his help, there is no doubt that readers could disentangle works from our own time from the defining events of the 20th century – or, at least, could gain a new perspective on them through the lens of what came before. What theological continuities could Kirsch discover beneath the secular face of Philip Roth’s fiction or Yona Wallach’s poetry, and how might they illuminate the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mysticism or Yeshuayahu Leibowitz’s rational religion?

Auerbach concludes “Mimesis” with an essay on his contemporary Virginia Woolf, who died in 1941, a year before he began writing. Rather than rejecting experimental, modern writers like Woolf as deviations from a classical norm, Auerbach proudly declares them to be part of a long and living chain of tradition. This link with the present, the breadth of Auerbach’s vision of Western culture that takes in even his own lived moment, is what makes “Mimesis” so powerful.

If by present-mindedness we mean being locked in by today’s collective, received definitions of Judaism and Jewish belonging – which includes not just the grand narratives of the Holocaust, Jewish immigration and Israel, but also the communal institutions and ideologies that promote them – then it certainly is a burden. But present-mindedness can also mean being mindful and attentive to the present moment, and the way that the stories that we tell ourselves today continue the seemingly forgotten past and challenge our own assumptions.

For the American Jews who feel estranged from Jewish history, this sort of attentiveness and criticism may be even more enlightening than Kirsch’s retreat to the classics.