Off the shelf | Cultural myths and truths: new books face the core of Jewish experience

With the concentration of Jewish holidays at this time of year, some folks burn out on religion, and others get a shot in the arm. In an effort to be one of the latter, I welcome books to give me a fresh eye and renewed perspective as the Torah is rolled back to Genesis and we begin again. Here are some of my favorite new books in Jewish religious studies.

Aviya Kushner grew up in the Orthodox enclave of Monsey, New York, in a family that was steeped in Torah study and love of the Hebrew language. After largely leaving this environment, it happened that, while studying for her MFA in the University of Iowa’s writing program, she took a yearlong seminar led by novelist Marilynne Robinson examining the Bible.

This was a revelatory experience for Kushner, as it was the first time she had approached the Bible in English translation, and she was floored by the distance between experiencing the text in English and in the original Hebrew. She subsequently began collecting and studying English Bible translations and embarked on a decade-long inquiry that resulted in her debut book, “The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible.”

It is a unique book that defies categorization —  part autobiography, part guided introduction to the complexities of biblical language and the perils of translation.

Though Kushner’s focus is on sharing the insights that come from understanding Hebrew words and syntax, it is clear that what she also sees as missing in her fellow students’ efforts to approach the Bible are the Jewish methods of making meaning of the text. These include drawing on the insights and methods of classic commentators; incorporating traditional interpretive stances, such as the rabbinic principle that there is “no early and no late in the Torah,” which challenges the presumed linearity of biblical narrative; and tying biblical texts to their role in Jewish liturgy, holidays and ritual.

Whether the expository segments on biblical language are revelatory will depend on the reader’s background. However, what is engaging throughout is Kushner’s intimate and deeply felt relationship to the material, and her fine treatment of the maddening issue of biblical translation — a necessity for most of us, and yet rarely adequate.

In “A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora,” U.C. Berkeley scholar Daniel Boyarin, one of the major figures in contemporary talmudic studies, offers a provocative and controversial thesis that gets to the core of the Jewish experience.

Drawing from a wide range of texts, he argues for the Babylonian Talmud as a sort of “diasporist manifesto,” marking a decisive development in Judaism away from physical place (i.e., the land of Israel) as a defining feature. Rather, Boyarin asserts that “Jews carry their homeland with them in Diaspora, in the form of textual, interpretive communities built around Talmudic study.”

Boyarin’s notion of diaspora has specific dimensions, and he cautions against conflating it with exile or traumatic displacement. He sees diaspora as a sort of “cultural hybridity” established in the Talmud, enacted differently in the many lands where Jews have settled and characterized by degrees of interplay with foreign nations and far-flung Jewish communities.

The book’s brevity, along with Boyarin’s clear and sometimes conversational style, makes it less daunting to tackle (and thus easier to recommend to a general reader). At the same time, the brevity can leave the reader wishing for more. Of particular interest to me was the discussion of conflicting perspectives among the sages of the Palestinian Talmud (known as the Yerushalmi) and the Babylonian Talmud regarding the inherent centrality of the land of Israel, something I would love to see expanded.

In “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition,” DePaul University law professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall employs the lens of cultural analysis — an increasingly popular methodology in academic legal studies that emphasizes the interplay of law and culture — to explore the interconnectedness of the Jewish experience and religious law.

The title alludes to Kwall’s conviction that the term “cultural Jew” (which Bay Area Jews are especially likely to use to describe themselves) is a problematic designation. However, I feel that the title hides the book’s greatest strength: Kwall’s demonstration that Jewish law — even within the framework of Orthodoxy — has never been immune from cultural influences.

Krall offers a lengthy historical introduction to the Jewish legal tradition, indicating how changes have reflected shifts in social conditions, and a negotiation between the “top-down” rules emanating from leaders and the “bottom-up” practices of everyday Jews. She then examines how these dynamics are visible through challenges being played out in our day. In chapters that focus on homosexuality and on women’s participation in Jewish ritual life, for example, she identifies how the different Jewish movements have responded to important challenges. For those wishing to understand the dynamics of change (or lack thereof) within Jewish law, Kwall’s analysis is an excellent resource.

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

“A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora” by Daniel Boyarin (192 pages, University of Pennsylvania Press)

“The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible”
by Aviya Kushner (272 pages, Spiegel & Grau)

“The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition”
by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall (336 pages, Oxford University Press)

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.