May 22, 2011 by Reader's Connection
In my first Holy Amnesia post in 2009, I recommended Leon R. Kass´s The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. I had first come across Kass while watching the Genesis discussions put together by Bill Moyers. One of the books I´m featuring in 2011 is Genesis: The Beginning of Desire by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, whom I first came across on the Bill Moyers discussions. I´m obviously in a rut.
Kass was fond of quoting midrashim in his book, and Zornberg does so almost uninterruptedly. When reading her reflections on these rabbinic commentaries on the scriptures (written between A. D. 400 and 1200), some of you may think, “That’s not in the Genesis that I remember.”
Who knew that Satan was so involved with Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, or with Sarah’s subsequent death? Or not. It depends on which midrash you’re reading.
Zornberg also weaves in all manner of modern authors, and I’ll admit that at times, during paragraphs peppered with modern philosophers or whoever they are, I found myself wandering on the web, catching up on details about the Mitch Daniels marriage. But paradoxically, when Zornberg sticks to her medieval sources, her commentaries are more intensely meaningful for me, more surprising and upsetting.
If you don’t find Zornberg’s midrashim as riveting as I do, you might try Cynthia Ozick’s 2004 novel Heir to the Glimmering World, which features Professor Rudolf Mitwisser, “the scholar of Karaism.”
Who were the Karaites? They thought that midrashim were rubbish, and that only the Bible as it stood, sans commentaries, was the true word of God. (I shouldn’t use the past tense when referring to them, even if characters in the novel refer to them as a dead, unknown sect. Check out The Karaite Korner and Karaism.org.)
Rose, our novel’s narrator, enters the Mitwisser household at age eighteen, in 1935, to serve as . . . Well, it takes her a while to figure that out, and her role keeps changing. The Mitwissers are Jewish refugees, displaced to Albany, NY, and then to a weedy, obscure sector of the Bronx.
Rose comes from a wrecked family, herself, and she’s a funny, perceptive narrator–so perceptive that she narrates stretches of story that she didn’t witness and about which no one told her. She’s writing her tale decades after the events took place, though, and–unless we’re supposed to think that a nameless third-person narrator is periodically taking over–this older Rose must be looking back and doing her own sort of midrash.
The book is a terribly sad story which ends happily for some characters, a vivid look at a moment in history, and a delight.