A Review of ‘Reading Genesis: Beginnings’
Reading Genesis: Beginnings
Edited by Beth Kissileff. (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 304 pp. $29.95 paper)
In addition to being arguably the most important work of Jewish literature ever written, the Book of Genesis is the most widely and frequently read, both in and out of our houses of worship. Throughout the ages, this fascinating, foundational story has intrigued readers with its flawed and unpredictable figures—characters whose plights seem uncannily similar to our own. Beth Kissileff’s new anthology, Reading Genesis, brings together a stellar collection of essays by a diverse group of almost two-dozen experts, each bringing the tools and methodology of his or her field to bear on a particular aspect of the seminal biblical book.
Many of these commentators are well known, although not for biblical commentary. Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz analyzes the role of justice in Canaanite society; cookbook writer Joan Nathan offers a culinary tour of references to food in the Garden of Eden and beyond; sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer (collaborating with journalist Jonathan Mark) delves into erotic relationships among the patriarchs and matriarchs. Novelist Dara Horn compares the trajectory of Jacob’s early manhood to that of a typical Greek epic hero.
In addition, Kissileff presents essays by scholars, poets and journalists. These include University of Connecticut professor Jeffrey Shoulson’s stimulating take on the classic Woody Allen short story, “The Kugelmass Episode,” which he views as a metaphoric collision between the Western literary tradition and Jewish culture, and Jacqueline Osherow’s moving take on Judah’s rise to moral leadership among his brothers in the wake of the reunion with Joseph.
Some of the essays are more illuminating than others. And some are perhaps a trifle too academic for the average reader’s taste, such as those that bring game theory or neuropsychological constructs to bear on the biblical characters and their dilemmas. Others are simply too short—condensed from longer articles, they end just as they seem to be getting off the ground.
But most contribute fruitful insights, for example, historian and Emory University Professor Sander Gilman’s essay on Abraham’s manservants waiting while he takes Isaac up to Mount Moriah, which Gilman connects to the existential experience of waiting for Godot, for the Messiah and so on. Psychology professor Seth Greenberg cleverly analyzes the frequent inability of biblical characters to recognize each other’s faces, which he ties to modern technology’s efforts to develop facial recognition software. And, in the volume’s final essay, gerontology expert Steven Albert, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, effectively compares Jacob’s deathbed speech to the ways in which contemporary health care providers help those who are dying as well as their loved ones approach end-of-life issues.
Whole libraries of commentaries on Genesis have been written by both ancient and modern scholars. By bringing together such a wealth of brilliant interpreters, Kissileff’s book justifies the maxim that you can “turn and turn” (learn again and again) the Torah endlessly so that facets of the text will glimmer and sparkle anew.
Ted Merwin is associate professor of religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Penn., and author of Pastrami on Rye.