Curating a New Jewish Canon

By | Mar 11, 2015
2015 March-April
Ezra Reads the Book of Law

By David Biale 

The Norton Anthology of World Religions
Edited by Jack Miles
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
2014, pp. 4,448,  $100

When Jack Miles approached me with the proposition to edit the Judaism volume of the projected Norton Anthology of World Religions, I was naturally flattered but also confounded. There are, of course, many anthologies of Judaism in different formats. But the Norton anthologies are different. For more than 50 years, Norton anthologies in English literature, American literature, as well as many other fields, have set the gold standard. One could even say that they establish a certain canon. In a time of disposable textbooks, the Norton anthologies are often the only books that college students keep on their shelves long after they graduate.

To add to my conundrum, I was not—at least in my own mind—the obvious choice to serve as editor. Although trained in the whole breadth of Jewish history and having written and edited books covering that three-millennium span, I am a secular Jew with a distinctly iconoclastic view of Judaism. My model is Gershom Scholem, the historian of Jewish mysticism who was the subject of my first book. Paraphrasing a famous saying of the Roman playwright Terence, Scholem liked to say: “I consider nothing Jewish as alien to me.” My approach to the subject, like Scholem’s, includes the heretical and the secular, as well as the Orthodox.

Fortunately, this was exactly the approach that Miles was looking for in the new anthology. We, the section or volume editors, were to anthologize the classic texts of our traditions, but also to include texts that would surprise and open up the canon to new perspectives. For some traditions, such as Hinduism and Islam, the stakes are perhaps higher than with Judaism, since scholars who take an iconoclastic approach risk opprobrium or worse (such has been the case for our colleague, Wendy Doniger, in her decidedly heterodox interpretation of Hinduism). A great responsibility comes with the task of creating such an anthology.

To undertake my task, I assembled as many earlier anthologies as possible, up to and including my Bar Mitzvah Anthology. All of these shed some light on how to meet the challenge, but it then became necessary to free myself from them. I realized that much of Judaism already comes in the form of anthologies: the Bible, Talmud, Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah are all compendia of earlier texts, reworked or edited. And what makes the Jewish library so interesting is the way it is structured like archaeological strata, with each layer building on the previous one. I decided to show how different themes—creation, revelation, the binding of Isaac, the Sabbath—play out from the Bible to the Second Temple, rabbinic literature, medieval philosophy, mysticism and poetry and into the modern age.


Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878, oil on canvas by Maurycy Gottlieb

By tracing these themes, it becomes immediately apparent that Judaism is the opposite of a “fundamentalist” religion, since every generation takes the liberty of reinterpreting its predecessors. Midrash in its broadest sense rejects literal readings of earlier texts—and especially the Bible—in favor of its own creative rereadings. The famous rabbinic statement “these and these are words of the living God” is emblematic of the very pluralism of interpretations, even those that contradict each other.

Moreover, within the religious tradition itself one finds the affirmation of the role of human beings to exercise the freedom to interpret. The well-known story of the “Oven of Akhnai” occupies pride of place in the rabbinic section of the anthology, for it is there that the rabbis declare: “[The Torah] is not in the heavens.” Rather, once given at Sinai, it is now ours to interpret and apply on earth. The rabbis were anything but secular Jews, yet this principle is one that resonates today for those who reject the “yoke of the law.”

So the task then became to show how Judaism cannot be reduced to one teaching but rather the fruitful interplay between different, sometimes contradictory, ideas. The Second Temple period is a particularly fruitful one for demonstrating this lack of a single “essence of Judaism.” The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Jubilees and other “sectarian” texts all testify to this insight. And even the word “sectarian” is misleading because it presumes an Orthodoxy from which one might break off to form a sect. Even in the so-called Rabbinic Period, no such Orthodoxy existed since we now know that the very editing of the Talmud came late, perhaps as late as after the Muslim invasions. And, from this perspective, in the Middle Ages, with Jewish communities spread across Europe and the Mediterranean, Judaism cannot be reduced to one set of practices and customs. Of course, these communities all followed Jewish law, but the same common tradition can barely contain all the diversity in law, philosophy, poetry and mysticism. Orthodoxy is, in fact, a creation of the modern world, a reaction against modernity, to be sure, but also a product of it. And it has arisen in the context of the new pluralism to which modernity has given birth.

Secular Judaism, in fact, presented another kind of challenge. If the Norton Anthology of World Religions is supposed to be about religion, what does one do with texts that go beyond what we conventionally call religion? The Jews, after all, are not only those who follow a religion called Judaism but also who belong to a people (or tribe or nation). What are the boundaries that one should set to Judaism? Should it include Jewish politics? History? Literature?


This woodcut from 1483 by Johann von Armssheim depicts a medieval disputation in Germany. The Jews, who are wearing the requisite hats, are on the right.

Rather than including all of these disciplines, I made a decision—arbitrary to be sure—that Judaism encompasses all expressions that relate to and interpret the Jewish library. So, for example, the secular poetry of medieval Al-Andalus could be included in the anthology if the poet appropriated or reworked material from the earlier tradition, such as the Song of Songs. Works that did not do so, such as Samuel ha-Nagid’s famous poem celebrating his military victory, did not qualify. Similarly, in the modern period, I did not include Theodor Herzl’s political writings advocating a Jewish state, but did include writers such as Ahad Ha’am and Yeshayahu Leibowitz who engaged Zionism in terms of their own interpretations of the Jewish religious tradition.

Similarly, it seemed of particular importance to include a variety of texts relating to women’s experience, but especially reinterpretations by women of Jewish religious texts. Here is an example of how a contemporary question—the status of women—causes us to reread the historical tradition for materials that have otherwise remained hidden. Women’s voices as refracted through the Talmud, a poem attributed to the wife of Dunash ibn Labrat and tekhines—prayers written for women—plus, of course, contemporary Jewish feminists, are essential parts of this anthology.

Finally, what purely secular modern literature deserved a place in the anthology? Here, too, the criterion I used was whether the work engaged in some way with the earlier religious tradition. For example, the great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, constructed a resolutely secular vision by mining and undermining Jewish religious doctrine:

I declare with perfect faith
That prayer preceded God.

Prayer created God.
God created human beings
Human beings create prayers
That create the God that creates human beings.

Or in the powerful words of the Yiddish poet Kadya Molodowsky (1894-1974):

Merciful God.
Choose another people,
Elect another.
We are tired of death and dying.
We have no more prayers.
In these radically humanistic revolts against the Jewish tradition, poets mobilize the tradition against itself.

The final text in the anthology is reserved for one of the most secular of modern Jewish writers, Philip Roth. In a moving passage near the end of his 1986 novel The Counterlife, the protagonist finds himself in England disconnected from all other Jews and contemplating the ritual of circumcision. He concludes:

“Circumcision confirms that there is an us, and an us that isn’t solely him and me … A Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple.”

It is circumcision, perhaps the last remnant of the sacrificial religion of biblical Judaism, that still connects the Jew to his Jewish self in this secular tale. He may not believe in Judaism, but it nevertheless includes its most wayward sons and daughters. And so the three-millennium tradition, a silkworm spinning a gossamer thread inexhaustibly out of itself, has not yet finished spinning.

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis and author of Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. His most recent book is Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.

To read an essay by Jack Miles on the creation of the entire anthology, click here

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