No Other Gods: Walter Kirn's "My Mother's Bible"
By Michael TolkinJune 30, 2013
My Mother’s Bible by Walter Kirn
WHEN I WAS 14, after my Reform Bar Mitzvah, I went through confirmation at Temple… call it Temple X. My family wasn’t religious, but I had some inclination, and the rabbi was exciting — he’d been arrested with Martin Luther King, he was young and handsome. As it turned out for the wives of the board members, perhaps a bit too handsome: after he was fired, the stories of his corruption dribbled in over the years, sexual harassment and embezzlement from a charity. None of this was visible when I was 14, except that my father suspected any rabbi who quoted the Playboy Philosophy. Whatever was sleazy about him, he was a good teacher, he made the text exciting by making it about the life we knew and through him I learned the unintended lesson of his fall, which is that at some point in life you have to accept that when the teacher fails the teaching, it’s easy but cheap to justify disillusionment on someone else’s hypocrisy. Nothing that he said about justice was a lie.
So I went to college — Middlebury — and majored in religion, until I took a class called “The Idea of God.” I tanked the final paper and got a B- and have been thinking about how to raise that grade since then. The textbook was the problem, although it took me 15 years to understand why. The book was From Primitives To Zen, an anthology of texts from around the world. The author of the book was Mircea Eliade, the Chairman of the Department of the History of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Throughout the semester I couldn’t find anything to support my own not very articulate sense of the Jewish idea of God, and switched majors to American studies.
Fifteen years later, the truth about Eliade came out, and my problem with the class finally made sense. As he built his illustrious career, Eliade sort of kind of forgot to include in his résumé that in Romania, before the war, he’d been active in the fascist and anti-Semitic Iron Guard. I still had From Primitives to Zen on my shelf, and when I looked through it I saw that Eliade had left Judaism completely out of the picture, because it didn’t fit his theories.
Joseph Frank’s long takedown of Eliade in The New Republic in 2006 isolated the way Eliade’s academic theories were proof of his ongoing hatred of Judaism. Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade's postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed, in his theory of religion, into a much more scholarly key. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which "sacred time," the time of religious experience, was recreated. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive "sacred time" because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of "the eternal return" by linking God with linear time. “The Hebrews,” he writes, “were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God,” and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world.
So Eliade and the Rabbi from the Playboy Club understood the same thing about Judaism, that Judaism injects history into religion. But Eliade was idolatry’s advocate in the old war against the monotheistic revelation of Genesis. He writes as if anti-Semitism is only pretending to be ethnic or tribal hatred, when it’s deeply theological, maybe only theological. Idolatry is the worship of power, devotion to separate attributes of creation. The best example in our time is the worship of the God of Liberty as revealed in the Second Amendment, a deity so ferocious that he demands the constant sacrifice of children, and to suggest a limit is blasphemy. Consequence be damned. History is about consequence — this is the virus that Hitler said we carried — and without the idea of consequence there is only power and the eternal return of mystical time. Eliade describes how the Dayaks of Borneo suspended all rules and interdictions during the winter festival, illustrated so brilliantly in Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa’s 2008 movie about the Peruvian village that blindfolds the statue of Jesus between and Good Friday and Easter, permitting all sins. Think of Burning Man without a twelve hour drive into a dust storm. Circular time has no continuity after the annual reset, it erases consequence, and without consequence, there is no justice. So circular time is the perfect theology for a previously fascist University of Chicago professor with best-selling textbooks who wants to have his past not just forgiven but deleted, left behind in a previous round of “sacred time” that no longer exists. Judaism maintained the tradition of the prehistoric circularity of time through its annual festivals, but with the entry into history, it adds linearity, creating a spiral; the Torah scroll is a model for memory, and memory, like a disembodied God who is everywhere and remembers everything, was Eliade’s enemy.
Eliade deleted from the world’s theological record what the French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas defined as Judaism’s difference, that Judaism is “scornful of cultures where blood and death are joined to voluptuous pleasures, where the forms of art and enchantment accept supreme cruelties.” This comes from the core principle of monotheism, that God is completely other, and all the rest of us are descended from the same root. For some people, perhaps for most, the idea of a universe created by a singular God who is completely other is unbearable. Listen to Christopher Hitchens:
The Bible, may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansings, for slavery, for bride-price and for indiscriminate massacres, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.
I want to say to Hitchens, or most atheists, quietly, “You know fuck all about the Jewish Bible. The God you don’t believe in isn’t in the book you’ve never read.”
And Hitchens offers, “I have read it.”
And I say, “If it didn’t make you laugh, you haven’t read it.”
The zeitgeist is an angel, and angels bring messages when they are needed, so the angel of the times interrupts my quarrel with a dead man and delivers the book I’d force him to read: My Mother’s Bible, Walter Kirn’s e-book that alone justifies buying, if not both tablets that Moses carried down the mountain (Kindle Fire and iPad Mini), then at least one of those electronic devices, so you can read the book, which is brief and mesmerizing. I’m not deputized to make Kirn an honorary Jew, but over the years I’ve looked for a simple book that opens the Bible in a way that lets an atheist read the Old Testament without getting lost in the fight between the supernatural and science, or that other, fair and harder question: “If there’s an all powerful God, why is there evil?” It’s this question that Kirn answer so well.
Kirn came to the Bible — as many do — in a time of grief, after his mother died in pain, three years ago. But rather than looking for consolation, he approached the Bible out of curiosity. He was packing up his mother’s books and found, to his surprise,
a worn looking, oversize King James Study Bible whose margins were covered in red handwritten notes. The ink, from a fine-point marker, was dark in some spots, a little faded in others. The lettering was nineteenth-century small, with a curlicued, filigreed, decorative quality.
His mother had been a nurse at the Hazeldon Clinic in Minnesota. She was, Kirn says,
immoderately literate. Between her annual rereadings of her favorite masterworks by Gibbon, Dickens, Tolstoy, Goethe, and Shakespeare, she managed over the years to teach herself at least three modern languages and one ancient one. She also kept abreast of the bestseller lists and the more talked-about novels and biographies in the leading book reviews. The Bible, though? I’d never seen her touch it.
He opened the book to a random page, to the end of the story of the Flood:
It spoke of two more birds, a raven and a dove, which Noah released from the ark to find dry land. I remembered the dove — it flew back with an olive leaf — but I’d forgotten about the raven “which went forth to and fro” and never returned. How had the raven managed to stay aloft so long, with water covering even the mountaintops? Myth. It opens the mind. It sets us spinning.
The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, from the creation to the death of Moses, is divided into 54 chapters, called parshas, and the cycle is read in order, completely, from the New Year, which is usually in September. Every synagogue in the world is on the same story on the same Saturday every year. So when Kirn says spinning, it can be taken literally; the scrolls spin on their rollers and are rewound at the end of the cycle. Once you’ve been through this three or four years in a row, you find that the meaning of the stories change as the meaning of your own life changes. You see things in the stories that you have never seen before, and if there’s a supernatural miracle, this is it. Even having been to Princeton and Cambridge, Kirn had never read the Bible before,
just skipped around in it and heard it quoted and assumed an unearned familiarity with it that’s not uncommon, I’m convinced, among people like me who consider themselves educated merely because we’re apt and curious, not because we’ve done the work.
That skipping around is what the Torah cycle avoids, because context is everything. If you’ve read his book “Lost in the Meritocracy,” or his recent columns in The New Republic — on Mormonism and on guns — you know that Kirn approaches hard subjects with humility, both for the subject and for his readers, assuming the readers who encounter him are likely to bring their own prejudices to people who believe in guns and God.
Kirn asks a question that might make any atheist, even one as angry as Hitchens, stop to listen:
Why did God take so long to post the rules, allowing his children to blunder about in darkness between their expulsion from Eden and Moses’ time? It seems so cruel, this interlude of anarchy [creation, Babel, flood, slavery] that left human beings to their own devices and caused them to be cursed, cast out, and slaughtered when their trial-and-error search for answers went awry. Why not reveal the Ten Commandments to Adam, say, so he could teach them to his poor son, Cain? Why for so long did the Lord require his children to read his mind instead of his stone tablets? Maybe it took him a while to know his own mind. Maybe, that is, God’s will didn’t properly exist until human beings revealed it in the negative by confounding it in so many ways. By hovering over them while they lurched through history, God learned as much from his children, it seems possible, as they eventually learned from him. And the chief thing he learned was that he didn’t like it when they acted in ways that reminded him of himself.
The God who surprises and fascinates Kirn is not the great and terrible Oz mocked by atheists; after creating the world, he can only affect it by suggestion, not by changing the rules that God himself put into motion. God’s miracles are limited in duration and scale, and nothing fundamental in creation is ever permanently reversed. God is everywhere at the beginning, and withdraws from conversation as the march across the wilderness comes to an end. Kirn isn’t surprised by the humanity of Adam and Eve or Abraham and Moses; it’s God’s humanity that fascinates him. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush and tells him to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrews, Kirn notes that Moses wants to tell the Hebrews who sent him, and therefore wants God to tell him his name, but God won’t do it; all he says is for Moses to tell them “I Am That I Am.” “Today it seems profound,” writes Kirn, “this answer, a great grammatical infinity loop… Considered in context, though, as a piece of dialogue, it strikes me as a joke. Before this, God either damned you or cursed you, but now he’s learned to pull your leg.” Kirn sees comedy in God’s game of inscrutability — “Maybe Jehovah’s crazy-making name is part of a longer ‘Who’s on first?’”
Dear Walter, you are so very close! Expand on this! In all those chats between God and men and women, is the Master of Time and Space our Bud Abbott, the straight man (aggh, a technical vaudeville term now has a messy other meaning) who thinks he knows how to peel an artichoke, making us the baggy-pants clowns foolish enough to trust a tall guy in a suit, or in retrospect are we the ones who think we have dignity while God is the only one in the room who knows it doesn’t exist? Or, Walter, my chevruta, my Torah study partner, let me suggest that are you referencing the wrong routine; it is Popeye who says of himself, “I am what I am and that’s all what I am.” And as surely as the prayer shawl was consciously turned into Superman’s cape, the Fleisher Brothers knew what they were doing when Popeye invoked the phrase.
Another translation of the phrase is “I will be what I will be,” which mutes the joke and injects a spirit of melancholy, one Kirn also hears from the beginning, when, in God’s naiveté and inexperience, he establishes Eden:
Parenthood was not what he expected. He fussily outfits his children’s bedroom, Eden, as though he expects them to stay in it forever, content and relatively quiet. He gives the place rivers, pretty stones. His optimism almost makes me pity him. Not for long, perhaps, but for a moment.
The serpent in Kirn’s right reading isn’t evil, but a creature that
dwells as close to nature, to the soil, and as far from hierarchies and sky gods as it is possible to get. The serpent, like the tree of knowledge itself, is attached to the earth, to the planet’s deepest energies, drawing them upward into the social realm and introducing some texture to experience. […] If this voluble reptile had not existed, God might have had to invent him at some point simply to display the dreariness of permanently, uneventfully beholding a pair of handsome, smug immortals with nothing to talk about, even between themselves, besides their own wonderful virtue and obedience and the futility of the serpent’s salesmanship.
What Kirn understands here is that for the Jews, who wrote this book, there is no fall, there is no original sin in the Christian sense, we are not born in sin with the need for redemption. Instead, there’s a test. Call it a test from God, or, if you want to, say that we are born in into an indifferent universe, faced with choices every day, and compelled by desires that we follow to our own pleasure or dismay, and that along the way we can choose to help or hurt, without prompting from the Devil. God’s support and encouragement is helpful, and Eden is beautiful, but God’s tests aren’t fair and they usually end badly. If you want to ask, “Why is it this way instead of another way?” the horribly funny or deeply melancholy answer can only be, “I am that I am.”
Or maybe it wasn’t intended to be a test. It just turned out that way.
There’s a mystical notion that God created 12 universes before this one, but they didn’t work or he didn’t like them, and so he destroyed them. When Kirn gets to the flood, he sees that, even with the restart of human life, God can’t change our nature. After the ark lands, Kirn picks up the story:
Noah recovers from his time at sea by growing wine grapes (understandable), and one night he gets drunk on his own product. Shem and Japheth, two of his three sons, alerted by their brother Ham, find him all naked and snoring and cover him up. In the morning Noah throws a fit reminiscent of the kind that God throws, ruining someone’s life for pretty much nothing. This would be Canaan, Noah’s grandson by Ham, who didn’t assist Noah during his deep slumber and is made slave to Uncle Shem — all for the crime of not indulging a drunk. Thus did family dysfunction come into the world.
Or as Rabbi Rosove quoted Rabbi Borowitz at a Bat Mitzvah last week, “If you can’t find yourself in these stories, you’re hiding”:
Does God even like people? He doesn’t seem to. He’s an infinite being who shouldn’t have had children but didn’t realize this, sadly, until he had. This isn’t surprising; he had no parents himself. God grew up alone in a dream world of his own fashioning, unseen, uninstructed, and, of course, unloved, so what did he know about anything, really? Children to him were just toys, a bunch of dolls. No wonder he was shocked when they talked back. No wonder it confused him when they fought. No wonder his first instinct when they displeased him was to destroy them, sparing only his favorites. The change came when Moses, his favorite child ever, offered his services as a babysitter while also prevailing on God to publish instructions as to what his brood might do to please him, or at least forestall his deadly wrath.
So if God is reality, the total of reality in which we live — and I know this really is crude but I don’t know how else to say it — then the atheist and the devout monotheist can each agree, without either resorting to worship or prayer, that we have to find some thread of hope in the universe and understand that this thread can’t just be the result of a good argument. Since stories or art are the only hints we have — all we have — to understand the world as it is or might be, without debate, then the truth of hope can only come to us as a quiet hint.
The binding of Isaac is one of those Bible stories that people who hate the character of God like to rant about. “How could God ask someone to sacrifice his own son and how could Abraham be willing to do it?” When Kirn writes about the binding, he pairs it with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for cinematic power and follows the imagery. He sets up the shot: “Young Isaac cowers, tied up, beneath the raised dagger of his faithful father, who lured his son to lonely Mount Moriah by telling him they’re going to slay a lamb.” After God pipes up and stays his hand, “Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns.”
In quoting the passage, he drops the line that, for me, is the most important moment in the entire Bible. God does not stop Abraham directly. The line (Genesis 22:10-11) reads, “And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: Abraham! Abraham! […] Do not do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God.”
If there were 12 other universes before ours, we can imagine that God had learned from past errors, learned not to do everything all at once like a student on Benzedrine, or destroy it all too quickly if it’s not working right, like a six-year-old trying to assemble a balsa wood glider. In this universe, our universe, God waited to see if the world could sustain the most important part of creation without God’s prompt. If Abraham had killed his son on the stone altar on Mount Moriah, God would have pulled the plug, chalked up another failure in the circuitry. We also know from the text that the consequence of the binding is dreadful for Abraham; God never again speaks to him. Neither does Sarah; neither does Isaac.
This one small but important detail –– the angel –– Kirn misses. Will Abraham’s love for God, so consuming that he’ll kill his son for God, be restrained by some force in the universe that has previously failed? If God is curious to see what Abraham will do, he’s also testing the angel. The angel is mercy dressed as restraint, proving to God that Abraham’s boundless faith in God, his murderous zeal, was balanced by something already woven into the emanations from the start of creation, as the chaos was untangled. Like the creation of the world, we project our stories into the conditions around us, the conditions of time and space as we find them. What Eliade couldn’t abide, what the fascists can’t tolerate, is the continuous inconclusive dilemma that was here before we entered the story, and is just a story. Ritual death is no more an escape than human sacrifice, neither appeases the indifference of heaven. We can find or invent patterns to make peace with the chaos of life, or we can hate it all, like the climate deniers, who must hate life terribly, hate their need for a pliant God, or like the enemies of public health care, who the hate the sick for reminding them of mortality. In the Bible that Kirn and I read, there’s no escape from life, no transcendence from suffering. This is where the atheist and the monotheist meet.
Toward the end of the book, after living with his grief, after the cruel death of his extraordinary mother, who loved him so much and left him this treasure, Kirn understands the same principle that let Isaac worship the God who ordered his father to kill him: “I think I understand what keeps us going. Forgiveness. Not the forgiveness God shows us, but the forgiveness we show God.”
Kirn stops after Sinai. I hope he continues studying the journey in the desert at this level, all the way to the death of Moses 40 years later. The stories keep coming: the meaning of Amalek, Korach’s rebellion, Pinchas killing Cuzbi and Zimri making love in front of the altar, the talking donkey, the failure of the spies, the nostalgia for slavery, and then, spread through the stories, the addition of all those laws — so many of which seem irrational or cruel. He’d need a longer education into Rabbinic Judaism and the Talmud to learn how the tradition eventually overruled the eye for an eye, but I suspect that Kirn won’t lose sympathy for this insecure God, in his divine panic to regulate humanity before it crosses the river from myth to archaeology. It’s a gift to have someone outside the tribe understand so well these stories we’ve been carrying for so many years.
Michael Tolkin lives in Los Angeles. His daughter skates for the Los Angeles Derby Dolls. He will hold that accomplishment up against anyone who writes for the London Review of Books.
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