Excerpts for Genesis : A Living Conversation


By Joanne Dobson


Copyright © 1996 Joanne Dobson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780385483452

It was reported to be "the best conversation" in town. Deciding to check it out for myself, late one afternoon I made my way up to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America at the corner of Broadway and 122nd Street, across from Union Theological Seminary and a few blocks north of Columbia University. There, around a long plain table in a modest basement room, sat a score of people, talking. I recognized among them a film critic, a screenwriter, a poet, an editor, an essayist and novelist, and a smattering of biblical scholars, Jewish and Christian. Their leader was a bearded man whose intense dark eyes moved swiftly from speaker to speaker, as if he had scored so many tennis matches he could instinctively anticipate the action. And action there was, if the play of ideas is the game you love.

They were talking about Genesis, the first book of the Bible, whose stories have inspired three of the world's enduring religions and the spiritual, ethical, and literary imagination of Western civilization. What stories they are! We are swept from the creation of the world through the founding of Israel, from the architecture of the cosmos to the intrigues of the patriarchs, from Adam and Eve naked in the Garden to Joseph strutting in his coat of many colors. From fratricide to reconciliation they carry us, in a narrative saga that opens with "In the beginning God" and concludes "in a coffin in Egypt."

The participants this evening were making the most of it. No speeches, proclamations, or declamations: This was conversation, the kind you wish would happen at Sunday dinner. They were listening, responding, questioning, amending, inquiring, challenging--sometimes with wit, a wink, an eyebrow lifted; never with feigned agreement for agreement's sake and always with good-natured civility. I heard them wrestling not only with what the stories might have meant to the first people who heard them thousands of years ago, but with how those ancient stories connect to everyday life today. As they talked, this ordinary, unadorned room became for these few hours a place of creative incubation. The writer Cynthia Ozick has said of her experience there: "What goes on in this room is more exciting to me than anything that ever happened. It's as if the text really matters."

This is what their leader, Rabbi Burton Visotzky, had intended when he organized the Genesis seminar in the early 1980s. By shrewdly constructing these monthly sessions as workshops where people do midrash--the Jewish tradition of "searching out," through commentary, the contemporary application of the Bible to life--Rabbi Visotzky challenged his participants to ask of the stories, "What do they mean for us, now, in our lives, nearing the end of the twentieth century? How do they help us make sense of the world today?" Even now, he explains to newcomers, "the communal study of the Bible can continue to provide us with a means for clarifying our ideas about the world around us and for linking them historically to a long-standing tradition." It is in this shared reading and rereading that the Bible "ceases to be just another book, gathering dust on the shelf. In a community of readers a conversation takes place. The give-and-take of interpretation creates an extra voice in the room, the sound of Reading the Book." When this happens, the Bible speaks "not only to each community of readers, be they Jewish, Christian, or any other flavor, but to all humanity."

To test these ideas, Rabbi Visotzky opened his Genesis seminar to a motley assortment of readers--laity and biblical scholars alike. All interpretations would be given a hearing, so that different points of view might expand every participant's ability to hear the nuances of the text. "It doesn't matter whether the reading of Scripture is traditional or modern, fundamentalist or critical, Christian or Muslim or Jewish, whether it comes from an adult or a child, an agnostic or a believer, a professor or a cabdriver. Every group, every person has something unique to offer in the interpretation of the Bible; all we need to do is learn how to listen."

The conversation takes surprising twists and turns. A question to the screenwriter and film director, Robert Benton (Bonnie & Clyde, Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart) caused the participants to see Joseph in a different light. Rabbi Visotzky had asked Benton whom he would cast as the femme fatale, Potiphar's lustful wife, who tried in vain to seduce her husband's handsome and trusted young slave. Would he choose Meryl Streep or Glenn Close? Before Benton could answer, novelist Nessa Rapoport responded, "No, Joseph is the femme fatale." It was, Visotzky later said, "a stunnning insight as well as wicked humor," illuminating the extraordinary beauty of the youthful Hebrew and pointing to "the metaphysical quality that accompanies God's favor and leaves us uneasy, unable to categorize such a one."

In another session the group was discussing God's command and promise to Abraham in Genesis 12: "Go from your land and your birthplace and your father's house to the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation..." The writer Max Apple announced, "I wouldn't have written it that way." As everyone looked at him, he somewhat sheepishly explained that God "gives it away at the outset; it is not a test of Abraham's faith if he is promised a reward from the very start." For Visotzky, this was a valuable commentary on the story; for the participants, it was an icebreaker, liberating them to challenge the scripture with their own intellect, from their own experience.

Listening to the seminar, I remembered my first visit to the cathedral in Chartres, where I had come upon a sculpture so striking it stopped me in my tracks. The artist depicts Adam, the first human, emerging as an idea from the side of God's head. God was thinking us into existence. With such a beginning, how could we not be destined ever after to think upon the implications of our own existence, to imagine and argue what it means to be made in God's image? That very likeness guarantees that human beings could never be coerced into thinking alike; imagination, conscience, and choice--the glory and grief of free will--were there from the beginning.

Small wonder there are as many methods of interpreting the Bible as there are interpreters. Each of us arrives at our interpretation through an intricate path of inherited memories, personal experiences, convictions, doctrines, habits, knowledge, tastes, and mores, not to mention politics. The Word--I forget now who said this--is to be found neither in the text nor the reader, but in the relationship where the two meet. In this intimacy--of one-on-one or in a community of readers--the timeless Word appears, bearing with it as well revelation for the day.

Or so it seemed as I eavesdropped on the Genesis seminar, and I came away resolved then and there to test whether the communal reading of these stories could happen on television. Of talk about religion we have no shortage on television, but religious conversation is rare, and religious conversation in the democratic spirit--committed but civil--rarer still. Mostly religion is discussed on television nowadays in a political context: one more interest group stalking the corridors of power, like the AARP or the National Association of Manufacturers. I reckoned that if a television series could reflect the dynamics of the Genesis seminar, where people do not shy away from the Bible as a religious document and can speak from a principled position while listening respectfully to others, the result might prove refreshing to an audience hungry for a discussion of values, demonstrate how strongly opinionated people can talk about their beliefs in public without proselytizing or polemics, and inspire ecumenical imitations in communities around the country.

The Visotzky seminar was too large for the small screen to treat kindly, even if the participants had been willing to surrender the intimacy of that room to an unseen audience of millions. For our PBS series, my colleagues and I settled on a circle of eight people for each program, including Rabbi Visotzky, who over the months had become not only my personal rebbe but just plain Burt, my friend. The others came from far and wide, bringing to the circle a diversity of experience from various stations of life and learning. There were journalists, scholars, literary critics, a psychotherapist, an artist, a composer, a lawyer, a college president, a psychologist, a translator all with quite different angles of vision on the stories.

Our time together was notably enriched because the participants did not come from the same religion or neighborhood, but from all three of the great monotheistic faiths that trace their origins to Abraham--Judaism, Christianity, Islam. A Hindu took part, too, and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism; their comments opened us to new insights on the stories. Often, we disagreed with each other, and sometimes, the more we talked, the more we disagreed. But while talking together exposed our differences, it also brought us closer together. And sometimes we discovered that, despite our differences, we shared our deepest values with people who seemed most unlike us.

I marvel at the power of these stories and have never tired of them. God walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening, the wily logic of the serpent, the violent jealousy of Cain, Jacob's bold lie to his father, the unbearable moment of Isaac under the upraised knife of Abraham. They have been familiar to me since childhood, although they were sanitized in Sunday school by elders who thought it best to protect the fragile sensibilities of the innocent (if only they had known what we were reading between the covers of those hymnals during the sermons!). So it was not until much later that I noticed just how imperfect were the human instruments God had chosen--Abraham, who offers Sarah to the Pharaoh to save his own skin, the deceitful Jacob, the vain Joseph, the drunken Noah, who cruelly curses his grandson.

The dysfunctional family is not a modern invention, and it is because these stories ring so true about human nature that they retain their hold on us. They tell about the rise of a community of faith and the struggle of real men and women to know what it means to be the people of God. History, for these storytellers, was the unfolding of divine action and human reaction--"God in search of man," in Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel's famous description. The realness of God was never an issue in these stories, and the task, said Rabbi Heschel, was "how to live in a way compatible with His presence." Down through the ages, the stories have been told again and again so that each ensuing generation could lay claim to them, for the sake of remembrance, redemption, and the future. "The faith," says The New Interpreter's Bible, my favorite commentary, "was not fundamentally an idea, but an embodiment, a way of life. The language and experience of faith thus remained concrete and personal...It does not dissolve into myth, into some mystical world of the gods that suppresses the human or the natural, or some religious world far removed from the secular sphere. By and large, the world reflected in these stories is ordinary, everyday, and familiar, filled with the surprises and joys, the sufferings and the troubles, the complexities and ambiguities known to every community."

I find my own life's adventures in these stories. Deep in the night, wrestling with my fantasies, disillusionments, and failures, I recognize myself in these flawed characters, wrestling with God. Other participants said the same of themselves. This helps to explain why stories that live, as these do, assume an even fuller life when we come together to talk about them. As one participant suggested, the text is never finished until this moment, until this conversation ends.

Then it starts all over again.

In his Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel tells how the Baal Shem Tov, sensing misfortune awaiting the Jews, made his way to a certain place in the forest where he lighted a fire and said a prayer so that the misfortune would be averted. In time his disciple, the Magid of Mezritch, also foresaw calamity threatening his people. He went to the same part of the forest and prayed, "Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer." This disaster, too, was averted. More time passed, and catastrophe loomed again. Now Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Savov made his way into the forest and said, "I don't know how to light the fire and I don't know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient," and it was. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. He said to God, "I am unable to light the fire, I don't know the prayer, I cannot even find the place in the forest, all I can do is tell the story, and this must suffice."

And it did.

Welcome to the conversation.


Excerpted from Genesis by Joanne Dobson Copyright © 1996 by Joanne Dobson. Excerpted by permission.
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