A devout Jew who sets his mind to creating a fictional account of a biblical story must inevitably grapple with artistic barriers. Heavenly inspired and therefore incorruptible, the Bible – particularly the Pentateuch – but to a lesser degree the Prophets and the Holy Writings as well – cannot easily be tampered with.
Jewish tradition has an aversion to emendation. One cannot simply mold the story of, say, Elijah the Prophet and put words in the prophet’s mouth that do not appear in the biblical text of Kings. One cannot simply “make things up.”
This is not to say there is no leeway for exegesis and even elaboration on the biblical text. Over the centuries the rabbis have taken certain liberties with the biblical text in the form of Midrash. In the process, they have expanded on the stories of the prophets, adding details that are not to be found in the text itself. And while the midrashim of the rabbis do not have the same incorruptible status of the biblical text it is nevertheless broadly accepted in traditional Jewish circles that one cannot take the same artistic and exegetic liberties taken by the rabbis who composed the midrashim.
It was, therefore, no simple matter for Dave Mason – an Orthodox rabbi and educator – to embark upon the endeavor of producing what he likes to refer to as “a biblical Harry Potter” based on the story of Elijah the Prophet’s clash with Queen Jezebel and King Ahab as told in the Book of Kings. Mason, who was later joined by Mike Feuer, another Orthodox rabbi, had to balance between potentially conflicting intentions. On one hand, Mason and Feuer wanted to use artistic expression to make the biblical text accessible and relevant.
On the other hand, the two are dedicated to remaining faithful to the intention of the biblical text – believed by the authors to be the source of divinely revealed truth – as well as to the long, rich tradition of rabbinic exegesis.
They could not allow themselves to deviate from text and tradition as feminist authors Yochi Brandes and Anita Diamant did in their accounts, respectively of Michal, the wife of King David (Kings III) and Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob (The Red Tent). Nor could they take the sorts of artistic liberties taken by the Christian spiritualist Paulo Coelho in his story of Elijah titled The Fifth Mountain or that Howard Fast did in Moses: Prince of Egypt.
At the same time Mason and Feuer – both of whom turned 40 around the time of the launching of the book – are not your average Orthodox rabbis. Both grew up in non-Orthodox households. They first met at Colorado College, an unconventional liberal arts school. Their paths crossed again in Israel at the eclectic Sulam Yaakov study hall in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood.
The result, after six years of work, is The Lamp of Darkness, the first installment in a planned series that focuses on the life of Lev, a 12-year-old orphan, shepherd and musician living 579 years after the Exodus. Lev is chosen by Uriel, an elderly prophet, to provide the sort of musical accompaniment that facilitates prophecy for Uriel. In the process, he gets drawn into the drama of the civil war within Israel, Jezebel’s persecution of the prophets and the struggle between monotheistic faith and idolatry. Lev, Uriel and other characters are not in the Bible’s text. But they interact with the biblical characters such as Jezebel, Ahab and Obadiah, Ahab’s majordomo. Teenagers and adults are the target audience.
I met with Mason and Feuer at Sulam Yaakov to discuss their book, most of which was written at the study hall. A week before, I had attended the book launch where I was first acquainted with the unique community that has grown up around the yeshiva over the past seven years since it was established.
This was not your average group of modern Orthodox Anglos.
The centerpiece of the evening was a “story slam,” or story competition, in which three people told a short story about their lives. One of the participants was a woman named Chaya Lester, who had a full head covering and Orthodox-style clothing who stood before the crowd and recited a poem on her experience in an Israeli hospital, about how she created a common bond with a Palestinian mother, who, like herself, was in the hospital to see her child healed.
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, another story slam participant and head of the Sulam Yaakov yeshiva, is behind an initiative that essentially challenges the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher supervision in Jerusalem. Leibowitz, together with rabbis from Sulam Yaakov, proposes offering free kosher supervision as part of a community service to local restaurants.
I ask Mason if the unique intellectual atmosphere at Sulam Yaakov contributed to his own literary endeavor.
“Yes. It is an outgrowth of Sulam Yaakov. I got the motivation for doing it from the learning we were doing at Sulam Yaakov. I got tremendous help from people at Sulam Yaakov. I did the writing at Sulam Yaakov. So for the most part I would answer that, yes.
“Sulam Yaakov is great in that it can hold a lot of perspectives.
There are people who do things outside my comfort zone. There are things that I put out there that are outside the comfort zone of other people at Sulam Yaakov. There is a range. It is not a unified institution. But I did feel support from the institution for doing this.”
Feuer adds that at Sulam Yaakov “there are a lot of seekers,” which fosters a “high energy and idealistic atmosphere.”
“We want to awaken people’s desires to seek deeper relationships, to seek deeper knowledge, a richer life. So I think in that respect our work reflected the community.”
Unlike other books that are written by Orthodox rabbis and claim to abide to Orthodox guidelines, Mason and Feuer opted not to obtain rabbinic approbation for The Lamp of Darkness in part because they did not want to throw off other audiences, such as non-Orthodox Jews and Christians.
Both also note that there is little reason to seek out approbations since the rabbis who give them often do not even bother reading the book. When the author comes under attack by religious zealots, the rabbi conveniently removes his support, stating, “if I had known what he wrote I never would have allowed to write it in the first place.” The two did joke that if there was a ban on their book it would most likely improve sales.
Mason and Feuer say they often ask themselves during the creative process of writing their story, “Do we have any rabbinic sources for that?” But they also take certain artistic liberties.
“One of the characters that I had a hard time doing,” Mason says, “was Obadiah. We have him playing such a central role in the story. We created aspects of him that are nowhere in the text.”
I ask Mason why he chose the medium of a novel to convey their ideas.
“I am a big believer in the power of story… so few people know about the time of the prophets, what it looked like, what it felt like, what people ate, how they lived, what was the background like, what was the scenery like, what was the clothing like, so that things could come to life.
“And I realized how my Torah study really had not come to life for me before that period. I was able to throw myself into stories but I did not feel that way with Torah and I thought, ‘wow this tool – story – needs to be brought to the Torah much more than it is in the current learning realities. So this book is for people who are learning Torah but have not accessed it this way, and it is for people who would find the ways we learn Torah far too rigid for them, but who would connect to this.”
Mason tells me he chose the story of Elijah as the focus of his series due to the complexity of the main characters.
“We are very familiar with the evil king and the righteous prophet and the conflict between the two.
But the story of Elijah brings out a whole new perspective, because as you dig further you find that there is reason to see that this evil king is really not so evil, and this righteous prophet is really coming from a very harsh place that is not God’s ideal plan for how the world is to function.
“In the time of Ahab there was a tremendous amount of respect for one another. In many ways Ahab is a kind of ‘JewBu’ [Jewish Buddhist].
The JewBu is a fully Jewish person who seeks out spirituality in other traditions – he is the type of person who asks ‘why can’t we all just get along, why can’t we love one another and respect one another and have a place of loving-kindness.”
Mason says there is some rabbinic support for such a reading of Ahab. He mentions a midrash that tells how crows brought meat from Ahab’s table to Elijah in hiding. The rabbis in the Talmud ask, somewhat anachronistically, how the prophets could have possibly eaten meat from Ahab’s table. One of the answers given by the rabbis, Mason says, was that Ahab was the type of king who wanted everyone to feel comfortable. He had the most kosher meat on his table so that those who ate strictly kosher could keep the Halacha.
“Ahab was caught between two extremists. Jezebel wanted to destroy all of God’s prophets and Elijah was uncompromising.
“The rabbis go out of their way to point out Ahab is this generous character, a person constantly looking out for the welfare of the people, as opposed to Elijah who is completely righteous and couldn’t care less about the welfare of the people. He is being supported in the second year of the drought by a widow and an orphan on the brink of death.
Now there is a commandment in the Torah ‘don’t oppress the widows and the orphans’ and you see that Elijah is willing to put unlimited burden, unlimited oppression on people to get them to follow the path of God. That is not my way, says God.”
Mason notes the Jewish tradition of leaving a chair empty at the Passover Seder, and how the chair on which the baby boy is placed before the brit mila is called “the chair of Elijah.”
“Elijah is commanded by God to be at every Passover Seder and every brit mila – even when the people celebrating are not keeping all the commandments. Elijah is forced to recognize that even though Jews are not 100 percent perfect they are still all beloved.”