subversive sequels book cover 248.88.
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Subversive Sequels in the Bible
By Judy Klitsner | Jewish Publication Society | 230 pages | $35
What can we learn from the story of Jonah and the whale to improve our understanding of Noah's ark? No, this isn't a quiz or a joke. It's an example of one of the operative questions at work in distinguished Jerusalem Bible teacher Judy Klitsner's first book of commentary, Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other. Klitsner's forte is demonstrating how the careful reading of one related biblical narrative can alter or extend our appreciation of another, yielding rich new insights.
For 18 years, American-born Klitsner has been demystifying Torah for students at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and for far-flung Jewish communities and college campuses abroad. Her method begins with a meticulous examination of the language and themes of the text and an examination of the traditional commentaries.
As a teacher, she sensitizes students to word choice, to names, to cadence. She goes on to encourage students to engage the text with their own experience and thinking. In a sense, she's done the same for herself. Klitsner studied under Torah giant Nehama Leibowitz, and set out to write her own explication of her teacher's method. But her own voice kept breaking through, and several years into the writing process, she decided to give it full expression. The result is a provocative way of looking at the text, understanding how one story within the biblical opus might build on or take issue with another.
Take Noah and Jonah. Instead of looking at the stories as separate, see instead "two prophets navigating perilous waters aboard their boat, apart from the doomed populations they might have saved." The shared language, setting and themes make these two stories organically related. But more important are the troubled prophets, recruited for divine service. In the flood narrative, points out Klitsner, the prophet floated safely in his boat, as the world around him drowned. In the Book of Jonah, the world floats as the prophet faces death by drowning when the sailors reluctantly throw him overboard.
"Taken together, the two stories will chronicle a remarkable potential for change within several fundamental relationships. In the divine-human bond, we will note God's emerging desire for human survival as He offers second chances to those who have erred. In the inter-human relationship, we will trace the prophet's struggles in facing his responsibility toward those around him. And in the sphere of intra-human relations, we will observe the hero's progress as he is called upon to begin healing his connection with himself. As he begrudgingly accedes to God's demand to help save others, Jonah will face opportunities to rescue himself as well."
Noah survives the flood to drown himself in alcohol. Although Jonah unenthusiastically and succinctly conveys his message of warning to Nineveh, the citizens immediately heed him and repent. But when God Himself teaches Jonah a moral lesson by creating and then destroying a gourd that shades the prophet, Jonah doesn't seem to catch on. He remains silent. Says Klitsner, "Possibilities of self-transformation exist, but there is no guarantee that anyone will take advantage of them."
After Klitsner's pairing of the stories, it would be hard to imagine one without the other. But the connection between the stories of the Tower of Babel and the midwives of Israel is less obvious. (Think for a moment - what do you come up with?) In addition to the literary devices she elucidates, Klitsner points out that both stories are centered on totalitarian city-building. In Egypt, the Israelites build cities in mortar and bricks, evoking the bricks and mortar used in Babel.
"The reversal of the order of the ingredients holds its own significances, hinting that these two stories will not merely parallel each other, but that in significant ways one will reverse the other as well."
Although the second book of the Hebrew Bible is called Shmot, "names," they are few in the description, reflecting the subjugation of the people. Then suddenly, "two flashes of light" appear: Shifra and Puah, the two midwives, pitted as equals of Pharaoh, and ultimately as superior to the mighty king of Egypt.
"In Babel, the individual is blotted out, and as a result, so is the entire generation. In the story's subversive sequel, the enslavement in Egypt, the individual is seriously eroded, but two distinctive women arrive in time to reverse the process. Shifra and Puah set off a chain of events that will ultimately lead to the defeat of the tyrannical Egyptian regime and to the salvation of the Israelite people."
Ironically, Pharaoh plans to kill the sons of the Israelites and let the daughters live, but he is defeated by a series of daughters, including his own. Klitsner shows how the women's defiance not only confronts the oppressive totalitarian society but rebuilds the disintegrated Jewish families.
Klitsner likes conversation about biblical texts in her classrooms and in her commentary. She sees vibrant conversation taking place within the biblical canon, rather than viewing the Bible as a series of declarations. "If texts declare, the results may be cogent, complex and inspiring , but ultimately they may also be static, one-directional and circumscribed. If, however, texts converse, the result is an invitation to creative engagement and to a perpetual reconsideration of assumptions and conclusions."
That is, of course, an articulate description of what living Torah means, particularly evolving in the rich environment of Jerusalem.
Klitsner's writing is carefully considered and always lucid, devoid of complex ideas but providing sufficient proof texts so that beginners less familiar with the Bible and more advanced students will find the ideas and their presentation illuminating and fascinating. My only complaint is that the text, at 170 pages, is on the short side. I'm already looking forward to the next volume.