Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah
Edited by Roger Bennett
Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah is not your zaidy’s Torah commentary. Fifty-four writers and artists, very few of whom have any education in Jewish scholarship beyond their b’nai mitzvot, tackle the 54 Torah portions in what the book’s editor calls “a reinterpretation, a reimagining, a creative celebration.” It is an ambitious attempt to make the Torah accessible and relevant to modern North American Jews.
Though the quality of the individual essays varies, overall the collection provides an accessible and unique entry into Torah commentary. However, readers looking for more in-depth analysis will not find it here.
Each chapter begins with a summary of the Torah portion, written ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek. Commentary follows in the form of short stories, photographs, personal reflections and a good number of scripts.
If you ask screenwriters, actors and photographers to give their interpretation of a Bible portion, you’re likely to get insight that is insightful only for those who have similar levels of exposure to Torah commentary.
As a reinterpretation, the book often fails. The format is new and fresh, but the content is sometimes meaningless, such as architect Marc Kushner’s drawings of the tabernacle placed upright in Manhattan. Author Adam Mansbach provides a profanity-laden description of Jacob’s time with Laban that is amusing, but seemingly pointless, and frequently irreverent.
But perhaps irreverence is the point? For example, Rebecca Odes and Sam Lipsyte present the Ten Commandments in graphic novel format from the point of view of Moses’ wife, ending with a line that also includes profanity.
Other sections are more earnest, and yet still lack depth. Steve Bodow, a TV writer, has a script format discussion of the plagues, focusing on his distress over the discovery that God hardens Pharoah’s heart against Moses, thus necessitating increased suffering before the Israelites go free.
“But the God of unnecessary baby-and-cow-killing plague number ten? Sorry. I’m never going to feel it,” writes Bodow.
Why God does this has been wrestled with for centuries, and “I’m never going to feel it” is not much of an insight.
Amichai Lau-Lavie similarly falls short in his commentary on Leviticus and homosexuality. His description of his personal journey to the realization that he too is created in God’s image and therefore worthy of love is reflective of the same journey of many other gay Jews, but in that, is utterly unoriginal. Some insight into the recent reinterpretation of Leviticus by scholars such as Shawna Dolansky and Richard Elliott Friedman’s in The Bible Now, wherein they make a compelling case that those passages reflect concern about social status rather than any interest in homosexual love, would have been far more relevant.
There are contributors who manage to use their unusual formats to get a meaningful point across effectively, and sometimes quite beautifully. Among them are Justin Rocket Silverman’s lovely short story tackling the often-ignored ritual of sotah (testing a woman for adultery), and Samantha Shapiro’s engaging and lyrical essay on the meaningfulness of keeping kosher.
Eli Attie, another TV writer who uses script format, has a great piece with Moses talking to PR guys who want him to glitz up the religion and dial back on some of the harsher bits. Moses responds that giving away prizes and cute slogans could be more appealing, but that isn’t the truth.
“And the TRUTH happens to be beautiful and ugly and confounding and uplifting ALL AT THE SAME TIME … because IT is THAT WAY, because ALL OF life IS THAT WAY. It’s a riddle. An undertaking. There are CONSEQUENCES. It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker,” writes Attie.
A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, writes a clever letter-from-the-editor to God suggesting that, in his commandment to not mix linens, God might want to explain why he included such apparently odd rules in his book, something like: “I make this command because rituals can be fulfilling, even if these rituals seem strange from the outside.” God has placed a large X through the whole explanation and scribbled, “Nah. They can figure it out.”
Chapters like Jacobs’ and Silverman’s successfully meet the challenge of the book – they provide meaningful commentary in a new, fresh and accessible way. Even many of the chapters that do not manage to rise this high are still easy to read and digest, which makes this Torah commentary an enjoyable book and a good introduction for what is clearly a target audience of younger Jewish adults.
But, if you are easily offended, you probably won’t like this book much.