Book Review: Book examines demands for justice found in Jewish texts

Are You Not a Man of God? cover

Are You Not a Man of God?
Devotion, Betrayal, and Social Criticism in Jewish Tradition
By Tova Hartman and Charlie Buckholtz
Oxford University Press
208 pages

In Are You Not a Man of God? Devotion, Betrayal, and Social Criticism in Jewish Tradition, Tova Hartman and Charlie Buckholtz take a new and innovative look at four well-known stories from classical Jewish literature: two from the Bible – the near sacrifice of Isaac, and the role of Hannah in becoming the model of how to pray; and two from the Talmud – the expulsion of Rabbi Eliezer for refusal to accept the majority decision about Akhnai’s oven, and the career of Beruriah with her ability to match her male colleagues in erudition and her anger when they fail to apply lessons to personal relationships. They approach each story with both a deep reading and a “voice-centred” reading tuned to nuances of language that identify or imply counter-culture commentary.

It is difficult to summarize the book, but, at heart, it is a demand for justice from people who, in these stories, may live within existing political and cultural norms, but who also subtly challenge those norms. In some cases, the challenge can be found in the text itself, in others only in Midrash. While not every argument is convincing, they all challenge the reader to reconsider accepted positions. The authors are particularly sensitive to times when power relationships permit some “greater good” to overcome the value of human relationships or commit the sin of ona’at devarim (humiliating someone with words).

The challenge facing the highlighted in their Introduction: “These stories are all, in some way, about people who know they have been sacrificed for the sake of a ‘larger value,’ and yet feel unable to speak that knowledge fully. And so they speak it partially. It is often a hushed voice. But, as we will show, nor is there silence. The perception of silence is actually a perpetuation of the values that silenced the voice in the first place. But if we can open a space for the questioning of those values, we open a space for hearing those voices. We do that by reading with an eye toward devoted resistance.”

Much of the argument in the book is based on comparisons with other times and other disciplines. For example, Iphigenia was sacrificed to the gods by her father, Agamemnon, in order to obtain winds necessary to take the Greek army to Troy. They are compared with Isaac and Abraham at the time of the Akedah. In each case, the child is sacrificed, or nearly so in the case of Isaac; in each case, the notion of a greater good impels a father to consider sacrificing a first-born child; and, in each case, personal relationships, notably with mothers, are what is finally sacrificed. In contrast to Iphigenia, who speaks out subtly against her fate, Isaac is largely silent. But, in a Midrash, Isaac lashes back at the system with a single sentence: “But I grieve for my mother.”

There are heroes in the book, such as Tamar, who avoided ona’at devarim by sending evidence of Judah’s guilt to him privately, and Rabbi Akiva, who, though voting for Rabbi Eliezer’s expulsion, presented the decision to him in a mood of mourning.

With one exception, villains are generalized to those who use power to suppress the voices of marginalized people. The one exception is Rashi, who takes one ambiguous statement about “the Beruriah Incident” in the Talmud and, ignoring all other indications of her character, concocts the story about Beruriah succumbing to seduction by one of her husband’s students.

This is an important book, but its importance may be hidden by sloppy editing, not worthy of Oxford University Press. Literary editing should have shortened many long and complex sentences and more time is spent on Greek legends and Freudian psychology than is needed to make the authors’ points. Even so, a diligent reader will be rewarded with insights and, one may hope, an inclination to take another look at already well-explored Biblical and Talmudic stories.

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