God as protagonist

In his rather radical survey of Jewish literature from antiquity to the last century, Adam Kirsch highlights the importance of eclectic religious and worldly texts and authors for synagogue-shy Jews today.

In 1936, the German-Jewish intellectual Erich Auerbach arrived in Turkey. Forced by Nazi race laws from his position as professor of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, Auerbach had come to fill a teaching post at Istanbul University.

Auerbach would probably be little remembered today if not for the book he wrote there: “Mimesis,” first published in Germany in 1946, is a collection of penetrating and luminous essays on the Western canon. The book, which charts the European literary tradition from the Bible and Homer until modernity, has become a foundational text of literary criticism. This is due to its insight and erudition, but also because it is an elegy to Western humanism before what seemed to be its final eclipse by Nazi barbarity, a defiant cultural counter-strike. “He was, in effect, building the very thing that the Nazis wished to tear down,” according to a 2013 review in The New Yorker.

Reading Adam Kirsch’s “The People and the Books” – the poet, critic and Columbia University professor’s just-published collection of essays on the Jewish classics – “Mimesis” is never far from the reader’s mind. Like Auerbach, Kirsch writes captivatingly on an eclectic mix of texts from antiquity to the 20th century.

Beginning with the Bible’s Deuteronomy and Esther, the book’s 14 essays explore the biblical exegesis of the 1st-century B.C.E. philosopher Philo of Alexandria; Josephus Flavius’ history of the Jewish wars against Rome; the rabbinic collection of moral maxims “Ethics of the Fathers”; the medieval travelogue of Benjamin of Tudela; the philosophies of Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides, and Spinoza; the mysticism of the Zohar; the Yiddish memoirs of 17th-century businesswoman Glückel of Hameln; the Hasidic tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav; German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s “Jerusalem”; Theodore Herzl’s “Jewish State” and “Altneuland”; and Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Dairyman.
Some could argue, as critics have in Auerbach’s case, that Kirsch wastes time on some minor works and disregards essentials like the Babylonian Talmud or the 16th-century “Shulhan Arukh” code of Jewish law. However, this diversity makes “The People and the Books” all the more intriguing.

Read the whole review from 2017 in Haaretz.