Reboot unscrolls a modern take on Torah

Reboot, the highly selective Jewish think-tank that invites “young, Jewishly unconnected cultural creatives” to imagine ways of modernizing and revitalizing Jewish tradition, has unfurled its latest effort with “Unscrolled,” a compendium of divrei Torah written by popular artists and writers. 

The nearly 400-page tome, teal-colored and etched with gold, includes Torah commentary from a diverse group from the literary, entertainment and media worlds, including Damon Lindelof, creator of the television series “Lost,” novelist Aimee Bender and New York Times journalist Susan Dominus. The aim of the project, explained editor Roger Bennett, a founder of Reboot, is to inspire readers to go from these biblically based riffs to the real thing. 

“We’d like to add new members to the oldest book club in the world,” Bennett said during a brief phone interview prior to the L.A. launch, which is Oct. 28. Bennett stopped short of saying he expects the book to inspire religious awakening. “The book is a means to an end; what we’d like is for people to pick up the original text and come to their own conclusions.”

That’s just as well, as the 54 entries in “Unscrolled,” which correspond to the 54 parashiot in the five Books of Moses, read more like biblically inspired writing experiments than serious Torah scholarship. Lindelof, for example, has taken a stab at “Vayera,” the richly dramatic Genesis tale in which God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son. In Lindelof’s imagination, “Abe” is a cycloid psychotic being evaluated by a case officer.

“… I apologize if I’m kinda just leaping in here,” the officer tells Abe. “My wife says I’m a little … y’know, blunt? But here we go. I just want to know … I want you to explain … exactly why you tried to kill your son.”

The incredulous tone of the officer (or, perhaps, Lindelof) bespeaks the point of the project as described on the book’s cover: These writers are themselves wrestling with Torah, not necessarily intending to teach it. In fact, it was Lindelof who hatched the idea for the project during an intensive discussion about the binding of Isaac at Reboot’s annual conference in Park City, Utah. The difficult subject matter triggered such a dynamic discussion that Lindelof suggested a project tackling the whole Torah, but in a nuanced and personal way. 

“I just liked the idea of trying to reinvent a story that felt familiar, but looking at it through a newer lens,” Bender, award-winning author of “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” and “Willful Creatures,” told me by phone. “These tales, they have wonderful story arcs, they are malleable and flexible, and they are there to be interpreted. That’s the whole deal. If people get overly reverent about how to think about a story, then it gets a little hardened.” 

Bender, who teaches creative writing at USC, took on “Noah.” But rather than focus on the familiar flood drama, she chose the Tower of Babel as her subject, offering a part-fiction, part-rumination piece on the meaning of language. “I’m a writer, so language is compelling to me,” Bender said. Even so, the exercise in writing a biblical story, while not entirely new to her, felt distinct. “These stories are such great stories, and to be reminded of that, and to be reminded that they are supposed to be played with, that they are not flat, that they are surfaces to plunge into,” was thrilling. “I’m so not one to try to sell Torah, but I think the job of people who interpret it, or any piece of liturgy, is to try to light it up in someone’s mind. Make it alive to them.”

Bender said she doesn’t expect the book to inspire piety but hopes it will provoke new thinking about an ancient text. “I don’t think a book like this is gonna tip someone towards prayer, but I think it creates an intellectual playground.” 

Although its Torah can be slight, “Unscrolled” offers a surprising swath of forms and stories. Some are serious: For “Tsav,” Reboot co-founder Rachel Levin offers a personal essay on the quiddities of growing up a rabbi’s daughter; and for “Lekh L’kha,” Jill Soloway’s fiction grapples with unexpected consequences of infidelity. But the book also offers more than its fair share of tongue-in-cheek kitschiness. In “West Wing” writer Eli Attie’s “Nitzavim,” for instance, Moses takes a meeting with two men who sound a lot like Hollywood agents. Reboot’s ample Hollywood constituency has endowed the book with a number of scripts, lending it a more playful than pensive tone. 

“Unscrolled’s” unorthodoxy is part of its novelty, the creators say. “It’s valuable because you’ve got these creative people who are not your usual suspects as commentators on Scripture, giving an unusual perspective on Torah,” said Amichau Lau-Lavie, who served as a kind of rabbinic adviser on the project. “Because of the celebrity status, because of the tongue-in-cheek attitude, it has more potential to reach your average unaffiliated Jew than something that would appear in a very Jewish outlet.” 

“Unscrolled” is even unorthodox for Reboot, an organization that, in the past, has focused more squarely on Jewishly inspired ritual than Jewish texts. Its 10Q, for example, invited Jews and non-Jews alike to answer a series of deep questions during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Sabbath Manifesto made a case for “a national day of unplugging”; and Sukkah City saw the erection of a dozen avant-garde sukkot in the middle of Union Square in Manhattan. But while each project has been seeded by Jewish tradition, “Unscrolled” is the first in Reboot’s more than decade-long history to veer from isolated ritual into the realm of religion — which may be the edgiest thing about it.

“It took over a decade to go beyond, ‘Oh, this is cool, let’s talk about borscht,’ to ‘Let’s delve into texts,’ ” Lau-Lavie said. “And the Reboot process is analogous to what is happening in the larger Jewish world, which is to get people from illiteracy, gradually, in baby steps, to more literacy.” 

Teaching Torah to the untutored is Lau-Lavie’s specialty. As founder of the popular “Storahtelling” series and spiritual leader for the pop-up community Lab/Shul in New York City, he said the key to inspiring the writers of “Unscrolled” was inviting them to personally experience the text. “I always begin by looking at the text and asking people to react,” he said. “It’s about access. Most of [the writers] really were not versed in Torah and certainly not in commentary. If anything, I would say they had negative baggage, you know, Hebrew school, bar mitzvah stuff.” 

So is “Unscrolled” worth its salt if it serves as a gateway to Torah only for its writers? “Dayenu,” Lau-Lavie said, even while admitting that his deeper hope is that “it will be infectious in some way, viral perhaps.”

Bennett said he hopes every b’nai mitzvah in America gets a copy of “Unscrolled” along with their Kiddush cup. But Lau-Lavie said Reboot’s ultimate challenge is to figure out how to move young Jews from what he calls “peak experiences” (like Birthright and Reboot Summit) into deep, ongoing engagement with Jewish tradition. 

“Once you have literacy and expose people to what Judaism has to offer, beyond the clichés and badly crafted educational experiences we’re all familiar with, than it’s like, ‘Wow! I want more.’ ”