Q & A With Bruce Feiler
“Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion” by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow, $26.95).
With daily reports of suicide bombings in Iraq, never-ending violence between Israelis and Palestinians and Iran’s nuclear threat, it can be hard to imagine the Middle East as the birthplace of monotheism and all the ethics and piety that implies. But this heritage is exactly what Bruce Feiler explores in his new book.
In it, Feiler writes of his travels to Israel, Iraq and Iran — accompanied by various archeologists, theologians and historians. He tells the story against the backdrop of regional violence, interspersing observations on the Bible with descriptions of his bulletproof clothing. He shares his fear of being attacked and the very real danger of traveling on Iraqi highways. The book, in places, becomes an extreme travel memoir, depicting in lucid detail both risk and incredible cultural beauty.
Feiler spoke to The Journal by phone while taking a break from moving into his new Brooklyn home, which he shares with his wife and his 6-month-old identical twin girls.
Jewish Journal: Your new work follows on the heels of two that touched on consonant themes: “Walking the Bible, a Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses” (William Morrow, 2001) and “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths” (William Morrow, 2002). What compelled you to write this new book?
Bruce Feiler: When I did “Walking the Bible,” it was a very personal journey. [I wanted to know] were these stories real? Could I find the places where they took place? But between then and now religion no longer has the luxury of being personal. It has really become much more urgent, and much more a matter of life and death, it seems. Conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq, and even in the United States, everything from the battle over the Ten Commandments to Terry Schiavo to gay marriage [all have to do with religion].
I recently read a Time magazine cover story from 1966 titled “Is God Dead?” that said religions was dead as an influence in world affairs, and would never return again. I wanted to figure out why religion was the dominant story in the world now. The idea was to go back to the roots of religion itself, and to ask: Is it tearing us apart or bringing us together?
JJ: How do you view the Bible — as history? As a God-written manuscript?
BF: I view it as a story of how God and humans tried to develop a relationship with one another, and I believe that it had to contain great truth, and I think that it contains great meaning for life. I also believe it contains a wide variety of rhetorical techniques — history, law, poetry, really boring filibusters, a kind of legislative tedium, legend, psalms….
One reason for the Bible’s enduring power is that it is not a complete history. If you were turn it in to a newspaper editor, he would say, ‘please go out and do more reporting.’ What is left out is as important as what is put in. It invites each of us to enter the story…. Every generation can reinterpret it.
The story of Abraham sacrificing his son, for example. If you read that story on Sept. 10, 2001, and on Sept. 12, 2001, you would get a totally different understanding of it.
JJ: How so?
BF: The idea of killing in the name of God is introduced with Abraham, and that is just one story that seems very relevant to the times we live in today.
JJ: Do you think that the current Middle East conflict is a religious one or a political one?
BF: I think that it is primarily a geopolitical conflict, but that all sides use religion when they want to and ignore it when they want to. I don’t believe that you can use the Bible to draw borders and solve political problems. It is not what it was intended for.
JJ: Do you think that the ancient cities you visited, such as Jericho in Israel, Nasiriyah in Iraq and Pasargardae and Persepolis in Iran, fostered ancient societies that were more religious than the current communities who live in them today?
BF: That is a very hard question to answer. On the one hand, religion infused ancient society. There had not been science and rationality, nor the enlightenment and modern technology, which have changed the way we experienced religion. And literacy was not as widespread.
When religion was being formed in the middle of the first millennium, great religions were being formed all over the world, and it is pretty clear that the great religions were in dialogue with one another and in dialogue with the cultures around them. And the idea that one religion had an exclusive claim to the truth, I don’t think was a very widespread notion. I think that something that Christianity and Islam introduced into the world was that there can be one universal faith and everyone in the world will follow it. That has been a very destructive idea in the world in the past 1,000 years.
JJ: The history that you give of the Jewish people in “Where God Was Born,” which comes from a literalist reading of the Bible, is one of a bellicose, combative nation of militants. Does it worry you that our ancient leaders, like King David, were so bloodthirsty? How do you reconcile these bloodthirsty heroes with their current canonization, which is something that is taught in most Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools?
BF: I kind of understand why day school teachers want to teach David as a hero, because young Jews are looking for heroes who are strong and stick up for themselves. But I would say that one of things I have learned about the Bible is that we don’t have to accept the way we are taught. The stories are not black and white, and that is why they are interesting. One of the reasons that people don’t like the Bible is because they talk about it the same way that they did when they were 5. The fact that David was a failed leader gives me a lot to think about, and that is interesting.
JJ: Tell me about your own Judaism — how have the journeys taken in your last three books transformed your experience of faith?
BF: I have discovered a number of positive reasons to be Jewish, to balance off a lot of the negative reasons I heard when I was young — such as the Holocaust, discrimination, Israel is imperiled. The question [I am interested in] is can the religions get along, and Judaism has a very powerful, positive message to contribute to that conversation. We can teach the Christians and the Muslims that it is OK if everyone doesn’t agree with you, and it is OK not to impose your faith on others.
In the end, we all have to make our own relationship with God, that we can no longer accept what our politicians tell us, or our journalists tell us, or our parents tell us. We don’t have to just accept what our religious leaders tell us either. Each of us has to make our own relationship with God.
Shunning of Wigs Exposes Media Flaw
The media had a grand time recently when tens of thousands of Jewish women stopped wearing their wigs out of concern that they might contain hair that had been offered to an idol. The more revealing story, though, lay not in the deep dedication to the Second Commandment but in the feeding frenzy of the Fourth Estate.
The facts of the wig-shunning are simple enough. Halacha (Jewish religious law) considers a married woman’s hair to constitute a beauty reserved for her own eyes and those of her husband, and so an assortment of head coverings — including wigs, made either of synthetic or human hair — are worn by observant married women.
What happened of late was the realization that much hair from India — which in turn constitutes a good chunk of the human hair market — is shorn as part of Hindu religious rites. Since Hinduism is polytheistic and venerates physical objects, it has the halachic status of idolatry, and idolatrous offerings are forbidden for use in any way by Jews.
A respected rabbi went on a fact-finding mission to the Tirubati temple in India, where 25,000 pilgrims are said to arrive daily to cut their hair. He reported his findings to a preeminent senior halachic decisor in Israel, who ruled, based on the facts presented, that wearing wigs made from Indian hair indeed seemed to present a halachic problem.
As that information was publicized, Orthodox Jewish wig wearers responded by eschewing their hairpieces until they could ascertain the wigs’ provenance, or until religious authorities could sift through all the facts and pertinent halachic principles. Wig stores catering to Orthodox women researched their wares’ pedigrees or canceled orders until they could ensure that the hair they were selling was halachically acceptable.
Then came the deluge. The New York Times placed the story on its front page and then ran a follow-up piece, which termed the happenings an "emotional upheaval."
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency described the situation as an "uproar" and quoted an observer who called it "mass hysteria."
The editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal mocked the Jewish women’s reaction as an "absurdity" and suggested that they had been coerced by "Orthodox rabbis [all male]." Other media took similar approaches to the goings-on.
Those of us in the Orthodox community were amused — though rather surprised — by all the attention. Obviously, we took the issue seriously, but there was little sign around us of armed uprising or end-of-the-world hysteria.
The women among us selflessly and responsibly put aside their wigs in favor of other head-coverings until they could ascertain their "kosher" status, and those wigs that did not meet halachic standards were discarded. To be sure, the wig story was the talk of our own global village, but what we read about ourselves in the larger world’s press seemed like so much yellow journalism and purple prose.
Not long ago, all of us Americans were being warned about anthrax. After germ-laced mail was discovered here and there, we treated our mailboxes like terrorist lairs. Some of us wore rubber gloves to bring in the bills and flyers; suspicious letters were reported to the authorities. Hazmat-suited investigators gingerly entered places suspected of contamination in Washington, D.C., New York and elsewhere.
The media, of course, well covered that heightened state of concern for that invisible menace. But the caution those days was not characterized as hysteria, nor were there many words of mockery or disdain for the precautions taken.
The contrast between the media’s treatment of one population’s concern for a biohazard and another’s concern for a major religious principle highlights the unfortunate fact that, to the press, religion is silly. To most people, though, religion indeed matters.
We’ve certainly seen the negative side of that coin of late, with mass murderers clearly motivated by warped but undeniably religious concerns. But even as we confront the fact — and it’s hardly a new one — that religious devotion can lead to evil things, we must not fall prey to treating religious devotion, inherently, as suspect.
Judaism’s core teaching is monotheism; devotion to that ideal can be expressed in myriad ways — from the daily proclamation of God’s oneness in the Shema to the refusal to use an item that may have been used in a polytheistic rite. To believing and observant Jews, such things are parts of the highest human achievement: service to God.
The press’ treatment of the wig controversy in the Orthodox Jewish community did not adequately recognize that fact. That lapse may have been a manifestation of the reality revealed in a recent Pew Research Center survey. A mere 12 percent of self-described "moderate" journalists said they thought belief in God is a necessary underpinning of morality. Among self-described "liberals," the figure was a mere 3 percent.
While the journalists polled were not asked if they themselves believe in a Divine Being, one might be forgiven for surmising what the result of that question would have been — or for imagining that it might well have helped explain why so much of journalism today has so jaundiced a view of anything religious.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
Have You But One Blessing?
It began with the first two human born into this world, the world’s first brothers.
In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil. Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell (Genesis 4:3-5).
How did Cain know? The offerings are placed upon the altar. As each is set aflame, the smoke rises. How can one possibly ascertain that God accepts one and rejects the other? No, here the Torah tells us something deeper — not how it really was, but how it appeared to Cain, the world’s first aggrieved brother. In my fantasy, Cain crosses the field to his brother. "Say Abel, show me how you did that." But alas, when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother, Abel, and killed him (Genesis 4:8). And so it began.
Sigmund Freud proposed that the dynamic of human personality is shaped in the Oedipal complex — the young boy’s adoration of his mother leading to conflict and ultimate identification with his father. The Torah, as well, locates the primal human drama within the family, but in a different relationship — in the struggle among brothers. The Torah itself is structured around a set of tense brother stories: Cain and Abel; Noah’s sons; Abraham and his brother’s son, Lot; Ishmael and Isaac; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers; Moses and Aaron. They struggle for position, power, priority, but most of all, they struggle for their father’s blessing.
When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son, Esau, and said to him, "My son."
Esau answered, "Here I am."
And Issac said, "I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die" (Genesis 27:1-2).
Esau, faithful but thick, is supplanted by his trickster brother, Jacob, who hides his smooth skin beneath his smooth words to seduce the father into granting him the family blessing. Esau returns with the hard-won venison and prepares his father’s dish, only to discover that his blessing has been taken.
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing and said to his father, "Bless me, too, Father!"
But Issac answered, "Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing."
And Esau said to his father, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:34-35, 38).
For the first time, we can feel sympathy for him. Crude, violent, impulsive, there is nevertheless something genuine and good in Esau’s ferocious loyalty to his father. And something moving in his vulnerability. So into his mouth is placed the Bible’s harshest critique of its own monotheism: Have you but one blessing, Father? Who told Father Isaac there was only one blessing to split between two sons? Must one God imply only one blessing, only one birthright, only one way, only one truth? Does God accept only one brother’s offering and reject the other’s? Is there room for only one brother in this land, in this world? If so, teaches the Torah, we are doomed to reiterate an endless cycle of fratricide, generation after generation.
The Messiah will not arrive, according to an old tradition, until Esau’s tears are exhausted. Redemption comes when Father Isaac and all his descendants find in the infinite heart of God a fitting blessing for Esau — a place for the other brother. Redemption comes when the ehad (oneness) of monotheism is read as the most inclusive of theologies. Only then will we fulfill the prayer of the Psalmist, "How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together" (Psalms 133:1).
As the seder evening proceeds, my son wants to know one thing: "When will Elijah get here?"
From earliest childhood, he captures our imagination. We wait for him and wonder about him. We invite Elijah the prophet to visit us at our seder table, drink from his cup, and then move on, to visit the next seder, down the street or across the world.
But who is this magical, mysterious visitor — and what is he doing at our seder?
The biblical Elijah was a defender of God, a champion of monotheism who battled monarchs and religious leaders for the sake of God’s name. But it is his death — more than his life — that intrigues. The story, as told in the biblical book of Kings, tells us that Elijah does not pass away in the normal sense; instead, he is somehow "taken" by God, swooped up into heaven "in a whirlwind." After that, there is no mention of Elijah again until the very last words of the very last prophet, Malachi, which will be chanted in synagogues this Shabbat. That text tells us that Elijah will come and "reconcile parents with children and children with their parents" (Malachi 3:24).
The unifier of generations. The reconciler of parents and children. With such a near-impossible task in his portfolio, Elijah becomes something more than mortal, something larger than life. The prophet who will accomplish the miracle of warming the hearts of the generations to each other becomes endowed with even more qualities, with a range of universal to very personal implications. The figure of Elijah transforms into an invitation — to ultimate redemption, to peace and reconciliation in this pained world.
He is seen as the front-runner of the Messiah, the one who will announce that better days are coming for all of us. But his powers are not limited to that vast application. In talmudic literature, we see a figure who appears, inexplicably, in all variety of situations: a synagogue, a study hall, a rabbinic discussion. Always, Elijah acts as a wise man, a counselor to the rabbis, a dispenser of special insights.
But Elijah’s mysterious appearances do not stop there. Throughout our literature and lore, the prophet has been known to show up even in unlearned circles, in the streets, homes and businesses of the common man. Stories abound, granting him numerous cameo roles as mystery guest, miracle worker, guardian angel, agent of God. For thousands of years, mortals have encountered Elijah, realizing only after the fact that the quiet visitor, the beggar at the door, the magical man — often lining up help for the poor and suffering — was Elijah himself.
He is a richly textured and multidimensional character. Bringer of the Messiah and guardian of orphans. Many parts of a complex whole. But what’s he doing at our seder?
Jewish tradition imbues Elijah with the job of heralding the ultimate, worldly redemption. And Passover night, with all its sights, sounds, words and images, is a celebration of redemption. But there is even another reason for Elijah’s nocturnal visitation.
In the Talmud, when there are matters of debate that cannot be solved by mortals, Elijah is invoked: the Rabbis declare "Teiku," an acronym for words which mean "Elijah will someday come and resolve all difficulties and problems." Through Elijah, stalemates will end. Impossible questions will be answered. And the darkest recesses will be illuminated.
On Pesach, the night of redemption also is a night of questions. From "Ma Nishtana" through the song "Echad Mi Yodeia," the act of questioning, of pointing out problems and inconsistencies, defines the seder ritual. Questioning and redemption are two sides of the same coin. A sense of Israelite redemption can be experienced only through a process of rigorous asking, through hours of seeking.
"Where is he?" my son wants to know. "When is Elijah coming?" Perhaps he is here already, happy to fulfill his many tasks as long as we seek him with our questions.