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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Beginnings: The First Love, the First Hate, the First Dream . . . Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts, by Meir Shalev, translated by Stuart Schoffman.  New York: Harmony Books, 2011.  304 pp.  $25.00.

The Israeli novelist Meir Shalev set himself a curious task with this book: to reflect on a series of first occurrences in the Bible—the first love, first hate, first kiss, first king, first prophet, and so on. His only stricture was that the occurrence must be named as such in the text, rather than inferred through interpretation. The result is itself curious: consistently insightful, purposefully meandering, and, ultimately, polemical.

              It is a cliché that novelists are good readers, attuned to the nuances of language, pacing, and plot. Beginnings reveals Shalev to be a particularly sensitive reader. For example, concerning the suitability of Saul’s election as Israel’s first king, Shalev notes the oddity of the Biblical author’s mention of Saul’s height as a desirable criterion. The Bible notes the physical size of several gentiles, all of them foes of the Israelites. The only other Israelite whose height is remarked on is that of David’s older brother, Eliav. When God and Samuel become disappointed in Saul’s kingship, they seek a new leader from among David and his brothers. Although Samuel is impressed by Eliav’s imposing height, God counsels him to ignore this physical quality, as if to say that they had already had a tall king and look how that turned out, adding, “For a man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart” (p. 54).

              Shalev’s observations on this bear quoting:

The reader is compelled to agree, but a nagging question remains—where was God’s penetrating insight when he told Samuel to crown Saul as king? Why didn’t God say the same words about Saul, about his looks and his height? Is it possible that God and Samuel deliberately chose as the first king someone a head taller than everyone else, who looked the part but lacked the right internal qualities, to make it clear to the people that the idea of monarchy was a bad one from the start?

This passage also illustrates an important point: Shalev does not limit himself to discussing the first instance, using it instead as a jumping off point for a wider consideration of the phenomenon at hand. Thus Shalev begins with Saul but his attention then shifts to David—and how could it not, given how intertwined the two men’s fates are and how important and compelling a character David is? It is also in this chapter (the third of eleven) that one begins to notice a thread in Shalev’s prose that thickens as the book progresses.

              Following a wonderful exposition of David’s battle with Goliath—the pacing is masterful, and the description of how a sling actually works is illuminating for those of us who never really thought much about it—Shalev states that he finds the conventional interpretation of the story (the weak defeating the strong) unsatisfying. Instead, he believes its significance is that “the one with originality defeated the conservative. Improvisation beat conception, invention trumped routine.” Support for this view comes from Saul’s words to David: “You cannot go against this Philistine and fight him, for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth” (p. 71). It is precisely Goliath’s conservatism, his training and experience, that handicaps him when confronted with an original thinker like David. “David won by virtue of new thinking, by ignoring the stodgy conventions of hand-to-hand combat, by using inventive and unexpected weaponry—and of course, with the help of God.”

              The last phrase is a bit ironic, as Shalev gradually reveals that, if he has any agenda other than reflecting on Biblical firsts, it is to criticize Israeli Orthodoxy and especially its leaders. A particularly telling instance is Shalev’s discussion of the snake, the first animal named in the Bible. After a discussion of Biblical attitudes toward animals in general, and ranging through such topics as the Ark and the prohibition on taking a mother bird with her young, Shalev offers a prolonged account of the contemporary Hebrew idiom “the fence-breaker will be bitten by a snake,” which, he points out, derives from Ecclesiastes. It is conventionally understood to mean that whoever does bad will get what he deserves. Shalev’s reading, however, is more interesting. Looking at the original context of the phrase, Shalev argues persuasively that Ecclesiastes’ intention was quite different: those who break through the confining walls of convention are unjustly punished. This is an extension of Ecclesiastes’ worldview that “there is no justice in the world, and there are things that God does to us that appear wrong and illogical. It’s impossible to know what God wants, but clearly he does not subscribe to the simpleminded formula that organized religion would have us believe: that the righteous are rewarded and evildoers are punished” (pp. 158–59).

              This is why Shalev rejects the traditional claim that Solomon wrote both Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. In Shalev’s view, the majority of the latter

consists of tedious renditions of conventional wisdom, amounting to a self-righteous celebration of obedience, conformity, and mediocrity. [The author of Ecclesiastes] on the other hand, is fresh and freewheeling, bitter and forgiving, anarchic. . . . If he were alive today in Israel he would mock the messianic flirtations of the public mind, the coalition bargains with religious politicians, amulets and the graves of holy men, ultra-Orthodox tribunals and the Chief Rabbinate.

              Shalev drives the point home in the last chapter, on the first law, in a long discussion of the last commandment: the prohibition on coveting. Many commentators have noted that the injunction against coveting is different in nature from the other nine commandments. The first nine commandments are not so difficult to obey, because they refer to acts, rather than desires. How are we to eliminate our desires? With great sarcasm, Shalev states that he “assume[s] that even righteous tzaddikim, great Torah scholars, even rabbis and religious judges whose righteousness extends to the highest and holiest reaches of Israeli politics, are not perfect in this regard, are not innocent of one sort of coveting or another” (p. 295).

              The tenth commandment sets humans up for failure, and hence to a crippling sense of guilt toward God, knowing that we cannot fulfill God’s will. “In this way, the Ten Commandments created the perpetual need of the believer for the mediation of the religious establishment, in exchange for the fees and tithes first described in the book of Exodus” (p. 295).

              This stance will probably resonate much more with the Israeli reader, whose state’s religious establishment holds real power over crucial affairs of civil life such as marriage and burial. With American Jewish readers, given our stricter separation of religion and state, not so much.

              Yet it would give a false impression of this work to dwell too much on Shalev’s polemical bent. While the instances of criticism of Israeli Orthodoxy accelerate toward the book’s end, those who reject them can still benefit from the author’s insights into the text. As Shalev states, “this is one of the Bible’s greatest qualities—its capacity to prompt us to weave new stories within and around it” (p. 105). In offering his own text resulting from his encounter with the Bible, the author notes that it is not his intention to provide a substitute for reading the Bible. Indeed, he “urge[s] the reader to go back to the original and make new discoveries—about themselves as well” (p. viii).

Joel Streicker

Central American Resource Center