Bereishit

Review of After Adam

Teniers II, David; Adam and Eve after the Expulsion; The Courtauld Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/adam-and-eve-after-the-expulsion-207493
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Michal Leibowitz

Ask American Jews about their God, and you’ll receive a variety of answers ranging from the staunchly rational to the New-Agey. 

But according to Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, most respondents will agree on one point: God is closer to an impersonal force than One with Whom people can have a relationship. In fact, apart from Buddhists, Jews are the least inclined to view God as a personal force of any religious group in America. 

Enter poet and independent scholar Laurance Wieder, whose biblical saga, After Adam: The Books of Moses, offers an alternative point of view. Named the 2019 Book of the Year by John Wilson in First Things, After Adam has nevertheless been largely overlooked by Jewish critics and readers. This is to their detriment, for Wieder’s genre-bending work recenters the personal bond between the Jewish people and their intimacy-seeking God in one of the most invigorating Jewish books of recent years.

Wieder’s previous works include Words to God’s Music: A New Book of Psalms and Isaiah’s Closing Arguments: A New Translation. He is also the editor of The Poets’ Book of Psalms, a complete psalter composed of the work of twenty-five poets across five centuries. With After Adam, Wieder brings his skills as an anthologist, poet, and psalmist together to reenchant a familiar biblical text.

After Adam is a prosimetrum, a story told in verse and prose. Thus, though its subject is the Pentateuch, and the book’s 54 chapters each correspond to a Sabbath Torah portion, Wieder writes in his author’s note that it belongs to the same tribe as Dante’s Vita Nova and Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.

But Wieder’s work is not simply a poet’s retelling of the books of Moses. It is also the work of an anthologist, and much of the text is composed of biblical commentaries—largely, though not exclusively, midrashim—from a vast variety of texts spanning the apocryphal book of Enoch to the philosophical dialogues of Judah ha-Levi. Following the associative mode of Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon in Present at Sinai, Wieder intermixes his commentaries with little regard for their original context or chronology. (One memorable chapter juxtaposes references to the midrashic collection of Numbers Rabbah, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Bialik’s Book of Legends, and The Guide to Serving God, a medieval tract by Abraham Maimonides which details the path of a person striving to go beyond the minimal requirements of Jewish law to experience a strong sense of intimacy with God.) Like Agnon, he sometimes alters sources—abridging, paraphrasing, even extending—without making his readers aware of his changes. Other times, he offers commentary that is entirely his own.

Wieder’s unregimented method may strike some readers as brash, but it comes part and parcel with a larger thesis: that Torah—which for Wieder includes legend, commentary, and interpretation—exists outside of history. This claim has a precedent of sorts: The phrase “ein mukdam u-me’uhar ba-Torah,” literally “there is no early and late in the Torah,” is frequently invoked by Torah commentators to explain apparent chronological inconsistencies within the biblical text, but Wieder’s approach greatly expands the idea. With it, he argues that all Torah is enduringly relevant and therefore capable of speaking to and from a context not its own.

Even those not convinced by this argument may take solace in the fact that Wieder’s individualistic approach never degenerates into chaos or mere whim. Rather, his selections are drawn together by a strong guiding vision—one might say a theology—which, more than anything, reflects the voice and worldview of a psalmist.

The Book of Psalms envisions a world in which God listens and responds to the calls of human beings. The varied forms of the psalms—praise, lament, thanksgiving, individual, communal—all rely on the assumption of continued divine love for, and involvement in, the world.

This view, though well represented within the Jewish rabbinic and mystical traditions, has nevertheless been often overlooked in the Books of Moses in favor of readings that are (a) inspired by Christian approaches, and therefore tend to view the Old-Testament God as a wrathful, distant, or vengeful being; or (b) overwhelmed by Jewish rationalist branches, which emphasize God’s ineffability and transcendence to the exclusion of personal relation.

With After Adam, Wieder challenges his readers to engage the Pentateuch through this psalmic lens. This is a book that believes that God—specifically, the God of the Pentateuch—exists in loving relationship, not just with the people of Israel, but with individuals. The theme of continued divine relation permeates the entire text, even in areas where it isn’t immediately evident, and informs both its poetic and anthological elements

Take, for example, one of the text’s most initially striking features: the great number of commentaries featuring the fantastical and bizarre. Wieder’s Pentateuch is populated by jealous angels, lustful demons, floating mountains, and even an adamantine worm, said to have been created at twilight on the first Sabbath, which can cut through diamonds with scribal precision. Even those well-versed in midrash will likely find new wonder among Wieder’s selections, which come not only from Tannaitic and Talmudic sources, but also from Yemenite legends, hasidic treatises, and medieval Jewish spells.

Within the context of the text, these magical commentaries function partly to add texture and vibrancy to familiar stories. But they also serve the theological agenda at the heart of the biblical saga, for all the selections paint a picture of a universe in which the divide between the divine and human worlds is porous, and inhabitants of the two frequently interact.

Consider, for example, the following midrashim, which discuss the events surrounding Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah). Wieder writes:

The moment Israel heard the “I” of the “I am the Lord your God”—the first word of the Ten Commandments—their souls left them. 

That first word returned at once to the Creator and said, “Master of all, you live and last.”

“The Torah lives and endures. Why send me to the dead? Can they hear?”

So, for His people’s sake the One returned and sweetened the “I.” He tuned his voice to the strength of each listener—young, old, little ones, infants, grown men and women—so each heard only so much as he could bear. . .

In another version, after Israel’s souls decamped, the angels began to hug and kiss and reassure them, cooing, “What’s this? Don’t fear, you children of the Lord your God;” while the Maker repeated his word softly, saying, “I am your God as you are my beloved.”

He coaxed until their souls returned.

This brief selection does a striking amount of work for Wieder’s effort to detail the modes of relation between man and God. In just a few paragraphs, it reframes the moment of law-giving—which in the biblical text is solemn and awe-inspiring—as also a personal and deeply intimate act between God and the Jewish people.

Indeed, the idea of God and Israel as lovers—an image at the heart of both the rabbinic reading of Song of Songs and portions of Psalms—is woven throughout the best parts of this book. Wieder doesn’t force this interpretation on all areas of the text, nor does he ignore the portions of the Hebrew Bible that suggest periods of strife or anger. Rather, After Adam reframes these episodes within the paradigm of the Song of Songs and the prophetic books, in which God’s anger is that of one whose lover has gone astray, but will be redeemed, and their love rekindled. 

Indeed, many of the book’s most affecting moments are those that address the portions of the Books of Moses where Wieder’s loving, personal God seems to be the most distant. 

Take, for example, the sin of Golden Calf. After Israel’s sin, God’s fury, at least according to the biblical dialogue, is unmistakable. “Let Me alone,” he says to Moses, “that My wrath may wax hot against [the Israelites], and that I may consume them…” (Exodus 32:10). It is worth noting that the sin of the Golden Calf was used as key evidence in early Christian supersessionist claims that the covenant between God and Israel had been broken and that the Jews no longer constituted the true Israel.

But look at how this moment is reread in Wieder’s account (derived from Exodus Rabbah), which supplies the record of an additional conversation between Moses and God following Israel’s sin:

Atop Sinai, the Lawgiver [Moses] argued that God should not destroy Israel, but forgive them.

God said, “Moses, I have already taken an oath, and I cannot retract an oath which has gone from my mouth.”

Moses countered, “Maker of All, you taught me that, when a man vows a vow or swears an oath he shall not break his word, but another may absolve him.” Moses wrapped himself in his sage’s cloak and sat while God stood before him as does the petitioner asking the rabbinic court for annulment of a vow.

Huna son of Aha remarked, “It was very hard for Moses to annul God’s vow.”

Rabbi Yohanan agreed, “Very hard. Moses had to ask, ‘Do you regret?’”

“God answered, ‘I now regret the evil which I said I would do unto my people.’”

“Then Moses ruled, ‘Be it absolved for thee. Be it absolved for thee. There is no longer oath nor vow.’”

Simeon ben Laqish added, “Because Moses absolved God’s vow, in Psalm 90 he is called a man or spouse of God.”

Another proposed that Moses was called God’s spouse because he was like a husband who, if he wants to, cancels his wife’s vow, and if he wants to keep it, lets it stand.

In this midrash, the almighty judge becomes the petitioner, and the human is given the power to annul God’s vow. With the final suggestion that Moses is acting the part of God’s spouse, God is cast in the passive role, and Moses in the agentive. One who has been reading Wieder’s work up to this point, cannot help but recall a Rabbinic quote he brought earlier, when describing why Isaac allowed himself to be bound by the aged Abraham: “Love upsets the natural order, and hate upsets the natural order.” 

After Adam is a project of such scale and ambition that it is difficult to imagine it succeeding, until it does. Not only does Wieder offer a much-needed corrective to Jewish ideas of a distant, impersonal God, but he does so while reinforcing the centrality of Aggadah to biblical interpretation, all while managing to maintain the integrity and artful flow of the biblical narrative.

That said, there are moments when Wieder’s execution misses its mark. In combining poetry and prose within a single text—and by refusing to give either primacy—the work promises to echo the ideal balance of law and legend, Halachah and Aggadah, fear and love. Key to the prosimetrum form is that both elements of the text add something unique to the conversation between them

But the poetry in After Adam doesn’t always pull its weight. Through midrashim and other prose commentaries on the biblical text, Wieder draws out the personal, loving God of the books of Moses and of the Jews. The problem is that the book’s sections of extended verse are primarily made up of psalms espousing similar ideas. These are loosely translated, sure (many are culled from Wieder’s text Words to God’s Music), and often arranged as dramatic monologues spouting from the mouths of biblical characters, but they are still psalms in both form and function—narrating the speakers’ emotional turbulence as they grasp for intimate relation with the divine.

Thus, the poems, which are mostly situated at the close of various chapters, arrive to do a job already done. The effect is that the poems appear as awkward appendages—almost like exclamation points—on an otherwise a cohesive text.

Despite this flaw, with After Adam, Wieder has accomplished the feat of making the Books of Moses feel simultaneously foreign and familiar, the well-trod words imbued with new meaning.

In his forward to After Adam, Wieder describes the “traditional, lay-led minyan reading aloud from the Torah scroll every Saturday morning” as a group of “Jewish Arcadians, gathering to recount the living history in tale and song.” And living history Wieder shows the Pentateuch to be, for After Adam does not merely advance philosophical and theological claims about the personal nature of Jewish relation with the divine, but enacts them. Though Wieder rarely inserts himself explicitly into the text, After Adam is in one sense a deeply personal account of one scholar’s engagement with God’s living word, a revelation.