Midrashic Tales

October 1, 2004
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Jonathan Kirsch

Joel Cohen, Moses: A Memoir (Paulist Press, 2003) $19.95, 155 pp.
Marek Halter, Sarah (Crown Publishers, 2004) $22.00, 296 pp.

“Midrash” is a term that has come to be applied to almost any effort to reconsider and re-imagine our sacred texts and the men and women who are depicted in their pages. In that sense, The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg, God Knows by Joseph Heller, The Red Rent by Anita Diament, and even the cartoon movie Prince of Egypt are all examples of midrash in its contemporary sense.

Moses: A Memoir by Joel Cohen and Sarah by Marek Halter are two examples of modern midrash. Moses is a brief if sometimes daring thought-experiment in which Moses himself is made to address the reader. Sarah , by contrast, is a saga set in biblical antiquity, a richly elaborated novel in which the patriarchs and matriarchs are fully fleshed out – sometimes literally so.

Joel Cohen, an attorney rather than a rabbi or a credentialed Bible scholar, has the chutzpah to write as if he were Moses, and he invites the reader to eavesdrop as Moses muses on his remarkable life from Mount Nebo. “My body is shriveled, my mind is still clear,” writes Cohen in the voice of Moses. “I am not sick. But I am about to die.” (2, 5)

In only a few hasty words and phrases, Cohen offers insight into the relationships between Moses and people who are limned in the Bible. “Was I a Hebrew, as Miriam had whispered in my ear,” muses Moses, “or a god, as my ‘mother,’ Pharaoh’s daughter, told me?” (9) Cohen’s Moses reveals that Zipporah laughed out loud at the story of his encounter with the burning bush: “It was her last light-hearted moment.” (20) Moses is shown to be willing to take responsibility for some (but not all) of the bloodier exploits attributed to him in the Torah, but he insists on presenting himself as a kind and gentle figure: “I always saw my true calling as a teacher.” (40)

Indeed, Cohen ultimately sidesteps some of the most tantalizing questions. What, after all, did Moses see when he spoke with God “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”? (Exod. 33:11) “‘Most of my days atop the Mountain I simply sat and listened to the Voice,’ Moses demurs. ‘It was perhaps a voice that would have been inaudible to anyone else who had mistakenly climbed the Mountain and had joined me. It was a voice, though, that would have been audible to me, even if I were deaf.'” (58)

Sarah is something else altogether. Marek Halter – a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a peace activist, and a prizing-winning novelist – uses all of his considerable powers as a storyteller to breathe life into figures who are only briefly described in the Bible and who have been exalted far beyond their own humanness in our liturgy. Indeed, the opening scene of Sarah is a frank and unflinching account of Sarai’s alarming discovery of her first menstrual blood at age twelve, a signal to the reader that Halter will not confine himself to biblical euphemisms when it comes to the fleshly exploits of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. “She couldn’t see herself – skinny and flat-chested, as her aunts had commented – lying in this bed beside a man’s big body,” writes Harek of young Sarai. “And not only beside him.” (41)

Halter brilliantly conjures up details that we can only glimpse in the sparse and hasty text of Genesis. Like Cohen, Harek imagines what Sarah is thinking, but, as a novelist, he also gives himself permission to imagine what they ate, what they wore, how they adorned themselves. Here and there, an imagined scene may strike us as improbable, as when Sarai first encounters Avram and thinks of him as “a good listener.” (66) But, more often, he deftly teases out the details of a love story that the Bible only hints at, a story that is both a romance and a scandal, all without ever losing sight of the theological purposes for which it is told in the Bible.

Moses and Sarah are so different in intention and execution that it is awkward – and perhaps a bit unfair – to consider them together. Cohen’s Moses is yet another occasion to use the biblical figure as a vessel into which we pour the loftiest moral and theological aspirations of Jewish tradition. Halter’s Sarah is a biblical soap opera that transforms Sarah from a plaster saint into a passionate woman. Happily, there is room for both of these books in the midrashic tradition, and each author is engaged in the same crucial work of keeping Jewish tradition alive.

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Jonathan Kirsch, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times Book Review and a publishing attorney in Los Angeles, is the author of ten books, including The Harlot by the Side of the Road, Moses: A Life, King David, The Woman Who Laughed at God, and, most recently, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism.

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