Short of Jerusalem circa King Solomon, one would be hardpressed to find a more freewheeling Jewish community than that of Northampton, Massachussets, and its environs. It’s the kind of place where one finds a female rabbi in a rainbow-colored prayer shawl whom locals call the “tie-dye rabbi,” a black militant cantor leading services for Jewish students at the university Hillel House, and an organic farm run by Hasidim. But even this most open-minded of communities drew the line a few years ago, when a rabbi advised his congregation that if a person simply “accepted” God, all would be forgiven, a lifetime of sins wiped clean. Jewish Buddhists — “Ju-Bus” — they could take, but “forgive and forget” as Jewish teaching? Never. There was more than a little relief when an old man in the back of the shul stood up and in a incredulous, Brooklyn-inflected baritone gave voice to the sentiments of the assembled: “What the hell are you talking about?”
Readers with even the most limited knowledge of Jewishness may find themselves asking the same question of David Klinghoffer, who reaches some perplexing conclusions about his adopted faith in The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism (Doubleday; March 2003). These include the assertions that Judaism is a prosletyzing religion; that one must be financially well-off to be a prophet; and that the high percentage of circumcised gentiles in the United States is some kind of sign of America’s bond with Israel, ancient and contemporary. Klinghoffer also claims that nearly every Biblical scholar in America is part of a “Bible-bashing” conspiracy out to get Abraham.
Klinghoffer to the rescue. In The Discovery of God Klinghoffer presents the patriarch – the man who sent his first son, Ishmael, into exile to make room for his second, Isaac, whom he then prepared to slaughter at God’s request – as ubermensch: fearless, possessed of perfect morality, and great in the sack to boot. Klinghoffer speculates that Abraham’s slave Hagar forgot to tell him that an angel had recently spoken to her of the child they would conceive because she was overcome with sexual desire for the studly octagenarian.
How is Klinghoffer privy to so much intimate knowledge not contained within scripture? Cue Tevye on Broadway: Tradition! Klinghoffer condenses centuries of Talmudic commentary and extrapolation into one super-midrash he calls “Tradition,” from which he selectively plucks whatever slings and arrows necessary to dismiss the archeologists, historians, and linguistic and literary scholars who question literalist readings of Genesis – inquiries that are tantamount, in Klinghoffer’s account, to denying both God and morality. “If we reject Abraham,” he writes — conflating the rabbinic tradition textual interpretation with his own which-side-are-you-on approach to literary criticism — “we are rejecting the Bible.” Just as Jesus is the only path to God for many Christians, so Abraham is for the Judaism Klinghoffer proposes.
The similarity is no coincidence. When not saving the “monotheist West” from the hordes of academe, Klinghoffer moonlights as editorial director of an organization called Toward Tradition, presided over by Klinghoffer’s mentor, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who is also the author of Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money. In an essay re-published on Toward Tradition’s website from The National Review, Klinghoffer lauds Ralph Reed, the former chief of the Christian Coalition and a Toward Tradition board member, for his patience with liberal Jews. How rude, he suggests, that in response Jews should get in a huff over innocent little questions such as “Who killed Jesus?” Liberal Jews, Klinghoffer argues, ought to show a little more gratitude before Christian forbearance runs out.
Klinghoffer himself has not always been so patient. In his first book, The Lord Will Gather Me In (Free Press, 1998), he tells the story of his gentile parents, his adoption by a secular Jewish couple, and his decision, at age 15, to abandon both worldviews by shutting himself in the bathroom and slicing off his foreskin with a razor. In The Discovery of God, Klinghoffer expresses particular fascination with Abraham’s own self-circumsion and the help God provided, writing of the “the Master of the Universe holding in His hand the desiccated member of the aged prophet.”
Klinghoffer has an eye for little (so to speak) details, and he’s an attentive, if didactic, reader. The Discovery of God is the work of extensive study, of an admirable engagement with Talmud, even of deep thought about the nature of Judaism. But too often Klinghoffer deploys his considerable learning in the service of the sort of simplistic worldview espoused by the Christian Coalition.
For instance, Klinghoffer argues that in contrast to the cyclical conception of time of paganism, Judaism offers not so much a linear view of history (the conventional notion), as an idea of time that is simultaneously progressive and cyclical, a “spiral.” That’s an interesting formulation. Unfortunately, Klinghoffer uses it to suggest that each and every one of us is entitled to interpret whatever minor difficulties afflict us as our own private Egypts — an aggrandizement of the self that meshes well with the lost-then-found reductionism of conversion, whether it be that of the born-again Christian or the liberal remade as neocon.
In fact, Klinghoffer divides the Jewish people into “Natives” and “Converts.” The Native, complacent in the unexamined acceptance of the faith he or she is born into, “is incomplete as the model of godly life.” The Convert, meanwhile, supplies the zealous passion necessary “periodically to revive [the] community.” Desperate to fit in, the Convert looks at the contemporary world and obsessively asks, What would Abraham do? W.W.A.D.
The problem lies in the question. One Native, James L. Kugel, a professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard, author of On Being a Jew, and presumably one of the Bible-bashing critics Klinghoffer disdains, asks instead, What did Abraham do? And what did ancient Hebrews make of him, or any other of the strange, otherworldy protagonists of the Bible?
In The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (Free Press; March 2003), a slight but fascinating book, Kugel tries to read the Hebrew Bible not in service of a contemporary moral program, but as it might have been understood long ago. His Abraham is a more human figure than Klinghoffer’s, possessed of an uncertain vision, unable, at times, to discern the nature of God’s messengers. Writing of an encounter between Abraham and three angels, Kugel notes the “fog” that seems to descend upon Abraham, the ambiguous atmosphere in which the line between the natural and the supernatural blurs. To Kugel, this suggests a worldview in which believers experienced the divine through altered states, during which they understood God as offering not black and white clarity, but a glimpse into the complexity of his creation.
A more telling contrast between the two authors’ approaches can be found in their treatments of the Tower of Babel. Kugel points out that the tower itself was simply one structure within a city intended to bring a “scattered” people together in a unified community. The arrogance God rejected was not so much that of the tower as that of urbanism all together. Why? Kugel argues that the Israelites of the time were a rural, uneducated people, threatened by the hubub and heterodoxy of city life. Looked at in this light, the story of the Tower of Babel becomes one with unsettling political resonances.
Not so for Klinghoffer. In his telling, the Tower of Babel was not only a mark of arrogance, but of evil, specifically that of one man: King Nimrod. Although Klinghoffer insists he’s discussing pure divine revelation, his interpretation echoes contemporary politics as well. In Klinghoffer’s world, it’s simple. Nimrod is evil; no Nimrod, no problem.
In Kugel’s view, the story of the Tower of Babel served Israel as a reassuring fable, in which Israel, crude, suspicious of the very cosmopolitanism which it would be accused of time and again over the centuries, is “found better than Babylon not for having competed with its sophistication but for having rejected it.” The same might be said of Klinghoffer and his own private Israel, curiously Christian by way of a new fundamentalist Judaism.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).