Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“RESISTANCE”—A Tribute to Marcel Marceau


A Tribute to Marcel Marceau

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned story of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France. It features a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes and is focused on a Nazi-fighting mime, Marcel Mangel (who later changed his surname to Marceau). Marceau is the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. He tires of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop and prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life and the audiences he performs for are more interested in dancing girls.

This is a light family drama despite opening scene in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But these early scenes skillfully illustrate the melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning and also establish just how little the future superstar and his community understood the extent of the danger just a few miles away in Germany.

Marcel becomes involved with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. They were ransomed from the Nazis and the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Marceau was made to feel guilty by his brother Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez) and begins helping out. Through his cousin, Georges (Géza Röhrig), Marcel got the opportunity to assist Jewish children who have lost their parents, keeping them laughing through miming. He has his own motive— he is anxious to impress  a girl named Emma (Clemence Poesy) and uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.

The director’s determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clear once war begins and France is occupied and all Jews in the country become targets. Marcel becomes responsible for more orphans and with his compatriots relocates to Lyon and joins the resistance. The Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the empty pool of his fancy headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. Barbie is a sociopath who keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.

After the action shifts to Lyon, Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Eisenberg’s Marceau shows his skill for signaling vulnerability and resolve at the same time. His theatrical exaggeration of miming allows him to express physically. While Marcel mimes, we’re able to concentrate on his eyes and face, which give both a lightness and an emotionality to his movements while at the same time silent and focused.  Marcel’s life touched many, and everyone within this film becomes a bit insignificant in his shadow. The film totally belongs to Marceau.

There are moments of emotional authenticity that make Marceau convincing and riveting. We see him not as a superhero but as an “ordinary” human being thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The fear, the confusion, the anxiety are all written on Eisenberg’s face as he feels his way into the new uncomfortable position of responsibility for others’ lives. So are the joy and the delight when his pantomime helps him chase away the ghosts that haunt him and his charges.


Jakubowicz sees these extraordinary circumstances that turned Marceau into the great artist he dreamed of being but feared the war would not let him become. It was the children that gave purpose to his art and taught him to use it to help those who needed it. The film is very close to Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan filmmaker of Polish Jewish descent, whose grandparents on both sides are Holocaust survivors,. He found the story of Marceau’s role in the French Jewish underground by accident. He didn’t even know Marceau was Jewish and became intrigued because it was a story of Jews rescuing Jews during the Holocaust—something only rarely seen on screen.

“House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family” by Hadley Freeman— A Family’s History

Freeman, Hadley. “House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family” ,  Simon & Schuster, 2020

A Family’s History

Amos Lassen

Hadley Freeman’s “House of Glass” is a story that spans a century, two World Wars and three generations. Freeman knew that her grandmother Sara lived in France just as Hitler began his rise power, but no one in her family spoke about it. After her grandmother’s death, she found a shoebox tucked in the closet with photographs of her grandmother and a mysterious stranger, a strange telegram from the Red Cross and a drawing signed by Picasso.

Her curiosity got the best of her and she began a ten year journey to try to found out what the contents of the shoebox meant. She went to the Picasso archives in Paris, to a secret room in a farmhouse in Auvergne, to Long Island and to Auschwitz piecing together family’s past and learning more about the lives of her grandmother and her three brothers, Jacques, Henri, and Alex. Their stories  were sometimes typical and sometimes surprising as they revealed the spectrum  of experiences of Eastern European Jews during Holocaust.

The stories were filled with twists and turns and fascinating characters that shed light on the Jewish experience during World War II. We read about assimilation, identity, and the meaning of home in a saga about the past that is still relevant today. We read about the experience of a Jewish family through a Polish shtetl, Parisian haute couture, the Résistance and Auschwitz. We examine the roots persistence of anti-Semitism. Freeman presents the many different responses of her family members to the anti-Semitism that sent many to their deaths yet spared others and we must consider them. Love and redemption are the themes of a book that will not be easily forgotten.

This is an intimate family history as well as the history of the world during the shocking period when ruled. It reads like a mystery, a memoir and a gripping history of the last century. Hadley Freeman reconstructs the story of a family that the Holocaust tried to destroy and she doesn’t hide anything.  She shows us the terrifying parallels to today’s anti-Semitism.  The story of the Glass family is a look at the Jewish experience. The research here is amazing and accompanied by a thoughtful analysis of what it means to be Jewish today. We see in the extremist politics of today in light of where they come out of the past.

Here is the author’s family, including the good, the bad, and the ugly and never-ending conflicts, some of which are never resolved. It tells the history of the times and locations in which the family lived. It tells of the successes in fashion, in engineering, in business and the failures and of those family members who survived the Holocaust and those who didn’t. which fell by the wayside and those which were regained. Secrets are revealed as her stories that took years to learn of.

“Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama” by Rabbi Dab Ornstein— We, the Jury

Ornstein, Dan Rabbi. “Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama”, Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

We, the Jury

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Dan Ornstein gives us the chance to sit on the jury in  the trial of Cain v. Abel. The prosecution and defense attorneys (angels from Jewish legend) will call Cain, Abel, Sin, Adam, Eve, and God to the witness stand to present their perspectives on the world’s first murder.  We will also get testimony from great Jewish commentators throughout the ages  who will also offer contradictory testimony on Cain’s emotional, societal, and spiritual influences. As jurors, we must decide before meting out Cain’s punishment, if we have to consider his family history, psychological makeup, and the human impulse to sin.

I love this new approach to studying Torah mainly because it simply makes it relevant. Here we gain eclectic and gripping insights by Jewish commentators on the Cain and Abel story. The courtroom scenes are juxtaposed with the author’s commentary and this gives us new insights and introspection. By struggling with Cain’s actions, we also confront ourselves. We wonder if Cain is a symbol for all humanity what do we have to do so as not to become like him.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein includes a discussion and activity guide that promotes open dialogue “about human brokenness and healing, personal impulses, and societal responsibility.”
 Most of us know the story is written in bible so well that we can freely recite what it says. Yet rereading it here, it is very new and reads like it never has before. It comes to life by making it a human drama that we can each become a part of.  By bringing in the testimony and perspective of every participant, Rabbi Dan Ornstein gives us a new and riveting read and a chance to examine and expand our own humanity. The question of  “Am I my brother’s keeper?’” takes on new meaning and interpretations. Here is the chance for us to debatenthe human condition and how to think about “human agency and responsibility.

“Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought” by Aaron Koller— An Original Reading

Koller, Aaron. “Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought”, Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

An Original Reading

Amos Lassen

Those of you who know me also know that the story of the Akeda in the Hebrew Bible is one that has been both a source of concern and a fascination for me. I have written innumerable commentaries on it and have lists of thoughts about it running on my computer. I have presented my thoughts on it at least six times in public and each is different. I read whatever I can find about it and its mystery often haunts me. Naturally I was excited to learn of Aaron Koller’s “Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought” and anxious to get my hands on a copy.

Koller guides us on a journey of discovery for our times about the binding of Isaac story.  We look at Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s views of the story as “teaching suspension of ethics for the sake of faith”. From this, Jewish thinkers have developed this idea as a cornerstone of their religious worldview. Koller examines and critiques Kierkegaard’s perspective and later interpretations of it  textually, religiously and ethically.  We are all aware of the current criticism that has been levelled against Abraham as a man and as a father. Koller explores this in Jewish thought, from ancient poems and midrashim to contemporary Israel narratives, as well as Jewish responses to the Akedah over the generations.

He succeeds in bringing all of this together along with what we now know about human sacrifice in the Phoenician world and gives us an original reading of the Akedah. He maintains that the God of the bible would like to want child sacrifice because it is a remarkable display of devotion. However, God does not want child sacrifice because it would violate the child’s autonomy. The high point in the drama is not the binding of Isaac but the moment when Abraham is told to unbind him; release him. While the Torah does not allow child sacrifice, some of Israel’s neighbors saw it as a religiously inspiring act. What the lesson we get from the binding of Isaac is that an authentically religious act cannot be done through the harm of another human being.

Is this a new thought to me? I am not sure. Harming another has certainly been an important topic but I do not know that I take that as the ultimate lesson from the Akeda. It does seem to me, however, that we have looked at those twenty-something verses over and over again throughout history from every possible perspective and they remain puzzling to this day. I do not think it is possible to authoritatively say that we understand what they mean. I have spent hours looking at them and feeling exhausted afterwards.

Koller, with his knowledge of both biblical literature and the Jewish interpretive tradition is able to unbind the Akedah to show its philosophy and theology in their greatness. As he struggles to understand it, he manages to pull it out from the dominant and dangerous interpretation that faith justifies violence. He then gives us the message that echoes God’s words to Abraham, “Do not lay a hand on the boy!”

It is Koller’s stance that “one person’s religious fulfillment cannot come through harm to another” and this is “rooted on the text as a morally compelling vision for sincere faith in a modern world that too often finds form in false fundamentalisms.” 

I am in awe of the amount of study that went into this book especially as I look at my bookshelf and see nine books on the binding and realize that there are nine different theories on the passage. The journey we take with Koller includes material from wide sources ranging from ancient, medieval, and modern sources both Jewish and Christian; Hasidic, Mitnagdic, and secular; scholarly, poetic and even archaeological yet the focus and clarity is never lost.

Koller guides us to learn from what these sources have to say and to critique them ethically and intellectually. He then presents his own interpretation of the text remaining respectful of what the bible says as he regards it with religious sensitivity. What Koller has to say is not only refreshing but brilliant and completely new.  He does not disregard what others have said and uses generations of scholarship in Bible, rabbinics, and Jewish thought. He interprets their voices as to the times in which they spoke and where and then presents us with a timely understanding of ancient lore. Koller critiques others’ interpretations and then maintains that what the binding of Isaac does is teach ethics as theology instead of submission.  

What is unique here is that Koller’s study combines all of the perspectives already mentioned and then presents them all together. By doing this, we see the Akedah in a new exciting way.  



Houdini: The Elusive American” by Adam Begley— The World’s Greatest Escape Artist

Begley, Adam. “Houdini: The Elusive American”,  (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2020

The World’s Greatest Escape Artist

Amos Lassen

Adam Begley’s “Houdini: The Elusive American” is the newest volume in Yale’s Jewish Lives Series and it is a fascinating read. Erik Weisz was born in Budapest in 1874 and became Harry Houdini. He grew up as an impoverished Jewish immigrant in the Midwest and became world-famous because of talent, industry, and ferocious determination. Begley asks and answers the question of what kind of man was this?

In 1916, the war was raging in Europe and prevented a tour abroad so Harry Houdini wrote a film treatment. The movie was never made but its title, “The Marvelous Adventures of Houdini: The Justly Celebrated Elusive American” is a short summary of its creator’s life.

Houdini hid the secrets of his sensational success as a matter of temperament and professional ethics. Nobody  has ever known how Houdini performed some of his death-defying tricks, and nobody knows why he felt he had to continually punish and imprison himself. Was it really necessary. Begley follows the restless Houdini’s exploits showing the man as not only central to the American experience, but also important to the fakery, fraudulence, and self-promotion that is happening even today.

About Jewish Lives:

Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.

In 2014, the Jewish Book Council named Jewish Lives the winner of its Jewish Book of the Year Award, the first series ever to receive this award.


 “SAUL & RUBY’S HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR BAND”— An Inspirational Klezmer Band


An Inspirational Klezmer Band

Amos Lassen

Emmy winning documentary filmmaker Tod Lending’s “Saul & Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band” is the chronicle of history unlike any we have seen before.

Like many survivors of the Holocaust, after World War II, Saul and Ruby moved to America, started families and careers, grew old, and retired to South Florida. For them, retirement could have been the last chapter in their story. But then they decided to start a klezmer band, named the Holocaust Survivor Band. 

The band brings back the bittersweet memories of childhood in Poland, but more than that, it is a celebration of life. In this utterly heart-affecting and enthralling film, we follow Saul and Ruby’s musical journey, which begins in total obscurity, playing in residential homes for the elderly and small Jewish community organizations, to being invited to perform at venues across the country, including a coveted performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. 

This unique and compelling story is about having the courage to live one’s dreams, finding purpose and meaning in life at any age, the transcendent power of music, and the importance of speaking out against anti-Semitism and bigotry.

“The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility” by Elliott Rabin— A New Approach to the Bible

Rabin, Elliott. “The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility”, The Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

A New Approach to Bible

Amos Lassen

Approaching the Bible in an original way—comparing biblical heroes to heroes in world literature—Elliott Rabin looks at a  core biblical question: What is the Bible telling us about what it means to be a hero? To attempt to answer that, he approaches the Bible by comparing biblical heroes to heroes in world literature and I find that fascinating.

Rabin focuses on six biblical characters— Moses, Samson, David, Esther, Abraham, and Jacob and he look at their resemblances to hero types found in (and perhaps drawn from) other literatures. He then looks at why the biblical depiction of its heroes is less glorious than the texts of other cultures. Note these bold differences:

 * Moses the founder of the nation of Israel is short-tempered and weak-armed.
* Samson is arrogant and unhinged and is able to kill a thousand enemies with his bare hands.
* David who establishes a centralized, unified government does so through pretense and self-deception.
* Esther saves her people but she marries a murderous, misogynist king.
* Abraham’s relationships are wracked with tension and his fathering skills leave much to be desired.
* Jacob who is the father of twelve tribes won his inheritance through deceit.
Then there is God, a real hero or too removed from human constraints to even be called a “hero”?
Rabin shows how the Bible’s perspective on heroism comes from our own need for human-scale heroes.

Biblical heroes are flawed as we see when we compare them to heroes in other places and we can only wonder why they have been embraced for so long by Jews. I am sure that others can add more information about the above heroes that makes them less than heroic. Yet we see them as contemporaries and as ways to look at “spiritual greatness”.

 Here are fresh looks at the six and I do not think that after reading this, we will ever again be able to see them as we did. The story that Rabi gives us is of “complex human characters who, in heroic fashion, struggle with our imperfections.”

This  is a brilliant study and it presents us with creative archetypes for understanding six of the most important and significant figures in both biblical history and Jewish life. We see the hero’s role in society at a time when we really need heroes. We all have different ideas of what being a hero means and here, author Rabin adds new dimensions to the way we think. This is an “examination of the intersection of power, influence, leadership, achievement, failure, and identity.” If you need something new to think about, here is the book for you.

“The Passover Haggadah: A Biography” by Vanessa L. Ochs— The Life and Times

Ochs, Vanessa L. “The Passover Haggadah: A Biography”,  (Lives of Great Religious Books), Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Life and Times

Amos Lassen

Passover is biting at our heels and as usual Jews all over the world are making preparations for our most unifying of holidays. I have always loved Passover for the simple reason that knowing when I sat down to Seder, Jews all over the world are doing the same. Years ago, after I returned from many years of living in Israel, Passover was the one time of year that had supreme importance for me even though my Israeli celebration of it was purely secular. I remember so well that after my kibbutz Seder, (celebrated without the traditional Haggadah), I would go back to my room and pull out my traditional Haggadah and reread the story of the exodus so that I could feel as one of universal Jewry. It was not so much about religious observance but about the traditions that my family had observed for seemingly forever. Of course, what I knew of the Haggadah came from what was written on the pages within and it was not until I moved to Boston and became really engaged in my religion that I wanted to know more. This year ,Vanessa Ochs helped me to do so.

The Passover Haggadah is the script for the Seder and it is a religious text unlike any other. It is the only sacred book that appears in many different versions and I say that as I look at the 42 different Haggadot sitting on the shelf in front of me. I still treasure my Maxwell House edition that is filled with wine stains , my beloved copy of Arthur Waskow’s countercultural “Freedom Seder” and my copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah.  The beauty of the Haggadah is that even those with limited knowledge of Jewish law and ritual are able to lead and conduct a  religious service that is, in itself, complex.

In “The Passover Haggadah: A Biography”, Jewish scholar, Vanessa Ochs shares the story of the Haggadah from its origin and emergence in antiquity as an oral practice to its many forms today. She provides the history of how the narrative of the Exodus is related as the story of liberation in the Haggadah and she tells us of the origins of the book in both biblical and rabbinic literature. We see how it became beautifully and lavishly illuminated during medieval times and how the printing press aided mass distribution. Ochs looks the kibbutz Haggadah that celebrate the coming of spring more than they do the exodus, Haggadot that reflect the Holocaust, the feminist Haggadah, the LGBYQ-themed Haggadot (which now number six or more) and she includes the Haggadah of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, the popular television series. Through this we see how this enduring work of liturgy was once and is still used to transmit Jewish identity in Jewish settings is being reinterpreted and reimagined to share the message of freedom and liberation for all. (More than once, I led Seders at a Baptist church in New Orleans where members of the Baptist clergy added their own interpretations).

Ochs shows that the writings in the Haggadah are core texts of Jewish life and they were products of the times in which we lived as well as plans for social action. This book is not a Haggadah but rather the biography of the book that has meant so much to so many people. It is both ancient and it is contemporary and every time I read it, it is new and vibrant.

We are all familiar with the question “Why is this night different from all others?” and, of course, there are many, many answers. Ochs asks, ‘Why is this Haggadah different from all others?’ The answer comes in her survey of the many editions of Haggadot that have been “invented, illustrated, and cherished across the ages”. The Haggadah has become a guide for us on how we lived, how we live and how we will live. As we read the Haggadah, we cannot help but see that it speaks to us individually and as a group. It does not have a fixed text and it is a source of history and comfort.

Going back to the sources in the book of Exodus where the story is described for the first time, Ochs shows us that the original text says that Passover will be a “ritual for all time,” forever and this was even before the children of Israel have even marked the holiday for the first time. Looking at the earliest rabbinic texts, Ochs shows that in the Mishnah and the Tosefta — which include the first descriptions of the Passover Seder (there was no Seder at all, for quite a long time after Passover was first marked. We see key differences between Passover’s “4 Questions” as described in the Mishnah, and those that we recite today at the Seder today. Ochs shows us  the ways in which these questions are “pedagogically, are a disaster.” She also explains that the Passover Seder is representative of a “diminished version” of what the people did for Passover as they were on their pilgrimage to the ancient temple.

Ochs looks the moods of Passover, which are not only joyous. She shows the differences between elements of liveliness and sadness. The Seder was once a time to argue and we see this in errors in the Passover Haggadah— its historic failure to actually tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is assumed that we already know the story.

We look at the traditional Haggadah and what it might mean today. Ochs tells us that there is importance in honoring and paying tribute to the ancient texts of the Haggadah as well as experimenting with contemporary haggadot and creative approaches to the Seder. Texts can set the ways in which wrestling with them can be a deep way of observing the holiday. Revising the Haggadah text can lead to a great deal of criticism and pushback. Jewish rituals, in many cases, have become fluid and can change quickly from a sense of tradition to the new and relevant.

After having read Vanessa Ochs, I find myself looking at both the Haggadah and the holiday of Passover anew and I am totally grateful for that

“The Book of Israela” by Rabbi Rena Blumenthal— Now and Then

Blumenthal, Rena. “The Book of Israela”,  Resource Publications, 2018.

Then and Now

Amos Lassen

In Rabbi Rena Blumenthal’s, “The Book of Israela”, we meet Kobi Benami in Jerusalem of 2002 at the height of the second intifada. He is a middle-aged psychologist whose life is falling apart. He has been thrown out of his house by his wife who is tired of his philandering and his daughter has refused to speak to him. The new clinic director has put him on probation for his indifferent work habits. Life, for Kobi, is not particularly good right now. Just at this time, he gets a new patient named Israela, a woman with quite a story that is filled with strange  biblical references. Her husband, Y, is questionable—  he may or may not exist. She hasn’t seen him in months and she is being stalked by “his prophet-like emissaries who span a wide spectrum of Israeli society–Orthodox to secular, right-wing settlers to left-wing urban elites”. They are held together by their condemnation of her, her devotion to Y and her ties to  The Outstretched Arm, a sinister organization that Y supposedly runs.

Kobi soon finds himself as part of a surreal encounter with the anthropomorphized story of ancient Israel. He becomes preoccupied with questions about the nature and existence of Y and because of this, is forced to confront his own dysfunctional life patterns, his family’s past, and the war that rages around him.

Kobi becomes our narrator and he gives us a strange and honest portrait of contemporary Israel that is dealing with Abrahamic monotheism. The ancient prophets (or possibly just several crazy people) follow and haunt Kobi because of  Israela.

Kobi has no faith and his story is told as a biblical metaphor about God’s relationship with Israel. We read of Jewish historical and mythical experiences and these bring us close the hapless psychologist whose life becomes one of turmoil. We meet two men who are totally different— Kobi and an American Orthodox rabbi but both of whose lives force them to look at and analyze their pasts so that they can find new ways to face their futures.

Kobi’s problems are caused by his own doings. The story is set at a time when because of intifada, many look to the clinic for help and the number of suicide bombers is increasing. Kobi has little or no interest in his patients until Israela, whose story he finds fascinating, even though he is sure that she is delusional. Her claim to be married to an older man, Y, who controls a powerful, but little known, organization seems suspect. She says Y loves her, but Kobi suspects that she is an abused wife.

When emissaries from Y find Kobi and explain their understanding of Y and Israela’s relationship, things change. These emissaries  include an extreme right-wing settler and a leftist who believes Israel has mistreated the Palestinians, believe that Y has Israela’s best interests at heart, even though she has betrayed him.

I immediately realized that what I was reading were biblical stories retold and I find these to be very clever. In recognizing the original stories, we see an extra level to what is being told here. (However, it is indeed possible to read this with no knowledge of the Bible).

I find it fascinating in that I was totally ready to dislike Kobi, I changed my mind as I read even though his behavior left a great deal to be desired. When I read that he was the son of Holocaust survivors, his actions are put into perspective yet this does not excuse him. I must admit that there were several times during which I debated whether or not to continue reading— there were simply too many open situations for which I could see no forthcoming solutions but I decided to continue hoping that all would come together. As it is, I found this to be a satisfying read but one I had to work at. In fact, I am sure that there are aspects of the book that I missed and when time permits, I will read it again (something I rarely do).

Reading  a variety of perspectives on life in Israel today combined with social commentary through and biblical illusions can be great fun. It is Israela who makes this all possible by opening the story that drives Kobi and the rest of the plot. It took a while but I realized the genius that is between the lines of the text.

“God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism” by Howard Ellberg-Schwartz— The Maleness of God

Ellberg-Schwartz, Howard, “God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism”, Beacon Press, 1995.

The Maleness of God

Amos Lassen

Howard Ellberg-Schwartz looks at the dilemmas created by the maleness of God for the men of ancient Judaism and for Jewish men today in his study, ““God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism”. This is a fascinating study and a significant contribution to the conversation about the centrality of sexuality to religion through close readings of the Hebrew Bible and insights from feminist and gender criticism, anthropology, and psychoanalysis.

In recent years, feminists have argued that male images of God in the biblical religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have diminished the power of women within these faiths. These conversations have focused primarily on gender and the traits of masculinity but little attention has been paid to male sexuality itself or to the problems this causes for men. Eilberg-Schwartz here opens that issue, maintaining that making God in a man’s sexual image either requires the feminization of the man or implies a homoerotic relationship between father and son. Through a detailed study of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and Freud, we see the tensions latent in any tradition within which men must engage the image of God’s phallus. Eilberg-Schwartz challenges feminist assertions about gender and religion while making a significant contribution to the ongoing conversation about the centrality of sexuality to religion. He argues that there is a tension between the Jewish tradition’s privileging of heterosexuality (and procreation) and the relationship between God and Jewish men, which contains homoerotic elements. The title is shocking in that we do not think of God having a penis. Most think that God does not have a body and is beyond sexuality

The title of this book (God’s Phallus) is shocking because the thought of God having a penis is shocking. Most Jews and Christians think of God the father as lacking a body and therefore,  God obviously cannot have a sexual organ.

Yet there exists the idea of a disembodied God. Could it be that historically speaking, it is the discomfort with the idea of God’s penis that has generated the idea of an incorporeal God? If this uneasiness comes from the contradictions inherent in men’s relationship with a God, who is explicitly male? This is the thesis of the book in its most basic form and why the title of the book is a serious one that points to interesting questions about the nature of religious symbols and the way in which issues of gender, sexuality, and desire are inseparable from them. This is a book about divine fatherhood and the ways in which the sexual body of a father God is troubling for the conception of masculinity.

It seems counterintuitive to think of a male God as being problematic for the conception of masculinity. Many feminist studies over the past fifty years have explored the way in which images of male deities authorize male domination in the social order. These studies have demonstrated that a divine male both legitimates male authority and deifies masculinity. Therefore it appears par­adoxical to consider that the symbol of a male God generates dilemmas for the conception of masculinity.

However, I argue that at the same time that such a symbol legitimates masculinity, which may in fact be its primary and even original function, it also shows that the meaning of masculinity is unstable. Here we explore how tensions that come out the idea of the sexual body of the father God are expressed in the myth and ritual of ancient Judaism.

Of the dilemmas evoked by the maleness of God in ancient Judaism, the first is homoeroticism: the love of a male human for a male God. This homoerotic element is seen coming out of ancient Israel since the divine‑human relationship is often described in erotic and sexual terms. Marriage and sexuality are frequent biblical metaphors for describing God’s relationship with Israel. God is imagined as the husband to Israel the wife; espousal and even sexual intercourse are metaphors for the covenant. Thus when Israel follows other gods, “she” is seen to be engaging in prostitution. Israel’s relationship with God is thus seen as a monogamous sexual relation, and idolatry as adultery.

However, the heterosexual metaphors in the ancient texts belie the nature of the relationship in question: it is human males, not females, who are imagined to have the primary intimate relations with God. The Israel that is collectively imagined as a woman is actually constituted by men, (like Moses and the patriarchs) and these men love a male God in ways that are imagined erotically and sensually.

This would not have been a problem if human masculinity was not so strongly associated with procreation in ancient Judaism. Being a man in ancient Israelite culture involved getting married, having children, and carrying forward the lineage of one’s father or tribe. Thus ancient Judaism’s concept of masculinity was deeply enmeshed in images and ideas of what is now called heterosexuality. In actuality, the first commandment is to be fruitful and multiply.

Another  set of problems come from the monotheistic image of a sexless father God. As has been pointed out by many inter­preters, the God of the Jews, unlike the gods of the ancient Near East and many other religious traditions, does not have sexual intercourse or father children, at least not in the stories that make up the Hebrew Bible. The archaeological record suggests that many Israelites may have imagined the goddess Asherah to be a partner of Yahweh, but in the Hebrew Bible, and in the variety of Judaisms that existed and flourished subsequently, Israel imagined God as having no sexual partners.

Then we have the fact that God metaphorically gets married (e.g. Hosea 12, Jeremiah 2:2and even has sexual intercourse with the entity Israel (Ezekiel 16:8), who is imagined as a woman, this metaphorical union differs from the couplings of male and female deities that we find in the mythology of many other religious traditions.

The “sexlessness” of the father God was problematic in a patriarchal culture.  A man was expected to reproduce, to carry on his line, yet he was also understood to be made in the image of a God who was essentially celibate.

Eilberg-Schwartz speculates on the sociopsychological, theological, and literary implications for male monotheists of the Bible’s apparently male God. God’s Phallus (even with its provocative title) is really is about the absence the “veiling” (the author’s term) of male genitalia and other physiological characteristics in the biblical imagery of God. Eilberg-Schwartz overinterprets biblical and postbiblical texts so as to read into them a “homoeroticism that was always latent in Israelite theology.” He does this via Freudian, Lacanian, feminist, gay, and other critical perspectives. He presents a homosexual tension between God and men, but what the meaning is of this tension being “latent” (in the Freudian sense), he never makes clear how the first monotheists actually thought about God and their religious texts. He focuses almost exclusively on the psychosexual aspects of the divine-human male relationship and rarely acknowledges the larger emotional and religious context that includes feelings of awe, fear, dependence, and estrangement. Eilberg-Schwartz is a literalist, basing the ancient rabbis’ and others’ allegories on, (and often fanciful interpretations of), biblical texts as having practical implications for male Jews when in fact they were often speculative. Even with a few fine examples,  (a comparison of how genital injuries may have affected the lives of Jacob and Moses, I read this with a sense of exasperation. I believe that the scholar here draws on the tools of critical theory too much and only reflects a little bit on the actual texts. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating read with a great deal of food for thought.