Q and A with Judy Klitsner

by Michael Orbach

Judy Klitsner is the author of “Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other.”

Michael Orbach: So what exactly is a subversive sequel?

Judy Klitsner: The subversive sequel is a fancy, alliterative name that I have coined to describe a dynamic that I detect within the pages of the Bible. There is a vibrant conversation going on between stories, in which words, phrases, and themes are liberally shared, and which points to an artful interplay between narratives. One story interprets another—expanding on it, clarifying it. But then there is another stage, in which one story will often play on another in order to challenge its assumptions and often—in most dramatic ways—undermine and even reverse its conclusions. To my mind, this type of interpretation points to a dynamic thrust within the Bible, in which attitudes and actions are never static, but are constantly reopened to review and even correction. To me, this type of dynamic interaction among texts provides a potent and meaningful example to the Bible’s readers. In a sense, the Bible’s medium is also its message: a dynamic, self-overturning text reflects the Bible’s view that living before God means living in a state of dynamic self-reflection, self-challenging, and openness to change and growth.

MO: Which is more common, undermining or mining?

JK: I would say that mining is more common. In fact, the ancient midrash was keenly aware of this type of literary interplay between stories and frequently commented on it. For instance, when the biblical Jacob is deceived by his father-in-law, Laban, the midrash understands the events as a kind of literary justice being imposed on Jacob for his own deceitful behavior.  Here is the scene: Laban substitutes his older daughter Leah for the true object of Jacob’s desire, the younger Rachel. When he discovers the switch, an indignant Jacob cries out, “Lamah rimitani, Why have you deceived me?” The use of the word “deceive” and the situation of a treacherous switch of an older and younger sibling do not escape the eye of the midrash. The midrash invents a conversation between Leah and Jacob on the fateful morning in which Jacob wakes up to discover that he has slept with the wrong woman. Jacob calls Leah a trickster, daughter of a another deceiver (Laban), to which Leah replies, “Are you not a deceiver as well?” reminding him of his own maneuver in deceiving his father by stealing the blessing of his older sibling, Esau. By drawing on the earlier story, the midrash interprets Jacob’s actions toward his brother in a negative way, and holds him responsible in some cosmic way for the suffering he later endures at the hands of Laban. This is a wonderful example of literary mining, based on the sharing of rare terms and themes among passages. There are many such examples, which, when noticed by the attentive reader, deliver subtle messages of all kinds.

MO: Does the very fact that there seems to be sequels in the Torah offer us a different perspective on the Torah?

JK: I think that the presence of sequels, and especially of subversive sequels, highlights the Torah’s partiality to a self-reflective, open-minded state of being and reflects a very positive attitude toward the notion of growth and change. The subversive sequel draws our attention to the notion that biblical stories are never truly ended; their contents can be taken up by a later story and developed in new ways. I think this dynamic offers hope to its readership: if biblical narratives can be constantly reexamined and rewritten, perhaps readers are capable of similar transformations in their daily lives. I find this to be an inspiring, and deeply religious message emanating from the style of the biblical text.

MO: In his review of your book, our book reviewer, Alan Jay Gerber, mentioned that Noah’s sequel is the story of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur. How is one a sequel to the other?

JK: I’m glad you brought up this comparison, as I think it offers the  best demonstration of the subversive sequel. Here we have two stories that share a remarkable number of details: boats, water, a large, sinful population under threat of destruction, a 40-day time period on the way to destruction, a “yonah” (the dove sent by Noah and the Hebrew version of Jonah’s name), the practice of hamas (violence) and much more. Once we note the similarities, we would be remiss if we didn’t ask why these stories so liberally borrow one another’s components. In my book, I demonstrate how both stories are about sin and punishment, but how ultimately, the second story reverses the first. In the story of Noah, God, the prophet, and the people, are all resigned to the deadly conclusion that sin must lead to destruction. The book of Jonah reopens the question and ultimately reverses the disastrous conclusion of the Noah story. Instead of hamas sealing the people’s fate, the renunciation of hamas reverses their fate. Instead of forty days bringing the obliteration of the world, forty days bring repentance and salvation. If the story of Noah is about the unchanging nature of the human soul, the book of Jonah is a subversive rejoinder to that thesis.

MO: Robin Wright, the author of “The Evolution of God,” offers a rather unconvincing notion that G-d evolves through the ages (he does it through looking through different religions). Would you say that you offer a similar idea? Isn’t that somewhat heretical?

JK: In my book, I address the question of God’s changing behavior—not through the ages, but within the pages of the Bible. I argue that God as a biblical character is quite different from the transcendent God, about whom we cannot know anything with certainty. I believe that we have much to learn from God, the biblical character, whose actions—like those of the human characters in the Bible—are constantly changing. To return to the example of Noah: Before the great flood, God declares that humanity is hopelessly evil and therefore must be destroyed. Yet immediately after the flood, while again declaring that human beings are hopelessly evil, God vows not to destroy them as He did in the flood.  Why the change? I think that the Torah is demonstrating a new, more merciful attitude toward punishment, an attitude that is going to underlie future books of the Bible, including the book of Jonah. In my book, in presenting the notion of God’s changing character, I take liberties with the rabbinic dictum that enjoins people to emulate God. The dictum says, “Just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate…” I have added my own suggestion, based on my understanding of the Bible’s subversive sequels: “Just as God is dynamic, so should you be dynamic…”

MO: You devote a lengthy section of the book to women’s role in the Torah and Tanach — how does your view offer an alternative to the typical perspective held in most Orthodox circles?

JK: This is a question that is very close to my heart. There are many women-centered narratives that are disturbingly dissonant to a modern ear. Perhaps the most striking is God’s proclamation to Eve, “To your husband is your desire and he shall rule over you.” In my own experience, I have noted two basic approaches to difficult texts such as this one. One approach is to declare such verses anachronistic and hopelessly irrelevant, and as a result to reject their validity.  The other—which I would associate with many Orthodox circles– is to accept them as authoritative and unyielding, as some expression of eternal truths. In Subversive Sequels, I have suggested a third option, in which the Bible’s words carry the gravitas of revered tradition, but are nonetheless subject to an internal process of revision that takes place throughout the pages of the Bible. In fact, when we study the full story of biblical women, beginning in the Garden of Eden and following up with later stories that play off of its language and themes, we find that the proclamation at Eden is but an opening position that is subject to much reexamination and overturning in later passages. After studying woman’s story more fully, we discover that it is as by no means encapsulated by her subservience in Eden; in fact it is as varied and full of potential as that of biblical man. It is my sincere belief that by viewing biblical statements about women as part of a larger, much more complex, and constantly unfolding discussion of the subject, we preserve, rather than threaten, the centrality and the ongoing relevance of our sacred text.

MO: Can you explain the metaphor of the flaming sword that turned each way?

JK: I think this is a wonderful metaphor that captures the paradoxical position of humanity at the moment of expulsion from God’s garden. The sword is ever-turning, mithapekhet: on the one hand the sword is a threat and a menace, as it bars the way to the enchanted tree of life and the godlike immortality it offers those who partake from it. But on the other hand, God’s sword, with its dynamic, constantly alternating motion, not only points away from the tree, but back toward it. Ultimately, I see the sword as an instrument of hope, a metaphor for the ability of both man and woman to reverse and recreate themselves, to be, like the sword, dynamic and subversive, self-overturning and self-transforming. One who lives in such a dynamic state is headed back toward the tree of life, rather than away from it. Throughout my book, I have brought examples of the Bible’s sequels, in which its characters are constantly revisiting and reexamining attitudes and actions, while remaining open to the notion of sincere and enduring self-transformation. This, in short, is the notion I have sought to convey in my book of Subversive Sequels.

From The Jewish Star.

The original article may be found here.


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