Comedian Aaron Freeman likes to say that Judaism is the world’s longest running book club. Five books a year, year after year, century after century.
And always the same five books.
Count Dr. Beth Kissileff among the eager readers and boosters of the club, which just celebrated finishing Deuteronomy and beginning Genesis. Again.
Last year Dr. Kissileff — she earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature — published “Reading Genesis,” a collection of 22 essays examining the biblical book from the perspectives of a variety of fields. There’s Alan Dershowitz writing about justice and Abraham, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer writing about Adam and Eve, and novelist and literary critic Ilan Stavans writing about the Tower of Babel. And also there are lesser known political scientists and neuroscientists and anthropologists bringing their expertise to bear on the biblical book that started it all.
“It’s so exciting to get to start and end reading the Torah every year,” Dr. Kissileff said. “There’s always more to know. As deeply as you can know it, you can always go deeper. And in going deeper, you can always learn more.”
Dr. Kissileff will be speaking on the book on Monday, October 31, in Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom — the congregation where she grew up and where her parents are still members. (Her father, Harry Kissileff, has a chapter in the book offering a “A Neuropsychological Interpretation” of Adam and Eve.)
“Part of my motivation for the book is to show intelligent intellectual engaged Jews that there’s a lot that’s valuable in the Bible that they can learn from,” she said.
If any one person shaped Dr. Kissileff’s understanding of how to read the Bible, it would be Dr. Aviva Zornberg, whose classes on the weekly Torah portion Dr. Kissileff discovered while studying in Jerusalem, at the Conservative movement’s yeshiva, during her junior year of college.
“You’re an English major; you’ll like her,” a fellow student told her. That was in 1988, when Dr. Zornberg was still a Jerusalem word-of-mouth phenomenon, seven years before she won the National Jewish Book Award for “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis.”
“I found that first lecture amazing,” Dr. Kissileff said. “I remember what it was about, the things she quoted. It was about Parashat Pikudei. She quoted the novelist Milan Kundera. I thought it was amazing, someone who knows so much about Jewish texts and also modern knowledge.”
Three years later, Dr. Kissileff was back in Jerusalem, taking courses at Hebrew University in Bible and midrash. Some of them counted toward her graduate studies, then under way at the University of Pennsylvania. This time, she went to Dr. Zornberg’s classes twice a week.
“She brings a variety of modern texts to bear on Tanach,” Dr. Kissilef said. “I feel that what I’m doing is an outgrowth of that.”
That approach, however, turned out not to be desired at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in Bible.
“I wrote a paper about Deuteronomy chapter 21, the egla arufa” — the ritual of killing a calf when a traveler is killed by an unknown murderer. “The professor said my ideas are coming too much from elsewhere. I said that’s really true. My interest in the Bible is in how ideas from elsewhere come into the Bible and change how we view it and how we access it.
“You can call my book Ideas About the Bible From Elsewhere.”
She ended up getting her Ph.D. from the department of comparative literature, writing her dissertation on how Protestant translations of the psalms affected the poetry of such writers as George Herbert and John Milton.
She taught for a number of years at colleges including the University of Minnesota. Now she writes and lives in Pittsburgh, with her husband and two of their three daughters; the oldest is in college. Her first novel, “Questioning Return,” comes out next month. It is about a graduate student studying baalei teshuva in Jerusalem.
The direct genesis of “Reading Genesis” came from a Rosh Hashanah d’var Torah from a fellow academic several years ago. “I asked him what he said in the d’var Torah,” she said. “It wasn’t particularly interesting until he got to some of his political science ideas and how they shaped the Akeida,” the story of the binding of Isaac.
“I didn’t know anything about these political science ideas — ‘the resistance of the weak.’ When he finished telling me that, he said, OK, that’s one twelfth of my book on Genesis.
“I said, you’re not going to write this book. I’m going to write a book on the Bible.”
That’s when she got the idea of having academics from different fields write about the Bible. “It took a lot longer than I thought it would,” she said. “I’m really happy to say that it’s getting a great reception. Now I’m working on a ‘Reading Exodus’ book.
“I broke down Genesis by topics and ideas. I wanted someone who is a scholar of languages to talk about the Tower of Babel. I asked a psychologist specializing in face recognition to write. He wrote this tremendous essay on why Joseph’s brothers can’t recognize him.
“Another one that was surprising to me came from a friend who used to live in Teaneck, Steve Albert. He’s an anthropologist now, in the field of public health. He writes about what we know of death and dying today and how it applies to Jacob’s sons. Why can’t the brothers ever tell him that they’re sorry about we did to Joseph? That’s actually really true — people avoid the difficult conversations if it’s at all possible.”
Dr. Kissileff says it’s “very exciting to be part of the chain of tradition of laboring in Torah. I’m proud I can access that tradition and hopefully provide material that can help others access that tradition in our modern idiom.”