As I intimated at the end of my 10 Books post, I do have some thoughts to share about Chaim Potok’s novel In the Beginning. It started off slower than his other novels, but I ended up loving it just as much as I have the others. Perhaps one of the reasons it took me longer to get into the book is that I find I read books in smaller and smaller chunks at a time. I rarely have the luxury to sit down and become fully absorbed in a book and read 100 pages at a time as I did in earlier days. Now I have to prioritize more which books I even pick up. I find that I set down a book much quicker than I used to. I used to try to finish nearly everything I started. These days, not so much.
In the Beginning is the story of David Lurie, a boy born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. David is a bookish and sickly little boy. He has problems with a local bully who hates him because he is Jewish. Because of its historical setting—it starts in the late 1920s before the stock market crash—I knew some of what to expect. It was a Depression-era story, followed by World War II. I knew about some of the American anti-Semitism of the time because of Philip Roth’s alternate history novel The Plot Against America. But I still cried when the narrator and his family find out the full extent of the Nazi atrocities against Jews.
Like the other Potok novels I’ve read, it’s a book about fathers and sons, and the inevitability of conflict. They’re all told from the perspective of the sons. In this novel, the conflict stems from expectations, as it often will. Before coming to America, David’s mother had been married briefly before to his father’s brother. They had no children before he was killed in a pogrom—an organized anti-Jewish riot, often a massacre. His father then stepped in and married his brother’s widow according to the ancient tradition of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25: 5-10), though he could have easily gotten out of it. He is a man of honor and his word.
David looks up to his father, but he doesn’t understand him. He thinks about his dead uncle whom he is named after, and how he wouldn’t exist if his uncle hadn’t been killed. He considers the contingency of his being. Out of death comes life. I’ve considered my own contingency lately. Like many kids, when I was little I had a security blanket. Mine was handmade by my Grandma. It was red, white, and blue with the number 76 on it for America’s bicentennial. The thing is, I was born in 1977. The blanket had been intended for someone else—someone whose existence would’ve precluded my own. But that baby didn’t survive a full nine months gestation, and so I had a chance at life. It’s terrible to think my parents had to suffer such grief for me to enter the world.
When David considers his contingency on the death of his uncle David, he still “wants to be [his] own David” (311). And I need to be my own person, too. I’m still figuring it out. In my own family, I’m a bit of an outlier. I still have the faith that I was taught as a child, but it’s changed. I no longer attend an evangelical church, instead finding solace in Episcopal services. On political issues I’m often on the opposite side of the spectrum. And while both my wife and I came from homes where our moms stayed home, now I’m the one home with the kids. It’s traditional, except not in the expected way. Fortunately, none of these differences has lead to any breaks with my family. We still love each other very much.
As he grows older, David asks the hard questions about Judaism. He becomes interested in source criticism. He wishes to defend Torah from attack, but first he must learn what the goyim say. He starts by reading books given to him by an old neighbor. He finds books that are critical of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. Basically, this hypothesis posits that there are various sources that have been edited together to make up the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible traditionally ascribed to Moses. Reading these books, even though they defend Torah, is frowned upon by his family and community. They are dangerous to contemplate and read. His father will not allow him to read books written by Germans while he is in the same room, even though they are written by important Orthodox rabbis. No one in the community wants to consider what modern scholarship might say if it could destroy Torah.
I relate to David’s predicament. When I was in Bible college I had a confrontation with a Bible professor about the inherent worth of studying secular literature. At the time, I was an English major, and all I wanted to do was figure out how a Christian should relate to and read literature. In my own way, I wanted to be a David and defend Christianity and the Bible from the evils of deconstructionism and other literary critical theories. But my professor saw the reading of secular literature as a sullying influence, one that could easily lead one into sin. Reading salacious stories could inflame lust in the mind, which was just as bad as committing sin with the body.
David’s curiosity for books and knowledge is insatiable. One of my favorite moments in the book is when David finishes reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He’s at a cabin on a lake with his family for an August holiday. He spends a moment reflecting on how great the book is and how his understanding has changed because of it. Then he goes back into the cabin to find another book to read. I’m not nearly as prodigious in my reading or intellect as David, but I still relate to his curiosity. I want to learn about so many things. This blog is the testament to my curiosity, the place where I lay out what I am learning and starting to think.
In the end is his beginning. David pursues his studies of the Bible as literature to the tremendous disappointment of his parents. I’m about to embark on my own intellectual journey on a smaller scale. Though practically having majored in Bible while at Bible college, I’ve never seriously grappled with any modern scholarship. I’d like to know what scholars have to say about where the Bible came from and who the original audience for it was. It’s important to my faith that I seek the truth about the book that is the vehicle for my knowledge of God. I’m planning on reading through James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, in which he attempts to thread the needle between ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars. In his designation, the ancient interpreters are the basis for today’s traditional understandings of the Bible, while modern biblical scholars arose about 150 years ago and are those who read the Bible “‘scientifically’ and without presuppositions” (xiii). I assume he means the presupposition of belief in its literal truth and divine origin, which in itself would be a presupposition. I’ll have to read more to find out exactly what he means (chapter One is helpfully titled “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship”). I say that he is threading the needle because he claims traditional faith, even as he wrestles with scholarship that “contradict[s] the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity” (xvi). Kugel, by his own account, is a modern David Lurie. I’d like to find out what he has learned in his journey. I’ll report back on my own journey.