The Magazine

Atheist of the Book

A grand old man of letters meets the literature of Judaism.

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By DAVID WOLPE
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In the end, for all its virtues and cleverness, there is a hollow evasion at the center of Jews and Words. Jewish literacy in Israel itself is appallingly low. No matter how lyrical Oz and Oz-Salzberger justly insist the Song of Songs is, in an Internet age, who will spend time with it? Paradoxically, for a book about Jews and words, two Israelis have chosen to write this book in English. No doubt that will assure it a wider audience than if it were written in Hebrew, but I fear that is both because Hebrew speakers are already familiar with some of the more facile comparisons and comments, and for a deeper, more troubling reason: They will no longer thrill to its possibilities.  

In the English-speaking world we might imagine there is a large coterie of “atheists of the book,” waiting to be swept up in the vast sea of Jewish literature. Its very foreignness gives it a seductive exoticism. But this literature was written in a believing spirit. Even when the spirits began to ebb, the first moderns had been raised in the study hall and knew the literature they alternately cherished and rejected. Today, the flowers wither. Or, to put it biblically, the bones only revive when the spirit of the Lord blows through them.

David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters.