These are the Developments of the Human is an unusual book. This should not be surprising, considering that its author, Ethan Daniel Davidson, is a student of English, French, and Turkish literature, of Jewish philosophy, and of Islamic law. He is also a filmmaker, visual artist, folk musician, philanthropist, and non-profit leader. His book is a collection of reflections from years of personal study following the passing of his father, William Davidson, in 2009.
Davidson’s writing is poetic in form, and a reader should not be concerned with the rules of grammar or punctuation. Written in English, with both Hebrew and Hebrew transliteration interspersed throughout, the entries are best read aloud, to capture the sound of the texts as much as their meaning. Like the Talmud, they have a meandering style, and a reader must be prepared to leap with the author through seemingly unconnected ideas that are woven together in unexpected ways. At the same time, many of the pieces include notes, footnotes to the sources consulted, and suggestions for further exploration.
There is an Animal Waiting Inside of You, Waiting for You to Be its Master is one of several reflections on the story of Cain and Abel. It unpacks the cryptic expression khataat rovetz, often translated as “sin crouches at the door” and explores how both rabbinic texts and commentators have translated this expression. Recognizing that the word rovetz is only used in the context of living things, and drawing on a midrash in Genesis Rabbah, as well as interpretations by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Davidson suggests that rovetz might best be understood as to lie down or stretch out, much like a dog waiting for its master. Further interpretation leads the author to suggest:
Qayin could have elevated his khaatat
by offering it to Hashem.
he acted like an animal
He became like an animal
He was mistaken for an animal
He was hunted like an animal
With this last line, Davidson links Cain’s actions to the appropriateness of God’s punishment. As a wanderer of the earth, Cain becomes a person in perpetual escape, much like a hunted animal.
Reading Davidson’s book takes patience. These are the Developments of the Human offers a fragmented personal memoir, an appreciation of his father and the opportunities with which the author has been blessed, and the chance to take a fresh look at many of Judaism’s most significant texts through the eyes of a creative thinker and inspired artist. One may need to read and re-read a passage to fully grasp the author’s intent, but it is worth the challenge.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.