In his last posts, David Rosen­berg, whose lat­est books are A Lit­er­ary Bible: An Orig­i­nal Trans­la­tion and An Edu­cat­ed Man: A Dual Biog­ra­phy of Moses and Jesus, wrote about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Judeo-Chris­tian­i­ty book­store sec­tion and writ­ing about writ­ers. He has been blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

A lit­tle gem, Hotel St. Michel is where we used to stay before we moved down to Flori­da. It was rec­om­mend­ed by poet Yehu­da Amichai, who called it old Tel Avivi.” Around the cor­ner from Books&Books, the most author-cen­tric store in Flori­da, its own­er, along with the man­ag­er of the St. Michel, both friends, teamed up to pro­vide a copy of A Lit­er­ary Bible: An Orig­i­nal Trans­la­tion for each hotel room, in lieu of a Gideon’s Bible. (You can google the Mia­mi Her­ald sto­ry.)

Although I’d rather rec­om­mend the orig­i­nal hotels in Tel Aviv (and wish we were there, too), my point is that lit­er­ary risk-tak­ing is some­what out of fash­ion. It’s stuck to the page, not to real life; it’s not to be found in Bible-less hotels. It’s even hard to imag­ine any­thing you can put into a mem­oir that would seem risky these days; for instance, a lit­er­al Oedi­pus-com­plex con­fes­sion — sleep­ing with moth­er and killing father — is rather rou­tine, and prob­a­bly wouldn’t get you on Oprah. The real life of the author is most often bought and spent in uni­ver­si­ty class­rooms, so a real risk might be to imag­ine the ivory tow­er as night­mare or Kafka’s cas­tle. We’re still wait­ing for that.

In a recent piece in the L.A. Times, the won­der­ful writer Dani Shapiro describes the writer’s appren­tice­ship” as a soul­less slog through uncer­tain­ty, rejec­tion, and dis­ap­point­ment.” Still, although there’s a safe­ty net in acad­eme, Shapiro neglects to men­tion it, argu­ing that lawyers and doc­tors have it eas­i­er upon grad­u­a­tion, while writ­ing school guar­an­tees [writ­ers] lit­tle oth­er than debt.” If that were all too true, we might get some riski­er writ­ing — and think­ing about writ­ing — that walks the edge of finan­cial ruin. Writ­ing that goes against the grain, like the Bible’s Psalm 6, where the poet finds him­self in the gut­ter through no fault of drugs or crime. The authen­tic­i­ty of his or her voice is so star­tling because the read­er who is appealed to is some­thing com­plete­ly oth­er — God or a soul. What kind of a writer is that, who can cre­ate such soul-shak­ing contrasts?

I’d say he was a lost writer, deeply lost to our cul­ture. A bib­li­cal writer whose orig­i­nal Hebra­ic cul­ture has been erased by tra­di­tion, but that a love of real his­to­ry can begin to restore. Not long ago, after the Holo­caust, not only indi­vid­u­als had been erased but also Euro­pean Jew­ish cul­ture. And far deep­er into the past, after the destruc­tion by the Assyr­i­ans of the first Jew­ish king­dom, the foun­tain­head of Hebra­ic cul­ture and its great writ­ers — fun­da­men­tal to West­ern art — were erased. So I would ask: Should restora­tion not be prop­er­ly called the Jew­ish art?” And should not the ironies of loss, as in the Prophets and the great Jew­ish mod­erns, be called Jew­ish Soul?”

Fur­ther­more, doesn’t the writer of today need the lost Hebra­ic cul­ture as clas­si­cal bedrock for con­tem­po­rary imag­i­na­tion? And isn’t West­ern cul­ture today, as it is built upon the Renais­sance of ancient Gre­co-Roman cul­ture, or human­ism, miss­ing its coun­ter­part: a clas­sic Hebra­ic cul­ture in need of restora­tion? If we call it Judeo-Chris­tian­i­ty,” can it become vital again? Or, as David Gel­ern­ter respond­ed to me: If the author of Job were named Sopho­cles, our whole under­stand­ing of clas­si­cal antiq­ui­ty and West­ern civ­i­liza­tion would be different.”

I’ve also had a dia­logue on this with poet Regi­nald Gib­bons, who teach­es clas­sics at North­west­ern and who has recent­ly pub­lished a trans­la­tion of Sopho­cles’ poems, many of them extract­ed from his dra­mas. You make a case for the sen­si­bil­i­ty of Sopho­cles, I said to Reg, and you’re able to locate it in both the poems and the dra­mas. Yet when it comes to the Bible, the asser­tion of an author’s sen­si­bil­i­ty is con­sid­ered chutz­pah. Instead, it is all explained away as aspects of the text,” not of human beings.

Now imag­ine that there was no Sopho­cles,” I con­tin­ued, but only an anony­mous author to the poems you trans­lat­ed. Imag­ine too that the age of com­po­si­tion, not to men­tion the meth­ods, was in doubt over a six cen­tu­ry span. And fur­ther, imag­ine that Sopho­cles was mixed in with Euripi­des, Aristo­phanes, Pla­to, Sap­pho, et​.al., with no names, and that it was all con­sid­ered part of the bib­li­cal tra­di­tion.’ So you begin to have an idea of what hap­pened to the Hebra­ic clas­si­cal peri­od in ret­ro­spect, to the degree that a tra­di­tion of pious anonymi­ty was invent­ed to take its place.”

And here is one vivid exam­ple from the major reviews of the past few weeks: the cur­rent fic­tion best­seller, The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason, enters into the Home­r­ic text at a lev­el of psy­cho­log­i­cal inter­ac­tion (and rev­er­ence) that no sec­u­lar Jew­ish writer is known to attempt with bib­li­cal text (as in the man­ner of pas­sages in the Midrash). Sure­ly AgnonSinger and oth­er less­er writ­ers revere bib­li­cal sto­ries” and text, echo­ing and retelling, and there can be com­plex­i­ty and spir­it” there, but the com­ple­ment of Hebra­ic cul­ture is miss­ing — not only the writ­ers but their col­leagues in oth­er arts and ancient intel­lec­tu­al fields, includ­ing trans­la­tors and historians.

Isaac Bashe­vis Singer tried to account for this — only half-humor­ous­ly — in the dis­arm­ing essay I bare­ly coaxed out of him on Gen­e­sis (includ­ed in Con­gre­ga­tion: Con­tem­po­rary Writ­ers Read the Jew­ish Bible). Singer iden­ti­fied the Cre­ator as the author of all of us, yet far from writ­ing God out of the Bible, Singer put him more deeply inside, by empathiz­ing with all the mishi­gas that the Cre­ator endures, when it comes to humans as his col­lab­o­ra­tors. So there it is, Singer’s trace of lost Hebra­ic cul­ture, the author-as-cre­ator and the col­lab­o­ra­tors of his­to­ry. Today, what­ev­er meshuganah mis­in­ter­preters of our own work that we writ­ers have to endure, accord­ing to Singer, it’s noth­ing com­pared to Gen­e­sis, let alone what came after.

In An Edu­cat­ed Man, as in my bib­li­cal trans­la­tion of A Lit­er­ary Bible, I hoped to build upon Singer’s intu­ition and evoke the sen­si­bil­i­ties of our orig­i­nal Jew­ish writ­ers. By con­sid­er­ing the bib­li­cal fig­ures of Moses and Jesus (and the his­tor­i­cal authors behind them) as seri­ous­ly as we con­sid­er major writ­ers today, I’m per­haps risk­ing too much. But it’s a risk like a wish: Philip Rieffs posthu­mous wish for a bridge of read­ing between the sacred text and the secular.

So how do you encour­age risk — as a writ­ing instruc­tor might won­der — with­out dan­ger? You can make risk suc­cess­ful” by turn­ing it into a cri­tique of suc­cess, con­stant­ly test­ing it. We have only to look at the Israelis, to con­sid­er how any Israeli in their life­long army ser­vice has assim­i­lat­ed risk into his or her nor­mal life. An Israeli writer” tran­scends genre: she can be a soft­ware writer as well as a poet, yet in either case fail­ure is hon­ored, as it is in the sci­ences, when a greater suc­cess is risked — as it is often in the name of sur­vival. We in North Amer­i­ca now seem to hon­or suc­cess in the arts first and fore­most; we may have lost our taste for risky failures.

Con­sid­er the Israeli poet Michal Govrin’s lat­est bookAnd So Said Jerusalem: Poems and Hymns, (Hebrew), pub­lished by Devarim/​Carmel. It comes com­plete with sub­tle draw­ings by Orna Mil­lo and an attached CD of Michal read­ing her work. That CD is nec­es­sary because her voice risks the alle­go­ry of the Voice of Jerusalem” speak­ing, echo­ing the bib­li­cal voic­es of Rachel’s lament, for instance — but more impor­tant­ly, in Michal’s own phys­i­cal pres­ence sug­gest­ing the flesh and blood Jerusalem author­ship of the Bible. I believe she suc­ceeds, though the risk itself is breath­tak­ing enough.

Final­ly, I’m ready to answer the ques­tion I posed in my last post. What we should expect of a gen­er­al reader’s edu­ca­tion is no more nor less than a reli­gious believ­er expects from the Bib­li­cal text: truth, hon­or, art. The dif­fer­ence for the sec­u­lar read­er may be sim­ply that we tol­er­ate fail­ure to a greater degree. And yet that is some­thing we can trans­form into sub­lime­ly human expe­ri­ence when we risk imag­in­ing the strug­gles of the orig­i­nal writ­ers of the Bible. But allow me to leave you with a trav­el tip: check your hotel draw­er and pre­pare to deal with fail­ure, whether a Bible is miss­ing or it is there, com­plete with the buried authors.

Read Jonathan Kirsch’s (Moses: A Life) review of Rosenberg’s An Edu­cat­ed Man in the Jew­ish Jour­nal here.

David Rosenberg’s newest books, A Lit­er­ary Bible: An Orig­i­nal Trans­la­tion and An Edu­cat­ed Man: A Dual Biog­ra­phy of Moses and Jesus, are now avail­able. He has been blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.