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Spring 2019

Muck: Biblical Fiction as Criticism

Dror Burstein’s novel skillfully alternates between Jerusalem of the Prophets and the contemporaneous city, offering a fresh engagement with our conventional understanding of both.

“Muck: A Novel” by Dror Burstein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 416pp.

 

In the opening lines of Muck, the young poet Jeremiah drops in on Broch, a legendary literary critic, who lives in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood with his dog and books. Not another book about Jerusalem’s intellectual bubble, I thought to myself. How banal. We’ll soon be introduced to the neurotic poet (pale and sweating, naturally) and the haughty critic (mocking and cruel); the matching Jerusalem neighborhood (leafy and intellectual) in the background, with an appropriate house pet to complete the cliché.

Broch (a mishap or debacle in Yiddish, from brechen, to break, in German) casts himself as the snooty critic with impressive panache, almost to the point of caricature. He mocks and dismisses Jeremiah and pooh-poohs his worn-out keyboard; when Jeremiah says that he touch-types anyway, Broch breaks the keyboard over his head. But his demeanor, like the other supposedly predictable elements of the scene, soon reveal themselves as merely a façade. Beneath each of the scene’s building blocks lie surprising depths. Our pale poet Jeremiah re-emerges later as the prophet Jeremiah from the Bible, hurling doomsday prophecies—indeed, Jeremiads—on the deaf ears of a sinful city. Concurrently, the nasty critic is revealed as a first-rate villain and a false prophet, who is directly responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem. The dog is actually a talking bitch. As for Jerusalem: it is at once the modern city that we know, complete with its buildings, roads and bohemian coffee shops—and also the biblical Jerusalem of the First Temple period, replete with its rituals and prophets, and dangerously wedged between Babylon and Egypt.

Visitors to contemporary Jerusalem can picture the sites and buildings that figured in the historical cityscape. They can, while riding the light rail, spy the old road that once led to Anatot; they can review the Philistines’ route to war wending its way between the restaurants of Emek Refaim; even observe the site where children were once sacrificed to the gods from the rooftop of the Cinematheque. But in real life we can only construct these juxtapositions in our minds; in Muck‘s fictional reality, the past and present are woven into one. Prophet Jeremiah takes the light rail to his home in Anatot, the smoke from human sacrifices drifts across the valley, reaching the Cinematheque.

Burstein doesn’t stop at bringing Jerusalem’s rich past into life. He intertwines the past with present-day Jerusalem in a series of ironic analogies. The building usurped by the corrupt King Jehoiakim and transformed into the royal palace is the notorious Holyland complex—protagonist of one of the corruption cases that brought down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In Muck, King Jehoiakim too falls from grace: straight into the world’s largest hummus bowl. Jehoiakim orders its preparation with a purely temporal objective in mind—getting into the Guinness Book of World Records. But his suicide within it turns today’s popular dish into a Pyramid-style mausoleum.

Even Jerusalem’s sins, the very ones decried by the biblical Jeremiah, are couched in familiar behaviors and justifications. The King usurps Holyland because “even a king needs to live somewhere, too, right? And he can’t live in a three-room apartment without an elevator in Kiryat Yovel”; a temple priest pulls rank to cut the queue in at a falafel stand with the words “Hurry up and give us half a portion for a hungry priest on his way to serve the Holy.” Even a man who trades in children for the purposes of human-sacrifice—an entirely alien practice to modern Israelis—sounds eerily familiar when he complains about the travails of running a business: “Look at them; they’ll be fed to the flames in an hour or so, but when it comes to me getting paid—no, I have to wait till the end of the month, if not later. Net sixty EOM. But I have to pay VAT on the fifteenth of every month.”

Jerusalem’s familiar attributes, which seemed banal in the first few pages of Muck, become the book’s most troubling components. The reader can’t but reflect on how natural these feel in a world where human sacrifice, corrupt priests, and torture facilities in the Temple are the norm. Why do the Jeremiads, uttered in dated biblical Hebrew, seem so suited to the modern Jerusalem? Why does the king’s radical hedonism not alienate us from the city? As Muck‘s Jerusalem becomes more familiar, the familiar becomes shocking; the reader is pushed to consider whether the millennia-old Jeremiads are any less relevant today. Thus, the story turns into a performance art, just like Jeremiah’s symbolic acts—smashing bottles and harnessing a wooden plough around his neck. Jeremiah wants to provoke his observers into seeing the familiar world afresh, and recognizing the deep injustices which they grew used to for what they are. The alienation of the familiar in Muck prompts the readers to similarly reevaluate their own reality, and as such turns the reading experience into a self-referential variation on the story itself.

***

The understanding that ancient plotlines remain relevant to our lives is not unique to Muck, of course. Plays and poems on biblical themes were written in Hebrew already by maskilim (proponents of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment) in the 18th century and—at least according to Yaakov Fichman, the early twentieth-century poet—always included “modern conceptualizations.” In contemporary Israel, biblical novels, even those that don’t directly invoke “modern perceptions,” invite a current interpretation. The Bible, Anita Shapira claims in The Bible and Israeli Identity, is the foundational text of Israeliness. Earlier generations turned to it to explain their love for the Land of Israel, interpret the process of their return to it, and justify their worldview. Even though, per Shapira, the status of the Bible had deteriorated as of the 1970s, politicians, educators, and public intellectuals still refer to biblical verses to express, justify, and promote their agenda. Expressing one’s opinion on the Bible, then, can never be neutral. It is part and parcel of Israel’s ideological and political fabric, and evoking biblical content, whether intentionally or not, ipso facto bears political and ideological consequences.

Authors who write historical fiction challenge our perspective on old, familiar stories. But Burstein’s challenge emerges from an entirely fictional rendition of reality.

A Protestant friend from the US recently asked me for my favorite verse. When I asked what she meant, she replied: “Which one do you like most? Which one do you most connect with?” How strange, I thought, to make such a choice as though it was purely a matter of taste, without considering the implications. As an Israeli, for an example, I would think twice before choosing a verse from Joshua or Isaiah. Choosing the former would label me as a right-winger, bent on asserting the Jews’ ownership of the land; the latter would mark me as a left-winger, decrying our departure from the moral compass bestowed upon us by the prophets. Even an ostensibly neutral verse from Song of Songs, chosen purely for its romantic appeal or literary merit, would not necessarily pass without controversy. Choosing a verse highlighting the personal would signify an ideological shift from the collective to the personal, in a society whose collectivist heyday (as epitomized in the kibbutz) has been on the wane for some time. Expressing a preference on the basis of style or literary form cannot escape a similar judgement; because such a choice would place artistic parameters above moral and theological ones, and thereby defy one of the foundational principles of the Jewish religion.

If a single verse can entail so many ideological dimensions, it is tenfold more so for a biblically-themed work of art. An Israeli reader cannot approach a biblical novel with a clean slate: she or he carries the wealth of disputation and controversy that have featured heavily in Israeli discourse on the relevance of the biblical text. At this point, the story ceases to be a merely artistic product. Whether the author intends it or not, a biblical work of fiction is de facto transplanted from the realm of literature to the political arena, and becomes a polemical act or, at the very least, an expression of opinion.

Such is The Miracle Hater, Shulamith Hareven’s 1988 novella. Unlike the disturbingly familiar reality depicted in Muck, Hareven’s world is characterized by entirely foreign customs, premises, and even language (it is written exclusively in roots from biblical Hebrew). While the familiarity so prevalent in Muck serves to challenge the beliefs of the present, The Miracle Hater‘s foreignness is a challenge in and of itself. Hareven chose to retell one of the cornerstones of the history of the Jewish people, her version providing an alternative to the conventional narrative. The one, integral nation that left Egypt in the wake of the Plagues of Egypt becomes, already in Hareven’s opening line, a group of individuals who had gradually unshackled themselves from slavery without a master plan or divine intervention.

The Revelation at Mount Sinai becomes the first encounter of the children of flat Egypt with the mountains. The miracle-laden Exodus is transformed into the errant wanderings of a troupe of barely-surviving refugees. The traditional conception of the exodus leads us to expect the wondrous birth of a chosen people, but Hareven’s narrative describes instead a slow, gradual, and arduous process that is not at all dissimilar to the birth of other nations. This gap shocks us into questioning whether the Jewish People truly possess a unique destiny that is intrinsically connected to its ownership over the Land of Israel. If what Hareven describes is the genesis of the Jewish People, then what justification is there for its territorial claim?

In Prophet, another biblical novella, Hareven proposes an alternative assessment of the Jewish People’s contribution to human history. Although she has dared, in the words of critic Ariana Melamed, to “shatter common and comfortable truisms” about the origins of the Jews, she does not downplay the uniqueness of their beliefs and laws. To the contrary, the chaos and confusion that feature in her narration emphasize the courage of believing in the one and invisible God in whose image man was created, thus making the murder of another person taboo. The slave of Givon, a character in Prophet, finds it hard to believe that his Hebrew masters do not have idols. He is puzzled when told that their laws prohibit any killing, and when they treat him fairly. The reader understands his befuddlement against the backdrop of a scene early in the novella, in which he performs the role of a prophet of the idol-worshipping Givon—where human life has no intrinsic value, and people treat their subordinates as they wish. And thus, even though the giving of the Torah is not a divine and miraculous event according to Hareven, the laws of the Torah—whatever their origins may be—have made a positive impact. Her artistic decision to tack the details of this biblical narrative on to her novella is no less polemical than her choice to radically alter the details of other biblical accounts. After all, if the essence of Hebrew identity is its consecration of life, what are the implications of this for the political culture of the contemporaneous State of Israel, both domestically and vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

In the same vein, Yochi Brandes’ The Secret Book of Kings also challenges the biblical narrative. “I wrote the Bible of the Kingdom of Israel,” Brandes said in a 2012 commencement address at Achva Academic College, disclosing her novel’s raison d’être: a thought experiment, imagining the Israeli national narrative had it been the Kingdom of Israel, rather than the Kingdom of Judah, that survived to tell the story. Brandes builds on the work of biblical scholars like Yair Zakovitch (who receives an honorable mention in the book’s acknowledgements) in detecting gaps and contradictions in the biblical accounts of the kingdoms of Saul and David, and their split into two entities under Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Classical scholars (as well as some modern ones, such as Rabbi David Wolpe in his David: the Divided Heart) saw in these narratives evidence of the complexity of David’s character. Zakovitch and Brandes, for their part, view them as editorial oversights, pointing to the multitude of alternative versions of the story. For them, negative accounts of David and his lineage were expunged from the canon by his court historians—albeit in an incomplete manner, as the textual errors reveal.

Brandes capitalizes on passages that defy the overall pro-David narrative, such as the sorrow expressed by Paltiel Ben Laish—he whose sweetheart Michal was snatched from him by David—and from these constructs an alternative biblical story. In The Secret Book of Kings, Saul is a venerable and honorable ruler; David, for his part, is a cunning schemer, bent on usurping the throne and rewriting history retroactively.

But Brandes goes beyond merely tying up the loose ends of the biblical stories, by presenting an explanation (fictive, admittedly, but an explanation still) for these contradictions. In The Secret Book of Kings, Michal, Saul’s daughter, feigns madness to hide her attempts to return Saul’s line to the throne and clear her father’s name. To achieve the former, she keeps her grandson Shlomam in hiding, away from Solomon’s people, and trains him for the task that awaits him. With regard to the latter, she recruits renegade scribes to sabotage the historiography of the kingdom, in the hope that future scholars will question the official narrative and search for the truth. “Stories are more dangerous than swords,” explains one of the story’s characters. “Swords can only harm those standing right in front of them, while stories determine who will live and who will die in future generations.”

An Israeli reader cannot approach a biblical novel with a clean slate: she or he carries the wealth of disputation and controversy that have featured heavily in Israeli discourse on the relevance of the biblical text.

Because the Bible is the foundation story of Israeli society, Brandes’ treatment of it not only undermines the canon—it undermines the Bible’s privileged status in Israel’s collective imagination. If the biblical stories about David’s Kingdom are a fabrication, the messianic quest for its revival must be seen in a different light. Are Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple, and the Kingdom of Judah worthy of their status as the symbols of Israel’s regained sovereignty? Or, rather, is what we know about them—is what we think we know about them—just one version out of many, produced and canonized by politically complicit scribes and ancient propagandists?

Unlike Hareven and Brandes, who wrote what can be described as historical fiction, Burstein does not create an alternative version of biblical history. He uses the Bible, instead, to create a fictional version of our present. The deft alternation between past and present allows him to address topical issues in more explicit manner than historical fiction would normally allow. The reader is spared the effort of putting two and two together: the relevance of Muck‘s Jeremiads for today’s Israel is clearly stated. The plot is brimming with prophets, sages, and simple critics who would fit easily into the modern world. Jeremiah’s mother chats up strangers at restaurants, burdening them with first-person horror stories that turn out to be about (supposedly) the very animals they are eating. A nameless woman wanders through Jerusalem, claiming that she was raped; but the rape story changes according to the particular social ill she happens to be decrying at the time, political corruption one moment, poverty the next.

These characters assume active roles in the political discourse in contemporary Israel and highlight extremely topical issues, from consumerism to the criminalization of prostitution. Muck is as much an indictment of today’s complacent society as it is an indictment of the idolatrous society that characterized the First Temple’s twilight period. Consequently, the impending destruction of Jerusalem casts an ominous shadow over the Israel of the twenty-first century.

***

Many works of biblical fiction focus on individuals subjected to the burden of history. “Why did you take me away from the pasture, as on the day you appointed me to be leader over your people?” complains King Saul to God in Shaul Tchernichovsky’s 1893 poem In Ein Dor. “I´ve spent all my strength in the storms of war. And what remains at home is already completely destroyed by warfare.” More than a century after the publication of Tchernichovsky’s poem, the novelist Gail Hareven (Shulamith’s daughter) returns to the story of Saul, in a collection of stories entitled Biblical Miniatures. King Saul visits a medium in Ein Dor, on the eve of his death, and summons the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel. But instead of elaborating on the price Saul must pay for being anointed, Hareven—just like her mother before her—focuses on a marginal character, in this case the nameless medium. Hareven enquires as to the price the medium was obliged to pay, for helping Saul as well as for simply being a medium at a time of militant monotheism.

The characters don’t keep their thoughts on this price to themselves. When one of the village boys reminds his father that according to the Mosaic law “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live,” the dismayed father replies in words that sound strikingly postmodern: “Each has their own share … Some have been blessed with wisdom … Others haven’t. People are many, and among the masses, there are some who can hear the voices of the dead. Whether it is a blessing or a curse—only God know.”

The other stories in Biblical Miniatures follow a similar line. Unlike the foreignness that characterizes Shulamith Hareven’s biblical novellas, the reality that emerges from Gail Hareven’s thirteen stories is eerily familiar. While Shulamith Hareven succeeded in removing the “conceptual patina” (in Ariana Melamed’s words) and recreating the otherness of her protagonists—who had never in their lives seen mountains or heard of intangible gods—Gail Hareven sketches characters that are surprisingly like us, whose motives we can easily relate to. These familiar characters thus become advocates of a liberal worldview, which stands in stark opposition to the biblical world from which they cry foul to their fate. In one story, The Mother of Samson, the protagonist doesn’t find solace in her son’s heroic deeds. Like many bereaved parents in Israel, she feels that the price he paid for his heroism was too high; she now regrets not having shaved off his hair in his infancy, thereby preempting his fame—and death. “It seemed to her that God brought His people out of Egypt for one reason alone: for her son to say ‘let me die with the Philistines’ and bring down the house.” Thus, the author describes the mother’s thoughts when friends come to cheer her up with tales of her son’s glorious death. Her thoughts can be read as a criticism of Israel’s culture of bereavement, which—its critics say—turns the necessity of death into a virtue. A dismal result of choices and decisions (justified or not) becomes their purpose and justification.

Muck‘s declining Jerusalem is teeming with agony, and like Gail Hareven’s characters, Burstein’s Jeremiah is painfully aware of the price that he and his fellow Jerusalemites must pay for their place in the divine process. He knows in advance this his prophecies will not be heard, and will not mitigate the harsh judgment to come. He also knows that they will only raise the ire of his surroundings. Like Broch’s worn-out keyboard from the first chapter of Muck, Jeremiah is destined to wither away under the weight of his unheard messages.

Tchernichovsky’s King Saul blames God for his suffering, and Hareven’s characters obliquely critique the Mosaic laws. But Muck’s Jeremiah goes further. Shulamith Hareven, Yochi Brandes, and Gail Hareven wrote historical fiction, and couldn’t explicitly refer to the Bible as a whole, since its canonization took place long after their stories’ timelines. By placing his story in a modern, albeit fictional, Israel, Burstein gave his Jeremiah the ability to be far more direct in his critique, and explicitly blame the entire Bible:

Suddenly he grasped the whole of the Bible, from the beginning of creation to the present moment, as a book whose end could never have been other than utter destruction—from the moment the heavens were separated from the earth, and man from animal … it was only a question of time until a nation would be set apart and chosen, and only a question of time until that choice would lead to aloofness and arrogance and rebellion, for the demands upon them  were too difficult, they never could handle it … Hence exile and ruin were inevitable.

However, by moving away from historical fiction, Burstein also opens Jeremiah’s interpretation to criticism. Authors who write historical fiction challenge our perspective on old, familiar stories. But Burstein’s challenge emerges from an entirely fictional rendition of reality. He uses events that didn’t, and couldn’t, take place to expose the ostensibly destructive potential of the Bible. Is this form of criticism even fair?

The same question applies also to Burstein’s treatment of contemporary Israel. Burstein shocks his reader by putting all-too-familiar justifications in the mouths of the sinners in Muck. But is it enough to suggest that we, modern Israelis, are the same as child-sacrificers? Is there a substantive similarity between our sins and those of biblical Jeremiah’s contemporaries, or is the latter’s disturbing familiarity merely a product of Burstein’s rhetorical virtuosity?

This very virtuosity makes it hard to answer these questions. Retellings of the Bible that come in the form of historical fiction, provide the reader with an exegetic Archimedean point, allowing her to evaluate the text independently of its internal ethics. The reader is clearly aware of it, and the critical potential of the story results from the gap between the variation and the canon. To fully capitalize on this potential, the reader is expected—invited, in a way—to alternate between the two texts, and evaluate the novel’s contribution to understanding our relationship to the Bible.

This is not an easy task in Muck‘s case. Indeed, Burstein does draw on biblical plots, characters, and themes; but the chronology is often interrupted, metaphors and characters are taken out of context, and the divide between fact and fiction is constantly blurred. In today’s Israel, where fewer and fewer people are conversant in the Biblical text, it is hard to imagine many readers keeping up with the numerous allusions and references, all the while putting them in their contexts – original and borrowed – and thus taking an active part in Burstein’s dialogue with the Scriptures. Burstein offers a fascinating take on the Bible; but how many of his readers can actually engage with its numerous nuances, and form opinions about the fairness of his critique?

***

These questions go to the heart of the historical project Burstein participates in. Starting in the Haskalah period, Hebrew writers presented criticism of the Bible by rewriting it. By doing so, they maintained its foundational status and kept alive the Jews’ dialogue with the text, despite and via their criticism. In the same vein, Burstein criticizes our society and the Bible while remaining deeply attached to the text: he uses the Bible as a critical platform and as a leverage for his critique. However, he transposes that dialogue from the historical realm to the fantastical and intertwines the allusions in a way that makes them hard to disentangle. Will his readers be able to keep up with the dialogue Burstein so skillfully conducts; or will they, in a self-defeating maneuver for Muck, only get the critical elements of it, and be convinced to abandon the Bible altogether?

Burstein has acknowledged in his blog that he is somwhat averse to reading novels, mainly because they don’t offer an interesting enough reading experience. He prefers reading texts like Targum Jonathan (an old translation of the Bible into Aramaic), for example, where “each sentence is measured against the original in two fashions: its fidelity to the original, on the one hand, and its distance from it, on the other. All this engages the reader in a much more complex way, which is more exciting and pleasurable than most books on sale, however interesting they are. In fact, this is a wholly different perception of the nature of literature.” Muck certainly opens the door to that kind of reading, thereby greatly restricting the potential readership and the reach of its message. In this respect, the parallels we noted between Biblical Jeremiah and Muck’s performative functions, become a self-fulfilling prophecy: just like the prophet, Muck may not be able to reach, and impact, big enough an audience.

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