Interview - One author's Perspective

Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson DHL holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University. A member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California. He is the author of 10 books and over 250 articles.

Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit ArtsonQuestion:  What was the impetus for your new book, Passing Life’s Tests?

Answer:  When I was in rabbinical school, the rabbi who taught the course on senior homiletics (giving sermons), Rabbi Simon Greenberg, who was also a founding President of AJU, told us on the first day of class that there is one subject that a rabbi should never preach on, and that’s the Akidah, the sacrifice of Isaac.

Question:   Did he explain why?

Answer:  Because there is nothing positive to say about it.  But, in a twist of fate, I was designated to give my senior sermon on the Akidah, and I was assigned Rabbi Greenberg as my supervisor, which meant that I had to get his approval, which he ultimately gave. 

Question:  What did you say about the sacrifice of Isaac that he approved?

Answer:  I gave a sermon about what Isaac learns when he is under the knife, drawing on my experience as a chaplain at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  I noticed that Isaac is the only one of the patriarchs who said that he loved his wife and that she loved him. He is the only one of the patriarchs that never left the land of Israel. And, he is the patriarch that had more of a private life than the others. I asked myself why and realized that he is the only one that had a near-death experience. He came under the knife. So I talked about what mortality teaches us about what really matters and how to spend our time.  That was the sermon. When I became a congregational rabbi, I decided that in Rabbi Greenberg’s honor, I would deliver an annual sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac.

Question:  And did you?

Answer:  Yes. Every year for ten years, I made a point of saying something different about the sacrifice of Isaac. By then I had ten sermons about the sacrifice of Isaac.  The story is really a metaphor for how we all struggle in life; how we all try to make our way in the world despite the setbacks and challenges of relationships, health, aging, jobs, and life’s other tests. 

Question:  Thus the title: Passing Life’s Tests.

Answer:  Yes.  The book uses the story of the sacrifice of Isaac and the test of Abraham as the vehicle to think about passing life’s tests.

Question:  What is the format of the book?

Answer:  It begins with an extensive introduction about why the reader should bother to look at an old book to think about life’s questions.  It speaks to the value of wise literature, the value of seeking holiness, and how, whatever your theological assumptions, the Torah is a piece of great, great literature that contains wisdom, if you read it in an engaged way.  Then I lay out the story, word for word, about the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, which is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  I translate it and do a commentary to every single line. The third and final section of the book is a group of essays that examine the Akidah from multiple perspectives.

Question:  For example?

Answer:  Sarah’s perspective, for one.  What happens when one day you wake up and find that your elderly husband is gone, your son is gone, and the kitchen knives are missing? How would she respond to that?  It is a chance to think about the way women process emotions and moral decision-making in ways that are distinctive and different from the way men do, building on the work of Carol Gilligan and others.  

Question:  What would you like your readers to take away from this book?

Answer:  I would like them to be able to see themselves in the story and understand the story not as something that happened a long time ago, but as a way of projecting the inner workings of the human heart in a story form.  I want them to be able to read it with new eyes. 

Question:  Can you elaborate?

Answer:  The problem with the stories from the bible is that we are all so familiar with them that many of us go to sleep when anyone starts to recite one.  I hope to peel that away and let people approach this story from where they are, and bring all of who they are to the reading. I think with reading any great story, and certainly the Torah, you emerge changed. It’s not like it teaches you anything new, but it teaches you something deep and allows you to embrace what you knew but didn’t allow yourself to hold on to.

Question:  How is this book different from the other ten books that you wrote?

Answer:  I have written other books about the bible before.  I wrote The Bedside Torah and Everyday Torah, which are reflections on the weekly parshah.  But, never before have I focused on a single story. 

Question:  How was focusing on a single story different for you?

Answer:  It allowed me to go really deep and to look at it from every angle. There is fullness to it. It happens to be that it is the story that is read on Rosh Hashanah, which is a time when services are very long and some people bring along a book so they have something to read when they are not able to follow along anymore.  This is a great book to bring to shul because it is not preachy and it respects people where they are at, while opening up the Torah and the issues of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, who we are invited to become, and why it is so difficult?  It lets you think good High Holiday questions when you need your own space.

Question:  I will remember that this Rosh Hashanah.  Tell me about the first book you ever wrote.

Answer:  I wrote it while I was a rabbinical student.  It was called Love Peace and Pursue Peace.  It was an exploration of Jewish laws on warfare, peace, and nuclear annihilation. 

Question:  And why did you write it?

Answer:  There were two reasons.  First, I was interested to see if I wanted to do academic writing on Jewish thought.  I figured that the only way to find out was to do it.  The second reason was that I noticed in rabbinical school that it was very difficult to get people to engage in serious discussions about Jewish studies because they felt like that is what they did all day for work.  Writing the book gave me a way to go to the rabbinical school’s senior rabbis and professors and say, “Will you talk to me about this specific issue?”  Even though they were always willing to do that, it gave me a way to have those conversations.

Question:  Interesting. And the book you wrote after that?

Answer: The next book was called, It’s a Mitzvah.  I was encouraged to write this book by Rabbi Joel Rembaum, who felt that there needed to be a guide to Jewish practice written for real people: How do you do Jewish? How do you do Shabbat? How do you do feeding the hungry? How do you do Kashrut?  You break it down into bite-sized bits, but do it in a way that is accessible to everyone.  The book is still in print and still available.

Question:  You sound very proud of that book.

Answer:  I am, because we accomplished two things that I have never seen done before.  First, we insisted that Jewish observance is not just about ritual; it is also about ethics. There are ethical and ritual practices scattered throughout the book.  The whole point of this book is to encourage people to take their own steps.  The second thing is that I insisted that the photographs had to look like the readers. I have been writing ever since. (Pause) I like to write.  

Question:  What is it that you like about writing?

Answer:  I don’t know what I think until I put it into writing. So, writing allows me to push my thoughts further than I otherwise would.  It is both very social and very solitary.  You are continually engaged in conversations with people who are not always in the room, but with people who have done good thinking before you.  Ultimately you sit by yourself and pull it together.  There is something almost meditative about the process of writing, except that at the end, you have something.

Question:  What about the issue of getting published?

Answer:  I have always written without worrying about getting published, because I just love the process.

Question:  Have all of your books been published?

Answer:  With the publishing of Passing Life’s Tests, I can now say yes.

Question:  What is your next book?

Answer:  The book after this is already in contract and I hope to work on it this summer.  It is a presentation of my new way of thinking about God, Torah, and Mitzvot called process theology. I want to put out a book in Jewish context that explains the idea of God as dynamic, and relational, and evolving along with the universe being dynamic, relational, and evolving. 

Question:  Is process theology intrinsic to Judaism?

Answer:  The original thinkers of process theology were mostly Christian, but there is nothing intrinsic to process theology that is necessarily Christian. In fact, some of the people who originated this kind of thinking did not even see themselves as religious.  They really saw themselves as doing philosophy.  It is applicable all over the place, although the many ways that it echoes in rabbinics is uncanny.  It looks to me like in some ways the easiest fit is with rabbinic Judaism.  But, that may be because I am a rabbi.

Question:  Do you ever think about writing something unrelated to Judaism?

Answer:  The great thing about being my kind of Jew is that there is nothing that does not relate to Judaism.  I do not think that Judaism is just about rituals or the Jewish people.  Judaism is the glasses through which I see the whole world. The Torah has something to say about everything. In that sense it would be impossible for me to write and not be writing about Judaism.  My passion in life is applying Torah to life, so that tends to be what I write about.

Question:  What is your process?

Answer:  Sometimes I write an essay that keeps growing until it becomes a book. Sometimes I have an idea for a book and when I start writing it takes on a life of its own.  The book that comes out is never the table of contents that I start writing.

Question:  Why do you think that is?

Answer:  Because the book argues with me.  I think the next chapter ought to be about this, and the book thinks it should be about that.  The book is generally right. When Michelangelo sculpted, he said that he could see the finished product in the stone and his job was to liberate the finished statue from the stone.  That is kind of how writing feels to me.  The finished book is there, and my job is to get it on the page.

Question:  Often when I interview authors, I conclude by asking them about the kind of books that they enjoy reading. What books do you enjoy?

Answer:  In the Contemporary world, my favorite living theologian is Catherine Keller.  She wrote an amazing book called On the Mystery. I just read a book of fiction called, Caleb’s Crossing.  It is the story about the first Native American to go to Harvard in the mid 1600’s and it is a work of fiction based on an historical reality.  The author, Geraldine Brooks, tells the story from the perspective of the Puritan daughter of the minister who converts the Native American.  Brooks did amazing research and shows the wisdom of native culture and the wisdom and shortcomings of the Puritan culture.  It seems so real that you can feel the chill of old New England.  It is a great and charming book.  I’m currently reading an obscure book written by Maimonides’ son.  Maimonides was the most famous, if not the greatest, rabbi of the medieval period.  His son became the head of the Jewish community at the age of 18 when his father died and remained the head of the Jewish community for forty years.  He had the unfortunate happenstance of following in his father’s footsteps which is kind of like being Albert Einstein’s son and going into physics.  Had he been someone else, somewhere else, he would have been a great rabbi and everyone would have remembered him.  During his lifetime he certainly was respected, but in the course of history everyone remembers his dad. He wrote a book on the service of God, which is a book about ethical self-purification combining his father’s philosophy with Sufi mysticism. It’s a charming book.