Editing the Editor

March, 11 2015
Arts & Culture, Latest, Web
The Isaiah Scroll


The Education of an Interloper

by Jack Miles

It was as a student at the Hebrew University during the 1966-1967 academic year that I was first introduced to the notion of orthopraxis as distinct from orthodoxy. A chain-smoking lecturer on Talmud, speaking in English to a class of Jews on their junior year abroad, including me as an interloper, explained to us that Judaism has no orthodoxy, no correct and required canon of beliefs, but does have an orthopraxis or orthopraxy, a set of shared practices some subset of which a Jew must maintain to retain his or her identity as a Jew. The lecturer illustrated his point by taking Zwi Werblowsky, a past president of the Hebrew University, as his example: Werblowsky did not believe in God but did keep kosher—or somewhat kosher: somewhat can be enough.

Christianity for complex historical reasons has stressed belief so strenuously that in the West, with its Christian heritage, the words belief and believer are essentially interchangeable with the words religion and practitioner. Among the many practices of religion, it is belief, Western common sense assumes, that is essential, definitive, sine qua non. But worldwide, this assumption distorts rather than facilitates the appreciation of religion. Worldwide, Judaism’s stress on practice links it to rather than divides it from any other tradition in which the precise definition of and enforcement of orthodoxy is of secondary or even negligible importance. It is Christianity, rather than Judaism, that is in this regard the outlier.

In my general introduction to The Norton Anthology of World Religions, I make this point by quoting Wendy Doniger in her introduction to our Hinduism anthology, but I could have as effectively made the point by alluding to David Biale’s introduction to the Judaism anthology. This emphasis on practice has various consequences among which one is a distinct shift in the discussion of religion away from science and toward art. Religion is vulnerable to refutation by science to the extent that it makes belief – and within belief, cosmology — central to its practice. The more loosely it relates to its own cosmology, the more easily it relates to its own history as mythology, the more naturally it settles into a stance adjacent to art and even to play. By the same path, accommodation can more easily be made within the ongoing complexity of any given tradition for atheism, agnosticism, prophetic denunciation, and so forth. As the poet Christian Wiman commented in a recent special issue of The New York Times Book Review on religion, “Any real faith includes, rather than simply refutes, atheism.”

Judaism—in practice, consistently enough, rather than by any elaborate theoretical speculation—seems to me to be exceptionally at ease with inclusion in Wiman’s sense of the term. David Biale, as an editor, embodies and refines this self-aware inclusiveness in the approach he has taken to producing his cross-section of Jewish literature from its origins to the present. In his remarks for Moment, David alludes to the rabbinic text known as “The Oven of Akhnai.” In this text, one among a group of contending rabbis claims that God himself supports his opinion, and God proves that this is the case by performing a couple of miracles on the spot. However, the rabbi loses the argument because, his colleagues conclude, arguments must be won by coherent exegesis of the text, not by showy miracle-working: the truth is “not in the heavens.”

Images from The Norton Anthology of World Religions

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As it happens, David Biale wrote an entire book on the flowering of this attitude in later Jewish thought during the very years when he was also at work on his Norton anthology. The book is Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (Princeton University Press, 2010), and I can only believe that these two projects fed one another as he brought them simultaneously to completion.

As general editor, I am tempted to draw analogies between David’s editorial challenges and those facing his five colleagues.

—The term Roman Catholicism, for example, did not exist before the Protestant Reformation made it necessary, just as the term Orthodoxy did not exist before the rise of Reform Judaism in Germany made it necessary as well.

—One of my favorite texts in the entire anthology is an excerpt from the memoirs of Glückel of Hameln (1646-1724), a kind of last glimpse of the spirit of medieval European Jewry as it was transmitted from mother to child. Yet the feminist lens, so to call it, brings much into view in other traditions as well, most notably Hinduism. Doniger’s anthology includes a spirited memoir by a Dalit (“untouchable”) woman about how she became a master of Sanskrit, the sacred language that Dalits were never to hear, much less read or write.

—The question of how much antagonism toward any given tradition should be included and whether this should be allowed only from within the ranks or also from beyond them must perhaps have a different resolution each time out. James Robson, our Daoism editor, includes Maoist denunciation of Daoism delivered on state radio in the 1950s, but I cannot now think of a comparable state denunciation elsewhere else in the anthology.

—The poems that David quotes prompt me to think not just of the analogous question elsewhere—how heavily should the Christianity editor be allowed to draw on The Oxford Book of Christian Verse?—but also, and more powerfully, of the power of all primary texts. Philip Roth’s phrase, “just the object itself, like a glass or an apple”—there’s no improving on it, is there, and no replacing it. But there is equally no improving upon or replacing

Where can I escape from Your spirit?

     Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, You are there;

     if I descend to Sheol, You are there too.

If I take wing with the dawn

     to come to rest on the western horizon,

Even there Your hand will be guiding me,

     Your right hand will be holding me fast.

If I say, “Surely darkness will conceal me,

     night will provide me with cover,

darkness is not dark for You;

     night is as light as day;

     darkness and light are the same. (Psalm 139, p. 112 in the anthology)

There is something inescapable about religion, something that neither agnosticism nor atheism quite eludes: darkness and light are the same. Within The Norton Anthology of World Religions, just now being published in a six-volume paperback edition, the strength of David Biale’s indispensable contribution is that it is captures the light from a thousand angles without ever denying the dark.


 Jack Miles is Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine. His book, “GOD: A Biography,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. He received a MacArthur fellowship from 2003-2007 for “Christ: a Crisis in the Life of God.

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