King David As ‘Collage’
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King David As ‘Collage’

David Wolpe tackles the grace, and the contradictions, of the biblical monarch.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

The young David is captured in Michelangelo’s colossal marble masterpiece, in the days before his battle with Goliath. The sculptor expresses his beauty and hints of the boy’s majestic future. That’s the David a reader pictures in the opening pages of Rabbi David Wolpe’s new biography, “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press), when the High Priest Samuel visits the house of Jesse the Bethlehemite in search of a new king to replace Saul. Before meeting David, Samuel encounters his older brothers. David is then summoned back from the fields, where he is tending the sheep, and his life is about to change.

This is a David, according to Rabbi Wolpe, who is easy to love. “His introduction is his anointing. There is no suspense about this young man’s destiny. David will be king. And God dictates the drama — God, who is rarely directly in the story of David, speaks unambiguously about the divine choice,” he writes.

Rabbi Wolpe goes on to paint a portrait of David that is vibrant and nuanced, full of the complications that marked his life: He was a poet, skillful musician, a firm believer in God, a king who united a nation and also a warrior, schemer, murderer, an undistinguished father and adulterer, a man of idealism, self-interest and self-assurance.

“David is the first person in history,” he writes, “whose tale is complete and vital, laced with passions, savagery, hesitation, betrayal, charisma, faith, family —[the] rich canvas of a large life. He is capable of great acts, expressions of lasing piety, and of startling cruelty. David’s failings are not slight or endearing.” For Rabbi Wolpe, David is fully human.

Rabbi Wolpe, who writes the weekly “Musings” column for The Jewish Week, leads Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and has been named by Newsweek as the most influential rabbi in America. He’s the author of seven previous books, including “Making Loss Matter” and “Why Faith Matters.”

This book is very different from other books he has written that had to do with Jewish theology, although his tone is similarly thoughtful. Rabbi Wolpe was approached by Yale University Press about doing a brief biography for the “Jewish Lives” series. They told him that Moses was taken, but he could choose someone else. For Rabbi Wolpe, it was clear that David was the figure he was most interested in writing about. Ever since he was a high school student and his father’s graduation card to him invoked his namesake, he has been interested in the story of the biblical David. The name David means beloved and Rabbi Wolpe wondered about David’s powers and why he is the most loved of biblical characters. With this book, he has come to understand David’s flaws and contradictions as well as his grace and greatness.

Rabbi Wolpe unfolds David’s story both thematically, in chapters about his multiple roles — young man, lover and husband, fugitive, king, father, etc. — and chronologically within the chapters. He carefully reads the text, drawing on both ancient and contemporary commentators and scholars.

In a telephone interview, Rabbi Wolpe describes the book as “almost a collage of different images of the same man, with gripping minor and supporting characters all over the way.” While writing, he “had the great advantage” of teaching the story of King David to his weekly Torah classes.

Among the many themes he emphasizes are the influence of women over the course of events in the David story, whether his wife Michal who enables him to flee from King Saul early on and saves his life, or the anonymous woman who saves him from a bloody battle, or Bathsheba, who convinces him to name their son Solomon as his royal successor. “The prevalence of women signals again the openness of David’s spirit,” he writes.

He also focuses on David’s faith in God. Even if he was not always obedient, he never rejected God nor turned to idols; rather, he shared an intimacy with God. Wolpe suggests that perhaps God chooses flawed vessels.

Some question whether there is a historic David, that is, whether David actually existed. Rabbi Wolpe responds, “I have no doubt that David existed. I have not that much doubt that a lot of what is said about David is reflective of what happened. I can’t say it was identical to what happened.” Based on language and other clues, he assumes that the account of his life was written within 100 years of his life.

As for David the psalmist, or author of the psalms, Rabbi Wolpe believes that if he did write them, he wrote only a few. He finds the psalms to be reflective of David’s life, if not a first-person recording.

The David story has fired the imaginations of writers and poets over the ages, and, as in his “Musings” column, Rabbi Wolpe is skilled at pulling out texts and quotes from a great range of sources, from John Adams to D. H. Lawrence to Leonard Cohen. “David has a very large cultural footprint,” he says.

Amos Oz, in “The Same Sea,” writes of an ancient king who seems so modern “with his leaping and dancing and his one-night stands/It would have been more fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.”

“Absolutely Shakespeare was influenced by the biblical story,” Rabbi Wolpe says. He explains that William Shakespeare would have heard the story in church as a kid and probably knew the Bible well. “When he was writing about a King, whether Henry or Hamlet, this King [David] had to influence him. It’s just there.”

About David’s legacy in contemporary Israel, Rabbi Wolpe says that he is thought of as the founder of Jerusalem and the forerunner of the Messiah. He feels most Israelis don’t gave as much careful consideration to the real David as does Shimon Peres, for whom David is no role model; Peres said, “I recognize the Torah of Moses our teacher and not the Torah of David our patriarch. … Not everything King David did on land, or on the roofs, appears to me to be Judaism.” In this context, “on land” refers to his conquests, and “on roofs” to his affair with Bathsheba.

The book jacket features Marc Chagall’s lithograph of a crowned David playing the harp, another side of the King.

Rabbi David Wolpe will discuss “David: The Divided Heart” with Abigail Pogrebin on Tuesday, Sept. 16 at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center, 10 E. 66th St., Manhattan. http://www.thejewishweek.com/wolpe-event.

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