When Roger Bennett offered 54 accomplished young writers and artists a chance to comment on a portion of the Torah, each of them “leaped at the opportunity, like Michelangelo painting the Sistine chapel.” It all began at a networking event for Reboot, a Jewish outreach organization Bennett co-founded in 2002.
One evening, Reboot’s networkers discussed the Binding of Isaac, a story Bennett describes as “conversational catnip” for the cutting-edge crowd. He explains, “Everyone had lots to say about a demanding God, responsible parenting and a critical choice.” But in a moment of truth, Bennett asked, “Who among us has actually read the text?” In fact, few had, a situation that called for a proactive remedy.
This conversation was the catalyst for “Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah” (Workman), a handsomely packaged, eclectic volume in which contributors each reimagine one of the 54 sections of the Torah. The larger goal is encouraging others to do the same. “Unscrolled,” sagely edited by Bennett, has an insider’s cool, while its website offers interactive activities to a wide public.
At the Sept. 24 book launch, the overflow crowd at the Tribeca Film Center lent a hip, if somewhat incongruous, buzz to a reconsideration of archetypal themes. An open bar and dance party were punctuated by a panel discussion during which Bennett acknowledged that he had been expelled from Hebrew school and turned off by the Bible early on, seeming to assume that others had analogous memories. “So then, why are we still talking about it?” Bennett prodded his trend-conscious audience. (No one ventured a reply.)
With the latest findings of the Pew Research Center sounding an alarm about the increasing non-affiliation of “Millennials” (Jews who came of age around the year 2000) Reboot’s mission — encouraging this demographic to explore “theology, ritual, culture, values, philosophy without constraints” — is timely.
“Unscrolled” is user-friendly, color-coded, pleasing to thumb through and rewarding of closer reads. Each chapter is headlined with the phrases that inspired the contributor’s interpretation, followed by an editorially balanced synopsis of the biblical text. Bennett explains that, however unorthodox, contributors are doing “what Jews have always done,” that is, “making our own links” as we “confront the text and come to our own conclusions.”
With loose allegiance to the midrashic model of riffing on the original, text is approached on a variety of levels. Saki Knafo reframes well-worn assumptions, reading unresolved father-son hostility into what is usually considered Joseph’s emotional reunion with Jacob in Genesis: 46.
Others, like StorahTelling’s Amicha Lau-Lavie, speak of a personal confrontation with the text: On the occasion of his bar mitzvah, he read aloud Leviticus’ denunciation of homosexuality. Thirty years later, he rewrites what he wished he had said back then, “I don’t think the law about abomination is fair … I am not an abomination. I don’t deserve to die because of whom I love.”
Then there are writers who personally re-inhabit familiar stories in a fully contemporary remake. Jill Soloway, commenting on Abraham siring Ishmael with the handmaiden Hagar, tells the story of her own husband fathering a child with a summertime nanny. Todd Rosenberg, commiserating with Joseph languishing in an Egyptian prison, confides, “Being an artist before having my talent recognized often felt like living in a jail cell.” Caitlin Roper compares the unwillingness of some of the spies in Numbers to tell the truth about the Promised Land to her friends’ reluctance to tell her the truth about her fiancé.
Joshua Foer, author of the bestselling “Moonwalking with Einstein,” opts for social commentary, identifying the biblical Esau as the first Jewish bad boy to deliberately upset his mother Rebecca, by intermarrying.
“Unscrolled” has eye-popping production values and uses forms that include graphic novel, infographics, vintage photos and posters, architectural plans and digital wonders. Reverence is peppered with LOL humor, much of it visual: With just one simple adjustment, the Tabernacle, difficult to price on the New York real estate market, finds a permanent home near Bryant Park.
But the Torah is, of course, more than a collection of stories. It is also a manual for law-abiding living. A.J. Jacobs, best-selling author of “A Year of Living Biblically,” wonders how God came up with the shatnes rule outlawing garments made with mixed fibers. “If this rule made it in, I have to wonder what made the reject pile.”
While open to the broadest possible reimagining of the Torah, Bennett regrets that this generation is not keenly aware of all the commentary that came before. He admits, “I found plunging into the Torah and wallowing in its stories to be a humbling experience.”
When the panel ends, the upstairs party gets underway. Whether the pulse is set in Miriam’s timbrels or house techno, the Bible beat thumps on.