- Paperback: 212 pages
- Publisher: Intl Inst for Secular Humanistic Judaism (January 1, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0967325951
- ISBN-13: 978-0967325958
- Package Dimensions: 9.2 x 5.9 x 0.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,366,275 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore
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About the Author
Bennett Muraskin, a union representative for New Jersey college faculty, is a frequent contributor to Jewish publications and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries' Guide to Yiddish Short Stories.
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"Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore" edited by Bennett Muraskin
(International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, 2001)
Perhaps among the oldest forms of communication, the story still remains a staple for teaching, sharing ideas, and even entertaining.
The Jewish religion is no exception. The Torah itself is mostly a story, with the Exodus perhaps as it's centerpiece story, albeit with a fair number of commandments included as well. And subsequent generations, from the Talmud & Midrash to the Chasidic movement of the 19th century, also included stories and folk tales as a central ingredient in their method of formulating and expressing their world view.
This rich literature of Jewish stories allows the past communicates to us, and shares its values and ethics with us.
Yet, there are stories and there are stories. Some of the stories from our tradition simply fail to speak to us - they are utterly fantastical and seem to have no overriding message bearing any resonance for `us moderns'. Other stories, however, ancient as they may be, have the ability to strike a chord in our hearts, and cause us to marvel at the wisdom of our ancestors and at the lessons that still speak to us from across the centuries.
After spending several hours digesting the 120 stories included in "Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore", edited by Bennett Muraskin, I am delighted to observe that Mr. Muraskin's book falls into the latter category.
The work is a charming yet powerful collection of Jewish folk tales that span thousands of years and diverse subject matters, from the reverent to the sarcastic, from those that pay homage to Jewish religious figures, to stories that hi-light their all too often glaring weaknesses.
This collection is significant for a number of reasons. First off, it reveals the strong humanistic undercurrent present in Jewish writings from ancient times to the present. Thus the humanism of the modern Jew is not an entirely foreign implant grafted onto the body of Judaism. Rather, it is an accentuation of those aspects of our tradition that emphasize human dignity, compassion and independence, an accentuation sparked by the movement toward humanism in the secular world in recent centuries.
The collection is also important because of its inclusion of humorous stories. For when all else failed the Jew, whether it was God, their fellow Jews, or their gentile neighbors, the Jew found that laughter - even at his/her own expense - somehow managed to ease the burden.
In one story in the collection, a rabbi is asked for forgiveness by a youth for not saying grace. Instead of comforting the youth, the incredulous rabbi persists in questioning the youth, causing the youth to reveal he did not say grace because he hadn't washed before the meal as the meal was not kosher, on account of the fact that he was eating in a non-kosher establishment, because no Jew would feed him since it was......Yom Kippur.!
The story, in humorous fashion, gently points out the perceived flaws of our ancestors. Not all of them were such `pious' Jews, and not all of the rabbis were wise or saintly enough to know when to stop asking questions.
In editing this work, Bennett Muraskin has not shied away from stories where God appears as one of the characters, even though the title of his work would have made one think otherwise.
In doing so, he has made a wise decision. Had Bennett Muraskin adhered to a narrow secular humanistic fundamentalism (i.e. if the word God appears, it is automatically excluded from this collection), he would have denied us many captivating and beautiful stories. More importantly, we would have lost out on stories that are at their very heart humanistic, even if God does make a cameo appearance in one form or another in the story.
A perfect example of this is the story called: "Abraham and the Heathen". In this short tale, an old man, invited to refresh himself in Abraham's tent, is angrily evicted when he refuses to abandon idolatry and recognize Abraham's `one true God.' But God, far from being pleased with Abraham's advocacy on his behalf, reprimands Abraham for his harsh zeal, and demands that Abraham find the old man and obtain his forgiveness.
Mursakin writes, "I find this a wonderful parable about the need to respect religious pluralism."
I see in the story, perhaps, a different point.
In reflecting on Abraham's actions it appears his sin lay not in trying to convince the heathen to abandon idolatry and to embrace monotheism. We all have the right to attempt to persuade others to a specific point of view we deeply believe in. And they have a similar right to do the same with us.
But if our failure to persuade our audience causes us to lash out in bitterness against another, then we have crossed over a red line.
Just imagine a world where all practitioners of religion or politics would say, "I will never let my religious or political beliefs cause me to act in a cruel fashion to another human being, regardless of their beliefs." How would the Middle East look? Or India and Pakistan? Or Northern Ireland?
Those skeptical of God's existence or active role in the world might look at the above story, and quickly conclude, 'Oh the word `God' appears, so it doesn't relate to me', and flip to the next story. But the wiser reader - even the atheist and agnostic - who continues to read the story, will learn a lesson that applies to all who hold deeply felt convictions.
As a Hasidic master once noted: "Anyone who completely believes in folk tales is a fool. Anyone who dismisses them is an even greater fool."
One last point: Bennett Muraskin has attached small "editorial comments" after many of the stories. There are, among storytelling purists, those who cringe at the thought of adding any moral or commentary following the conclusion of a story. Let the listener or reader decide for him/herself!, they argue. Why prejudice their reading of the story with your narrow and perhaps even false interpretation of the story?
I, for one, disagree with these objections. No one is forcing the audience to agree with the storyteller's interpretation. Further, the listeners appreciation of the story may be enriched by aspects previously overlooked.
In Muraskin's case, the observations are always informative, often punchy and witty, and pick up on strands in the story that the reader may not have noticed on his/her own. The reader thus feels that he/she is actually in the presence of two minds when turning the pages of this work - the original author, and the editor, who wants us to dwell a little longer on each story, to chew the story over a bit, to wrestle with it, to enter into a dialogue with the story before we move on to the next piece.
One final example: In the section called "The Sanctity of Human Life", Muraskin brings us the tale of Berditchever Rebbe who, during the waning hours of one Yom Kippur, finds himself in heaven, interceding on behalf of the Jewish People. His prayers were so effective, it seemed God was about send forth the Messiah. At that very moment the Berditchever Rebbe noticed that Reb Hirsch, a frail old Jew, had fallen to the floor. The long Yom Kippur fast was too much for him, and the Berditchever Rebbe knew the man would expire in a matter of moments unless he concluded the service and Reb Hirsch was helped. The Berditchever Rebbe immediately ends the service, explaining to God, "where is it written that I have the right to sacrifice Hirsch's life for the sake of all humanity?"
In his note following the story, Muraskin tells us that "from a secular humanistic perspective, the ends, no matter how worthy, definitely do not justify the means." He also reveals to us that the only known source of this story is Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet journalist and writer who supported the brutal Stalinist regime - the same regime in which many millions of innocent people like Reb Hirsch were sacrificed to the false idol of a new and redemptive social order. The reader cannot help but be startled by the irony of this revelation.
This is a valuable collection.
The work, published by the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, will no doubt find its way into the hands of many secular humanistic Jews. But it would be most fortunate if this collection is given exposure to a wider circle of readers - Jewish and non-Jewish - which it certainly and richly deserves.
by: Eli Rubenstein