What should Jewish literature try to achieve? My essay in the current issue of The Jewish Chronicle of London offers some thoughts on the subject:
A wistful passage from the final chapter of the Mishnah’s Sotah tractate states, in poetic Hebrew: Nifteru ziknei Yerushalayim ve-halchu lahen. In more prosaic English, it might be rendered: “The elders of Jerusalem got up and left.” The departure of the elders of Jerusalem, when examined in the context of this hauntingly literary tractate, signifies the relationship to past, present, and future that I seek in Jewish literature.
A nation with a past as rich and traumatic as ours, and with a present as complicated and diverse, offers the Jewish writer a plethora of material. And we have many talented and imaginative writers. Why is it, then, that I often feel something important is missing when I pick up the latest Holocaust fiction (say Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated) or novel of contemporary Tel Aviv (say Yael Hedaya’s Accidents)? What is the thing I seek but do not find in most Jewish memoirs (say Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit), in the tales of Israeli encounters with Arabs, in the soldiers’ memoirs and war stories (say Yossi Cedar’s film Beaufort, based on Ron Leshem’s novel)?
These are all fine works, but they lack the absent elders — the elders whose presence is signified by the fact that they have departed. What I seek are books that, without being bound by conventions of religion and history, nevertheless use familiarity with and respect for the past as an instrument for thinking about the future of the Jewish people and what it means to be part of that collective. I believe that the authors of some of our classic ancient texts — for example, the Sotah tractate — were able to do so in a way that can be instructive for writers today.
Read the whole essay here.