“The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People”

The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People, by Jonathan Kirsch, Viking Books, $24.95

If His behavior in the Bible is any indication, God would seem to suffer from multiple personality disorder. When He promises the nonagenarian Sarah a child, and she laughs at Him, He fairly pouts, wondering, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Can this be the same mighty deity who incites awe and demolishes cities? To Jonathan Kirsch, these clashing characterizations of God embody—and augur—the richly heterogeneous fabric of Judaism. We say contradiction, he says counter tradition.

From the eclectic authorship of the Torah, to today’s “six million Judaisms” for six million American Jews, Kirsch shows how the warp of tradition and the weft of counter tradition are continuously woven into Judaism’s never-completed tapestry. In his judgment, a meditating “BuJew” is as Jewish as a peyote coiffed Hasid, if not, he winkingly suggests, more so, since the BuJew embraces the spirit of innovation so crucial to Judaism. Then again, the Orthodox also play a key role, by adding to Judaism’s trademark diversity, and by manifesting, unwittingly or not, some of its iconoclastic ingenuity. Classical Judaism itself, a “portable” faith that can be practiced wherever there are ten male Jews, was once a revolutionary invention, improvised in the wake of the Temple’s destruction.

In this fascinating, gracefully written jaunt through Jewish history, Kirsch discusses Judaism’s pagan-tinged roots, the mystical practices of the Kabbalah, and the legacy of the “fighting Jew.” A chapter on the feminist counter tradition honors the figure of Lilith, who, after ditching Adam, was doomed to an eternity of bearing children and watching them die. Once a versatile scapegoat, blamed for everything from wet dreams to miscarriages, Lilith now “comes full circle in our own era as an icon of autonomy and self-expression among Jewish women,” for example, as Kirsch notes, in Lilith Magazine. The book is infused with the author’s pluralist polemic, and if he repeats his point one too many times, he repays the tolerant reader by illustrating that point so beautifully.

Rebecca Tuhus Dubrow is a teacher and writer living in Brooklyn.