Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Must Narnia be Jewish?

Herschel Potter? If the notion sounds strange to you, you're not alone. In the inaugural issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Michael Weingrad's essay on Jewish fantasy novels asks the question, "Why is there no Jewish Narnia?" The question is an interesting one, and has certainly provoked its share of blogger buzz. A better question, though, might be, "Why should there be a Jewish Narnia?" Or, more precisely, does Narnia have something to offer Judaism, just the way it is?

Of course, good old Jewish pride gets tickled by the accomplishments—literary, or otherwise—of a fellow Member of the Tribe, and novel set in a  Jewish-themed context might be as satisfying as watching a movie set in one's home town. Yet Weingrad is not interested simply in a "Kosher-style" fantasy. His "deeper... question" is:
Why are there no works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian? Why no Jewish Lewises, and why no Jewish Narnias?
His ultimate conclusion seems to be, as New York Times' Ross Douthat observes, "that modern fantasy depends on Christianity, or at least a Christian-pagan synthesis of some kind, for its forms, conventions, and traditions." Wiengrad resigns to the notion that "the genre [of fantasy] will remain irreducably Christian, and a truly Judaic fantasy would have to belong to, or invent, a different genre altogether." 

Let's assume that he is correct, that Judaism has nothing to offer fantasy. Must that mean, however, that fantasy has nothing to offer Judaism? I don't think so. 

Wiengrad thoughtfully describes the function of fantasy literature. He sums up one of the key components of fantasy:
The experience of wonder, of joy and delight on the part of the reader, has long been recognized as one of the defining characteristics of the genre. This wonder is connected with a world, with a place of magic, strangeness, danger, and charm; and whether it is called Perelandra, Earthsea, Amber, or Oz, this world must be a truly alien place. As Ursula K. Leguin says: “The point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie.”
Good fantasy opens readers' imaginations to the possibility that there might be more out there than what we encounter in our mundane lives and witness with our own surface vision.

However, when he reflects back on the place (or lack thereof) of that function in Judaism, Wiengrad is less on target. He asserts:
The Jewish difficulty with fantasy... has to do with the degree to which Judaism has banished the magical and mythological elements necessary for fantasy.To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition. 

In reality, though, the themes of the supernatural and salvation are central to both Judaism's historical-theological core and its phenomenological expectation for its practitioners. "Judaism’s divine drama" is indeed "connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history." However, that hardly diminished its power for the Jewish reader who is him- or  herself a member of that people. Moreover, the very function of that historical narrative is to ground the experience of future Jewish generations in the supernatural foundations of that nation (c.f. Nachmanides, Shemot 13:16). It was in that context that the first halakhic mandates were handed down at Sinai, and it is that very awareness that adherence to halakha is intended to foster.

The daily experience of the spiritual, observant Jew is, ideally, one in which the ordinary material world around him is infused with meaning and with sanctity that extends directly from the Divine narrative of his people. Too often, however, we come to experience Judaism—and pass it on to our children—as purely "collective, technical, and this-worldly," in a way that strips the essential pnimius, inner spirit, from the process. 

Fantasy's place in Jewish spiritual development is to nurture in readers—child and adult alike—the capacity for spiritual imagination and wonder. By "spiritual imagination" I mean the capacity to conceive of and recognize the existence of a Being outside of the realm of the immediate, physical world. When one actually encounters that Other, or a this-worldly phenomenon that suggests that Other's presence, one experiences wonder. Like a small child whose world is filled with wondrous discovery and magical possibility, a truly spiritual person experiences the wonder of the Divine all around him. To experience a sunset or a rainbow as "the Heavens recount[ing] the Glory of G-d" is all but impossible without the dual faculties of imagination and wonder.

Of course, reading literature based on Christian themes might pose halakhic questions that are beyond the present purview. But, especially in today's post-Potter era, there are plenty of works of "pure fantasy" that can serve the same aim. 

One who seeks to develop within himself and his children the gift of sincere, deep ruchnius, spirituality—one that inspires wholehearted devotion to Torah and mitzvos and a genuine awareness of the presence of G-d—must  address the emotional and cognitive proficiencies that underly it. Reading Harry Potter is hardly an unpleasant way to do so.

JewBrain Tinier

1 comment:

  1. I think you're totally right. I grew up reading Lewis and Tolkein, and I have no doubt that those novels helped prepare my thinking for looking at the world from the perspective of, say the Maharal or the Ramchal.


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