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By David Timmer
Aviyah Kushner grew up immersed in the Hebrew Bible. Born to an American Jewish father and an Israeli mother, she was raised as a Modern Orthodox Jew in Monsey, a predominantly Jewish town near New York City. Her mother was a scholar of ancient Semitic languages, and she and her siblings attended Orthodox schools; so it is not surprising that her knowledge of the Bible was mediated through Hebrew, not English. Dinner-table conversations chez Kushner could turn into rigorous seminars on biblical grammar, or spirited exegetical debates.
As an adult, her career as a poet and travel writer eventually brought her to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, where she earned an MFA under Marilynne Robinson, whose own deep engagement with the Bible is patent in her novels (Gilead; Home; Lila) and essays (The Death of Adam; The Givenness of Things).
While taking Robinson’s course on the Bible as literature, Kushner came to a significant insight: the English Bible that shaped Robinson’s encounter had a very different feel than her beloved Hebrew Bible. Their friendly sparring eventually resulted in Robinson’s insistence that Kushner write a book about the difference.
The result, emerging over a decade later, is The Grammar of God; A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Kushner mixes personal memoir with exegesis in ways that some will find charming and others off-putting. For her, the Hebrew Bible is not a book with objective content that can be pinned down on a theological corkboard. It is more like the soundtrack of her life. So the book moves in leisurely fashion from the biblical text to the texture of her story.
Chapter Two, for instance, entitled “Love,” opens with Kushner describing the wedding customs of her Chassidic neighbors in New York, including the visit of a “wedding poet.” Her younger sister is about to get married, so she has appointed herself as wedding poet and is searching for inspiration. Chassidic weddings, as it turns out, are often on Tuesday, “the third day of creation, the day when ‘God saw that it was good’ twice, according to Genesis.”
So she broods on this “double dose of divine love” in Genesis 1: 10 and 12, bouncing from the King James Version to the Everett Fox translation, from medieval commenators Rashi and Nachmanides to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon. She considers the different possible translations of the Hebrew particle ki, the odd lexical association of seeing and fearing in Hebrew, and the gendering of the earth as female, adorning itself with greenery for God to see.
Finally, she wanders back to the wedding, considering the bride adorned, standing under the chuppah, seen by the groom and loved wordlessly, just as “God does not say that all God created on the third day is good: instead, God sees it.” She doesn’t share her wedding poem with us, but if we have been wandering with her, we get the drift.
And so it goes, through chapters on creation, laughter, man, God, law, song, and memory. Kushner’s Bible is not a source of certainties and absolutes, but rather an invitation to reflect, together with a community of readers across time and space, on the meaning of life lived before the face of God.
She graciously opens that community to include Christian readers, but she also wants to convey what is unique about the Jewish exegetical tradition: “It is as if the rabbis were creating a web of hyperlinks, encouraging the reader to read more, to see what other verses and ideas lie just beyond the boundaries of that particular page…The reader’s task is to ask what is going on. No matter how many readers have read before him, the reader must read again, must lift the veil to seek the face of the text, over and over again.”