Revisiting the Book of Job: Introduction
As many of you by now know, and are no doubt sick of hearing, my wife Alison killed herself two years ago, in March 2021. The day after I heard, I decided, like a character in a Saul Bellow novel, to cope with what happened by reading the Book of Job. The day after that, less like a fictional character than my usual deranged self, I decided to blog my thoughts on Job in full consciousness (and willful defiance) of the fact that if “too soon” has any meaning, surely 48 hours after your wife’s death by suicide is it.
The post I wrote on Job was an ill-considered and mortifyingly dumb rant of precisely the sort you would expect of a man who’d just lost his wife to suicide two days earlier. I don’t know if that proves that I should regret having written it, or consider it a golden opportunity for self-knowledge painfully acquired in public. But it’s out there, in perpetuity, in cyberspace. In cyberspace, no one can hear the mortified author scream.
I was working in a hospital operating room when Alison died. One of my co-workers, Anita–a nurse who’d lost her mother to suicide–told me that it would take “a full two years” to recover. March 4th will be the second anniversary of Alison’s death, March 10th the day I was belatedly informed of it. I can’t say that I’ve made a full recovery since then, or even know what that means, but I agree with Anita that Year 2 represents an emotional milestone of some sort, at least in my case. The pain is there, but not what it once was. I’m less morbidly consumed by what happened, and more interested in understanding it.
And so I’ve decided to re-visit Job, and in fact, re-visit the Bible. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover, but never really studied it, so it’s no surprise that it’s never really sunk in. This time, I’ve been guided by what I hope is a greater sense of equanimity than before, but also by the thought that a text like the Bible is not something to be read in dark solitude. I don’t mean, of course, that solitary study or reflection is always a bad idea. It obviously isn’t. All reading is in some sense solitary; silence, solitude, and thought are natural allies. I just mean that it’s a bad idea to make solitude–isolation–one’s exclusive approach to the text (or to life), as I did back in Year 1. There’s a reason why the Bible is read in study groups, and recited in public liturgies. We can’t all hear God’s voice in the text, but we can approximate it by hearing one another’s. And there’d be no point to the text if God were deleted from it altogether.
Léon Bonnat’s ‘Job’
My own re-visitation of the Bible was the serendipitous result of New Jersey’s zoning laws. Having made housing completely unaffordable to me, the zoning laws forced me, after losing the home my wife and I owned, to move into a spare room in my friend Hilary’s house. Hilary and I soon fell into a habit we’d previously had, of my half-sharing her Jewish faith, and then posing as a full-fledged Jew while demanding sententiously (and often pretty opportunistically) that she take her Judaism more seriously. I’m not Jewish, but unlike George fucking Santos, I really am Jew-ish: I spent good swatches of my childhood in Jewish summer camp in north Jersey–forty-eight solid Fridays of Manischewitz and challah–so I know the drill and know the prayers, in passable bar mitzvah Hebrew, no less. I haven’t yet induced Hilary to give up pork, or to buy a copy of The Guide for the Perplexed I can borrow, but there’s time.
Hilary had in recent years become a member of String of Pearls, a Reconstructionist synagogue in town that’s as much a Jewish book club as it is a Jewish temple. The synagogue is led (if that’s the right word, and it probably isn’t) by Rabbi Maurice Harris, an “accidental rabbi” and an all-round wise and welcoming guy–also one of the two people (along with Hilary’s father Charles) who got me to re-think my reflexive rejections of the Hebrew Bible. I regrettably missed shul the day we did Job, but was there for Leviticus and Ruth and many others, and eventually learned to bring Rabbi Maurice’s generous way of reading Biblical texts to the one I’d so loudly cursed. When the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research advertised a seminar on Job led by Heather Ohanesen, a pastor trained in philosophy of religion, I jumped at the chance to dive back into the text. In fact, we just had our first three-hour seminar the other evening. And now I’m knee deep in the thing. So I’m going to write about it.
Is there some weird irony involved in a lapsed Muslim’s pretending to be Jewish while writing about Job? Yes, there is. How about a tension between publicly unburdening one’s soul on social media while writing a series on the nature and value of privacy? I guess so. Am I qualified in any bona fide scholarly sense to write about Job? No, I’m not: it isn’t false modesty to say that I have no sense whatsoever of the scholarly literature on Job, no relevant linguistic skills, and ultimately, no real idea what I’m talking about. But if ignorance didn’t stop Socrates from speaking his mind, it’s not going to stop me. Is it amusing that on the second anniversary of my wife’s death, I’ll be thinking and writing about Job from a tent, among Bedouins, in the middle of the Judean Desert? Well, it’s sure something. Will it suck if I don’t have WiFi out there? Maybe, but neither did Job. It really wouldn’t be “Thoughts on Job” if it came easy.
So what should you expect, dear reader? Expect me to ramble here periodically as I make my way through the Book of Job, and while I’m at it, try to make sense of my ridiculous life. Jump in if you like. It should be good for a few laughs, if nothing else. I mean, things could be worse. Or so I’ve read.