Interview: Howard Jacobson

The writer is arguing for a new approach to the Creation that treads a line between atheism and Orthodoxy

By Simon Round, January 21, 2010

At first glance, Howard Jacobson might be considered a strange candidate to make a film on the Creation. He is not religiously observant but then neither is he a convinced atheist. So given that Channel 4 wanted a polemical treatment of the subject, as the first part of its series The Bible — A History, why choose someone who cannot decide whether the Creation happened, or if it did, what it means?

But then Jacobson has never been short on opinions and he has plenty to say on this subject. He also has a huge curiosity about the Bible in general and the Creation in particular. “I’ve always loved the story,” he says. “It’s a great story, but it’s more than a great story. It is full of philosophical challenges and poetical challenges, and it’s always been in my head and my life. I’m an English literature man and English literature from Shakespeare to T S Eliot is steeped in the Bible. Even if you didn’t know about the Bible, these books would drive you back to it — it’s source material.”

However, his fascination with the Creation story goes beyond his love of English literature. “What I don’t want to catch myself saying is that the Creation is a great story but it’s just a story — a metaphor. As soon as you say that, you’ve given it away, somehow. I feel there is more vexatious truth around the Creation than I once thought. During the making of this programme I felt it more strongly and I understood more why it has haunted minds for thousands of years. Having said that, when people ask me whether I’m religious I always say absolutely not. But when I think about it later, I always think that this is not quite right. But no religious person would call me religious.”

Jacobson’s investigation into the story took him to Israel, where he discussed the origins of the Creation story with archaeologists. According to them, the physical evidence points to the fact that the Bible was written, or at least popularised, more than 500 years after Moses, shortly before the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. Jacobson feels that this event paradoxically cemented Jewish monotheism.

“It should at that point have been all over. We get the idea that here is our God, that he is looking after us and that he is better than all the other gods. The next minute, the Temple in which he resides is ruined and we are being shlepped off to Babylon. What kind of a God is this? What use is He? You would expect this to have finished off Judaism just as it finished off other religions, but we turned disaster into theological triumph. The Jews said that the exile showed not that God had been defeated by the Babylonians but that He had caused this to happen because we had let Him down. This was the birth of Jewish guilt as well as monotheism.”

You can’t say that 9/11 was God’s fault

He adds that if God was indeed “a Jewish invention”, he might be the result of what Jacobson calls “our disputatious nature”.

“I love all those fine distinctions which are made at the beginning of the Creation story,” he says. “I make a joke in the programme that God is actually the first literary critic. He says let there be light and there is light, he distinguishes day from night, water from firmament, holy from profane. That’s what the Jews continue to do. We love distinction. Could it be that this disputatiousness is part of that original creativity?”

Given Jacobson’s lack of religious observance, it may come as a surprise that he has more time for religious people than for atheists. However, he claims that one of his motivations in making a film about the Creation was his antipathy towards the new militant atheism of writers like Richard Dawkins.

“The form that atheism has taken in the past few years has repelled me, actually. It has gone beyond not believing in God. They scorn people who believe in God and even scorn those who are even the slightest bit doubtful. As it happens, the atheist I speak to in the programme, A C Grayling, is someone I admire. I think it was better to have a proper conversation rather than an argument which might have degenerated into something more brutal.”

However, Jacobson has some sympathy with the starting point for the new atheism — the 9/11 bombings. “The Dawkins book and others like it got their impetus from 9/11 and I understand that. You can’t have people flying planes into buildings and saying that it is in the name of God. But nor can you say that it is God’s fault. If you do, you are failing to deal with the way intelligent and thoughtful people have been religious for 2,000 years. That kind of thinking is close-minded and suffers from all the faults that the religious themselves suffer from.”

He has similar problems with the Creationists. “The main reason I can’t agree with them is that they want to interpret the thing with brutal literalness and then you get the atheists arguing against their literalness with a literalness of their own. They are two sides of the same coin. In a way one has the same argument with both of them. Neither of them read the Creation as it should be read. It is not an account of what actually happened, so to say that is nonsense. But the atheists argue that because it might not have happened in exactly this way, this renders the Bible worthless. This is equally absurd.”

Jacobson praises the contribution of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, who also ponders on the nature of the Creation in the programme. “Of course, Sacks is a trained philosopher. I found him very circumspect but he speaks well. He reminds us not that we shouldn’t read it literally but that there are several different kinds of literalness. He says that Genesis is a refutation of myths, by which he means all the other myths that the Jews would have been accessing at about this time, of the world coming into existence as the result of a fight between a pantheon of gods. Rather, this is a story of no strife — a story of a single God creating something in a beautifully poetic moment.”

In his research, Jacobson was particularly taken by the idea that what Jews do on a Friday night is recall and, in a sense, recreate, the Creation. He took the idea to some Orthodox friends in Manchester who agreed that this was indeed an important element of Shabbat. “Isn’t it amazing that after all this time we are remembering those first few days? I asked some Lubavitch friends who are actually in the film if this had occurred to them. They said that it had, and added that it was a kind of partnership between mankind and God.”

However, he remains unsure whether the Jews were created by God or whether it was the other way around. “I tend to think that we wrote God, that the God of the Old Testament is a Jewish invention. I feel comfortable as a non-Orthodox Jew in saying that he comes out of our minds. But then when God comes out of your mind he takes over. You invent God on Monday and then on Tuesday you are on your knees worshipping Him.”

So would he like the story to be true? Jacobson ponders for a moment before answering: “When I am lying on my deathbed I think I would prefer it to be true. But then I don’t care if it’s a delusion because we’ll never know.”

In between making the programme, Jacobson has been working on a creation of his own. His latest novel, The Finkler Question, which is due to be published in the autumn, is also on a theme which is taxing Jewish minds — that of our relationship with the world and our image of ourselves.

“It’s partly a book about Jewish identity. It’s about non-Jews wanting to be Jews and Jews who don’t want to be Jews. It gained momentum after the Gaza incursion when there was a really horrible feeling in Britain — almost a crisis of Jewish identity. I couldn’t stop writing about it or thinking about it. I’ve written a novel from my point of view about what it feels like to be a Jew in England right now in the light of what is happening in Israel.

“Jewishness seems to have a strange status at the moment. On the one hand you feel that everybody hates Jews, and on the other hand there is a great admiration. Some of the worst things you hear about Jews come from Jews themselves. Why are so many Jews ashamed to be Jewish?”


BORN: August 25, 1942

FAMILY: Married to third wife,
Jenny de Yong. He has one son from a previous marriage

CAREER: His novels include Kalooki Nights, The Mighty Waltzer and Coming from Behind. His work as a broadcaster include a South Bank Show on Why Novels Matter, and an investigation into Jewishness, Roots Schmoots

WHAT HE SAYS ABOUT BEING JEWISH: “I’m not by any means conventionally Jewish… What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence. I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past”

‘The Bible — A History’ is on Channel 4 on Sunday at 7pm

Last updated: 3:52pm, January 26 2010