Just over a century ago Chayim Bialik, one of the forefathers of modern Hebrew literature, co-edited a book that was to become a standard text for generations of Israeli schoolchildren. Sefer Ha’Agadah, The Book of Legends, was a compilation of stories from the Talmud and Midrash. The early Zionists sought to take the sacred wisdom of the past out of the beit hamidrash and replant it at the root of a broader national heritage.
In the spirit of Bialik’s anthology, a new project, initiated 12 years ago, also wants also to bring the fruits of Jewish creativity to a wider audience — but far exceeding it in scope. The first volume of the projected 10-volume Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization has just been released, whose aim is to encapsulate the finest or most representative examples of Jewish writing and artistic expression from Genesis to the early 21st century.
This massive undertaking is the brainchild of Berlin-born, London-based philanthropist Felix Posen, a longstanding advocate of secular Jewish culture as an alternative to religion.
Given the worldview of its progenitor, it was appropriate that the inaugural volume is chronologically the last, covering the years 1973 to 2005. For the section on religious literature and liturgy runs to merely a tenth of the 1,150-plus pages. Most of the output in the volume, which weighs nearly half a stone, is “secular”. It includes not only a variety of literature from across the world — fiction, children’s, political, philosophical, much of which had to be translated —but visual art too: its catalogue of music and film choices will come to audio-visual life in a companion digital archive.
However, it was a “happy accident” that the series begins at the end, according to editor-in-chief Professor James Young, of Massachusetts University, best known for his work on Holocaust commemoration. It is simply that the two editors of Volume Ten, Professor Deborah Dash More, director of Michigan University’s Frankel Centre for Jewish Studies, and Nurith Gertz, emerita professor of Hebrew literature and film at Israel’s Open University, were the first to complete their assignment.
As the introduction makes explicit, the range of material was targeted partly at Jews “whose religious identities have lapsed, but whose cultural identification might now be renewed”. But it would be wrong to see this “global compendium” — as Professor Young dubs it — as secularist in the anti-religious sense the word has sometimes meant in Israeli politics.
Its ethos is inclusive and pluralistic, embracing an open-ended idea of Jewish civilisation, whose borders, if there are any borders at all, are more dotted line than definitive.
Some editors of other volumes, as Professor Young points out, come from a religious background such as Jeff Tigay (of Volume One, the biblical to mishnaic period) and David Roskies (co-editor of Volume Nine, from World War Two to 1973).
And though some people view it as a sort of secular Talmud, he says that it is “not meant to take place of Talmud or Tanach or the Encyclopedia Judaica” but sit alongside the bookshelves beside them.
Volume Ten’s editors, noticeably, have stayed clear of the term “Judaism”. Professor Dash Moore explained that a debate has arisen “around the term ‘Judaism’ and what it references. Some scholars contend that it applies to Jewish religion but others say it represents a Christian word for Jewish practices and beliefs and forms of belonging that was imposed from outside and doesn’t describe Jewish self-understanding of the relationship among beliefs, behaviours and belonging.”
Others, she said, argue that “‘Judaism’ really describes Jewish civilization and culture in its many attributes and can’t be restricted just to religious aspects. So, given these debates, we decided not to enter them but just to refer to Jewish religion when we wanted to signify those elements of Jewish culture.”
While extracts appear from Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits (on Orthodox trends) and former London Beth Din head Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu (on Shabbat lamps), there is nothing from Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks.
Professor Young agrees this may be a “glaring omission”, while adding that the selections represent “suggested inclusions... not meant to be exhaustive or definitive. If it raises as many questions as it seems to answer, that’s ok.”
In a “perfect anthology”, Professor Dash Moore said, Lord Sacks would have been included. “We had many more individuals in earlier iterations of the volume but had to eliminate over half of our original list.” Those who made the cut were considered “representative, illuminating, unusual, intriguing or excellent,” she said. “These were tough choices and we knew that we would not please everyone.”
The library, due to be published in full by the end of 2015, is not intended to be a closed canon, however. Readers will be able to recommend additions to the online version. But only time will tell whether it will turn out to be the intellectual equivalent of an architectural folly — a brilliant but impractical conceit — or a source-book that no self-respecting Jewish institution will want to be without.