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Taking liberties with Torah stories

A distinctly unclassical approach to biblical commentary

Unscrolled, Edited by Roger Bennett, Workman Publishing, £12.99

    The rabbis of old made daring leaps of the imagination when commenting on the stories of the Torah, creating what we call midrash.

    But they were not quite as bold as the authors of Unscrolled, a collection of short pieces from young, mostly American, artists, writers and filmmakers inspired by the 54 portions of the Torah. Contributors range from director Jill Soloway to British documentary-maker Tim Samuels.

    We are not talking conventional divrei Torah here: there are several dramatic sketches, a poem, a cartoon strip and other forms. Some function as midrash, reinterpreting a passage in the Torah, whereas others use it as a launchpad for a creative flight of fancy.

    Inevitably, the quality is variable. The gay storyteller Amichai Lau-Lavie's address to his younger self as a barmitzvah boy, 30 years earlier, on parashat Acharei Mot - which contains the prohibition on homosexual practice - is particularly moving. And A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, gives a funny take on some of the laws of Leviticus in the style of a memo to God.

    Traditionalists may be offended by the irreverent tone and the nothing-is-sacred vernacular of many of the offerings, especially when they challenge the morality of the biblical account.

    But for students and others who might have left their Jewish studies behind at bar or batmitzvah, this inventive anthology might help coax them back to Judaism's primary text.

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