David Ebenbach writes an artist’s commentary on Torah
January 30, 2013
Fiction writer David Ebenbach doesn’t separate his writing self from his Jewish self. “My writing life is driven by spirituality because of who I am,” he said in a phone interview.
So when he thinks about the creative process — which, as a creative writing instructor at Georgetown University, he does often — it’s only natural that he turns to the Torah.
After writing a few short pieces on the subject of creativity and spirituality, he said, he wanted “to do something bigger.”
He was happy to find both himself and the Torah up to the challenge.
The Artist’s Torah, a commentary on the weekly Torah portions, was published in November by Cascade Books. It asks: What does this parsha say about creativity? And how can artists make it relevant to their creative work?
It is also his own twist on The Artist’s Way, a sort of creative person’s Bible by writer and artist Julia Cameron infused with her Buddhist leanings.
Ebenbach said he likes the format of The Artist’s Torah because “the book stays with you throughout the year in the same way that the Torah is with us all year. It’s not a book you take off the shelf just once a year.”
He will appear at Bnai Keshet in Montclair on Feb. 2. He will speak about the book during Shabbat services and will read from some of his other works at a meeting of the congregation’s book group before services. Both are free and open to the public.
Ebenbach is no stranger to the Montclair area or to Bnai Keshet. His wife, Rabbi Rachel Gartner, was the assistant rabbi there for three years, and the couple lived in Montclair for two of those years. They left in 2006 for the Midwest and are now both affiliated with Georgetown University — she as director of Jewish chaplaincy, he as a creative writing professor.
Ebenbach knew the later, legalistic sections of Torah would be more of a challenge than the early, narrative chapters. Those later books were “my terror,” he said. “You start with all the good creative stuff. But then when you get to Leviticus, what do you do?”
He came to realize what most people assigned to write a sermon on a difficult portion discover: “If you stay long enough with it, something eventually comes,” he said. In struggling with Leviticus, he concluded that the role of the writer is not so different from the role of the priest; both are about “making meaning in the world.”
Now he’s convinced there’s material and inspiration for a writer on any topic. “I think you could even do a fly fishing Torah! It’s all in there,” he said, referencing Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag’s oft-quoted adage from Pirkei Avot, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.”
Throughout The Artist’s Torah, Ebenbach quotes liberally from Jewish cultural figures. Some are obvious choices, like writer Amos Oz and jazz musician John Zorn. Others are more idiosyncratic figures with more distant, conflicted, or even puzzling relationships to Judaism, like Bob Dylan.
“There was no litmus test to say, ‘Are you Jewish enough?’ If there was something there, I went for it.” He added, “There’s so much in Torah that stays with us and filters into the culture in so many ways, that even someone distant from Judaism will have had some contact.”
So after all that, does Ebenbach have a favorite parsha? “I love, love, love the first sections. That’s what got me started,” he said. “But I also think V’zot Habracha at the end feels like a larger statement about the whole process — why we do it and what it is. And anytime I get into the purpose of writing, I love it.”
‘Experience of the divine’
The Torah tells us that all Jews were present for the revelation, the giving of the Torah, at Mount Sinai — not just the Israelites who had wandered there from Egypt but all subsequent generations, too, including the present (Deut 29:13-14). All of us stood at the foot of the mountain with the thunder and lightning and the rolling clouds all around; all of us heard the sound of the shofar and of that resonating voice....
What we each do with that experience, how we act in its wake, varies, too; it makes sense that that experience would play out in different ways in different lives. It also makes sense that artists, who bring out and renew revelation in every age, would produce such a dizzying range of work….
In his characteristically dense prose, painter Mark Rothko puts it like this when he discusses the similarities between the poet, the philosopher, and the visual artist: “The preoccupation with these eternal problems creates a common ground which transcends the disparity in the means used to achieve them.”
We are, each one of us, engaged in the same process. It plays itself out differently in each one of us, just as everything else does. But the result is the same — in every soul, a part or a version of the wisdom from atop the mountain. In the case of the artist…, that individual wisdom comes back to the community, whether on canvas or a sprung dance floor or in words or notes, a bond with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day (Deut 29:13) — a bond with the artist’s generation and all those yet to come.
— From “Yitro: The Individual and Communal Natures of Revelation,” The Artist’s Torah by David Ebenbach