Rabbinic Literature: Where are the Novels?
When I was confirmed in 1965, I received a copy of The Rabbi by Noah Gordon as a gift. Reading the novel proved to be a watershed moment in my life. As the story drew back the curtain on the personal and private life of a young man who enters the rabbinate, I thought – for the first time – that I, too, might someday come to be a rabbi.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued by the book. It remained on the New York Times Best Sellers List for 26 weeks and, at the time, everyone – or at least, everyone I knew who was Jewish – had their nose buried in its pages.
Given the remarkable success of that volume, I am surprised at how few similarly themed novels have been written since. With a few exceptions – Congregation, Joy Comes in the Morning, and the Rabbi Small novels – there is virtually no successor to The Rabbi.
There has been fiction about detective rabbis (The Daniel Winter Mysteries), rabbis in small-town communities (The Outsider), in the military (The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen), in the Orthodox world (The Promise), in academia (Kabbalah: A Love Story) and as minor characters in stories focusing on a larger world (City of God). But, in the 50 years since Gordon’s novel, few others – if any – detail the struggles of congregational rabbis seeking spiritual worth in a demanding profession, a balance between career and family, and satisfying and meaningful relationships in congregational life.
I wonder why.
It is possible, of course, that other serious novels about congregational rabbis were written but failed to find an audience. If they’re out there, though, I’ve yet to discover them.
It also is possible the Jewish world has lost its passion for fiction and has moved on to journalistic narratives of real rabbis and their congregations, such as The New Rabbi and And They Shall Be My People.
Nonetheless, even as these books respond to a need in the Jewish community, there’s no reason they should displace our appetite for good fiction about rabbis and congregational life.
So, let me propose another theory.
Part of the cultural revolution of the time, the fiction of the 1960s attempted to strip away the outward façade of authority figures, revealing the truth behind public personae. Not content to accept our public figures – from presidents and politicians to spiritual leaders – as they chose to present themselves, we refused to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” (to borrow from The Wizard of Oz).
Instead, we yearned to see the sometimes-negative, always-complex reality that lay behind the cultivated image of our public figures. Indeed, it is no surprise that The Rabbi, which offered readers of the time a fly-on-the-wall perspective into the protagonist’s life, was such a hit. It fell solidly within the zeitgeist of its time.
Perhaps we no longer need that kind of “reveal.”
Today, rabbis increasingly subvert the role and expectations of their predecessors – wanting to be known by their first names and openly sharing details of their personal lives, emotions, and private thoughts in an effort to make themselves and their messages more accessible to congregants.
Add to this new openness the fact that a few rabbis’ personal lives have become public because of their own sordid behavior – “peeping” in the congregation’s mikveh and using discretionary funds as “hush money” as protection against inappropriate relationships, for example – and it’s easy to see how today’s Jewish community might feel as though it already knows more than it wants to about its rabbis. Indeed, novels about the inner life and behavior of some congregational rabbis could certainly be classified as TMI – too much information!
On the other hand, a worthy successor to The Rabbi – well-written, sensitive, and insightful – would not only depict the full humanity of those who preach, counsel, teach, and bring holiness into others’ lives, but also open the community more widely to these leaders – and to their message.