December 31, 2009
New Voices reviews The Comic TorahElle Mikulincer-Weiss reviews The Comic Torah and interviews creators Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig for New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine and decides: "Torah classes will never be the same."
Bottom line: "The book could be the perfect bar or bat mitzvah gift to inspire the birthday kid to keep reading the Torah in a new and innovative way."
Book Review: Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig's "The Comic Torah"December 31, 2009 | Elle Mikulincer-Weiss
Redrawing the Very Good BookThe final commandment in the Torah is to write a torah scroll for oneself, but few expect to take it literally.
While the Good Book has always been a best seller, it’s not exactly a page-turner or a beach read. Half of the joy of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an end to the tedium of reading an endless line of who begat whom.
But “The Comic Torah,” created by husband and wife Sharon Rosenzweig and Aaron Freeman, is far from boring. In the book the authors present what they call “the cutting edge of the lunatic fringe,” as they wrote in an email to New Voices. Torah classes will never be the same.
In the beginning
Rosenzweig, who was trained as a painter, discovered her husband’s cartoons of Torah scenes in their house one day. Freeman been using the comics as a way to connect with the Jewish world: the comics would be a memorable way of showing that he “was down with the program of parsha and midrash,” he wrote.
But Freeman is a standup comedian, not an artist. And while the work showed promise, Rosenzweig could not let it remain as it was.
“I wasn’t planning to take his work over, but I had to do something,” she said.
So, like Adam and Eve, they started work on the fruit of their labor, pushing the boundaries of biblical discussion with their own unique twist:
God as a Woman.
I am YHWH, hear me roar
Feminism aside, it takes a lot of guts to show the Almighty as a curvy, beautiful young woman.
“At first, we avoided depicting the deity, or used bearded white men,” Rosenzweig said but “later, when God appeared in the burning bush, a flirtation developed in the drawing, which was completely unexpected."
Having based Moses on her husband Aaron, “It seemed logical that I play YHWH,” she said.
Perhaps more daring than the feminine divine is the character of “Honey,” based on the Bollywood starlet Shilpa Sheti, who is the personification of the land of Israel, a sultry temptress of a land giving new meaning to the phrase Jewish geography.
The love triangle between God, Moses and the land comes across poignantly. It recalls the Song of Solomon, with the scorching subtext that allows the viewer to see the intimacy of the situation while keeping her interest.
It’s hard not to feel a flutter in your chest at the revelation at Mt. Sinai, where, the authors wrote, readers see “Ya and Moses on their 40 night tryst by the light of a flaming volcano.” Yeshiva never made it sound quite so interesting.
Strangely enough, despite what most rabbis say, God as a woman may not be so radical a concept.
“God is neither woman nor man,” said Sharona Segal, who teaches Jewish women’s classes in Boston. “Reading references to God as 'He' is very disturbing, but I imagine it's due to the lack of a neutral pronoun in both English and Hebrew.”
In fact, in Judaism, “God is as much woman as man,” says Segal, and that is why when teaching students, she has “tried not to use 'He' to describe God, because it's very inaccurate. God encompasses both genders, and should be shown as such.”
Segal noted that at the beginning of the Friday night service, God appears in the text in a feminine form.
She added that the “Comic Torah” may serve a vital need in the community, since “the image of the fierce, paternal God is not, I think, a healthy one where it comes to observance.”
The celebrity bible
One of the most enjoyable parts of the comic is how contemporary and hip it is. The couple drew the biblical characters after celebrities, with the intention that readers will connect with the characters as people they know from the news.
Still, some of the character choices seem a bit unusual, such as Cheech and Chong as Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s rebellious sons. In fact, this may alienate some viewers, who find that the fast and loose approach a little tongue in cheek. The Bible is not Saturday Night Live.
Rosenzweig and Freeman acknowledge that their approach may be risqué and may push buttons, but see that as an asset rather than a flaw. As time goes on, certain cameos (“Yes, we Canaan”) will date the work and force a constant updating every few years as old celebrities fade from the public radar and new ones replace them.
The book may also struggle to find an audience. The comics require a high level of Jewish knowledge for the jokes to work, such as Elliot Spitzer playing the biblical character Laban, “The White Guy.” The pun works only if the reader understands that Laban means “white” in Hebrew.
Rosenzweig and Freeman, however, succeed with brilliant illustrations and the book could be the perfect bar or bat mitzvah gift to inspire the birthday kid to keep reading the Torah in a new and innovative way.
As for those who find the work too controversial, the creators acknowledge that it won’t fit every single household, but sees that as an asset.
“We don’t mind if others disapprove," they wrote. “Hopefully, it will inspire them to write a Torah of their own.”