Ben Yehuda Press 

Iconia: Is God blood thirsty, genocidal and green-skinned?

October 26, 2010

Menachem Wecker reviews the Comic Torah at his Iconia blog:

"Moses, tell Israel to be like ME," God says. "Blood thirsty and genocidal?" Moses asks. "No. Holy, special, unique," God responds. "YHWH says, 'Absolutely no worshiping Molech," Moses informs the assembled multitudes. "Not us, Moses!" one declares. "We wouldn't even think of it!" says another, as he hides a golden statuette of the ancient near eastern horned god behind his back.

If this doesn't sound like the Leviticus 19 narrative you grew up with, you are probably not alone, particularly since the YHWH in the story is a woman with green skin and a 'YHWH'-inscribed t-shirt.

BereshitTit2.72.jpg But that's how husband-and-wife-duo Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig imagine the scriptures in their new book, The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Very Good Book (Ben Yehuda Press: October 15, 2010).

From the very first page, the origin myth of Comic Torah sets up what kind of creative and contemporary imagination of the biblical narratives Freeman and Rosenzweig have created. Standing waist-deep in a pink-ochre pool (which turns out to be a surrealist depiction of a Torah scroll), the authors draw themselves creating YHWH.

"Hey! I'm GOD! Why am I a woman?!" wonders YHWH, who is perched on Rosenzweig's hand. "The 'Divine Presence' is widely recognized as female," says Freeman, referring, perhaps, to the Kabbalistic traditions of a female shekhina. "Guess I'm widely recognized as green too, huh?" God says. Rosenzweig replies, "It was an artistic choice. Why did you make the sky blue?" God crosses her arms, "I had my reasons."

Rosenzweig and Freeman than discuss naming God YHWH ("I know my own name, and I don't answer to 'Sally,'" God says) and why they have drawn other gods like Molech.

"The Torah mentions at least three other gods by name, and refers indirectly to many," Rosenzweig says. "I know there are others, why are you drawing them?" God asks. "As foils, to show your greatness," Freeman responds. God turns to Rosenzweig and tells her that her husband sure knows how to suck up. "He studies with the best," she responds.

This kind of informal conversation -- not to mention the explicit, pictorial depiction of the authors/illustrators creating God -- is surely irreverent. Some would even call it blasphemous, though it's not the edgiest part of the book, which is arranged according to each weekly synagogue reading, or parsha.

When God tells Abraham to circumcise himself in the parsha of Lech Lecha ("go for you"), Abraham, sweating and staring with trepidation at the knife, wonders, "Couldn't I just pinky swear?" "It's called foreskin, because it's 'for' me," God says, before wearing the bloody skin as a ring in the next panel, as Abraham hunches over in pain in the distance with the bloody knife at his feet.

The book also touches on race (in Shemot, "Exodus," God tells Moses, who is black, that the sign of leprosy on his hand will make the Egyptians think he is "turning into a white guy") and religious controversy (in Acharei Mot, "after the death, God says she will "sic the Muslims" on the Jews if they stop offering the Yom Kippur sacrifices).

One hopes the latter refers to the historical oppression of Jews in Muslim countries, and not to current events where the oppressors masquerade as Muslims. (Though a reference in Bechukotai, "in my laws," to "Your enemies will rule over you!" which shows a man -- perhaps Hassan Nasrallah -- with a keffiyeh around his neck riding on Moses' back and waving a banner that states, "Mission accomplished," is decidedly contemporary).

"Move over R. Crumb, here's the Comic Torah," wrote Chris Mautner on the site Comic Book Resources.

I'm not sure Freeman and Rosenzweig have much of a shot outselling (or eclipsing the publicity surrounding) Crumb -- nor would it be fair to expect them to -- but it is worth noting that their project involves a unique sort of meditation upon the texts, which even Crumb has not rivaled.

Anyone who has spent time cutting their teeth on the original Hebrew will soon recognize that beneath the surface of the irreverence, informality and seemingly random interpretations lies a serious, personal and very contemporary struggle with the meaning of the texts.

It is my hunch that anyone who takes a copy of Comic Torah to synagogue as a companion to the bible for following along during the weekly Sabbath Torah readings will not only not be disappointed, but might just also end up having some rare insights to share with their colleagues after the service.

We'd be remiss not to send you to the original review, where you can read the response by readers of the Houston Chronicle, where Menachem's blog appears.

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