Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Review II: Cassandra Misreads The Book of Samuel

Guest post by Shmuel Sofer (cross-posted to Jewish Book News)

Cassandra Misreads The Book of Samuel (and other untold tales of the prophets) is a collection of 8 short stories. The first seven are based upon or loosely connected to different books of Tanach, while the final selection is a contemporary story related to prophecy. As I read through the various stories I found myself trying to discern exactly who the authors’ intended audience was and what if any, purpose or theme he was trying to address. Author Rabbi Gidon Rothstein PhD is by profession an educator and seemingly he wants to use his literary skills to educate his readership as well. In his introduction, Rothstein states that he wanted to present these stories in a fresh manner so that the reader would be able to look at stories he or she may be familiar with but because of that prior knowledge may be “lost in the haze of familiarity... and will be able to see them again with the eyes of a first time reader.” These fictionalized stories are presented with an eye towards mining them for lessons for the contemporary reader.

Click here to read moreThe first tale is centered upon the events surrounding the egel hazahav, the golden calf and the turmoil which those sinful events brought to one imaginary family. The story is written using contemporary names and a style which might better resonate with a contemporary high school student than to the more mature reader.

Following, is the book’s titular chapter. It is based on an interesting twist requiring that the reader must be familiar to some degree with the Greek mythology of Homer’s Iliad as well as the basics of the story of Samuel and his early career as a prophet during the time of Eli HaKohen as well as Kings Saul and David. The story involves Cassandra, a mythical prophetess of ancient Troy, and her recurring visions of the story of Samuel and her perceived understanding of its impact for her and her besieged people.

The next several stories are gleaned from the latter prophets, and include Obadiah, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Malachi. They deal with themes such as how might a prophet look back on his career as it winds down, and how the people with whom a prophet interacted might have viewed his efforts and the effects on their lives. I found the stories regarding Obadiah and Malachi to be two of the most interesting and engaging tales. The Malachi story brought to mind Harry Potter as it presents the frustrations of three students Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi enrolled in a school for young, hopeful prophets in the waning years of the era of prophecy.

The final section is a contemporary tale of a modern-day prophet and his efforts to present his visions to people in a way which that they might be able to accept his message. This is not based on any particular prophet from Tanach but is an interesting story of its own.

Overall, the work is interesting although somewhat uneven in its style and the quality of its prose. Some general considerations are that readers might consider the entire endeavor to be somewhat disrespectful to Tanach. However, if one grants the author some latitude and willingness to look beyond the presentation, Rabbi Rothstein is, in fact, attempting to educate his readers in an entertaining and imaginative way. To properly understand the stories, the reader must be somewhat familiar with the basic storyline as present in the original Tanach version. An appendix or a footnote outlining some of this information would be useful. The author makes use of Chazal’s understanding and insights as he describes the various prophets identities, personalities and their times. I frequently found myself referring back to some general works on the various prophets to better understand the context of the stories. This is most certainly true for the Cassandra story, where a large portion of the story revolves around non-Jewish characters and mythology, which many may not be familiar with.

I think the author too often puts the priesthood and Temple service in a negative light, a theme I noted in his previous work, Murderer in the Mikdash, as well. His portrayal of the “business side” of the Temple and its service portrays it in a somewhat unflattering light, especially for Orthodox Jews who longingly look forward to the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash and reestablishing of the various sacrificial services. Overall, I think the book is an entertaining and somewhat educational work that would make a good chol hamoed read for the upcoming Pesach holiday.

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