Oh, Jesus; Oh, God


The Names Divine
By Harold Bloom
256 pages. Riverhead. $24.95.

The experience of reading Harold Bloom is like listening to a complicated jazz piece—the work is beautiful, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, often difficult to grasp, at times playful and at others dead serious, full of repetitions, riffs, and tangents, and ultimately satisfying, even if you're not sure you really got it entirely. This holds true for Bloom's new Jesus and Yahweh, a book that explores not just the two title characters, but four figures in all: the historical man Jesus, or, as Bloom dubs him, Yeshua of Nazareth; Jesus Christ, "a theological god," the second person of the trinity; Yahweh, the "human all-too-human god," divinity of the Jews; and God the Father, the first person of the Christian trinity. That the first two of these four, Yeshua of Nazareth and Jesus Christ, are different people is not a big revelation to non-Christians (and even some Christians) who've given thought to Christian history and belief. That the second two—Yahweh and God the Father—are indeed two different characters is among the gems of insight Bloom offers in this relatively slim, engagingly written volume.

Bloom is at times funny, in a snarky kind of way, and his put-downs are biting: Josephus is a "superb liar," Yahweh is a "stern imp," the Gospel of John is "aesthetically strong and spiritually appalling," and "there is a curious emptiness in Pauline doctrine." Along the way, as Bloom offers us his thoughts as a literary critic and a Jew, he touches on such disparate topics as Shakespeare (Yahweh as King Lear, Jesus as Hamlet); the Second Temple-era sage Rabbi Akiba, a favorite of Bloom's; gnosticism, which Bloom never really defines but only asserts its presence and his belief in it; Islam, in that Allah is the most popularly worshipped form of Yahweh today; Kabbalah and its modern scholarship; contemporary politics, especially of Jerusalem's Temple Mount; Freud, whom Bloom holds in curiously, almost unparalleled high regard; and contemporary American religion, specifically the ascendant American version of Jesus and Pentecostals' embrace of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the trinity.

In offering us profiles of Jesus/Yeshua and Yahweh/God the Father, Bloom is explicitly offering us a contrast. He aptly states that what became Christianity and what became normative, rabbinic Judaism both grew as responses to the loss of the Temple at the hands of the Romans—Christianity (the earlier of the two, surprisingly) replacing the Temple with Christ, Judaism replacing it with the rituals and religious life of the Jewish household. And yet, he sees little parallel between the two faiths and mocks the notion that "Judeo-Christian" has any meaning beyond making Americans feel pluralistic. Jesus Christ and Yahweh are so incompatible that they can't even talk to each other (hence the transformation of Yahweh into the more approachable God the Father), and their spiritual descendants are equally estranged.

In Christian doctrine and divinity, Bloom points out the inconsistencies that he sees, differentiating, for instance, between the Christ of Mark, the Christ of John, the Christ of Paul, and so on. And none of these Christs, he further points out, ever has a direct conversation with God, who is not only the interlocutor with the prophets who serve as preludes to Jesus, but who is, after all, Jesus' father, or abba in Bloom's words. Bloom adds that, taken as a whole, the New Testament, in its purpose of supplanting the supposed Old Testament, is "the strongest and most creative successful misreading in all of textual history."

These are harsh words, but astute observations all. Still, it is for Yahweh, the God of his own people, that Bloom reserves his toughest judgments. Yahweh, Bloom tells us, is a fascinating and frustrating character, King Lear and Falstaff wrapped into one; "mischievous, inquisitive, jealous, and turbulent," he is unpredictable and unlovable, choosing seemingly at random when to be present and—more often, and with tragic consequences—when to be absent. He hears the cries of his people, but refuses to act, demands love, fear, and fidelity, and gives little or nothing in return. Ultimately, he concludes that Spinoza was right when he said, "It is necessary that we learn to love God without expecting that he will ever love us in return."

The believing Jew, Bloom reminds us, will encounter a very different Yahweh from the one we see in this book, one that comes from the mind of a man who admittedly stands outside the boundaries of normative Judaism. And yet, viewing the horrors of Jewish history—especially those of the end of the Second Temple soon after Jesus' life and those of the Nazi Holocaust that transpired during Bloom's lifetime—it is hard to argue with the bitterness and estrangement from God that Bloom feels. His personal beliefs and practices may indeed place him outside of mainstream Judaism, but in his wrangling with the absent Yahweh, it's possible to say that, far from removing himself from normative Judaism, Bloom stands within a great tradition of pointing our fingers at God and demanding better. Bloom deals with the deadening silence that we get in response by being unable to live as a traditionally observant Jew. That some of us remain "traditional," within the bounds of normative contemporary Judaism, doesn't mean that we point our fingers any less accusingly at Yahweh. In the covenant, we had a deal between the divine Yahweh and his Chosen People; we the Chosen People have been far from perfect, but still, Auschwitz was not part of the deal. Bloom's inability to believe—or to fully let go of belief—is poignant; in this powerful book, he makes us feel that to believe without accusation, without finger-pointing, is sheer folly.