What is it about Harold Bloom that gets people all worked up? Well, for one, there is almost no way to remain indifferent to a man who writes, “If Yahweh is a man of war, Allah is a suicide bomber.” One would like to think Bloom is being provocative with this phrase, despite his repeated admonitions. In the opening pages of his book “Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine” he clearly states for anyone interested that his intention is neither to ironize nor give offense.
Who was this book written for? One answer is that the book was penned by Harold Bloom for an audience of one. From the book’s title onward he manages to alienate almost every potential reader. Religious “believers” will have perhaps little interest in a purely literary reading of scripture that tends to undermine every principle of the sacred. Secularists will be offended by Bloom’s unequivocal refutation of the supposed Judeo-Christian tradition, which he terms a “farce.”
Atheists like Sam Harris, whose book “The End of Faith” is discussed in the closing chapter, will likely feel betrayed by Bloom’s insistence that reason alone cannot dislodge Yahweh, who contains us, not we him. Who is left? Lay readers, most of whom no doubt will find themselves ill-prepared for the onslaught of scholarship that awaits them. If you are not well-versed in the Hebrew Bible, Christian New Testament, Mishnah, gnosticism, Talmud, Kabbalah, and the work of Freud, Kafka and Walt Whitman (and the myriad commentaries on all of the above) you may not get past page three. But how else could such a book have been written?
The book’s main thesis—if indeed it has only one—is the supposed incompatibility of Judaism with Christianity. Bloom quotes the scholar Jacob Neusner: “different people talking about different things to different people”, hardly a consoling phrase for anyone who believes in interreligious dialogue. Bloom, however, does not set out to console.
Almost every page of this book fascinates in its audacity. Bloom knows what his readers expect of him and he throws no curve balls. He cannot reconcile the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, with the Christian Old Testament. They are two different books with two wildly different agendas. Jesus Christ bears little in common with Yeshua ben Josef (or what little we can surmise about him). The Christian God the Father has almost nothing to do with Yahweh. Christianity, triumphant in the West, has taken the Tanakh (and ancient Judaism) captive like a prize. The Jews, thanks to their tenacity, have somehow survived despite all this. The Judeo-Christian tradition is, in Bloom’s mind, political doublespeak, pure wind.
Not to suggest that these musings have no merit. There is a lot of keen observation in Bloom’s willingness to offend. When he calls Freud “the prime incarnation of Jewish genius since Jesus himself” he is repeating one of his many obsessive shibboleths. One may wonder how Whitman or King Lear fit in to all this, but Bloom makes room for them, too. The key to all this is—what else?—Lurianic Kabbalah, which makes room for just about everything in the universe.
Marc Alan Coen – also in THE NEWYORKERS column of this blog.