So way back in the day, when I was still living in Tulsa, OK and had maybe just converted to Judaism, my rabbi handed me a copy of the (then relatively new) Jewish Review of Books. In this particular issue was an article by Michael Weingrad entitled “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” I read it. It bothered me. It still does.
This article is not without its issues. At the very least Weingrad’s understanding of Fantasy seems overly reductionist, placing undue emphasis on romantic nostalgia for a vanished feudal past as a central and essential element of the genre. But while it might be a useful exercise for a later time, I’m not here today to critique the article itself, because it’s not really the article itself that I take issue with.
It’s the title.
When I read the article all those years ago, I initially misread the title. Rather than “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,” I thought it said “Why Is There No Jewish Narnia?” A subtle difference, but an important one, because it underscores how Weingrad approaches the question as if it were already answered, as though taking it for granted that there are good reasons why Jewish culture has produced so few notable works of fantasy. That’s what bothers me.
Underlying all of this is a set of assumptions about what Judaism is and what it can be, a set of assumptions that were outdated and inaccurate back in the 60’s and 70’s and which continue to be so to this day – that Judaism is “this-worldly” rather than “other-worldly,” that it is somehow more inherently rationalistic than Christianity, that elements of magic, the supernatural, and above all mythology are foreign to it. The fact is that these elements of Jewish self-understanding are ultimately derived from the 19th-century Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, representative of the efforts of members of the newly-formed class of German Jewish academics to cast Judaism in a light that would be more palatable to the rationalistic mainstream German academic culture. In pursuit of this goal, historians like Heinrich Graetz cast the history of Judaism a particular light, downplaying the deep importance of mysticism and mythology to the development of Judaism as a religion. The fact that Hasidic Judaism, grounded in a version of medieval kabbalah radically reformulated to be accessible to the masses, was developing in eastern Europe into one of the most successful religious movements in Jewish history, was apparently too insignificant to have been worth their notice.
Today, despite the work of such noteworthy researchers into the field of Jewish mysticism as Gershom Sholem and Moshe Idel, the idea of Judaism as an essentially rationalistic and “this-worldly” faith is still with us. But this way of looking at ourselves seems deeply limiting to me. It strikes me as ignoring not only a fundamental aspect of the history of our civilization, but of our own spiritual being. In order to be a healthier, more complete people, I think we need to come to terms with the mystical side of ourselves, and of our religion, which to this day still tends to be ignored. I also happen to think that the most powerful way of exploring this less-than-adequately-acknowledged side of Judaism may be through the medium of fantasy fiction.
I’ve thought about Weingrad’s article from time to time over the years, and more than once I’ve wondered why it bothers me so much. I think at last I may have an answer – because in reality the title doesn’t strike me as a bare statement, nor as a question calling out for scholarly inquiry. To me, it feels much more personal than that. It feels like a challenge. In that light, the answer to the question, “Why is there no Jewish Narnia?” seems laughably simple.
It is because I haven’t finished writing it yet.
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