The Comic Torah

Posted by on October 11th, 2010 at 10:33 AM

Kent reviews a “decidedly unconventional retelling” of the Five Books of Moses.

Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig, The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Very Good Book.  Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2010. 128 pp, full color. $19.95 paperback. ISBN: 13-978-1-934730-54-6.

The Comic Torah offers a light-hearted reinterpretation of the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – which observant Jews read each week as part of their intensive study of the Torah. The book started out as a series of blog posts that were circulated on the web by Jews looking for an unconventional approach to this canonical material.

“Our intent,” explains the artist, Sharon Rosenzweig, who produced this book in collaboration with her husband, the standup comedian Aaron Freeman, “was to stick to the literal and surface meaning of the text, not delving into the deeper layers that real Torah scholars understand.” The result is an eccentric, brightly colored book that will probably hold greater appeal for “New Jews” – i.e., Jews who are “reviving and reinventing received Judaism” – than for non-religious fans of the cartoon arts.

The book is organized around a series of two-page comic strips that introduce readers to snippets from each of the five books of Moses. Taken together, these strips tell the story of YHWH and her vexed relationship with Moses, Isaac, Aaron and other key figures from what Christians refer to as the Old Testament.

As Rosenzweig explains in the publicity material, she and her husband imagined “ourselves into the story…we played the characters, or cast our friends and family, or pulled politicians and celebrities from the news.” The result is a kind of postmodern melange in which bearded ancients, false idols, Egyptian tyrants and contemporary film stars struggle to make themselves heard above the din of Biblical storytelling.

The hero of the story – if hero is the right word – is G-d, or YHWH, who is depicted in these pages as an astral being with green skin, blue hair and a thirst for vengeance. Vain, opinionated, wrathful and flirtatious, her larger-than-life personality impresses itself on followers and enemies alike. While the people of Canaan make countless sacrifices to an indifferent Moloch, YHWH spies on and pesters her chosen people and spends her time coming up with new ways to test and exhaust the faithful.

The Comic Torah covers some of the same ground that is canvassed in Robert Crumb’s recent bestseller. Like The Book of Genesis, Freeman and Rosenzweig’s volume is aimed at adults rather than children. It doesn’t censor the source material but instead revels in its strangeness and perversity. Like Crumb, they take the historical texts seriously and use the comics medium to wrestle with the enormous weight of tradition that the books of Moses represent.

But that’s where the comparison ends. Crumb’s approach is straight-faced, and theirs is jokey. While Crumb’s images are stately, thickly textured and starkly black-and-white, Rosenzweig’s sketches are playful, loose and gaudy. One gets the sense that in creating The Book of Genesis, Crumb was trying to take himself out of the story, and place the focus where it seemingly belongs, whereas Freeman and Rosenzweig are trying to suggest that the Torah is their story and that every generation of Jews must reinvent the “very good book” for themselves.

Taken together, the two books make a strong case that the truth must lie somewhere in the middle, since The Book of Genesis is a little dull while The Comic Torah is a bit manic. Placing the sacred scrolls on a pedestal is as problematic as mining them for punchlines. The best pages in Crumb’s book are the ones that exhibit a sense of humor, while the best pages in this book are the ones that tell the fewest jokes.

The back cover features a string of celebrity endorsements that are cleverly caricatured by Sharon Rosezweig. “Indispensable!” says one prominent rabbi; “fantastic!” pronounces another. “Sacred and profane at the same time,” says Paul Krassner, whose wryness is unmistakable. If Harold Ramis’ blurb is a little predictable – “If God was a comic artist this is what She would have drawn” – I was surprised Alison Bechdel found it “awesome.” Don’t get me wrong.  The Comic Torah is a solid effort. It’s an interesting experiment. And it’s definitely readable. But is it awesome in the way that, say, Right Wing Radio Duck is unequivocally awesome?

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