Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine
Harold Bloom
Riverhead Books
238 pages, $35.00 cloth
ISBN: 1-57322-322-0

By Gwen Nowak

Review published in Books in Canada, April 2006.

I was expecting Jesus and Yahweh to be a work of literary criticism. But midway through a first reading I found myself wondering what Bloom was actually doing in this opus and/or if his editor had resigned or been dismissed too early in the process. Happily Bloom paused momentarily mid-discourse to ask a related question of himself: “At my age, just turned seventy-four, I begin wondering: what is my book’s genre?” A couple of pages later he offers a speculative hint of what it might be: “Perhaps it is, in part, an elegy for Yahweh.”

Bloom’s rambling preamble to the elegy is page after page of kaleidoscopic commentary offering shifting visions and juxtapositions of such personalities as Yeshua of Nazareth, Freud, the American Jesus, Shakespeare, Allah, God the Father, Hamlet, Jesus of Nazareth, King Lear, Jesus Christ, William Blake and of course Yahweh. So caught up is he in his meandering musings Bloom seems but dimly aware of his reader’s need for clarity. He absentmindedly addresses his reader as “Whoever you are…” Throughout his disquisition Bloom appears in various roles, morphing randomly into diverse aspects of himself: literary critic, lay exegete of religious texts, commentator on American culture – specifically “the American Jesus”–and most paradoxically and centrally, as an agnostic Jew on a spiritual quest. His occasional references to his advanced age poignantly suggest that Jesus & Yahweh is Bloom’s own ‘belated’ testament [‘belated testament’ being Bloom’s description of the relationship of the New Testament to the Hebrew Bible].

It gradually becomes clear that Bloom’s underlying preoccupation in this discourse is the complex relationship between fathers and sons, hence his focus on Jesus as son and on Yahweh as father. Bloom asks, “But why did Jesus frequently speak in riddles?” His answer: “His parables follow and perfect Hebrew tradition; Yahweh himself, throughout the J Writer’s text, delights in riddling puns, unanswerably rhetorical questions, and fiercely playful outbursts that edge upon a frightening fury. ‘Like father, like son,’ a believer aptly could reply. Whoever wrote Mark, the first Gospel to be composed, was such a believer, and went back to Yahweh at the God’s uncanniest [sic] in order to suggest something of the secret of Jesus.”

Bloom is fully aware of the many quests for the historical Jesus. He suggests that those engaged this quest end up finding only themselves and affirms the view that we cannot know anything for certain about “the elusive and evasive Yeshua, enigma-of-enigmas.” In his role as literary critic Bloom claims that “there are at least seven Jesuses in the book of the New Covenant”, and proceeds to “brood on” them in an attempt to discern a real Jesus, the person he says is most manifest in the Gospel of Mark’s Yeshua of Nazareth. The reader is understandably taken aback when Bloom, agnostic Jew, literary critic, and non-quester after the historical Jesus suddenly enthuses about Mark’s Yeshua: “No more reluctant or legitimate Messiah had existed among the Jews. Heading a nationalist war against the Romans and their mercenary thugs was totally against the nature of this Jewish spiritual genius who was the legitimate king of the Jews, involuntarily and doubtless unhappily.” It certainly sounds like Bloom has had a ‘vision’ of the historical Jesus who lived and moved and had his being in the mundane geopolitical world of Judea 2000 years ago.

Parallel to this bold witnessing to Yeshua, Bloom also toys with affirming the Gnostic Jesus. Bloom isn’t concerned about the very contradictory outcomes for the two figures: Mark’s Yeshua suffers crucifixion; the Gnostic Jesus evades the cross entirely, living to old age in another country far removed from Judaea. The literary model that suggests itself is a work of fiction with two different endings. The reader is free to choose either ending, or enjoy both.

Bloom announces that he is not concerned about contradicting himself, and suggests that his reader should follow suit. According to Bloom, forcing a choice between truth and fiction misses the point. Of his quest for the “historical” Yahweh, Bloom states, “Whether or not one trusts in the Covenant….it is scarcely useful to reduce Yahweh to a truth/fiction choice. If Yahweh is a fiction, he is much the most disturbing fiction the West ever has encountered. Yahweh is, at the least, the supreme fiction, the literary character (to call him that) more endless to meditation than even Jesus Christ, or the most capacious Shakespearian characterizations….” And further: ““The persuasive force of the Gospels, and of the entire New Testament structure, testifies to the power of an imaginative achievement, riddled with inconsistencies but more than large enough to have weathered its self-contradictions….” Bloom is suggesting that his own belated testament should be judged similarly. Perhaps he has in mind an observation he made elsewhere about his beloved Emerson: “Emerson was not bothered by self-contradictions since he knew he contained endless multitudes.”

And in fact Bloom is more than large enough to weather any small storm about his contradictions, but only, I would argue, if the reader simply allows Bloom to be Bloom. This includes Bloom’s continual shape shifting between roles, his contradictions and inconsistencies, his often idiosyncratic dismissal or approval of other exegetes and critics, his mood swings, his personal asides, some sounding the pathos of late-life confession, all of which made me think, actually wish, that Jesus and Yahweh had been marketed as a drama, specifically an audio book or, even better, a full video with Bloom the protagonist-of-protagonists playing himself. I could even imagine the ghosts of King Lear and Don Quixote on the same stage, haunting the background, listening, watching, and wondering what the outcome would be for this brooding giant, this man caught in a powerful internal struggle.

Bloom’s struggle is not only about, but actually with, the ultimate absentee father, Yahweh. He seems to replicate what he postulates about Jesus: “Jesus longs for Yahweh, and for Yahweh alone.” And for Bloom it is obvious that Jesus longs for a more perfect God than Yahweh ever could be. As a self-described “anxious student of Yahweh”, Bloom broods over the maddening unpredictability of Yahweh. He demands to know if Yahweh has deserted us. Do we deserve a Yahweh that is “so irascible, vengeful, and even murderous?” Midway through this grand soliloquy Bloom offers a provisional answer: “I am compelled to conclude that Yahweh has exiled himself from the Original Covenant, and is off in the outer spaces, nursing his lovelessness.” According to the agonizing Bloom, if Jesus Christ is the good news as Christianity incorrectly insists, then “Yahweh is bad news incarnate.” Nonetheless, like an abandoned son hoping against hope that his real father will show up, Bloom articulates the question he says is implicit in the Hebrew Bible, “Will Yahweh act?” For Bloom, the answer is a disturbing no.

Undaunted by this gloomy conclusion Bloom proceeds even further on his quest to comprehend Yahweh by engaging the insights of Jewish mysticism, specifically Lurianic Kabbalah. A detailed excursus through Kabbalistic concepts – zimzum , Ein-Sof, nephesh, ruach, neshamah – functions as an exploration of the origins and psychology of Yahweh. But in the end Bloom remains dissatisfied and disconsolate: “…I am now uneasy in talking about ‘the psychology of Yahweh.’ He won’t go away, though I wish he would, since to think of him is to remember my own mortality.” A reader might wonder if such brooding evades narcissism.

There is great pathos in watching this man putting the scholarship of a lifetime in service of his need for a response from the absent Father. In the end, Bloom transcends his personal impasse, extending his ultimate concern to the historical trauma of the Jewish people and “all suffering mankind.” During the process Bloom’s character subtly merges with earlier biblical figures: Jacob wrestling through the night with an angel and surviving to be given a new name; Job shouting back into the whirlwind of Yahweh’s inscrutable irascibility.

Jesus &Yahweh is both less –and more– than a formal exercise in literary criticism; it is an agonistic spiritual journey [agon is Greek for a verbal contest between two characters in a play.] While Bloom does offer occasional “fresh perspectives” on Judaism and Christianity the central dynamic of the book reflects his own acknowledged “craving for transcendence.” In the end, he does transcend sufficiently to conclude with a subdued and sublimely tentative act of faith: “Yahweh, present and absent, has more to do with the end of trust than with the end of faith.” His last word is a challenge to Yahweh: “Will he yet make a covenant with us that he both can and will keep?”

Midway through Jesus and Yahweh Bloom observes: “All of us, sooner or later, muse upon our own name, sometimes ruefully.” Bloom doesn’t say what name he would rather have been given. But at the conclusion of his passionate lamentation a new name suggested itself to me — Harold Divine.

Gwen Nowak if the author of Miriam of Nazareth: Who Can Find Her?, her own idiosyncratic quest for the historical mother of Yeshua, who is scarcely noticed by Bloom.