In the beginning, the book was launched.
On Thursday, Feb. 11, local author Beth Kissileff hosted an event at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill marking the release of her anthology, “Reading Genesis: Beginnings.” The program welcomed 30 community members for a panel discussion, questions with contributors and light refreshments.
“Why aren’t people more interested in the Bible,” Kissileff rhetorically remarked at the beginning of the program. “There’s a problem with getting contemporary Jews to believe the text is accessible.”
After wrestling with these concerns, Kissileff, a Bible scholar, believed that by modernizing Genesis the text would become more accessible and interesting to readers. Her mechanism for modernity was disciplinary thought.
“Reading Genesis” is “modern people talking about Genesis with modern tools,” she explained.
Kissileff’s anthology includes essays from noted thinkers including Alan Dershowitz, Ruth Westheimer, Steven Albert and Kissileff’s own father, Harry Kissileff. Contributors employed discipline-specific professional knowledge to understand Genesis — law professors considered contracts within Genesis, an anthropologist discussed the relationship between Cain and Abel, and an appetite scientist reviewed Eve’s eating behavior.
Several contributors attended the launch.
“I want to thank Beth for including me in this book. I’m still not sure what I was supposed to do,” joked Harry Kissileff before beginning his remarks. Kissileff is a special lecturer at Columbia University’s New York Obesity Research Center.
“My field is appetite control,” he explained. “I picked the apple because it’s the first thing that man eats, and I’m interested in people eating.”
Harry Kissileff provided listeners a close reading of Genesis Chapter 3 through the prism of neuropsychology.
“How do we know anything about eating?” he asked. “Did Eve eat from another tree with similar characteristics and by association she decided to eat from this tree?”
Without spoiling his thesis for eventual readers, Kissileff stated, “In the end I must conclude there is something missing from the text.”
With this book, the fun thing is that it is not just the Bible, it is an introduction to these fields, said Beth Kissileff.
Steven Albert offered listeners a chance to consider Jacob’s death from a public health perspective. Albert, whose research focuses on end of life, is professor and chair of behavioral and community health sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.
“What we end up with is we’re left without much closure,” said Albert, regarding the biblical patriarch’s demise. “There’s a precarious relationship of the brothers in Egypt and a precarious situation of the people in Egypt.”
Following Albert’s remarks, during a question-and-answer session, one attendee asked Kissileff whether compiling the anthology affected her faith.
“For me, it deepens my faith. The more I can understand the text, the more I have faith. Because we have faith, we want this Bible to mean something to us. [‘Reading Genesis’] provides tools that we are familiar with,” responded Kissileff.
Kissileff’s reply resonated with several attendees.
“I’m going to take it home and read it. I love the idea that we’re attached to the Torah,” said Leslie Itskowitz.
“I can’t wait to read the book to see what experts in different fields have to say about the Torah,” agreed Lorraine Mackler.
“I think it’s wonderful,” echoed Rabbi Aaron Bisno. “The intellectual creativity that the book encourages is wonderful. We are fortunate to have as creative an individual and wonderful a thinker as Beth in our community.”
One attendee praised Kissileff’s anthology for providing new portals for biblical study.
“I don’t come from this. It’s not part of what I do on a daily basis,” said Dorit Sasson. “It’s very refreshing to have other ways to approach the Bible. I’m thinking this could be very accessible to me, not threatening to me. Here’s the Bible in a refreshing and interesting way. I could see myself approaching the Bible with a more balanced, diverse, appreciative mindset.”
Said Kissileff in an email after the event: “I will just add that it was so gratifying to me to share my ideas with friends and to have people interested. I could not have asked for better questions. And the books sold well, so let’s hope that bodes future success.”
“Reading Genesis: Beginnings.” Beth Kissileff, editor. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016. $29.95 in paperback.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.