The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith, and the Talmud – reviewed by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

August 25, 2022 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Maggie Anton has introduced us to a number of stories around Jewish life, beginning with her series on Rashi’s Daughters [3 novels] followed by Rav Hisda’s Daughter [2 novels] and one about personal relationships {Fifty Shades of Talmud].

This book is set in the 1950s and draws upon the writings of Chaim Potok, and is based on the world described in The Chosen and The Promise.

The story is based on a young woman reporter of a Jewish newspaper who in interviewing a young up-and-coming rabbinic scholar, convinces him to teach her Talmud- something which does not surprise the reader of today, for it has become not uncommon, it clearly was viewed as a no-no in the 1950s orthodox world. Not even American reform had admitted women into their rabbinical school when this novel was set (this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first woman in North America being granted the title “Rabbi” by any rabbinical seminary).

One of the things I like about novels by Anton is how easily she makes traditional Jewish texts (in this novel’s case, it is primarily rabbinic texts). Being of a particular generation, such texts were available in English in what could only be described as an analytical manner which most would consider boring. Even the works of Potok did not really make the texts alive [except perhaps his introduction to most readers of gematria]- he did so in a series of pamphlets he produced as a rabbinical student for a (now defunct) study group known as the Leader’s Training Fellowship.

Being a novel of our time, it does reflect sexual tensions and sexual realities rather than dancing around the topic as was common in the 1950s. As such it seems a logical follow-up from Anton’s 2016 book Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What.

The basis of this novel is how men and women establish relationships. It is what happens in each and every generation. The time of the 1950s and the setting of Jewish New York make this novel unique.

Burt Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary described the novel as “a marvellous piece of Midrash (early rabbinic interpretation of a classical text) or, as it’s called today, fan fiction.” Ellen Wolintz-Fields of the Women’s League  highlights that it “is not only a novel but also a guide to learning about the role of women in Judaism and should be required reading in classes on the topic of women and mitzvot and women and Talmud study.” I would add that it also dispels some of the buba meisers” I have heard over the years about Judaism and sexual relations.

Anton makes no bones about being a Jewish feminist. This novel would not be what it is if this had not been part of what shaped the narrative. It is a book which is well written and interesting.

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is associated with the School of Medicine (Sydney), University of Notre Dame Australia as well as on Staff at St. Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at UNSW Sydney and St Louis University. He also served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for 5 years and was Senior Consultant to Museum Planning Services.

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