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BILL MOYERS ON FAITH & REASON
BILL MOYERS: Bill Moyers: Hello, I'm Bill Moyers. For thousands of years now the stories of the Bible have invited a wide range of interpretation and analysis. There's a reason for it, summed up by Israel's David Grossman recently when over a hundred writers from around the world came to New York to talk about faith and reason:
DAVID GROSSMAN: Sometimes we can study one verse of the Bible for half a year and we do not consume it. You cannot consume it. It's endless. It's really an ocean.
BILL MOYERS: David Grossman was here to discuss his new book about the biblical giant, Samson. On the panel with him was Belgium's prize-winning writer of children's books, Anne Provoost:
ANNE PROVOOST: You can tell me a story that really happened and could happen and it would be useful for me. Because maybe you would teach me how I could cope with grief. But what you're doing in a fairy tale and what you're doing in myth is you're telling stories that can't even happen. What do I buy for that when I have a crisis?
BILL MOYERS: Anne Provoost has written several provocative novels for young people, treating subjects as diverse as sexual abuse, guilt, penance, and mercy, the seductive power of fascism, and in her latest, the story of Noah and the ark during the Great Flood of Genesis. It's theme: what happens when the boat is full?
BILL MOYERS: Anne Provoost, if you had been living when God told Noah to build an ark to save a chosen few from a terrible impending flood, and you learned that your name was not on the passenger list, that God intended to drown you, would you choose another God?
ANNE PROVOOST: I certainly would. And that's really what the story that I wrote is about - this whole question of, you know, what happens to you if that's your verdict, if that's your future, if that's what your God is planning for you?
BILL MOYERS: It's hard to worship a God who plays favorites unless you are on the invitation list, right?
ANNE PROVOOST: Well, of course we are talking here about an Old Testament God, and I was very interested in that God.
BILL MOYERS: How did you get interested?
ANNE PROVOOST: Well, I used to live in the United States for awhile. And back then already I was collecting children's books. Because I, you know, deep down, I'm a mom, you know.
BILL MOYERS: How many children?
ANNE PROVOOST: Before I had children. I have three children. Before I had children, I was already collecting their books, you know. And there's a wonderful book that I'm sure many people here in the United States will know or remember. It's a picture book by Peter Spier. And it only has pictures. But it's the story of Noah and the ark. It's an old book and what you see, at some point, is you see the animals embark. And then you'll see a bunch of animals sitting outside in one frame, and then in the next frame, in the next picture, you'll see they're all, you know, they all have wet feet. And in the next picture, you only see the trunk of the elephant right above water level, and the nostrils of the giraffe. And in the next picture, all you see is water. And that was really, really confrontational to me. And that's really what made the twist in my head thinking, you know, let's look at this story from the other side because it's such an interesting story.
BILL MOYERS: Well, your account looks at the story of Noah and the ark from the flood up. From the victims, from the drowning people. The people not on the ark.
ANNE PROVOOST: From the people in the shadow.
BILL MOYERS: Those people in the shadow of the ark. The original story in the Old Testament looks at it from God's angle, and Noah's experience.
ANNE PROVOOST: It's the old story of the, you know, whether÷ it always depends. If you're going to report on a battle, you can always tell it from the side of the winners, and of the losers. I'm not saying that in my book, I've changed the winners and the losers. But I changed the perspective. And it's always very useful because even when we talk about history in terms of war and peace, what we say is completely colored by who turned out to be the winner. I mean, how would we have spoken about Germans if the Germans had conquered us all? And we would have been much more oblivious. And our attitudes would have been completely different. But of course, I will talk to people all the time who will say, "This is my childhood story, you know. You're taking it away from me. Because I always thought as a very positive, gentle, optimistic story. And I never thought of the people who were left behind. And I don't want to think about them because it's very confrontational." But that, of course, is what, as an author, you want to do.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever read the novel SCHINDLER'S LIST or see the movie? You saw the movie?
ANNE PROVOOST: I saw the movie.
BILL MOYERS: Do you know that the author, the fella who wrote that, Thomas Keneally, he called his first draft, SCHINDLER'S ARK. Because he --
ANNE PROVOOST: Oh, interesting.
BILL MOYERS: -- he thought the ark was a great metaphor for what Schindler himself did in Nazi Germany of saving eight hundered, nine hundred, a thousand Jews from doom.
ANNE PROVOOST: But there again, you would have a very strong sense of saving the people who are innocent. While I think the story of Noah and the ark is really saving the people who are good, and thus condemning all the others, which to me is a very different matter. And that's what, you know, what really interested me in this story, is for me looking at that story, I don't necessarily think that this is a saving. Because the flood is coming.
The order, you know, the idea of the flood is coming from that God. He's choosing, and that's, you know, he's not choosing because he wants to save the people for an evil that he doesn't have any power over. It's his evil, which is the flood. And that's a gold mine for an author.
BILL MOYERS: At first you think he's saving a good man from a calamity. Then you realize he's saving Noah from a good God who is also a bad God. This God is one and the same, good and bad.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right. And this God is destroying his own creation. So, you wonder, you know, why do you create something that will turn out to be this bad? And then you're going to probably punish them for it? Maybe there's something wrong in the making.
BILL MOYERS: Not only that, but he chooses Noah, who we thought was a good man. But the moment the flood is over, Noah comes off of the ark, gets drunk, abuses his grandson.
ANNE PROVOOST: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, twice in a row God has messed up.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Doesn't say much for intelligent design, does it?
ANNE PROVOOST: See, I think that's the whole power of this story is that, you know, you think at first sight that this is a black and white story. And then it turns out that the good guy has a human character, and is diverse and human, and a psychological mess, you know. And that's where the stories tellers come in and want to know more about this man. Because that's exactly what's happening in the story is that you don't get away with interpreting it as a good against a bad story. It's more complicated than that.
BILL MOYERS: What conclusion did you reach from your research about what God means when God says, "I will save the righteous?" Who is righteous? What is righteousness?
ANNE PROVOOST: I'm suspicious towards any group of people saying that they were chosen. Because throughout history, and I'm not only looking at the Jewish historic line, but every people at some point probably have said this. They've said this group of people is the chosen.
Now what strikes me is that never ever in history do you have a group of people that says well here's us, but that group there, these other people, they are chosen. So, whenever you have a proclamation of being chosen, it's always a self-defining process. It's always the people who are chosen who say they are chosen. They never say that about the other. They always say that about themselves.
If you're going to do that as a group. If you're going to say, "I'm chosen," it loads you with a very heavy burden. And the story, once the people are on the ship, is very much about the feeling of guilt that you get by saying, "We are superior."
BILL MOYERS: Did you write this story as a mother, a mother of three children? Because the children, I've often thought, the children who died in the great flood, you know, that they were neither righteous nor unrighteous. And yet, they perished by the tens of thousands, if you want to believe this story.
ANNE PROVOOST: They play an important part in the book where you know they're drowning. And some of them, and describing them, they're wearing beautiful gowns because they were loved by their parents. And, you know, no parents will ever think, "I have a bad child, it deserves to drown."
BILL MOYERS: It's an old question, you know, why must the innocent die? We've all heard the cry. "Why did the bullet get my buddy and not me? Why was I the only one to walk away from the crash? Why did cancer take my brother --
ANNE PROVOOST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -- and not me?" I mean, this is one of the oldest questions in the human experience.
ANNE PROVOOST: I would even take this a step further. And I would think that this moment that you're describing in life which I call the fatal instant --
BILL MOYERS: The fatal?
ANNE PROVOOST: The fatal instant in life.
BILL MOYERS: The moment something radically changes?
ANNE PROVOOST: Well, changes forever, and there's an element of irreversibility where you cannot go back in time, you know, it's the moments in life you experience where you say, "I wish I could turn back time. I wish I could change the, what do you call it, the fingers of the clock."
BILL MOYERS: Hands of the clock, right.
ANNE PROVOOST: The hands of the÷ fingers, I call it.
BILL MOYERS: It's alright.
ANNE PROVOOST: I think everybody at some point in his life experiences that. And of course, the most ultimate moment in your life that this happens to you is your own death. But then, you're not going to contemplate about it anymore. But it happens before your death. It happens when something happens to your children. It happens in all the examples that you give the cancer that strikes your brother. I would think that that's not only the crucial question in human life.
But it's very much the definition of what literature is about, is about how this comes about, how this happens to the character, whoever that is in the book, and then how this character copes with it. When I write books about gods or authors who may think they're the same - changing time and playing with time that may be a very interesting exercise for my brain. But what will I do with that knowledge the day my fatal instant has arrived? What will I do with these stories if my child crosses the street and it dies in front of me, and I want to turn back the time and I can't? Because, you know, this whole philosophy or this whole thinking about literature it helps us. It makes it richer. It enforces us. It empowers us. It emancipates us for the big moments in life. Does it? What do I buy the moment something really bad happens to me, for these stories? I've given this a lot of thought because it seems so easy.
It seems so easy for a writer to do what is impossible. You have so many situations, especially in children's movies, which I find pretty. It worries me, where a bunch of people will be standing around a person and this person is dead. And they'll be mourning. And then suddenly, somebody will÷ and then suddenly, you will hear a cough. And then the eyes will open. And it appears that the person wasn't dead. So, what the filmmaker, the movie maker is doing is, he's reversing time. Somebody's dead. And then the next second, turned out to be fake. He's alive. Happy ending.
BILL MOYERS: Rainbow.
ANNE PROVOOST: Rainbow. We can do that in stories. But what do we buy for it when in the real life, we experience that nobody starts coughing? Nobody opens his eyes. People are really dead. And I also want to know what this does to our children, you know, watching these movies over and over again where people always nearly die but they never do for real.
BILL MOYERS: But don't you think people are looking for in fiction and in movies, what many people are looking for in religion, to slip free from time, to become like God, timeless? Doesn't that explain the hunger for God as well as the hunger to read, to escape the body and time?
ANNE PROVOOST: There is definitely a big parallel between those two. And definitely, people are looking for the same things in religion as they are in literature. I'm pretty convinced of that. Then again, I think we have to be aware of that. I wouldn't dream of wanting to define my art as a way of escapism, a way of getting away of the reality that we really, you know, have to admit that we can't quite cope with. In that sense, I would think that religion or faith also has to reflect upon itself and wonder, you know, what is it we're looking for?
We don't want religion to be a kind of escapism. We want it to be more than that, right? We wouldn't want to establish a whole philosophy around something that is really trying to get away from reality. But then, my question would be: why do you have to move that outside of yourself? Move it inside of yourself, and it will be there. You can find it there. It doesn't mean to be--
BILL MOYERS: You can find what?
ANNE PROVOOST: The mystic, the religious experience, the experience that I would call transcendence. The feeling that you can have in your fatal instant, you don't necessarily have it, but you can have it if you want, that your fatal moment in life, the moment that you feel everything is turning and twisting does not necessarily have to be a bleak, empty hole. But it also can give you that moment of power or insight that even though something terrible is happening to you at that moment, you can and you will be able to do that maybe through literature or religion. You can feel related with all the other people in history and all the people in the future that have gone through the same thing as you did. And I think that's exactly what people are looking for in religion, this support, this feeling of, "I'm carried by others who went through this."
BILL MOYERS: There are so many questions come to one when reading In the Shadow of the Ark. But there was one question that halts me in particular. I mean, can you trust a God who doesn't get it right?
ANNE PROVOOST: That's one of the questions, of course, that Re Jana, she's the main character in the book, is asking. She says, "Well, if your God is going to drown the world, if your God is going to bring a flood, then why don't you pick a different God?" So to me, as, that is the question I want to ask. Why would you trust a God that at this moment, doesn't come back to give us the right book. You know, through history, he's given the Jewish people a book. And he's given the Christians a book. And he's given the Muslim books, and so there's big similarities between these books, but there's also contradictions.
I would think that, you know, he needs to come back and create clarity and not let... he shouldn't let us fight over who's right. He should make it clear. So, my personal answer to your question, "Should we trust," I wouldn't.
BILL MOYERS: A God who doesn't get it right÷ you wouldn't?
ANNE PROVOOST: I wouldn't. I would think if this God isn't in me, because for me if you ask me does God exist, I will say of course he does. He does in the heads of all these people who believe in him. There's a great essayist in Belgium who wrote a wonderful essay on the parallel between art, love, and faith or religious faith, in a sense that she points out that the love that I feel for my man, you know, for my favorite, my beloved, is there. It exists. Nobody will doubt it. But nobody else sees it because I'm the only one in love with him.
To me, religion follows the same pattern in the sense that God is there because he's there for the people that keep him in their heads. And they keep him as a sort of lantern to follow, to find the way. But for me personally, I feel he has to stay there. He has to stay in those heads. Because if people are going to bring him outside their heads and say, "Well, I'm here and he's there," and that's what he's asking me to do because it's in his books or then the ethical responsibility that I should feel is there. It's no longer here. And that's risky because I can push the ethical responsibility away from me. If he's going to stay in here, I will know that he's me. He's in me. And I will always remain responsible.
BILL MOYERS: Is there no God in your head?
ANNE PROVOOST: I think there is. But, you know, very often when I speak to people who believe in God, and I say what I believe, the relation is so close that I think we all believe. We only define it differently. What I believe in is the strength of, can come from an ethical conscience, and that we should all nourish and try to educate, and that we should try to have. And when I define that for myself, it's probably going to come very close to the definition that most people who believe in God have of their religion, of their religious beliefs. So, we're very linked. Only, I don't call it God, but it's the same concept. I call it ethics.
BILL MOYERS: I think there's a genius in your creation of the young girl in your book whom you have stowed away.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: One of Noah's sons stows her away on the ark. So she's the hidden ninth passenger. Right?
ANNE PROVOOST: She's the hidden÷ what do you call this? The moral? She's the unconsciousness of these people. She's what's going to come back to take revenge because it's chewing on them. They know that what they've done wasn't right. So she's like the bomb ready to explode in their faces, and she's there on purpose, because she's the mirror. She will hold it in front of them after. And say, "What on earth did you do by choosing yourself? Why didn't you give your space to a child who for sure is innocent? To Lame? Why didn't you push overboard these animals and move in people?" That she's the - now I have the word the consciousness of the whole bunch in that ship.
BILL MOYERS: As well as the conscience.
ANNE PROVOOST: Yeah the conscience. That's the word I was looking--
BILL MOYERS: Well, both work.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: She makes them aware.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: The consciousness. But she's also delivers the imperative.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right. Do we have a contribution? And does it matter what we do?
BILL MOYERS: That's the ethical dimension you're talking about.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right. Right.
BILL MOYERS: What is the message of IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARK?
ANNE PROVOOST: There's 500 in every page. I can give you a couple. One of them definitely is that the story of people who get space or get a spot or get room on the boat, it's not over yet. That we still are fighting for a spot on top of everybody else. The pyramid is still there, and everybody's struggling to be above. And that we're leaving out many people. That we should build a bigger ship that implies all. That we have messages of doom hanging over us and that we're not reacting to them. That it is dangerous to tell each other that you're, or tell the others that you've been, chosen. That there is the possibility to escape through solidarity. You can smuggle stowaways on board if you want. You can try. That it is worth putting your honor over your life or other things at risk for doing that, for making a big gesture. That some things are worth a lot. That's just a few of the messages.
And I'm sure I could, for each message that I just conveyed, I could give you a completely contradictory one. Because I can be very pessimistic as well. So I think there's also messages there of the impossibility to educate us as a humankind. Our stubbornness to learn. Our always repeating ourselves and making the same mistakes from the history. Our not learning from history. That is in there, also.
BILL MOYERS: IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARK. Thank you very much, Anne Provoost.
ANNE PROVOOST: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: If Noah is one of the first stories in the Bible, Samson is one of the longest. The Book of Judges tells of Jehovah leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, only to find it already inhabited by the Philistines, who worship idols and false gods. To drive them out, Jehovah raises up a giant of a man: Samson.
We know him from art as well as scripture. There's Giambologna's great study of Samson slaying the Philistine with the jawbone of an ass, Rubens' portrayal of him resting in the lap of his lover Delilah, and Van Dyck's moment of his capture after Delilah betrayed him to the Philistines, who tortured and blinded Samson. His last desperate act, pulling down the temple of the Philistines became a classic, now rather campy climax in Cecil B. Demille's film starring Hedy Lamar, as Deliliah, and Victor Mature, as Samson.
It's a big subject worthy of one of Israel's premier writers, David Grossman. He's produced over nine novels, several children's books, and some noted works of journalism, including the acclaimed Yellow Wind. His latest novel, LION'S HONEY, casts Samson as a lonely and bewildered man, destined and doomed to do God's will.
BILL MOYERS: David Grossman, what attracted you, living in Jerusalem today, to that ancient story of Samson and Delilah?
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, it's a wonderful story. To start with, you don't have to be an Israeli or a Jew to like it. Here you have such a gigantic character like Samson. It's a story about his desires and passions. The women he loved. It's a story about betrayal, about loneliness. For me, as an Israeli, and as a Jew, I find a lot of symptoms of our behavior today, as a society, as a state, coded in the character of the Biblical Samson.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think the story is in the Bible? I mean some editor had to take this and put it in this sacred text. Why?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. Well, maybe for the one who wrote the Bible, Samson was a kind of a model to imitate, to admire. You have to think about the Jews at the time of this story, when they were under the tyranny of the Philistines. Crushed by the cruelty of the Philistines. Very weak, vulnerable. Think of Jews throughout history. They did not have armies, weapons, ways to defend ourselves. Having to obey all the time. And we have someone like Samson who can break all the rules. Who can do whatever he wants. Who crossed borders without any hesitation. He creates his own reality. He is the master of his destiny. So he thinks. He's so strong, he's so masculine.
Jews looked at themselves as the worm of Jacob. And to have someone like him, of course, I will tell you that many of the combating, the most daring of our military units our army since 1948 were called after Samson. The Foxes of Samson was one of the most famous military units in the world in '48. In the beginning of the last Intifada, a special very secretive and very daring unit that acted in the Occupied Territories against Palestinians were called the Samsonites. And there are many examples of the uses of Samson, the image of Samson. Suddenly to be able to be Samson, for a people like us, is very refreshing. It's very tempting.
BILL MOYERS: Give me a thumb-nail sketch of Samson's story.
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, Samson was born to parents that lived in the border area between then Israel and the Philistines, in a very tough period for Israel under the tyranny of the Philistines. His mother was a barren woman.
BILL MOYERS: Sterile.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes, sterile. We don't even know her name. We only know that she was sterile. That probably she expected a child. One day when she was on the field without her husband, a man of God, an Angel appeared to her. He tells her, "You know, you are a barren woman, but you are going to bear a child, and this child will save the sons of Israel from the Philistines. And he will be a Nazarite to God."
BILL MOYERS: A Nazarite to God means?
DAVID GROSSMAN Means he's not supposed to touch anything that is dead; anything of filth. He cannot drink wine. He cannot cut his hair with a razor. Now the woman runs to her husband, and she tells him the wonderful news, and she quotes what the Angel told her. But she does not quote it correctly. She says, "He will be a Nazarite to God from womb till his dying day." Now the Angel did not say, "Till his dying day."
And I wonder why would a woman who expected a son for so many years, when she comes and delivers the wonderful news to her husband, add this horrible phrase? What made her say this horrible thing? And I believe that in the time when she ran from the field in which she met with the Angel, the magic man of God, until she met her husband, some knowledge, some understanding pierced her. And that is that the son she is having now in her womb is not only hers, but in a way, it was touched by another entity. By God. And, of course, she adores God. But it means that her son will never be only hers. But it is made of other materials.
BILL MOYERS: But in so many ways he was ordinary. That is when he grows up as a young man, he falls in love with a Philistine woman, right?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. But he doesn't know that this love was planted inside him as a pretext by God. That God wanted to quarrel with the Philistines, that's why he imposed on Samson this love to the Philistine woman. It means that his love, his lust, his desires are nationalized in a way, by God. Are confiscated by God. Are manipulated by God. What a tragedy. If you knew that your love life is not yours, but is part of a divine big plan. That they are manipulations. How would you feel?
BILL MOYERS: He's just a pawn in God's plan.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: He's a violent man.
DAVID GROSSMAN He's very violent. Violent and obtuse and cruel. I do not try to justify him. I just try to understand the mechanism of such a soul. And to show that despite the destruction that he has and that he performs, there are other elements. You know, it's very easy to say he's a bully. He's a machine of murder. Kind of a superman. Or a golem. But I want to show that there are other nuances in his behavior. And that the most interesting thing is the clash between this monster and the superficial surface that we know about Samson.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that he falls in love with Delilah? He goes to Gaza and there he falls in love with this beautiful woman, Delilah. She's Philistine, right?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yeah. Delilah, actually, is the third woman he falls in love with, and they're all Philistines.
BILL MOYERS: It's a story that keeps recurring. It's an old story. And the theme is: big man, beautiful woman, bad deal. Right?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. Probably she was irresistible. That's why she was chosen, I guess. And the Philistines come to her and they tell her, "Tempt him and find what is his secret. What is the essence of his strength?" And, probably, everyone involved in this little scheme felt that she is irresistible. That she will do to him what previous women failed to do. That she will make him full of desire to give himself away to her.
BILL MOYERS: Why did he tell her his secret?
DAVID GROSSMAN Because he loved her. In a strange way, she is the first woman that he really loved. When it came to other women in his life, the word love was never said explicitly. With her, it's the first time that we read that Samson loved a woman. And love means, I think, I believe: "to give all the keys of your soul to a certain individual; to hope that this individual will love you not only because of what you are, but sometimes in spite of what you are." Samson desperately needs one soul to reveal himself in front of her.
BILL MOYERS: He says, I believe, in the ancient Hebrew, he talks about telling her from his heart of hearts.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. All his heart. All his heart of hearts. He gave her the essence of his life. He gave her his secrets. Three times he was aware of her manipulations. Three times she asks him, "What is the essence, what is the secret of your strength?" And he tells her all kinds of stories. Each time he opens his eyes, and I am sure he saw the assassin sitting or standing there behind the curtain. I mean, it's so obvious. It's so obvious that she wanted to kill him.
And yet, he continues to tell her hints about his strengths, I believe, because he wanted to believe that next time he opens his eyes he will see only Delilah, without the assassin, without the foreign presence, without the hostility of the Philistines that is radiated into this room. He just wanted to be loved simply. Maybe not as a hero, just as a human being. Maybe he just wanted one single thing: to be like any other person.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say, that in the last desperate act of a violent life, when he's pulling down the Temple, killing everyone in it, his enemies, the innocent, himself, Samson believes he's doing God's will?
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, probably he is right according to the storyteller of the Biblical story. And to the editor who puts this story in the Bible. And that legitimizes it, and gave it the authority of sanctity. He is doing what God wanted him to do. We know that almost everything in the life of Samson was meant by God. So it is told to us. It's a horrible deed, of course.
But the main goal of Samson, the reason for which he existed and the reason for which he became part of the story is to fight the Philistines and to liberate the sons of Israel from the tyranny of the Philistines. And by breaking the whole building on their heads and killing them and himself, he actually believed that he did what God wanted him to do.
BILL MOYERS: Sounds an awful lot like the suicide bombers of 9-11 if you read their diaries. They felt they were doing God's will as they dove those planes into those buildings.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes, and I mention in my book, that actually he was the first suicide killer. Samson. And I don't know about any other previous examples for someone who uses his own body in order to destroy other people's life. And, of course, there's something common to all people who are doing something like that. They are acting in a hermetic system of faith.
BILL MOYERS: A hermetic system means?
DAVID GROSSMAN It's hermetic, because it's very difficult to justify it in terms of other systems. And according to their system, they have full justification to do what they are doing. For us, people like me, I assume like yourself, who are out of this system, it looks horrible. Looks so cruel. But they can justify it according to their own terms. This is, I think, one of the most interesting questions. What was the need of us, of the Jews, to have such a hero? Such a questionable, such a dubious hero for us. When you think about the Jews throughout history, you do not necessarily think about someone like Samson. In a way he seems to us not very Jewish. On the other hand, I can tell you there are many Jewish qualities to him that I think are very important even to us today.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, this loneliness. The thing that I said before that there is no one like him. And I think, you know, every people, every culture is very special and unique. But I think there is something very very unique about us the Jewish people. About our faith. About our history. About the tragedies that we went through. But more so, about the way we are regarded by other peoples, cultures and religions.
You know for years Jews have been either idealized or more often demonized by other peoples and religions. And both idealization and demonization are the different forms, the different faces of demonization. We were always regarded as a metaphor for something else, as a parable. There was always a lesson to be learned from our destiny and faith.
And I find this approach so destructive. And when a people is cornered in such a place, when other people project on him so much stereotype and prejudices. Prejudices and faith, and superstition and myths and legends. You know in a way you find yourself trapped in this state of mind of the people. Maybe some of us even like this attention. You know there is a lot of attraction in being a larger-than-life story. It makes you feel very unique. It can justify some of the horrible things you went through. But it is not healthy as a people.
BILL MOYERS: Could this be why Samson was drawn to the Philistines? There are moments in reading your book when I think he just wants to go on the other side of the field, and sit in their stands, and watch the game from their side. And then go out and have a drink with the boys. And forget this chosen-ness and this Samson stuff.
DAVID GROSSMAN It's wonderful that you say it, because sometimes I felt that, yes, he was not in his right place, in our people. Yes. And he needed, you know, to rub his soul and flesh against other cultures. And culture that probably is more sensual than the culture he came from with all the restrictions that Jews suffered from by their own selves. By the rules and the laws of the Torah. And I can understand a person like Samson enjoying terrifically being among the Philistines. Having fun with them, making love with them, fighting with them physically. Maybe this was something that he did not find in his own place, among the Israelites.
BILL MOYERS: There's a moment in your book when you wrote, "He was weary." Was he weary of being chosen; was he weary of playing out this fate that had been determined for him in the womb by God?
DAVID GROSSMAN I believe he was. I believe it was too much for him to take. The divine grand plan was much bigger for him to shoulder. Even he, with his gigantic shoulders. He walks in this life without really understanding what is expected of him. And there is a moment, after Delilah cuts his hair, and before she calls the Philistines to start torture him. And he lies on her knees and many painters drew and painted this wonderful, suddenly silent scene in the hustle and bustle of all his life. And all the noise that accompanied him. All the violence. All of the thunderstorm of the life of Samson, there is suddenly a very peaceful moment. He lies on her knees or in her lap. He's exhausted. But there is an air of rest. An air of someone who, for the first time in his life, achieved some tranquility. And well, maybe for him being there on her lap in the heart of the ultimate betrayal on him, because in a moment she is going to give him away.
BILL MOYERS: Every woman in his life betrays him.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Did he have a compulsive need to be betrayed? Is that why he went to their beds?
DAVID GROSSMAN I believe so. When you see which women he will choose, it will always be women that inevitably will betray him. They are doomed to betray him, and he wants them. But don't we see people like that around us? Don't we see people who are repeatedly making the wrong choices? Who, at the very points in which they need to be salvaged, they will do the wrong step? It applies to individuals, it applies to societies, to countries.
BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that Samson is the archetype. He keeps compulsively repeating destructive behavior.
DAVID GROSSMAN He is, yes. But is it a rarity? Don't you see around you people who are doing this again and again, as if they have no choice? Don't you see people acting this way? But when I look at my country, for example, or when I look at the Palestinians, at any crossroad, when we were given the chance, the miraculous chance sometimes by history, to take the right turn, the turn towards peace, towards reconciliation, towards stopping killing and destruction, we chose always the way to violence and to escalate hatred between us. You know there are so many similarities to Samson and the way Israel behaves. And one of them is the way we treat power.
BILL MOYERS: Power?
DAVID GROSSMAN Power, yeah. You know, you know three years after the Holocaust, after the Shoah, we created the state. We created an army that became immediately a regional superpower, maybe an international superpower. We are in a way like a mutation of power. From being the victims of the Shoah. From being these people who for 2000 years lived in exile, who had no power, no weapons, no army, nothing like that. We became a superpower. It's a mutation of power. And I am not sure that we really know how to deal with this enormous power.
And I think someone who experiences our situation is almost doomed, always, to choose the more aggressive way, the more vigorous way, as the first choice. And you can trace such a behavior in the history of Israel throughout the years. Now part of it is not our responsibility. Our neighbors and enemies were very productive and effective in creating this problem as well. But I am interested also in our side. What is in us that prevents us, even when we can, to come to a kind of more political definition of ourselves within borders. If you have no borders, it is like you live in a house that the walls are all the time moving. A house with mobile walls. You do not really know where you end and where the others start.
BILL MOYERS: Is this why you were attracted to the story of Samson? Trying to figure out who you are? What Israel is? What you do with power in a hostile world?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. I mean being an Israeli is a full time job. But, I wouldn't trade it for any other existence. I was born a Jew. I was born in Israel. I think it's a fascinating place to live. I lament the fact that we are deprived of exploring all the possibilities of living in such a state, such a combination of so many people who poured into Israel from 17 countries, and bringing in all their psychologies, mentalities, senses of humor, knowledge, manners, habits. All these could create such a wonderful place, an interesting place to live. And, at the same time, we don't get to explore it, because we just survive from one catastrophe to another.
You know I always think about this paradox of us as a people. Throughout our history we survived to lead our life. And now we live to survive only. This is not enough. We can have so much more. We are so strong as a state. We are so Samson-ite, yes? Allegedly we have 200 atom bombs, and yet we are so afraid.
By the way, like Samson, whenever he confronts a real danger, he collapsed. He cries to God like a child. Why? Because like us, we do not really believe that this power is ours. We did not really settle our relationship with this power. Because of that we are doomed to use it excessively. Because of it, we do not really create a code of behavior regarding our enormous power. Maybe if time comes, if we enjoy some years of stability and peace, if we start to trust our enemies and neighbors, if they will be trustworthy. It's also a question. Maybe then, also, our attitudes towards this power will change.
BILL MOYERS: Aren't the Orthodox, aren't the literalists, those who read the story of Samson as literally the word of God, aren't they driving the conversation in Israel? Are they just like the Christian Right and the fundamentalists here are driving our political discussions?
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, again, you touch upon a very basic problem for us as a state today: that there is too much connection between religion and state. For the last 60 years almost, Israel prioritized the political goals of religion rather than the political goals of the state. For example, many things from what has happened to us since the Six Days War, the '67 War, that drove upon the occupation of the occupied territories is highly dominated by religious aspirations. And the religious institutions are so much involved now in politics in Israel today. It's so much dominant in our politics. And it's dangerous, because, also, on the other side, on the Palestinian side, we see the same phenomenon. They are now ruled, by not only religious people, which I can respect, but they are ruled by fundamentalists, by fanatics.
When you see, for example, the mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber and she rejoices in the death of her son, and she wishes, in front of television camera, that all her other children will follow him and become martyr like he is, like he was. Well, then I stop understanding. I cannot really understand such values. If they are values at all. When I hear that this suicide bomber, like many others, wrapped up with paper and rugs his sexual organs to protect them, so he will be able to use them with the 72 virgins when he reaches Heaven, well, I really cannot understand such a mixture of reason and faith. I think that, for the benefit of all of us, we should pay faith a lot of respect. We should be very afraid when faith mutates itself to fanaticism.
BILL MOYERS: Was the mother of that Palestinian suicide bomber, any different in her imagination, than the mother of Samson whose child was born to die for his country.
DAVID GROSSMAN In a way not. In a way you are right. Again, this is the nature of our area. You know for so many years Israeli women, when they bore a child, when they bore a son, one of the first things that they used to say after the birth, "Here I gave birth to another soldier to our army." And it was said with pride, you know. And I thought, "It's horrible." If you destined your child, from womb almost, to the army, which means to be killed in the end. This is the danger that awaits individuals and people who are undertaking such a total mission, or who are formulating themselves in such absolute terms. They know the will of God. They were chosen. I think that total belief, total behaviors, hermetic, absolute terms in which one defines oneself, are dangerous. They are lethal.
BILL MOYERS: Absolute truths destroy absolutely.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. Exactly. We sense it now in the Middle East. In the violence and in the fundamentalist approach of so many groups there, which make the achieving of peace almost impossible.
BILL MOYERS: At the end of Samson's story and the end of your book, there's the apocalypse. Samson dies. The Philistines die.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Who wins?
DAVID GROSSMAN No one wins. But that's the nature of such conflicts, that's the nature of violence. No one wins. This is something that Israelis and many among the Palestinians started to understand now. It's a no-win situation. And the only thing that can be productive is this very painful compromise.
BILL MOYERS: David Grossman, thank you very much.
DAVID GROSSMAN Thank you. Thank you.