By Professor Jacob Neusner
Reading Herb Freed’s short stories about Rabbi Ben Zelig, I laughed and cried, from page to page. Once you start reading, you don’t stop. Freed is a gifted story-teller with a vivid imagination and a wonderful power of narrative. He captures your attention and then seizes your heart and doesn¹t let go. He invents people you’d want to know, beginning with the rabbi himself. In these stories you meet the daughter of a great theologian of Judaism who dances in a strip club, an actress dying of cancer, a rabbi’s first funeral and what can go wrong (more or less, everything). Someone shakes a finger at the young rabbinical student and warns, "If you become a Rabbi, you will delay the coming of the Messiah for another thousand years." The stakes in these stories mount up.
Each one of the stories takes up a classic theme of the Torah and translates it into a credible story, populated by real people. Ezekiel, Job, Ruth and Naomi all come on stage. Freed is a film director and writer and producer, as well as a rabbi, and he makes his characters live. The rabbi’s mother chooses his wife in a reprise of the story of Ruth and Naomi. Freed has already shown how that has happened, then he spells it out – in the manner of Midrash – or film. But what else would you expect from the only member of the Director’s Guild of America and the Writers Guild, west, who is also a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of America (Conservative Judaism).
Some writers use Judaism for color or texture. Freed doesn’t do that, he sets out to imagine what "Judaism" would be like if its truths could be translated into the relationships of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, the living and the dying, the healthy and the sick. And that is his starting point, an act of imagination that transforms biblical narratives into enchanting events of here and now. But Freed is never didactic. He doesn¹t preach. He makes his statement of Judaism through his stories. His complete success calls to mind the judgment of the great Catholic social scientist, Andrew M. Greeley, who writes, "Religion is story, story before it is anything else, story after it is everything else." In that context, Freed¹s book is an act of religion. It is not about Judaism, but it is a book of Judaism: it is a sefer.
*A version of this foreword originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.