INTERVIEW WITH RABBI ANSON LAYTNER

By Mary Lane Potter

***

The Montréal Review, April 2024

***

***

Mary Lane Potter: Your novel The Forgotten Commandment is a rich blend of medieval and Enlightenment Jewish history, the diary of a Holocaust survivor, a contemporary love story, and an ancient fable in which animals talk—all packed in an engaging and suspenseful narrative. Can you give us a taste of how this all comes together as a story?

Anson Laytner: The novel opens in the present, with two young scholars discovering the existence of the notebooks of a man named Benjamin Aboab Asher, who left them with another Jewish family for safekeeping near the end of WWII. It then quickly moves into the past, tracing the story of the Jewish Aboab family, which inherited a manuscript from their Arab neighbors in 11th century Jerusalem, during the First Crusade. Family members bore the manuscript with them as they escaped from Jerusalem to Spain, to Portugal, and then Holland, through to modern times. Although the actual manuscript was confiscated by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition and locked away for centuries in a vacuum-sealed glass tube in the Vatican Secret Archives, its content became the stuff of Aboab family lore. On the surface, the manuscript appeared to be an animal rights fable, but in fact it contained a dire prophetic message about humanity's destruction of the world's environment. Prior to WWII, a descendant, Benjamin Aboab Asher, attempted to find the long-lost text and, generations later, in North America, the two young scholars who stumbled upon the lost manuscript in Aboab’s notebooks start to follow its trail. Overcoming many obstacles, they succeed in translating the manuscript and, with the cooperation of the Vatican, an international gathering is held to publicize its grim environmental warning.

MLP: You’ve published many other books, five that you wrote or translated and one a collection you edited, all nonfiction or academic books on theological or religious questions. The Forgotten Commandment is your first novel. When did you conceive this book and start writing it? What prompted you to write in this form, to tell a story rather than make an argument, if indeed we can ever separate those two from each other completely?

AL: Dan Bridge and I published our translation and adaptation of The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity in 2005. Working on that book made me aware of the evidence for extinction, of all the disappearing species and of the emerging issue of climate change.

About the same time, I was inspired by The Da Vinci Code, a detective/thriller kind of story that deals with revealing a secret history. So I started playing with the idea of a lost manuscript and tried to give it an origin story, a story steeped in history yet set in the present, that also has an important message to share.

MLP: What was that writing process like? How did you prepare for it? How did it challenge you, as a writer?

AL: As I mentioned, after The Animals’ Lawsuit book, I started thinking about our planet’s vanishing species and I began clipping articles that documented disasters relating to this topic and to climate change. This gave my story idea an urgency. 

Then I imagined how The Animals’ Lawsuit story might have originated (as opposed to how it really originated) and how it was transmitted. This led to my coming up with the backstory of the Aboab family—an actual family, by the way—who passed the manuscript down through the ages. To create their “lineage,” I researched centuries of history about Sephardic Jews, mixing together fact and fiction.

I then worked on the Holocaust-era escape story of Benajmin Aboab, which was based on the actual war diary of one of my teachers, who had given me his diary. I cleaned it up, condensed it, added dates where they were missing, brought in new episodes and characters, and then, from inside Benjamin’s character, I added reflections that I thought he might have had as he was going through his traumatizing escape from the Nazis. This character’s story became a major narrative in its own right, with its own drama and arc.

Lastly, I created the story of two contemporary researchers, using as my point of departure my life in Toronto and Seattle.  I didn’t have to do much research for this part of the story other than when the two were in Italy, and it almost felt like I was cheating because it seemed too easy.

At that point I realized I had three very distinct stories: a historical strand tracing the journeys of the Aboab clan; a strand tracing the adventures of Benjamin Aboab Asher prior to and during World War II; and a contemporary strand featuring the two young scholars. I could have chosen to present these three different stories chronologically, but instead I decided to weave the strands together like a braided challah and started working on braiding them into a single narrative that goes back and forth between the present and the past.

After 2010, when my wife became terminally ill, I shelved writing the novel and worked instead on two other books, both nonfiction, The Mystery of Suffering and Death, and Choosing Life After Tragedy: An Experience-Based Theology. This work consumed me for the next ten years.  By the time COVID was waning, these two books were in the publication works, so I turned my attention back to the novel. (My head and heart were also in a much healthier place by then.)

At this point, when I showed a draft to a close friend who had read The Animals’ Lawsuit, he urged me to incorporate the whole tale in my novel rather than just excerpts. So now I had a fourth strand to weave into the story, which I did. Other friends made additional excellent suggestions and I kept rewriting until The Forgotten Commandment reached its final form.

MLP: Did you find writing the novel more or less difficult than writing your other books?

AL: Both. It was freeing to be able to make things up and not have to gather supporting evidence from others when I wanted to say something, as you have to do when you’re an academic. I could just say it! It was more difficult because, with my academic training, part of me rebelled against just making things up.

One of the things I love about writing is the way I enter a fugue state when writing—even academic stuff! With fiction, it is also like directing one’s own dreams. I could imagine a character saying or doing something, decide it wasn’t right, and change it on the spot. Because I write early in the morning, I found it hard to let go of the creative process, pack it up, and go to work each day.

MLP: Many of the questions and themes that run through this novel are also present in your most recent books, The Mystery of Suffering and Death and Choosing Life After Tragedy: arguing with God, questioning traditional conceptualizations of God, protest against suffering and easy theological answers to suffering, the mystery of suffering and of evil. Were you aware of this as you were writing this story? How would you describe the difference in your approach to these same questions in the two books? 

AL:  It’s no surprise to me that the novel and these two works of nonfiction focus on the same questions. I was aware of the overlap from the beginning. Writing The Forgotten Commandment gave me more freedom, however. I didn’t have to footnote all my ideas with supporting references and I could just make up things. I loved mixing real people together with imagined people. For example, I have my character Benjamin work with the journalist and Righteous Gentile rescuer Varian Fry (1907-1967) in Marseille. In my nonfiction books, I speak for myself; in my fiction, I speak from a number of perspectives through multiple characters. I loved being able to do that.

MLP: For me a novel is rhetoric, a kind of persuasion, not by way of logical argument but by rendering a complex world the reader can enter, look around, experience the world differently, and hopefully emerge transformed. Novels that achieve this often revolve around a central question, offering many different responses to that question. Is there a central question that your novel explores? If so, what is it?

AL: My point in writing The Forgotten Commandment was to give the characters (i.e., me) a chance to talk about human beings’ inhumanity to other human beings, and how violence and intolerance threaten other human beings, first and foremost, and connecting our inhumanity to each other with our inhumanity to animals and the environment. By giving the opportunity to the characters to speculate about why human beings behave the way we do, how we could be behaving differently and better, and giving The Animals Lawsuit a greater environmental punch, I hope to enable the message of the novel to be heard more broadly. In a way, a novel is like a piece of music. If done well, its message enters the reader’s consciousness in a way that a work of nonfiction cannot.

MLP: As I read your novel, the story does not advocate for a particular position on eating meat. Is it fair to say that no one character in The Forgotten Commandment speaks for you, the author, not even the animals, but that taken together they raise questions about the genesis and practice of cruelty to human beings and other animals? What are the different approaches that were important for you to include, both positive and negative?

AL: I am Sophie’s Jewish learning and heart, Adrian’s ardent skepticism, and Benjamin’s academic curiosity and his willingness to take God to task.  And I’m Donkey and Cricket and Queen Bee!

MLP:  Any one of these you feel especially close to?

AL: They are all me and I am all of them.

MLP: This novel weaves together many characters, many languages, many voices, and  many kinds of discourse (for example, you include different discourses in the ongoing narrative, such as an ancient text, a travel guide, a wartime diary, biblical commentaries, A list of Rules for Scholars, and emails). The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin in his book The Dialogic Imagination calls this heteroglossia and argues that it is one of the marks of the novel as a literary form. Reading your novel made me think of the Talmud, where each page makes room for the tradition and commentaries or responses from different centuries by centering the text of the Mishnah and surrounding it with different rabbinic voices, each interpreting it slightly differently according to their time and location. Here, too, in your novel, there are many voices and actors surrounding an ancient text, all in conversation with one another. In terms of narrative structure, there are several texts within the text of this story. The Animals’ Lawsuit and Benjamin Aboab’s wartime diary are both distinct texts that are folded in, whole, into the ongoing narrative. Do you think that in addition to the content of the novel, this form reflects Jewish history and culture?   

AL:  Yes, I do. I think your image of a Talmudic page is great. I even titled one section of the novel “The Chain of Transmission,” which is a very Jewish concept, tying the present generation of Jews to those which preceded ours and anteceding those who are yet to come. It’s a concept that goes back to Deuteronomy, where Moses tells the people that the Covenant God made with the ancestors was now being made with the current generation and also with those yet to come. 

MLP:  I’m wondering where a bookseller might shelve this book. In the fiction section, I would hope, and not Jewish Studies or the Judaism section. But would they categorize it as a Jewish novel? An interfaith  novel? An historical novel? How would you categorize it?

AL: God, I hope it won’t be put in the Jewish Studies section. It is fiction and its message is global, not particular. I think of it as historical eco-fiction.

MLP: The Forgotten Commandment can be read as a mystery or academic detective story, an action tale, a love story, a dramatic history of a text, a dystopian vision, or all of these interwoven. How do you see it?

AL: It’s all of those, but if I had to say which was dominant, I’d say it leans toward detective/thriller fiction, but with an explosive ending.

MLP: In addition to all these different voices, this novel weaves together many different centuries and histories, continents and countries, cultures, religions, and species. It also weaves together fact and fiction, or what the writer Tim O’Brien calls at the end of his story collection The Things They Carried, “the happening truth” and “the story truth.” In your notes at the end of the book you identify the real people and texts that you drew on to create this story: the genealogy of the Aboab family; the adventures of your friend Arthur Lagawier, who survived the Holocaust; experts like Dr. Kinamori and Susan Taylor; and The Animals’ Lawsuit, the ancient text which you and Rabbi Dan Bridge translated.

Let’s talk about that. How did that work? Did the research you did or what you knew about your friend’s life hinder you?  How did you decide which elements of those stories to use?  Which to leave out?  Which to adapt?  Was that a difficult process for you? As someone who has written many nonfiction books, did you feel constrained by the facts?

AL: I felt constrained to be as factual as the story would allow.

I took pains to learn about the history of the Vatican Library and the Secret Archives; and Sephardic Jewish history; and Varian Fry and his band of rescuers; and the heroic people of Le Chambon.

I took pains to make sure that it might have been possible for historical figures that appear in the story, like Cardinal Pacelli, to encounter the characters they do, in certain places at certain times, and like Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi, who lived in Germany in the same period.

I took pains with the accuracy of my friend’s diary of his journey of escape from the Nazis.  I only condensed and added dates and reflections. But, to satisfy the needs of the story, at a certain point, I fictionalized the final part to his journey. While my teacher, Arthur Lagawier, and his family fled Marseille to the Dominican Republic, my character Benjamin Aboab stays in Marseille to work with Varian Fry and then escapes further to the French village of Le Chambon.

When my friend gave me his diary, he expressed a hope that it would one day see the light of day in some form. He has since died, so it’s impossible for me to know whether he would approve of how I have used his story in my novel. But I did consider it a moral obligation to be as faithful to his story as the plot of the novel would allow and, to be very clear, as I am in the notes at the end of the novel, that this part of the book, though created by me, is based on an actual diary. 

MLP: Though the story begins and ends with two contemporary researchers, one a Jew and one a Christian, and the story periodically returns to them in the present, you could say that the protagonist of this novel, the central character, is neither of these two characters nor any of the many others that show up, including Benjamin Aboab, whom the story follows for quite a while, but the text of “The Animals’ Lawsuit” itself. It’s the text that binds all these characters and cultures and religions together and propels the action. 

AL: Yes, that’s very perceptive and I hadn’t realized that. But I think you’re right.  Everything revolves around the tale.

MLP: Let’s talk about your use of that ancient text, “The Animals’ Lawsuit.” When you and Dan Bridge translated it from the Hebrew, you not only abridged it, you also altered it, made adaptations to it. When you used the text of this document in your novel, did you use it in the form you and Rabbi Bridge created, or did you alter it yet again to fit the novel? If so, how did you alter it for your story, and what principles guided you in the creative adaptations you made? Altering an ancient text for contemporary life is fraught with danger. As you said, this text had already undergone many changes as it passed from culture to culture and century to century. Is that what emboldened you to make changes in this received tale?

AL: The history of “The Animal’s Lawsuit” goes back in its written form to Muslim Sufis in 10th century Iraq. In the 14th century, the story was translated (and adapted) into Hebrew and Latin by Rabbi Kalonymus ben (son of) Kalonymus at the behest of his Christian lord, Charles, the Duke of Anjou.  

Dan Bridge’s and my version of “The Animals’ Lawsuit” was already an adaptation of this inherited tale with a long history of creative adaptation. For our adaptation, we added an environmental warning at the end for a contemporary audience. This was intellectually honest because we never tried to hide the fact that we had creatively altered the tale. In fact, we made it clear we had modified it by saying so in the introduction.  Since our version came out in 2005, I’ve been playing with different adaptations of that text of ours. I wrote a pared-down version, a poem version, a children’s version, etc., etc. For The Forgotten Commandment, I used the pared-down version, with one major difference: I needed to punch up the ending to make it still more dramatic, even more compelling. I make it clear in the notes that I’ve modified it in this way.

MLP: In addition to the satisfaction of reading an enjoyable story, what is the main thing you hope readers will carry with them upon finishing this novel?

AL: I really hope readers will ask themselves why a thousand years have passed and yet we are still at the same place regarding our treatment of animals.  I hope they will wonder whether human beings are substantially, qualitatively different from other living beings. I hope they will despair about our collective and apathetic inhumanity to other human beings, and how this also threatens both animals and the environment. I hope they heed the warnings of the manuscript that the Aboab family struggled so long and hard to preserve.

Lastly, I hope that the story will aid in people having a changed perspective, whether they are religious or not, such that they begin to look at other living things in a more sensitive and appreciative way. And to look at our environment as a living entity in a more appreciative way, so that we do less harm—and that applies to everyone, religious or not, wherever in the world we live.

***

Anson Hugh Laytner is a retired rabbi and author of six books: Arguing with God (Rowman Littlefield), The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity (Fons Vitae), The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng (Lexington), and the abovementioned three books, all published by Wipf and Stock.

Mary Lane Potter’s books include Strangers and Sojourners: Stories from the Lowcountry (Counterpoint) and the novel A Woman of Salt (Counterpoint). Her essays have appeared most recently in Parabola, Image, Witness, River Teeth, Tiferet, Tablet, SUFI Journal, and others.

***

MORE FROM RABBI LAYTNER

REFLECTIONS ON DEATH AND THE AFTER-DEATH

The Montréal Review, February 2024

***

CHOOSING LIFE AFTER TRAGEDY AND HELPING TO HEAL THE WORLD

The Montréal Review, October 2023

***

UNUSUAL THOUGHTS PROMPTED BY THE HAMAS-ISRAEL WAR

The Montréal Review, December 2023

***

 

 

The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911