Jean-Christophe Attias’s new book on Moses is strange, contradictory, and altogether unlike anything I’ve ever read. More abstract art than scholarship, story, or memoir—it blends elements of all three—A Woman Called Moses: A Prophet for Our Times dispenses with orderliness in favor of a kaleidoscope of conflicting elements. Some of these are problematic, like the gendered claim that Moses was a “woman”—not because he transcended gender binaries but because, as Attias has it, Moses was fragile and weak, like a woman. (The original French title is Moïse fragile.) I finished this intensely personal, evocative book exasperated. And yet I couldn’t shake it, and I still can’t.
A professor of medieval Jewish thought at the Université PSL in Paris, Attias is known for a number of books about Judaism. (English translations include The Jews and the Bible, The Jew and the Other, and Israel, the Impossible Land.) His latest book is distinctive. It’s not the product of a working historian but rather “the book of a Jew,” one who has been “suddenly liberated from the constrictions, constraints, and petty pedantries of his main discipline.” Throughout, Attias interweaves classical Jewish commentaries with specific biblical scenes from Moses’s life in the Pentateuch. He then uses them to build a complicated and provocative picture of Judaism’s most important prophet. Often retrieving obscure and overlooked biblical passages and reflecting on them imaginatively, Attias claims to look “behind the veil” of traditional scholarship to behold “the plain face of a plainly human Moses,” one that belongs simultaneously to Egypt and Israel. Victimized and hounded by God, Moses for Attias is an inadequate and abused figure, frail and even “feminine.”
Relying more on rabbinical thought than on the Bible itself, Attias writes from a distinctively Jewish perspective. He seems to assume a primarily Jewish audience, and a particular one at that. His prose often reads rabbinically, and his arguments develop non-linearly. Attias frequently draws connections to other biblical passages that can seem arbitrary—that is, unless one is versed in the entire corpus of written and oral Jewish tradition. Because his reflections tend toward the philosophical rather than the textual, readers expecting exegetical rigor or biblical “accuracy” will find themselves perplexed.
That’s not to say Christians shouldn’t read it. They should. Christian exegetes have traditionally reduced Moses to a mere prefiguration of Christ, and Attias loudly registers his distaste for this kind of supersessionism. Time and again, he dismantles Christocentric views of Israel’s prophets, instead highlighting unflattering rabbinic perspectives on Jesus. Attias also insists on reclaiming Moses as the unique transmitter of Divine Law to Israel, and at least in this endeavor, he’s to be commended.