Off the Shelf: Sacred reading

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman


One of my favorite moments in literature occurs in the first chapter of “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte. Jane is sitting in a window seat, drawing the curtain closed and reading a book. Something about that moment of comfort and safety stayed with me. Even before I was old enough to read the novel, my mother, who also loved “Jane Eyre,” told me parts of the plot. I’ve read the book at least twice and had different reactions each time; that’s partly because I read it before and after being influenced by the feminist movement. Although the last time I read it was when I was in my late 20s, I remember the book fondly almost 40 years later.


This explains why when I saw in an e-mail that someone had written an article about using “Jane Eyre” as a sacred text, I had to click through to learn more. Imagine my delight to discover the author, Vanessa Zoltan, was Jewish and had written a book called “Praying with Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice” (A TarcherPerigee Book). A few minutes after finishing the article, I’d asked for a review copy of what turned out to be a fascinating and challenging book.

Before attending Harvard Divinity School, Zoltan received a B.A. in literature and creative writing, and an M.S. in nonprofit management. She makes an unusual chaplain: a self-declared atheist whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, she finds it impossible to use the Hebrew Bible as a sacred text. That doesn’t mean she has rejected Judaism. The list of her connections to her heritage include calling herself “super-Jewish.” In fact, she not only loudly proclaims her Jewishness, she notes that “I love Judaism. I love going to temple and studying Torah and looking to Halacha for a guide on what to do in a difficult moment.” 

However, where she parts from formal Judaism is that she doesn’t believe in God. It’s easy to understand the reasons behind her disbelief: her father once told her “that if there is a God, then that God hated us, so he hoped there wasn’t one.” She interpreted that remark in her own way: “If there is a God, he certainly always allows the wrong people to suffer, so I hope there isn’t one too.” It probably didn’t help that, when she was young, her parents frequently played the game of which-of-our-friends-would-save-us-if-the-Holocaust-took-place-today. In addition to familial pressure, Zoltan has suffered from depression and painful physical illness. Plus, the biblical stories trigger feelings that make it difficult for her to use it in her chaplaincy.

What Zoltan does in “Praying with Jane Eyre” is describe how she has used the novel and other texts to better understand herself and the world, and make herself a more compassionate chaplain. Her first step was to decide what sacredness means: “[Zoltan and her teacher] decided that sacredness is an act, not a thing. If I can decide that Jane Eyre is sacred, that means it is the actions I take that will make it so. The decision to treat Jane as sacred is an important first step, surely, but that is all the decision was – one step. The ritual, the engagement with the thing, is what makes the thing sacred. Objects are sacred only because they are loved. The text does not determine the sacredness; the actions and actors did, the questions you asked of the text and the way you returned to it.” The study Zoltan does with “Jane Eyre” and the questions she asks are similar to the way people study the biblical text. In both types of study, two people often read the same words, but disagree about their meaning. Zoltan is clear that not every book can serve as a sacred text: it needs to be complex enough so that people have to struggle to learn what it’s attempting to teach.

The 11 essays referencing “Jane Eyre” and the three on other works of literature (one each on “Little Women,” “Harry Potter” and “The Great Gatsby”) are autobiographical, showing what Zoltan learned as she studied these works by herself and with others. For example, she notes Jane’s line “I must keep in good health, and not die” from chapter four of the novel while writing “On Commitment.” Zoltan opens the essay by talking about a town in France that made a commitment to radical hospitality; this commitment led them to open their doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis during World War II. She then wonders if she would ever be able to form that deep a commitment to anything. One of the reasons she ponders this question is the example of her grandfather, whose experiences in that same war taught him a different lesson: the need to be detached from the world, including his family. Then, when discussing the circumstance surrounding Jane’s speech, Zoltan shows how Jane learned that sometimes the best you can do is stay alive – that the only commitment you can make is to simple survival. Zoltan ends the essay by writing, “We need to take care of ourselves enough to survive with the fire within us intact. We need to survive in order to witness and in order to be agents of change. We need to believe that wanting to survive is at times enough, because we are enough. Surviving as a commitment may sound like a low bar to jump. But sometimes you need the bar to be low so that you can gather up the strength to once again clear the higher ones.” 

Zoltan’s chaplaincy would not be comforting to everyone, but her truth will speak to many people. For example, she refuses to tell someone in distress that everything will be fine: “It isn’t true. Everything will be; things will unfold. But everything will definitely not be fine.” She dislikes the idea of destiny because, to her, that means her grandparents were destined to experience the Holocaust in order for her to exist. Zoltan feels it’s important to note that “we can make meaning of our hardships; we can be grateful for the lessons we have learned through them and the people we have met without being grateful for the hardships themselves.” 

Zoltan explains her vocation by saying she is “the person you can come to when you just want someone to say: That sucks. I don’t think things will be fine and I don’t think that everything happens for a reason. If you want someone who will sit with you in that space, even when it is just a way station, that’s fine. That is what I am here for. I live in that way station.” When you read the problems Zoltan has faced in her life and the lessons she’s learned from her grandparents, you’ll understand that she is the chaplain who won’t make light of your horrific experiences or pretend they were given to you to make you a better person. She is the one who tells you what’s happening is awful and that you did nothing to deserve it.

“Praying with Jane Eyre” offers readers a way to find meaning and understanding using literature that speaks to them. For those interested in practicing sacred reading, Zoltan offers a tool kit that includes Jewish and Christian methods of interpretation. Although I doubt I’ll ever read “Jane Eyre’ as a sacred text, this book made me think about novels I’ve loved and the many lessons they’ve taught me. That’s the true beauty of “Praying with Jane Eyre”: it will make you look at your life and literature in new and exciting ways.