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Book Review: Where God Was Born
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                                                 Book Review

Feiler book on God's origins proves to be
an interesting tale about Israel, Iraq & Iran

                                  ,  September 27, 2005


Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler; William Morrow; 405 pages; $26.95.

Reviewed by Norman Manson

This book's title is ironic in two ways: First, could God really be said to have been born in the usual sense? Second, author
Bruce Feiler concludes that Judaism is not really a matter of place, that in the biblical view, "God is born...anyplace where humans and the divine act in the service of a righteous world."

But, once the reader gets beyond the title and into the text, he or she is treated to an incisive, provocative account of  a trip to the Middle East that is part travelogue, part archaeological expedition, part a review of ancient history, and, most of all, an introspective look into an individual's relationship with God and religion, both in the ancient and the modern worlds.

Feiler, who has authored best-selling books on similar subjects, visits the "three I's" on his journey - not quite the same ones that old-time U.S. politicians liked to visit to make points with their multi-ethnic constituents. For them, it was Israel, Italy and Ireland. For Feiler, it was Israel, Iraq and Iran. And, with Israel in the midst of the second Intifada, Iraq the scene of a bloody war following the U.S.-led invasion and Iran a place where, at least theoretically, there is no love lost for America, the trip had its stressful moments, to say the least.

In all three countries. Feiler particularly explores noted archaeological sites, many but not all connected to the Bible. While he obviously pays most attention to their links to Judaism, the story by no means deals exclusively with Jewish history. A prime  example is in his visit to Iran, where he explores in some detail Zoroastrianism, the state religion of pre-Islamic Persia, dating back to the time of the great kings Cyrus and Darius. While he admits it is the "most mysterious" religion of its time, he states that, in some ways, Zoroastrianism has striking parallels with Judaism. He likens its founder Zoroaster to Moses, as well as to Jesus and Mohammed, and notes that Zoroaster believed that all humans must live an ethical life in order to save the world and themselves. Finally, he believes that Zoroastrian ideas infiltrated other Middle Eastern belief systems including Judaism.

He also reaches other somewhat offbeat conclusions. After a long and minutely detailed exploration of the Western Wall and nearby biblical sites - including water tunnels where he became quite wet - he concludes that he "must sever my attachment to the land," and that God cares more about how we behave than about how much territory we control. And, in this regard, he stresses the role of Judaism's prophets above that of Israel's patriarchs and kings.

Feiler's travels took him to - in addition to Jerusalem - the supposed site of the Garden of Eden in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq); ruins of the ancient city of Ur, capital of the Sumerians and, according to tradition, the birthplace of Abraham; ancient Babylon, which Saddam Hussein made into a Disneyland-style theme park; ancient Nineveh; and, finally, Persepolis, a grandiose Persian edifice dating to the Sixth Century BCE era of Kings Darius and Xerxes.

But, in the end, it is Feiler's concept of God and religion that most enthralls the reader. He reaches several related conclusions: First, that the Hebrew prophets were the first to articulate the laws and values that have become the keys to Judaism; second, that Scripture is, as he phrases it, "ground zero" in the current battle between fundamentalism and moderation for the soul of Western religion, and, finally, that "the creator God seeks creativity in humans," that humanity must be an active partner in its relationship with God - that people must take great responsibility in their quest for religious meaning.

While Feiler waxes philosophical through much of these pages, he writes in clear, understandable style - for all its depth, the book is easy reading. Agree with his conclusions or not, "Where God Was Born" is a must-read for anyone interested in the history and underpinnings of Judaism or, for that matter, Christianity and Islam.