Sunday Stories: “Jonathan Edwards, Rabbi”

Jonathan Edwards, Rabbi
by David Leo Rice

My family, let there be no obfuscation or mincing of words by dint of false modesty, is descended from a long, long line of Northampton Jews, going all the way back to its most prominent and controversial rabbi, Jonathan Edwards himself, considered by many to have been the town’s founder, in spirit if not also in deed.

The man, though he preached a vivid bestiary of hellfire and damnation every Sunday (the Jewish holy day, as is well known) for much of the first half of the eighteenth century, was nothing if not a font of life in all respects outside the pulpit. My great-great-great-grandfather (though, between you and me, I can claim no certainty with regard to the number of ‘greats’ that ought properly to go before his name, nor even any certainty as to whose name I’m invoking here) sired a number of bastards throughout the then-nascent township of Northampton, not to mention Amherst & environs, until, by the time of the Civil War, the Jewish community of Western Massachusetts had reached something close to one hundred percent saturation, at least half of which was composed of – as I’ve heard was likewise the case with the monarchies of Europe on the eve of WWI – first cousins. This ancestor, who may or may not still be Jonathan Edwards by this point in the paragraph, was, in essence, our very own Genghis Khan, progenitor of the original Jewish peoples of New England, both witches and witch-hunters alike.

To situate myself in this august lineage is an action I would never dare take were it not predicated upon the unvarnished truth. But there is no denying my direct ancestral connection to the Great Rabbi, much as the fear of taking the Lord’s name in vain urges me toward caution in matters such as these, where the line between God and man blurs most ominously. The Shtetl, of which the world has always seen Northampton as a prime example, is a place of enchantment and living folklore, in which stories are passed down through the generations without ever becoming just stories, because, here, Revelation is never finished; it is, rather, ever-ongoing, in ceaseless demiurgic revision and recreation. To be plain, the Shtetl is, in the holy trinity of Jewish thought, the heart of the Woods, while the two other poles of said Trinity (according, of course, to the great Rabbi Edwards, whose insight into the mysteries of the Kabbala was rivaled, historically, only by Spinoza and the mad prophet Sabbatai Zevi, or, if one casts one’s lot with the Brethren of the Dark Talmud, who can often be found downstairs at the Haymarket Café on Main St, Mon-Thurs, Isaac Luria and Gershom Scholem) are the Desert, and the City.

Now, to parse this Trinity with still more clear-headedness (since we have the time), the Forest represents the hearth, the old-country (though, in our case, this notion is merely theoretical, as it has already been established that the Jews of Northampton were its founding members, never unseated from anyplace else, and thus never, praise-be-to-His-name, cast into exile), the smell of dusty, yellowing volumes in the attic and candles burning in the windows, while the Desert represents madness, prophecy, revelation, glossolalia & the Burning Bush, and the City represents, naturally, urbanity, but also coolness, dapperness, promiscuity, and neurosis-born-of-secularism. According to Jonathan Edwards VIII, current leading rabbi of Northampton and perhaps my biological father (though there may be many), key avatars of the Forest include Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bruno Schulz, key avatars of the Desert include Bob Dylan and Clarice Lispector, and key avatars of the City include Leonard Cohen, Harold Pinter, Franz Kafka, Karl Marx, and, though his name is so familiar it may be redundant to invoke here, Sigmund Freud. Like so, the great Jewish family trifurcates down through the ages.

And yet the Holy Trinity, as preached by Rabbi Edwards, leads back, inevitably, to Jesus Christ himself, the very bedrock of Jewish thought and the living embodiment of the three-in-one principle, as it’s always been taught to me within the – let it be said – increasingly cordoned-off and puritanical community of Northampton, dedicated, as we are and indeed must be, to the purity of the spirit and the purgation of sin, above all things. We did not found the nation that came to be known as America only to lose ourselves in its eventual, and seemingly inevitable, speciousness. No sir.

The purgation of sin, as I’ve been taught, is no small matter for one such as myself, endeavoring, as I swear I do endeavor, to be the very image of the ‘good Jewish son,’ as defined by certain maternal figures in the hermetic works of the monk known only as Brother Roth, taking Communion three times a day – stinting on neither Body nor Blood, despite the rather delicate balance of my digestive tract – and this is why I have, these past several years (alright, all the years of my still nascent life so far), decided (or, at the very least, consented) to remain indoors, ensconced in what an outside observer might uncharitably regard as the ‘basement’ of our cozy Edwardian home, listening to the many (many, many, many!) liaisons of my ‘father and uncles’ (the term I use to refer to the masculine collective that seems likeliest to contain my immediate ancestor) in the den upstairs, committed, as they are, to the ongoing fecundity of the Jewish people in the Northampton area, in strict accordance with the dictates of the great Jonathan Edwards, who reminded us – as the Torah clearly states – that Christ himself wishes only for us to go where he could not, that is, into the biological space where it suddenly becomes possible to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ The question that I suppose I am left with – though I scarcely dare ask it, knowing, as I well ought to, that any infraction upon the patrilineal reproductive rites occurring, even now, overhead, will result only in my being assigned six hundred Our Fathers and four-hundred-and-eighty-two Hail Marys, which I don’t believe that my vocal cords, parched and frayed as they are at this point from lack of food and water, would be able to handle – is …

I’ve forgotten the question for the time being.

So, instead, I’ll pace the kennel in which I sleep, and picture the streets of the New Jerusalem (as Northampton is known to those of us who founded it) flowing with (no, I do not rue the cliché) milk and honey, while the Armies of the Faithful confront, on a daily, hourly, and even minutely basis, the Armies of the Damned, fighting for the soul of all humanity along the majestic winding sweep of Main and Pleasant Streets, all the way up to the marble steps of our Lady of Mercy Synagogue, where my great-great-great-etc Jonathan Edwards first preached that Grace is attainable only to those courageous enough – as very few mortals are – to hold two contradictory thoughts firmly in mind at one and the same instant, without the slightest fear of what madness may follow.


David Leo Rice is a writer and animator from Northampton, MA. His interests cluster around horror, dark comedy, and the grotesque. His first novel, A Room in Dodge City, is out now. His second, Angel House, is coming out in Spring 2019, and Dodge City: Vol.2 is coming out in fall 2019. This story follows “Normal Stigmata” and “Atheism” in his “Town Father” trilogy. 

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