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Rabbi Harvey is back for more adventures and ethical lessons in Rabbi Harvey Rides Again: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Folktales Let Loose in the Wild West. Steve Sheinkin follows up his successful 2006 graphic novel, The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, with an all-new set of tales about everyone’s favorite western rabbi. And just as I noted in my review of his previous graphic novel, Sheinkin’s work is again funny, engaging, and always morally didactic in that Harvey consistently shows the qualities of mercy, kindness, justice, and compassion.[1]

In the very first story, titled “Abigail v. the Wind,” Harvey encounters Abigail, a down-on-her-luck miner who will eventually become something of a love interest for the rabbi. After a day of mining with nothing to show for it, Abigail decides to cook her last remaining food and comes up with three loaves of bread. She gives away two of the loaves to her fellow destitute miners, and just as she is about to eat the remaining loaf, a strong wind blows it away. Angry that her last bit of food was taken from her, Abigail travels to Elk Creek and asks Harvey to hear her case against the wind. Harvey listens to Abigail’s story, and then to stall for time while he considers how to handle the case, he tells her, “It is only fair that we give the wind a chance to respond to your charges.”[2] After the wind fails to respond, Harvey makes his ruling: the wind is liable for the damages done to Abigail and must reimburse her two dollars for groceries. Since neither the wind nor the town has that kind of money, Harvey offers to make Abigail a hot meal as restitution. Right after the food is served, a merchant approaches and tells Harvey that he would like to donate a large sum of money for charity. The merchant tells Harvey why he decided to donate the money: he was traveling through a forest when a bandit jumped out and attempted to rob him. Just as suddenly, something flew out of the sky, striking the robber and allowing the merchant to escape. As the merchant tells it, “And I feel so fortunate to have escaped, I wish to offer thanks, you know, give something back. Perhaps this money can help others in need.”[3] Of course, the object that knocked out the robber turns out to have been Abigail’s loaf of bread, so Harvey must reverse his earlier ruling. Since the wind used the bread to fight crime, it was justified in taking it. However, the story has a happy ending for Abigail nonetheless, since Harvey decides to use the donated money to hire her as the town’s new schoolteacher.

Sheinkin notes that this chapter is based on a folktale involving Solomon, but the narrative dynamics resemble another biblical precedent as well: the story of Esther.[4] That is, Abigail experiences what Andre LaCocque calls peripety (“sudden change of fortune”), a narrative turn of events that he claims functions as a “veritable although implicit theology” in Esther.[5] The wind sweeping away Abigail’s bread seems to leave her with no means of providing for herself, yet by the end of the story she has found a job, a community, and a potential husband. Just as in Esther, here too there is a sense that God is at work behind the scenes, even though there is no mention of the Divine in either story.

The second tale, “Wasserman and Son, Barbers Outlaws,” aptly demonstrates the wit for which Rabbi Harvey is known. One of the characters from Sheinkin’s first graphic novel, Big Milt Wasserman, comes into Elk Spring with his son Wolfie, in the hopes of taking it over by force after their traveling barber business did not net them as much money as they had hoped. Knowing that he cannot solve this problem through gunplay, Harvey decides to trick the Wassermans. One day he borrows a pair of scissors from Big Milt, and when he returns them the next day, he gives Milt another, smaller pair as well. When Milt asks him why, Harvey tells him that the scissors gave birth during the night and since the scissors belonged to him, so does the baby. Milt is doubtful, but he accepts the scissors nonetheless. Again, Harvey borrows a gold watch from Milt and returns it along with a smaller watch, with the same explanation. And again, Milt does not protest. Harvey then asks to borrow both of the Wasserman’s pistols. Thinking more pistols will be forthcoming, Big Milt lends him his and his son’s gun. The next day, Harvey enters and tells Big Milt that unfortunately both guns died during the night. When Big Milt challenges his story, Harvey says, “You seemed ready enough to accept that the scissors and gold watch gave birth. So why are you surprised that a gun can die?” At this, Big Milt decides that he and his son should leave Elk Spring and not come back.

Here we see Rabbi Harvey’s quick use of wits in outwitting Big Milt, but I also think Sheinkin has hit upon a common topos in Jewish literature that is also biblical. As J. William Whedbee notes in his important monograph titled The Bible and the Comic Vision, comedy can be subversive in that it can satirize the status quo of a society “in order to institute a new society built upon traditions that foster liberation and life. Hence such comedy can ultimately be transformative.”[6] As examples of this aspect of comedy, Whedbee discusses Exodus and Esther, and I would argue that Sheinkin’s comedy in this chapter—and perhaps in both of his books—exemplifies this aspect of comedy.[7] It is also in this chapter that one finds the interpretive key for Sheinkin’s work, in my opinion. As one can see in Figure 1, Big Milt tells his son the famous story of the argument between Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva as to which is more important, learning or action.[8] As Harvey notes when he butts in, all the rabbis agreed with Akiva that learning is the more important of the two, but only when it leads to action. It seems to me that what Sheinkin is aiming for in his work is just this: to educate his readers about proper action and morals via Harvey. In this way, Sheinkin’s work itself becomes a source of moral instruction.

This emphasis on moral instruction, or middot, is also found in the last tale of the collection, titled “Special Delivery from Rabbi Harvey.” As Rabbi Ron Isaacs writes, the term middot “refers to a collection of virtues that are intended to provide people with moral guidance for daily living. A virtuous person is called a baal middot, one who possesses good qualities.”[9] In this chapter, as in all of Sheinkin’s work, Harvey certainly shows himself to be a baal middot, as he encounters a strange letter during a winter walk with Abigail. It seems a couple named Otto and Edna—both freezing and starving—have written a letter to God in which they list all their troubles and complaints. As our narrator tells us, “They were not exactly sure where to send the letter. Finally, they decided that God is everywhere, so things like addresses didn’t really matter. Otto tossed the envelope into the snowy wind.” At this point, Harvey and Abigail find the letter and decide to help out. Having almost no money themselves, they seek out wealthy citizens of Elk Spring to try and convince them of the need to give money to the poor. This middot is one of the most important, and is usually called tzedakah. As Isaacs notes:

Although the Hebrew word tzedakah is often understood and translated as “charity,” this translation does not convey all that tzedakah implies. The word is derived from the biblical word tzedek, meaning “righteousness” or “justice.” Thus, in Jewish thinking, tzedakah is not only a matter of philanthropic sentiment, but an act of justice. Jews are obligated to give, not because helping others is a kind thing to do, but because righteous giving helps to eliminate injustice in the world.[10]

Harvey and Abigail set out to rectify this unjust situation, managing to remind two wealthy people of their responsibility to those less fortunate than themselves. After gathering forty-five dollars, Harvey and Abigail present the money to Edna and Otto. The couple’s response is far from gracious, though. They find the amount of money suspect, and they accuse Harvey and Abigail of keeping a finder’s fee from the original amount God gave them. In any case, here we see a wonderful narrative dealing with the necessity of tzedakah and ethical action, complete with an indication of the difficulties of providing tzedakah to our fellow humans.

As in The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, Sheinkin includes a chapter titled “Stump the Rabbi,” which is set during the Elk Spring fair. Residents can pay five cents to ask Harvey any question they have, and if he cannot come up with an answer, they win a pie. This chapter, perhaps more than any other, details Harvey’s practical advice to serious problems and issues. For example, in Figure 2 we see Harvey answering a woman’s question about Adam and Eve. Harvey’s answer is a paraphrase of a famous Mishnaic section (m.Sanh. 4:5) that, in the context of dealing with a question of corporal punishment, refers to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The rabbis note that in Genesis 4:10, the word for “blood” is plural and thus should be read, “The bloods of your brother cry out.” This grammatical notice leads them to make the larger point that when one person kills another, it has a plural effect or, as Harvey puts it, “If any of us causes a single soul to perish, it is as though we have destroyed an entire world.”[11] Following this, perhaps the most serious question of the day is asked by a soap maker named Emil (see Figure 3). In light of all the violence and suffering in the world, Emil asks the Rabbi what is the point of religion. Harvey thinks for a minute and then asks Emil how his soap business is going. Emil responds that it is going well, and Harvey, noticing some dirty children playing close by, asks Emil why they are so dirty if his business is doing well. Emil responds that soap only works when you use it, to which Harvey replies, “Religion is the same. It only works when people actually use it.”

In conclusion, Sheinkin again manages to entertain and educate his readers. He entertains them through not only his art, which is not overly representational (i.e., his drawings are not entirely accurate representations of reality), but also through tried and true humor, such as speech gags and odd situations. His attempt to educate and inculcate core Jewish ethical values represents the lasting worth of his work: any time scriptural, rabbinic, and folkloric stories can be taught in a way that is memorable and useful for building values, it is a cause for praise. I have nothing but praise for this volume from Sheinkin, and I am looking forward to seeing more of Rabbi Harvey and Abigail.



[1] See my “Scriptural Education and Entertainment: Evangelism, Didacticism, and Satire in Graphic Novels (Part 2),” SBL Forum 5/6 (2007); online: http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=683.

[2] Sheinkin, Rabbi Harvey Rides Again: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Folktales Let Loose in the Wild West (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008), 6.

[3] All quotes from Sheinkin, Rabbi Harvey Rides Again.

[4] See Sheinkin, Rabbi Harvey Rides Again, 124.

[5] André LaCocque, “Esther,” in The Feminine Unconventional: Four Subversive Figures in Israel’s Tradition (OBT; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 55.

[6] Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 10.

[7] See Whedbee, “Liberation and Laughter: Exodus and Esther as Two Comedies of Deliverance,” in The Bible and the Comic Vision, 129-190.

[8] This argument is found in b.Kiddushin 40b.

[9] Isaacs, Middot: A Stairway of Virtues (Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 2005), 5.

[10] Isaacs, Middot, 53.

[11] A similar sentiment is found in Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven. One of the final scenes contains the following conversation between the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) and Will Munny (Eastwood):

The Schofield Kid: [after killing a man for the first time] It don’t seem real... how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever... how he’s dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.
Will Munny: It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.
The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.

Taken from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105695/quotes.

Citation: Dan Clanton, " Review of Rabbi Harvey Rides Again: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Folktales Let Loose in the Wild West. ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2009]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=798

 
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