Local rabbi’s historical thriller promotes modern view of Torah

Rabbi Mark Shook

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

The recently published “Ezra’s Scroll” (Lulu.com, 367 pp., ebook: $6.99, paperback $20.99) is a novel of modern intrigue and ancient tragedy with multiple plot lines set in antiquity and contemporary Iraq and Israel. The author, Mark Leslie Shook, is better known to “St. Jouish” as Rabbi Shook, a regular commentator on St. Louis Public Radio, professor in St. Louis University’s philosophy department, chaplain coordinator of the St. Louis County police department and most of all, since 2010, as the rabbi emeritus of Creve Coeur’s Temple Israel after 23 years service as senior rabbi.

Shook recently sat down with the Jewish Light to recount his adventure in getting “Ezra’s Scroll” into print and what inspired him in the first place to try his hand at an historical thriller.

Can you describe the process by which you got your book into print once it was written?

I was under the delusion that I would find an agent, the agent would help me find a publisher, the publisher would assign an editor, and the editor and I would collaborate on the finishing process. I started with queries to 50 agents, and I ended up feeling like a snowflake in an avalanche of submissions. Then I decided to try a different tack: query the publishers. I got polite replies, but no cigars. Eventually I found my own editor and then discovered Lulu.com, a self-publishing house (and the original publisher for “Fifty Shades of Grey”). And all of a sudden after having finished the book with nothing happening for six months, someone was asking me: What are your ideas for the design of the book? What are your ideas for the cover? I was finally moving towards production.

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I was very interested to read in the afterword that your Saturday morning Bible class at Temple Israel was a source of inspiration for your novel.

Yes, because it was there that I have been explaining the documentary hypothesis—the construction of the Torah as a series of documents. But questions remain: Where did those documents come from? Who wrote them? Some people think that the documents date back to 1,200 years before the Common Era. But who preserved them and how and meanwhile what did they mean to the people? My book is a fictional work, which suggests a process by which the documents came to be a single text.

The documentary hypothesis seems to be in direct conflict with the traditional understanding of the Torah as a seamless oratory dictated by God to Moses. Can you elaborate?

The traditional view is like teaching Creationism instead of evolution. It flies in the face of evidence that the Torah was not written at the time of Moses and the Exodus. It’s as radical as saying this is Shakespeare when it sounds like Arthur Conan Doyle.

What does the Reform movement generally believe with regard to the documentary hypothesis?

I spent five years in rabbinical school and nowhere in that school did anyone make a claim that Moses wrote the Torah. The Reform movement teaches Torah as the work of human beings and how they relate to God. An historical and scientific approach is the great contribution of the Reform movement to Judaism. (And, by the way, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which ordains rabbis in the Conservative movement also teaches the documentary hypothesis.)

Some of the most interesting parts of the book were the chapters about the ancient Israelites, which is set in Babylon where the Jews were exiled after the destruction of the First Temple in the sixth century B.C.E. How did you happen to focus on that period?

It’s an empty space in Jewish history. The Jews were in Babylonia for 50 years. What did the Jews do for worship? No-one knows. But, by the way, for every one of you there will be ten who will want to get through the historical parts to the contemporary suspense.

Did you think your book was like Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code” while you were writing?

I was trying to do that. And the reason: because for, good, bad or indifferent, a great deal of attention was paidto history of the Church that otherwise no one pays attention to. I wanted to draw attention to something [to which the world does not pay attention—how did the Bible come into being?—and make it entertaining. 

How would you summarize the plot?

An ancient document is found that leads to a much more important discovery. I don’t want to reveal more because that would ruin the fun.

What book is on your nightstand right now?

None. My books are on my Kindle.I enjoy Ken Follett’s historical fiction even though it’s a little soap opera-ish. I like the spy novels by Daniel Silva. Right now, I’m reading his next to last book, “Fallen Angel.” Dan Brown’s book, “Inferno” is on the bestseller list right now, and that will probably be my next one. 

Are you planning to write another book?

I have already started. And it’s a sequel to this last book.