Pulp and Paper, through the lens of the Mishneh Torah
A Jewish Conversation Guide
By Rabbi Lee Moore

At first glance, “Pulp and Paper” may not seem like a traditionally “Jewish book.” Though its themes are universal – love and loss; finding hope after grief; trial and redemption – its characters and settings are not explicitly Jewish. And yet, strong Jewish sensibilities underlie the stories in “Pulp and Paper,” exploring questions that are quintessentially Jewish. Use this conversation guide as a starting point for discussing “Pulp and Paper” through a Jewish lens.

Writing in the 12th century, Maimonides, a prolific and foundational Jewish scholar also known as the Rambam, compiled his understanding of Jewish law and observance, summarizing the positions he found to be authoritative in the Talmud. This work, called Mishneh Torah, is an important first stop in any investigation of ‘what Jewish law says about x.’

For each of the following four stories, use the selections from Mishneh Torah, as well as your own life experiences, to further uncover the subtleties of dilemma that the stories present.
 

FUNNYBOY
from Laws of Forgiveness

One of the strongest tensions in this story results from Levi Stern’s apparent refusal to forgive Missy Jones.

In a situation of an offender asking for forgiveness, the Rambam directs the victim toward language from Leviticus 19:18, “do not take revenge, and do not hold a grudge.”

It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and not grant pardon. Rather, one should easily forgive, and not easily grow angry. When the offender requests forgiveness, the person should forgive with a full heart and a generous spirit. Even if the offender aggravated and wronged him/her severely, s/he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge. (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:10)

Has Missy Jones “severely” wronged Levi Stern? Does Levi Stern forgive Missy Jones? If yes, how so? If not, was he cruel in withholding forgiveness? When an offender has done everything they can to appease a victim, to what extent do you feel is there an obligation to keep trying?

Have you ever withheld forgiveness when someone asked for it? Has anyone ever withheld forgiveness from you? What are the benefits of withholding forgiveness? What are the consequences? Do you feel it is a cruel act? Is any wrong, short of murder, too severe to require forgiveness?
 

INNKEEPING
from Laws on Rebellion

In this story, a teenage son tries to sabotage his mother’s relationship with a new love interest, three years after his father died.

The Rambam’s commentary on children honoring their parents (and vice versa) appears in the Mishneh Torah’s section on rebellion.

To what degree does the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother extend? Even if one’s parent takes his purse of gold and throws it into the sea in his presence, he should not embarrass them, shout, or vent anger at them … although these commands have been issued, a person is forbidden to lay a heavy yoke on their children and be particular about their honoring the parent to the point that the parent presents an obstacle to them. Instead, the parent should forgo the honor and ignore any affronts. (Hilkhot Mamrim 6: 7-8)

When and how does Will honor his mother? When and how does he not? Does Andrea “lay a heavy yoke” on Will? Are there moments in the story when Andrea “forgoes her honor” to avoid burdening Will?

In your opinion, how far does the commandment of honoring your mother and father extend? How has this tension played out in your life? Is there a time you feel you did not honor your parents when perhaps you should have? Is there a time your parents “laid a heavy yoke” on you?
 

PULP AND PAPER
from Laws on Murder and Saving Life

After an industrial train derailment, a man considers how far to go to save his neighbor.

The Rambam devotes an entire section of laws in the Mishneh Torah to “murder and saving a life.” In it he gives examples of circumstances under which a person is commanded to save the life of another:

Whenever a person can save another person’s life but fails to do so, they transgress a negative commandment, as Leviticus 19:16 states: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Similarly, [this commandment applies] when a person sees a colleague drowning at sea or being attacked by robbers or a wild animal, and they can save him/her themself or can hire others to save him/her and does not. (Hilkhot Rotzeach u’Shmirat Nefesh 1:14)

Why does Avery decide to go after Gale’s cat? Is there a difference between the attempt Avery makes to save Gale’s life and the attempt Gale makes to save Avery’s? Does one have more of a moral obligation than the other? Why or why not?

Have you ever “stood idly by” when something bad happened to someone? When we see something troubling, what do you feel is the extent of our obligation to act? Are we ever morally required to try to save someone else’s life if it means putting our own life in jeopardy?
 

BIG LAKE
from Laws on Mourning

Within the first year after Molly’s death, Flip’s mother seeks to provide some comfort to Jack by inviting him to her New Year’s party. Flip is uncomfortable about Jack coming to the party – not only because he still blames himself for Molly’s death, but also because he has a judgment that Jack should not go to a party and enjoy himself less than a year after his wife died.

Jewish tradition, as described in Rambam’s Laws of Mourning, offers both mourners and their supporters specific instructions on how to navigate the grieving process – for the first week, the first month, and the first year.

[A person in mourning] should not hold an infant in his arms so that the infant will not lead him/her to laughter. And s/he should not enter a place of celebration, e.g., a feasting hall or the like. (Hilkhot Avel 5:20)

Comforting mourners takes precedence over visiting the sick. For, comforting mourners is an expression of kindness to the living and to the dead. (Hilkhot Avel 14:7)

What are your thoughts on Jack’s mourning process? Does Flip have a point – i.e., that Jack is being callous or insensitive? Why or why not? Should Jack have stayed away?

Reflect on your own experiences of being in mourning or comforting mourners. Does the mourner have any obligations to those offering condolences?
 

GENERAL DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Author Todd Hasak-Lowy has written that a “Jewish story” is one that “won’t leave us alone; a story that troubles, that haunts, that refuses to be pinned down or subdued by interpretation.” Are there stories in “Pulp and Paper” that refuse to be pinned down in this way? Do you agree that this makes them “Jewish”? Why? What other stories in this collection speak to you, Jewishly? How so? What Jewish sensibilities underlie them? What determines whether a story or novel is “Jewish”? Can you think of a Jewish book written by a non-Jewish author? What defines some of your favorite Jewish fiction?