Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books; Or surely you’ll grow double;
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks; Why all this toil and trouble? …
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife: Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life, There’s more of wisdom in it…
(William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned, 1798)
When I first read Wordsworth’s The Tables Turned, I was repulsed. A diatribe directed at books, the source of all learning – what could possibly be more un-Jewish? Wordsworth calls us to turn to nature for wisdom; but nature is the realm of Esav, not Yaakov. “And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yaakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.” (Bereshit 25:27) We are the people of the book; if any nation has sought wisdom in the teachings of those who came before us (and how else should one define a book?), it is the Jewish people.
But on further reflection, Wordworth’s denunciation of book learning must be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Wordsworth was educated at Cambridge University, and his studies there – primarily of books – gave him him the literary tools that were essential to his success as a poet. And Wordsworth, no doubt, was well aware that his poems would be published and read in – you guessed it – books! Given his own dependence upon books, how can we make sense of Wordsworth’s poem?
Rav Meir of Premyshlan, one of the earliest students of the Baal Shem Tov, makes a truly astonishing argument: that we should minimize the amount of time we spend studying Torah! “One should not study Torah a great deal, […]