Monthly Archives: November 30, 2014

Wordsworth and the Chassidim: A War on Books

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, […]

By |November 30, 2014|

The Ironic Teaching of Uncle Moishy: “I’m Afraid I’ll Never be a Talmid Chacham”

Septimius Severus was born to an obscure provincial family, and his extraordinary ascent to the throne of the Roman Empire in 193 CE was due to a “daring ambition [that] never diverted from its steady course by the allurements of pleasure, the apprehension of danger, or the feelings of humanity.” (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)  But even a man as driven and immune to temptation as Severus could not overcome the greatest challenge: success.

“The ascent to greatness, however steep and dangerous, may entertain an active spirit with the consciousness and exercise of its own powers; but the possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction to an ambitious mind.  This melancholy truth was felt and acknowledged by Severus.  Fortune and merit had, from a humble station, elevated him to the first place among mankind.  “He had been all things,” as he said himself, “and all was of little value.  Distracted with the care, not of acquiring, but preserving an empire, … careless of fame, and satiated with power, all his prospects of life were closed.”  (Gibbon, Ibid.)

Severus’ decline as a leader and human being began at the very moment he had firmly secured the Roman Empire in his grasp.  He had arrived at the very peak of human power, and gazing into his future, his horizon was no longer filled with great mountains to climb.  Without new challenges, he became dispirited and distracted; his final years were the least satisfying and productive of his public career.

What is true of Severus is true for all of us as well.  Human happiness requires that man work towards a future objective; without goals, entropy of the soul sets in.  […]

By |November 26, 2014|

Rav Steinsaltz’s Epistemic Curiosity

This past Sunday, thousands of Jews around the world participated in “The Global Day of Jewish Learning” – the brainchild of Rav Adin Steinsaltz, the rabbinic Renaissance man described by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.”  Rav Steinsaltz’s literary achievements are astounding (highlighted, of course, by his extraordinary commentary on the Talmud), although his ability to relate to and unite Jews of radically different backgrounds might be even more impressive.

I’ve often wondered about the source of Rav Steinsaltz’s success; how has one man accomplished so much in one lifetime?  In a 2006 interview, Rav Steinsaltz himself offers some insight:  “I’m interested in almost everything – from detective stories to science fiction to mathematics to animals.  I am also interested in people – sometimes I even like them. I am interested in good literature, even though I do not read enough of it… I am interested in science for many reasons, and sometimes in politics… So I’m interested in what people are interested in, and not because I have some reason, but because I am curious…  My first hobby is the Talmud…  I was caught by the Talmud and I really did not want to be a Talmudist. I wanted to deal with it as a hobby, but the hobby grew.  I’m still in love with that hobby of mine.  ” (How Can We Make Judaism Less Boring?,”, October 19, 2006)

In his recent book, Curious, Ian Leslie argues that there are two forms of curiosity: diversive curiosity and epistemic curiosity.  Diversive curiosity refers to the attraction to novelty; it’s what drives us to travel to foreign countries and to explore new things.  Epistemic curiosity, by contrast, is what drives our deeper quest for knowledge […]

By |November 17, 2014|

Books that Wound and Stab Us

In January, 1904, twenty year old Franz Kafka wrote to his friend, Oscar Pollak:  “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.” (Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors)

Most people – if they read at all – read for pleasure.  Much like watching television or surfing the internet, reading provides an escape from the stressors of life; we immerse ourselves in the pleasures of a novel, and temporarily forget our own troubles.  But reading also offers the joy of reaffirming the righteousness of our dearly held opinions and beliefs.  When democrats read the New York Times, and republicans read the Wall Street Journal, they experience the pleasure of reading editorials and opinion pieces that validate their own opinions and beliefs.  In fact, for many people, smugly reaffirming their own wisdom while reading the paper over breakfast is the highlight of their daily routine!

Franz Kafka, however, passionately rejects the pastime of curling up on the couch with a relaxing book.  Instead, […]

By |November 10, 2014|

Reading and Thinking: Separation Anxiety

Richard Rodriguez grew up in Sacramento, California, the ambitious and socially awkward son of Mexican immigrants.  English was his second language, and so he felt, as a teenager, that he had something to prove.  One morning, he chanced upon an English professor’s list of the “hundred most important books in Western civilization,” and Rodriguez, in a fit of idealism, proceeded to read every book on the list.

Rodrigues writes: “Most books, of course, I barely understood.  While reading Plato’s Republic, for instance, I needed to keep looking at the book jacket comments to remind myself what the text was about.  Nevertheless, with the special patience and superstition of a scholarship boy, I looked at every word of the text.  And by the time I reached the last word, relieved, I convinced myself that I had read The Republic.  In a ceremony of great pride, I solemnly crossed Plato off my list.” (Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, 68)

Reading and thinking, though they might be blood brothers, are not the same thing.  Certainly, reading provides the grist for the mill of reflective thought; it exposes the reader to new ideas, experiences and sentiments that are the keys to deeper thinking.  But reading can easily become a passive activity that provides us with the perfect excuse for avoiding independent thought.

“Reading becomes dangerous when instead of waking us to the personal life of the spirit, it tends to substitute itself for it, when truth no longer appears to us as an ideal we can realize only through the intimate progress of our thought and the effort of our heart, but as a material thing, deposited between the leaves of books like honey ready-made by others, and which we have […]

By |November 5, 2014|