Page 23 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 14

Basic HTML Version

for the old-fashioned Jewish practice of
reading, translating into your own idiom, and then reading a
second time; or even (again the recommendation is Rabbinic)
setting aside so much of your spare time every day to a regular
grind — say, an hour a day, and two hours Friday evening, and
three hours Sabbath afternoon: that makes ten hours regular
reading a week; and try learning a Psalm, or a chapter from Isaiah,
by heart every day. I t ’ll stand you in good stead, both in good
times and in bad.
For I am afraid that we shall have bad times as well as good,
and that will serve as introduction to the final, and cardinal, point
I want to raise with you this evening: Why read at all, and if we
do, why Great Books?
I have first to return a general answer; and having stated why
we, as human beings, need books, I shall ask why we need them
as Jews. And I shall now have to take the word Great in my theme
a little more seriously: not only, Why books, but Why Great
Books? If one must read at all (and the necessity is not demon-
strated), why should we not be satisfied with the daily, and (of
course) the weekly, press?
I should say in brief reply that books are necessary, first, as
nourishing the conservative element in life; they keep before us
the best that has been felt and thought in the past: and, second,
as offering a platform to the progressive elements in life; they give
expression to new vision. Books — all books — both preserve old
standards and are the occasion of the creation of fresh ones.
Book, I should say, is the book which fulfils either,
or both, of these functions in a conspicuously successful manner.
I t keeps our eyes fixed on the horizon; but it may also have to
point out where the horizon is or may be hoped to be. And it
reflects basic themes in a way which invites re-interpretation in
every age. If I may crib the words of my title — and I congratulate
its framers on their power of definition — a Great Book is a book
which is at once both old and new.
And now that we know what a great book is, it is obvious what
is our interest as Jews in great Jewish books. Our deepest need,
now more than ever before, is to keep hold of ourselves; to know
what we are and what we can be because we have been it; to hold
tight to our best when there is danger that we are falling to our
worst; to retain in fact our better selves. In the turmoil of the
transitory (however real) crises in which we find ourselves contin-
uously embroiled, we need, more than any other people and