Page 25 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 14

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ROTH ----GREAT JEWISH BOOKS: OLD AND NEW
15
So may I conclude with a word of practical advice? Start
anywhere and read anything. Start — why not? — with the
Bible
in Spain
, and you are plunged at once into the story of the Mar-
ranos which will lead you to the story of Spain, of the Inquisition,
of the discovery of the New World, of a hundred episodes and
incidents of the Old. Start with
The Wars of the Jews
of Josephus
and you are introduced to a whole ancient civilization in its variety
and its stresses and tensions, as well as to the universal phenom-
enon of militant messianism so tellingly analyzed for our own day
by M. Albert Camus in his
UHomme Revolte.
Start even with a
page of the ordinary Humash (and by a page I mean the whole of a
page, all the contents of a page), and see where it will bring you.
Take the marginal Masorah, and it leads you to the history of
the text on which so much has been written and so much remains
to be written. Take the
Toldot Aharon
, and you are led to consider
the use made of the text in Talmudic literature which is in fact
Talmudic literature. Take the Aramaic versions and ask what
they are, and where and why they were made, and what is their
relation to others in other languages. Take the commentators: the
French school, Rashi, Rashbam; the Spanish school, Ibn Ezra,
Ramban, and ask yourself in what they are alike and how they
differ, and how their views stand today, and what is the aim and
character of exegesis in general. Note even the different sorts of
type used; and you are brought to the general history of typo-
graphy and, eventually, to the general history of the alphabet on
which an eminent Jewish scholar in this country has just produced
a standard book. Begin on any one of these lines (and they are all
bursting to view on every page of the most ordinary Rabbinic
Pentateuch) and you are embarked on a hobby for life which,
unlike some other hobbies, will make you at home in all periods
and all times and places.
And read the books and don’t trouble about the greatness.
Greatness is a quality, I sometimes think, imputed to things by us.
A book for us is great, I have urged, when we perceive its human
significance and are stirred by it; but what we perceive depends on
our powers of sight. I always think of the story of Whistler who,
when he heard a critic say of one of his pictures “But I ’ve never
seen the Thames like that,” retorted: “Don’t you wish you had?”
The retort is of universal application. Our powers of appreci-
ation, like our muscles, need developing, and, like our muscles,
they are developed by exercise. We grow through activity. Books
cannot be great to us unless we make them so, and we cannot make
them so except by reading and re-reading them. He who reads a
book for the hundredth time, goes the old Rabbinic proverb, is not