Page 7 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 22

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I N T R O D U C T I O N
B
y
A . A
l a n
S
t e in b a c h
I
I
T is estimated that some 3,000 languages are spoken in the
world today, and their number is increasing. Since language,
in the words of Coleridge, “is the armory of the human mind
and at once the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future,”
it does not augur well for man’s tomorrow that half the world’s
population can neither read nor write. Such a proliferation of
“dunces” among 50 percent of the three billion inhabitants of
our planet casts a legitimate doubt on the appropriateness of the
appellation
homo sapiens
for the human species (keeping in mind
that
sapiens
means “being wise”). Illiteracy is an albatross around
the neck of human society; ignorance is a dangerous bone sticking
in its throat.
Happily, the Jewish people were seldom harassed by the prob­
lem of illiteracy. The history of nations offers no parallel to the
emphasis Judaism focused on education as an ineluctable duty
binding upon the entire community. “As soon as a child learns
to talk his father must teach him the verse, ‘Moses commanded
us a law.’ ” “The whole world is preserved by the breath of
school children.” “The schools must not be interrupted even for
the rebuilding of the Temple.” “A scholar is greater than a
prophet.” “A town without schools is doomed to destruction.”
These typical rabbinic pronouncements can be multiplied a
hundredfold. Indigenous to the Jewish psyche was a fierce hunger
for learning. Literacy and study were always equated with Juda­
ism at its highest plateau. At the circumcision ceremony of a
newborn son, the fervent prayer was invoked, “May he be reared
for Torah, for the nuptial canopy, and for meritorious deeds.”
Ahad Ha-am’s declaration epitomizes the Jewish attitude: “Learn­
ing—learning—learning; that is the secret of Jewish survival.”
Even the atheistic iconoclast Sigmund Freud could not deny,
“I t was the Holy Book and the study of it that kept the scattered
people together.”
This learning continuum played a vital role in the Jewish
modus vivendi.
I t provided the people with another purpose to
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