Page 9 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 24

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I N T R O D U C T I O N
B
y
A
l e x a n d e r
A
l a n
S
t e in b a c h
I
M
o r e
than seven centuries ago Moses Maimonides delineated
a wholesome Jewish a ttitude to culture (H ilhot Ta lm ud
T o rah 1, 8-10): “Every Jew is obligated to study T o rah whether
he be rich or poor, in good hea lth or ailing, young or old.
Even if he goes begging from door to door and has a wife and
children to support, he must set aside time for study of the
Torah . . . . And how long must he continue? U n til the day of
his death.”
When To rah is interpreted in its broader connotation as
culture embracing the Jewish m ind and m irroring the rhythm
and meter of Jewish life, one becomes painfully aware of the
great gap between Maimonides’ prescription and the abysmal
cultural impoverishment which characterizes the rank and file
of the Jewish people. Cultural m alnu trition has assumed almost
epidemic proportions. Ou r modern generation has become
alienated from the erstwhile cultural aristocracy which was the
bedrock of Jewish existence. We are spawning a breed of
am
ha-arazim.
Isaiah’s pathetic lament “My people are gone into
captivity for want of knowledge” has clarioned down the cen­
turies to ou r own time.
What was once an indigenous, passionate Jewish preoccupation
with books and a devout reverence for learning, has been
d iluted in to an arid, desiccating pattern in which the canoniza­
tion of ignorance is unfortunately the ru le ra the r than the
exception. There was a time when the phrase “ignorant Jew”
was a contradiction in terms. Study, Jewish learning, a hunger
for erudition, a thirst for T o rah—these were inextricably bound
up with the Jewish ethos. They were the hallmarks of Jewish
aspiration and of Jewish enlargement.
Expanding the frontiers of knowledge was an imperative
urgency for Jewish survival. I t loomed as the dom inant motif in
the intense historical drama the Jew enacted in every generation
and in every clime. Study was more than a luxury or an incentive
for intellectual exhilaration; it was an ineluctable biological
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