Page 28 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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parashat ha-shavua, is
a lifetime reading plan — but it is
one text that is endlessly repeated. When the talmudic rabbis say
of Torah “turn it and turn it again; for everything is contained in
it” (Avot 5 :25), they are asserting their own version of a lifetime
reading plan. Indeed the daily prayers of the traditional liturgy
also include large sections of “study” material in the midst of the
morning prayers. This, too, is repeated every day.
Of course there is mastery in the traditional Jewish conscious­
ness as well. We admire the
talmid hakham
who has “been
through” the entire Talmud (a phrase that occasioned the well
known response, “But how much o f the Talmud has been
through you?”), and the great scholar possesses a mastery notjust
of the Torah itself, but of a wide range of different commentaries
on the Torah.
To return to our original phrase, “lifetime reading plan” —
note also that we have been using the word “reading” and that too
raises some difficulties. In traditional Jewish vocabulary we usu­
ally speak about “learning”
in Yiddish) or “studying” the
classic Jewish works, not reading. Reading suggests a solitary
activity — perhaps the model is the quiet contemplation of the
monastery — certainly not the frenetic din of the Yeshivah’s
In the
bet midrash
learning is a public activity, almost a
ritualized event. As scholars have long pointed out, for Judaism
study is a kind of devotional activity which is a communal rite.
How does that jive with our Western notion o f the solitary
reader? Jewish study seems to work better as group activity. So
perhaps we should be considering a lifetime “study” plan, an
endeavor of a community.
One way to get around this difficulty of reading versus study
(or individual versus group) is to consider that up to now I have
been talking by and large about the reading or studying of tradi­
tional Jewish texts, and we could consider instead those books of
history, biography, literature and scholarship, mainly of this cen­
tury, that would fit more conventionally with the notion of read­
ing a book. These works often can serve to illuminate the texts of
the Jewish past and yet are considerably more accessible than the
texts themselves. Think, for example, in this context of reading