Page 30 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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or she is more than the passive recipient of knowledge imparted
from above.
But empowerment is not the only issue that must be confron­
ted. A lifetime of Jewish learning involves something else as well.
The beginning student is often overwhelmed by the sheer
immensity of the library ofJewish reading. I have often had adult
students ask, “When do you ever get a feeling of mastery, how can
you possibly read enough?” I usually have a simple reply for the
latter question — “You can’t !” Perhaps somewhere out there, a
scholar exists who feels that he or she has the kind of mastery my
questioner is talking about. But I suspect that such individuals are
rare indeed. Most of us realize that the more you know the more
you understand how much there is to know. In fact learning in
Judaism may precisely do just that: you learn that you’ll
learn it all. And perhaps that is what the rabbis meant when they
talked about the “sea” of the Talmud — it is endless, perhaps one
could even drown from a sense of discouragement.
So now let us consider the content of such a reading plan. Jew­
ish literature can be arranged by theme, by genre, by historical
period. In the readings suggested below I have outlined an
approach to looking at the texts of the tradition in the context of
their historical periods. I have also included books about the texts
that offer some guidance or direction. But the historical orienta­
tion does not mean that the works should be relegated to the dust­
bin of antiquarian curiosity. Seeing them chronologically is con­
venient, but one could just as easily construct a course that was
thematic and ahistorical.
In fact we should remember that the historical conception of
Judaism itself is really a modern concept. Before the birth of
modern scholarhsip, Jews tended to see their literature as
ahistorical — any sage from any period could offer insight. True,
Jews understood that some texts were earlier and therefore were
seen to hold greater weight and wisdom, but one never spoke
about a text emerging out of its historical context or of a text
being influenced by the non-Jewish environment in which it was
born. That whole notion is one of the key foundation stones of a
“modern” approach to the traditional texts and it is very much