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Not Sent From My iPad

June 26, 2010 – 6:49 pm2 Comments

Old and rare Jewish books*

By Simon Holloway

I don’t care how popular the iPad becomes, or even the ubiquitous E Ink devices: nothing will ever replace the joy of holding a book. The tactile and olfactory feast that is an ancient tome cannot possibly be exchanged for the cold glare of a lifeless screen. While carrying a library in my backpack might be handy on vacation, I hope that I will always be able to come home to a house filled with books.

At the time of writing this, I am in possession of well over a thousand texts, some of which are very old. The oldest volume that I have is a Hebrew Bible from 1701, but I also own large facsimile editions of the two oldest Hebrew Bibles ever written: the Aleppo Codex (10th century) and the Leningrad Codex (11th century). It is a guilty pleasure of mine to point to my large and densely packed Primary Literature shelf and to tell visiting non-Jews, “these are just the important ones”. To people unaccustomed to the Judaic reverence for printed literature, the sheer number of books that Jews hold dear must seem mind boggling and bizarre.

And yet, so many shake their heads. To many of the Christian faithful, Jews have it all wrong. Obsessed with the nuances of the language, we supposedly miss the spirit of the law. Being “religious”, they say, is all about one’s moral character. Do I reveal myself, then, as a bad person if I say that nothing strikes me as more vague and insipid? Sure, I’m not in the practice of defrauding my neighbour or slandering my peers, but what has that got to do with my religion? If the only reason that you don’t kill, rape or steal is because there’s a book that tells you not to do so, then I truly fear for your moral compass.

What makes the Judaic literature so marvellous is not its insistence on the ethical life (although yes, yes, that’s all very fine) but its complexity. Jewish literature is abstruse. It is esoteric. It is not something that can be picked up, one-handed, and casually mined for information while munching on a tuna sandwich. Unlike other examples of literature, it cannot idly be read. It demands to be studied, if its esoteric pronouncements are to be at all understood.

There are those who have suggested that this is the reason underlying the overwhelming Jewish presence on several major chess teams, physics and mathematics faculties, and lists of Nobel laureates. For myself, I find this rationale a little glib, if only because the overwhelming number of such people were not raised on Talmudic analysis and halakhic arbitration. Is the Jewish penchant for this literature another symptom of collective genius, alongside aptitude at chess, physics and maths? As somebody who neither plays chess, understands physics, nor is able to work out the change that he is owed without pulling a face, I am not so sure. What is more, assertions of Jewish intelligence have come from those who hate us so many times that I do not even know if they are necessarily a good thing.

What I do know is that, despite all of its complexity, its self-referentiality and its esotericism, Jewish literature is not the property of academics. It does not belong to the learned, nor to the devout. It is not owned exclusively by anybody: neither scholars, nor rabbis, nor even (we are pleased to discover) men. There is no correct way to understand it. There is not even a correct way to prioritise it. And contrary to what some will tell you, there is no injunction to agree with any of it, accept any of it or believe in any of it. Sure, some of the texts contain such injunctions, but that’s okay: you don’t have to agree with those bits either.

In the current climate of neo-atheism, too many confuse a rejection of traditional belief with a wholesale rejection of the traditional literature that testifies to it. While those who do believe in the truths of the tradition might be secure in their admiration for it, what is to be done with the growing number of disillusioned, disenfranchised Jews, who find neither the answers nor the questions in the books that “we” revere? Should they leave them all behind, in the spirit of the reconstructionists, and start again from scratch? Should they modify them willy-nilly, in the spirit of the reformers, and keep only that to which they don’t object? If they cannot believe in them wholesale, in the spirit of the very orthodox, and force themselves to accept what their minds otherwise cannot, then perhaps they should abandon them altogether and construct their identity from something else?

In our electronic world, where that which doesn’t have the immediate answer to our questions is neither worth downloading nor looking up, more and more Australian Jews are taking the latter path. This is a terrible shame, for as we become less secure with figuring out the answers for ourselves by wrestling with something difficult and abstruse, so our questions are fated to become simpler and simpler until these complex books truly are irrelevant. And no gadget in the world will ever replace the loss.

* Image source: lubavitch.com

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