Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interruptions, debates, and disagreements, and on a unique human rapport. In synagogue, at school, and most of all in the home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation.
Ours is not a bloodline but a textline.
That's the opening of Jews and Words, by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. Amos Oz is a novelist whose works are read around the world; he teaches at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva. Fania Oz-Salzberger, his daughter, is a writer and history professor at the University of Haifa. Together they have authored a short nonfiction book -- you might think of it as a very long essay in four chapters -- called Jews and Words, which I am just beginning to read.
Thus far I've read the first chapter, out of four, and it's already given me plenty I want to share with y'all.
Oz and Oz-Salzberger identify themselves upfront as secular Jewish Israelis. They unpack that statement into three components: they do not believe in God; Hebrew is their mother tongue; and their Jewish identity is not faith-powered. None of these things is true for me (well -- I'm not sure what's at the deepest root of my Jewish identity, though that identity currently plays out in ways which are integrated with faith) and yet none of our differences get in the way of my finding their writing compelling and beautiful.
And I can't help loving the fact that these two self-identified atheists still begin the book's first chapter, "Continuity," with a quote from the anonymous medieval Sefer Yetzirah. In my general experience, people who toss around ideas from the Sefer Yetzirah tend to be rabbis or kabbalists of some stripe, not self-identified atheists. Then again: what writer, anywhere, could fail to find resonant the idea that the very universe came into being through text, and that the letters of the alphabet are the foundation of all things?
While Abraham argued with God and Moses reiterated God's words, the Mishnaic and Talmudic rabbis are in the business of unraveling, elucidating, explaining, and counter-explaining God and Abraham and Moses. Prophecy is mystical, but exegesis is human.
Unraveling, elucidating, explaining and counter-explaining: these acts are central to the whole business of being Jewish. I make this argument every time I teach about midrash -- that in some ways, what makes us Jews is our perennial engagement with these texts and with each others' interpretations of these texts. We weave ourselves into the fabric of tradition when we interact with previous generations' interpretations of the texts with which we still wrestle. (I often make this case alongside a case that fandom operates in a similar way. Fans, like Jews, constitute community through engaging with shared source-texts together, and through responding to one anothers' responses.) Unraveling, elucidating, explaining, and counter-explaining make us who we are.
The Jewish calendar lays down its daily, weekly, monthly, and annually recurring texts. Repetition can drain creativity, for sure, but it also has the strange ability to anchor, nurture, and even surprise. Reiterated lines sometimes beget music[.]
As I continue to interact with our texts on daily and weekly and monthly and annual levels, I recognize that there are moments when the repetition is numbing and moments when the repetition is uplifting and surprising. When I daven the same prayer day after day or week after week, it changes -- sometimes it changes me; sometimes it changes in me. And as far as reiterated lines, or reiterated words, begetting music -- that's exactly what sparked Command (Tzav) and Naked (Acharei Mot). When I open myself to them, the repeated words of our texts "anchor, nurture, and even surprise" me, time after time, year after year.
For Jews, the authors argue, "[d]ebate and dispute are ingrained onto the process of reading." And, they note, from Mishnaic times through the now-vanished world of the Eastern European shtetl, even the poorest Jewish children learned Hebrew from the age of three until thirteen. (Male children, generally, though in wealthier families the girls sometimes learned too. The paradigm shift involved in regarding women as men's intellectual and spiritual equals wasn't much faster in our community than anywhere else in human history.) But the point stands that, by and large, Jewish children have long been taught to read and to engage with texts. Reading, learning, and questioning are at the heart of our tradition.
Some hold that the Torah guards us as long as we guard the Torah, or that Shabbat keeps the Jews healthy and whole when we keep Shabbat in the same way. "Our own take is not radically different," father and daughter write. "What kept the Jews going were the books." Are the books inherently holy, or do we consecrate them through our study? "We hold one answer, and the faithful hold another," they note. (For my own part, I'm inclined to believe both of those stances at the same time.)
[I]f there is any chain at all between Abraham and us, it is made of written words. Like our ancestors, we are texted. And -- if one further liberty with the English language is permitted -- we are texted to our ancestors.
I love this wordplay. We are texted to our ancestors. Yes, indeed.
Here's one more quote to whet your appetite:
There is something singular in the past-gazing creativeness of those multitudes of literate Jews, their cumulative records, and their capacity to keep talking and making sense to each other across vast stretches of time, across languages and across cultures. They are all talking to one another. Like a constant argument at a never-ending Sabbath meal, it is not likeability or like-mindedness that keeps the flame alive; it is the lexicon of great issues and deep familiarities.
This short book is dense. I find that I want to read it in brief bursts and then spend time reflecting on what I have read. I expect that at this pace, it will take me a while to move all the way through it. But I am loving it, so far, and if these themes and subjects matter to you, I commend the book to you as well.
- A Compelling, Chutzpadik History Of 'Jews And Words' at NPR.org
- Jews and Words at Yale University Press
- Keeping it in the family, The Economist's interview (audio) with Oz and Oz-Salzberger