Arts & Culture

Putting Those Readings to Work

So the basic concept (I mean, the basic concept in The Boy on the Door on the Ox, my new Aviv Press book) is that all those ancient books that modern types are supposed to find chock full of meaning, … Read More

By / November 18, 2008

So the basic concept (I mean, the basic concept in The Boy on the Door on the Ox, my new Aviv Press book) is that all those ancient books that modern types are supposed to find chock full of meaning, but which they really find to be filled with arcane details and endless disquisitions on almost unimaginably unlikely topics, that those books – and the standard classics of rabbinic literature foremost among them – can also be read as works of literature and unravelled (and made relevant to moderns) by treating them not as quarries of informational ore to be mined, but as lyrical efforts to decipher the world.

I read a lot. I already did read a lot, but I’ve kept it up. And I’ve never given up the kind of reading you’re probably supposed to give up once you have almost no time to read anything anyway and the little time you do have you feel guilty for not devoting to reading sober works of academic scholarship about… something. About religion. About rabbinics. About, even, the Bible.  When I was younger, I read a lot of the so-called classics of spiritual literature, and not specifically the Jewish ones. I read Thomas Merton and Alan Watts, St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, Kirkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr. I found them all interesting, but only the occasional work in that world spoke to me deeply. The masterpieces of Jewish spirtuality – the merkavah texts, the Bahir, the Zohar, etc. – I also waded through, but without finding my guides there. Information, yes (and lots of it.) But guides – in the sense of people able to move me forward on my own spiritual journey, on my own pilgrimage, on the trajectory of my own life through history to destiny – I didn’t find. Not really!

The authors who did call to me, and who still do call, are the ones that feel divorced from the spiritual enterprise. I wander far off, but I always return to Melville, to Hawthorne, (especially) to Walt Whitman, to Poe, to William Cullen Bryant, to Longfellow (so underrated!), to Thoreau, to Emerson.  All dead white guys and not a Jew among them. But these are the authors who have framed my sense of myself as a Jew not merely looking back but moving forward, as someone who doesn’t only want to be on some sort of endless treadmill that exhausts those who run on it to the extent that they forget to notice that they’re not actually going anywhere, but who actually does want to move forward towards the redemptive moment, towards the kind of spiritual wholeness that is the prerequisite for faith, towards Jerusalem.

So I suppose (or maybe I do) that it was natural for me to hit on the idea of trying to find characters like those in the works of the authors who really did and do call to me in the arcane chapters of the Mishnah, the ancient rabbinic work I feel the most personally drawn to. In the book – in my book, I mean – I tell the story of how I found these people, what led me to look in the corner of the Mishnah in which I finally did find them, how I slowly came to realize that these were my guides, my barely visible (and wholly unreal) mentors. In the context of the Mishnah itself, they barely exist.  (I can attest to that by pointing to my own experience of studying the texts in which they appear for more or less my entire adult life without ever noticing them lurking in the shadows, waiting for someone or, more likely, for anyone to be willing to be led forward.) They’re barely there, but "barely there" doesn’t mean "non-existent." And the truth is that, once I figured out where to look, I did find them, and more than I would have expected.   The book is about the journey (all books are about journeys, aren’t they?) that has taken me to this point in my life. It’s about studying Mishnah, but it’s also about me… and about being a rabbi in a world that wants its rabbis to be rabbinic scholars, but which rarely pauses to ask why that is (and, even less frequently, to answer the question).

I’m satisfied with the book. I like writing. I like hearing from readers. What I really wish is that I could send a copy to Edgar Poe.  You can’t send him one either…but you can buy a copy, thus helping the cause along and encouraging me to keep on writing.  Available on-line and in book stores!

Martin Samuel Cohen, author of The Boy on the Door on the Ox, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.