Thursday, May 28, 2015

Chaim Potok on the life of study

I just finished Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen, perhaps the best baseball novel I have read since A Prayer for Owen Meany. The Chosen is also a sympathetic and insightful portrayal of mid-20th century Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and of traditional Jewish Talmud study in general. A great book. Since this blog has more to do with learning than with baseball, here are a few excerpts about the latter:
  • "If a person has a contribution to make, he must make it in public. If learning is not made public, it is a waste" (149). 
  • On 18th century Talmud study:  "Pilpul, these discussions are called--empty, nonsensical arguments over minute points of the Talmud that have no relation at all to the world. Jewish scholars became interested in showing other Jewish scholars how much they knew, how many texts they could manipulate. They were not in the least bit interested in teaching the masses of Jews, in communicating their knowledge and uplifting the people. And so there grew up a great wall between the scholars and the people" (107).
  • On the difference between reading and studying: "'I forgot what it was like to study Talmud,' he said excitedly. 'Talmud is so easy for me now, I didn't remember what I used to go through when I first started it as a kid. Can you study Talmud without the commentaries? Imagine Talmud without Rashi. How far would you get?' I agreed with him that I wouldn't get very far at all. He had been going at it all wrong, he said, his eyes bright with excitement. He had wanted to read Freud. That had been his mistake. Freud had to be studied, not read. He had to be studied like a page of Talmud. And he had to be studied with a commentary" (181). 
  • And, again, on living a meaningful life: "Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye? … I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. … A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here" (217).
  •  And don't miss this brilliant excerpt on my colleague Eric Ortlund's blog, which is what finally compelled me to pull the book off my "to be read" list and start reading.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Maccabean Revolt and the Ambiguous Identity of Gentile Christ-Believers in Acts

My major priority right now is finishing a draft of an essay that I am to present at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies in Ottawa at the end of the month. I am posting a (lightly revised) version of the abstract I submitted in January because I hope to comment more on questions related to the paper in a bit:
In this paper I will argue that Luke draws on the familiar storyline of the Maccabean revolt both to present criticism of Paul and to respond to it. The claim that Paul, like the Hellenizers of the Maccabean era, defiled the temple, and taught against the law and the people (Acts 21:28) treats Paul’s Gentile mission as a threat to Jewish identity. Luke responds by reversing the Maccabean “script”: Instead of collapsing a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, Luke maintains that the charges against Paul confuse Paul’s instructions to Gentiles with his instructions to law-observant Jews, and suggests that it is not Christ-believing Jews, but Paul’s Jewish opponents who violate the law and are thereby responsible for the temple’s demise.
It is not coincidence that my paper deals with some of the same issues I was working through last year (here, here, here, here, and here).

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

C.S. Lewis on Evil and its Remedy

On Evil:
"We have all often spoken--Ransom himself had often spoken--of a devilish smile. Now he realized that he had never taken the words seriously. The smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with horrible naïveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation." 
 ...and its remedy:
"It is not from the making a story that I shrink back, O Stranger," she answered, 'but from this one story that you have put into my head. I can make myself stories about my children or the King. I can make it that the fish fly and the land beasts swim. But if I try to make the story about living on the Fixed Island I do not know how to make it about Maleldil. For if I make it that He has changed His command, that will not go. And if I make it that we are living there against His command, that is like making the sky all black and the water so that we cannot drink it and the air so that we cannot breathe it. But also, I do not see what is the pleasure of trying to make these things."
Making the story "about Maleldil"--I take it that that is what Paul meant by "anything without faith is sin" (Rom 14:23).

Quotations from C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Macmillan, 1944), pp. 110, 112