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.

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