The ProsenPeople

There Are Never No Jewish Books

Friday, January 29, 2016| Permalink

Earlier this week, Gavriel Savit mused on the mysticism of uncertainty, the corporeality of God, and the incongruous narrative of the Hebrew Bible. With the recent release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel has been guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” (Peter Brook, The Empty Space)

I think conclusion is un-Jewish.

I mentioned earlier this week that I think the open space is the best place to smash together conflicting ideas and the best place to recognize the face of God. I also mentioned that these two activities are probably the same thing.

Corollary to this argument was the notion that flame helps an awful lot in the pursuit—a source of light that shifts and bounces and is anything but constant and certain. I’m sure there are those among you who thought to yourselves, “Alright—that’s all well and good, but it’s 2016, and when I flip my lightswitch, I get a lovely, flooding, reliable torrent of light that does not flicker and does not ebb. I can see every corner of the open space. There’s nothing there. Doesn’t this replace your inconstant flame-light?”

My answer to that is, resoundingly, no; no more than the period replaces the sentence.

A lot of people confuse uncertainty with ignorance. A lot of people confuse inquiry with interrogation. A lot of people confuse struggle with discontent. A lot of people confuse truth with fact. A lot of people confuse openness with emptiness. A lot of people confuse light with illumination.

I think conclusion is very much un-Jewish. There’s a reason we continually read the same book every year, cycle after cycle after cycle until it’s practically impossible to look at it anew for familiarity. Many people argue that this is because the Bible holds untold depths and nuances of meaning, and that no individual human could possibly ever derive it all.

Well, that may well be. I would argue, though, that it’s just as much a reflection of the fact that the human being is not a stagnant animal: we reread in order to reinterpret, and we must reinterpret because we do not remain the same.

The tradition holds that when God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, it was in the company of the Oral Law, a key to the interpretation of the written Torah. Throughout the generations, this oral key was passed along from generation to generation, shifting and changing, inflected by its interpreters and transmitters until it was finally codified and written down in the form of Talmud.

This transcription of the malleable oral tradition, this petrification of the fluid—this strikes me as one of the greatest feats of self-harm in the history of human culture. And profoundly un-Jewish. Of course one must reach towards knowledge in order to gain learning, but to continue on until one achieves the point of dogma is very much like eating oneself to death: you’ve exceeded the necessary, productive, even pleasurable pursuit and reached into self-destruction.

No, one must remain uncertain in order to achieve any measure of knowledge. This is true even, perhaps especially, in scientific endeavors, where the overconfident hypothesis is a leading cause of misreported data.

And so I won’t finish this week up with a dictum, with a handy take-away, with a directive. Instead, I’m going to return to the problem that provoked a lot of this thought to begin with. I’ll offer a question, a suggestion, and a bit of imaginative narration.

To recap: I encountered a used bookstore—aesthetic home, of course, to the basic spirit of Judaism—entirely devoid of Jewish books. This, of course, is a problem, a cognitive dissonance.

How is it best, then, to address it?

Of course, far and away the best option would be to decree that every single bookstore must be overflowing with Jewish books—and what's more, that they should all be books of new and compelling thought, unlike anything you’ve read before, that they be satisfyingly weighty in the hand but in no way bulky in the bag, that they should cost no more than fifty cents a piece, and that they should all give off the vague aroma of chocolate ice cream.

Barring the best option, though, this is how I think it would be good to deal with the situation:

If there are going to be no Jewish books in your bookstore (which again, I’m not condoning), then leave an open shelf. And if it’s too abstruse for you to label it Peniel, why then, “Judaism” will do just fine.

Because imagine this: you’re eight years old. You’re traveling with your family in Texas. You’re Jewish, and like many of us, you’re a reader. Your family stops into a used bookstore. You make your way back to the area in which you’ve become accustomed to finding Jewish books. There are none, but way up high, there, there’s a shelf labeled “Judaism.”

Already this is better. Already, you’ll be hoisting yourself up on a chair to get a better look—to investigate, to see for yourself if there’s not anything to be found inside. Perhaps there’s not. Perhaps there are no books in stock. But even so, you, at eight years old, know that there’s a place for them, at least.

And better yet, perhaps you’ll be moved to go and ask the clerk behind the counter if there are any Jewish books. And perhaps the clerk will say no, we have none in stock.

Or perhaps the clerk will take you around the store: Here, in Music, we have plenty on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. You’re probably a bit young for him, but here’s a first edition of a Saul Bellow novel. How ‘bout Isaac Asimov? Or here’s a joke-book by Mel Brooks. There’s Marcel Proust, but I’m too young for him too, frankly. Or too old. Can’t really decide. There’s Chaim Potok, of course. And Ayn Rand, nebekh.

The list goes on.

An open space is never empty, really.

There are never no Jewish books.

You just have to keep peeking.

You just have to keep struggling to see.

Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.

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