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.

Gavriel Sav­it holds a BFA in musi­cal the­ater from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan in Ann Arbor, where he grew up. As an actor and singer, Gavriel has per­formed in three con­ti­nents, from New York to Brus­sels to Tokyo. He is also the author of Anna and the Swal­low Man, which The New York Times called a splen­did debut.”