Are Books All We Have Left?
A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today
On the contrary, if there is one thing they are sure about, it is that contemporary Jewishness does not reside where it has always lived before, in religious law and practice. Only a small fraction of Volume 10 is made up of texts on religious subjects; the section on “Spiritual and Religious Culture” occupies just the last 100 of the book’s 1,100 pages. Here and elsewhere in the volume there are fascinating items on how Judaism itself is practiced today; one of the most illuminating things I’ve read on contemporary Orthodoxy is Haym Soloveitchik’s essay “Rapture and Reconstruction,” in which he describes the decline of traditional practice and the rise of text-based knowledge among the Orthodox. (There are also some fairly dreary, but historically significant, denominational mission statements.)
It will be interesting to see how, and whether, this emphasis on secular Jewish culture is maintained in the earlier volumes of the Posen Library. When it comes to the period 1973–2005, the emphasis is quite understandable, even if only in demographic terms. Today, more Jews define themselves as Jews through “culture and civilization” than through Orthodox practice. Yet a culture, like a song, is made up of words and a tune; you can write down the words, but without the tune, it is impossible to know how to perform it. Likewise, it is impossible for any collection of texts, even one as superlative as the Posen Library, to recreate the experience of Jewishness in our time.
Indeed, the structure of the book acknowledges this; for as much as it includes, it is conscious of excluding a hundred times more. An anthology that includes one page of Humboldt’s Gift is effectively an invitation to read all 500 pages of Humboldt’s Gift. So too with all the single poems by prolific poets, the one scene from five-act plays, the one essay by a major intellectual. Long as it is, Volume 10 of the Posen Library is a kind of ideal reading list, pointing the way to more Jewish reading and looking and thinking than any one person could manage in a lifetime.
And even if you read it all, you would still be missing the melody, what Lionel Trilling called “the culture’s hum and buzz of implication,” which is constituted by the whole experience of living in a certain place and time. For example, most Americans, including American Jews, would surely say that comedy is one of the most important forms of Jewish expression; yet the names of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld don’t appear in the index to Volume 10. In other words, there is a permanent gap between text and life, text and practice.
This gap, too, is a very familiar part of Jewish history: It is the gap that the Gemara (literally, “completion”) tried to fill for the Mishnah, as the civilization that produced the oral law grew more distant and harder to comprehend. It is tempting, then, to imagine the legions of commentary that might grow up around the Posen Library. Future readers will have to gloss words and references, and point out omissions, and explain historical background, and draw comparisons to their new world—just as the Amoraim did for the Tannaim.
The difference, of course, is that the Talmud was fuelled by the deepest kind of religious commitment—the certainty that, in expanding and exploring the Torah, the rabbis were doing God’s will. The terms in which the Posen Library is conceived are almost the opposite of this. Here we are dealing with human artifacts, with a Jewishness that is not legal and precise but cultural and diffuse. Can such a Jewishness compel the attention, and sacrifice, needed to sustain it? The Ozes, and implicitly the editors of the Posen Library, say yes; the future of more than our books depends on the answer.
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