Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reading Slowly

When I was in college, the single most important skill necessary to succeed was the ability to read quickly and to retain all or at least most of what you were reading. In graduate school, that ability—which I cultivated assiduously, as did all my classmates—was even more crucial: there were weeks when we were expected to read hundreds of pages of material and somehow digest it all.  You were allowed, obviously, to take notes. That I did, and voluminously…but, in the end, there was simply too much to master solely by jotting things down: to succeed you needed to be learning the material as you were reading, after which you could rely on your notebooks to remind you about the details.
The very last skill anyone wished to cultivate was the ability to read slowly. And, indeed, why would anyone have wanted or needed to work on reading slowly anyway? Isn’t slowly how children read when they are just learning how to sound out words? That works well in second grade, but aren’t you supposed to transcend that part of your elementary school education as you grow older and learn how to read more quickly and with ever more successful retention of the material? That surely was the way the concept was sold to us as children. And college and graduate school merely reinforced the concept.

But I’m also a slow reader, at least sometimes, and that specific skill was taught to me by Professor Elias Bickerman. Like many of my Seminary professors, Professor Bickerman was a character. But he was also a remarkable scholar possessed of a truly supple intellect and, even in the context of JTS in the 1970s, remarkable erudition. Born in 1897 in Kishenev, he was a mere lad of six when the horrific pogrom of 1903 not too subtly presaged the violence of the Shoah. As soon as he could, he left…first for Germany, where he studied and later taught at the University of Berlin until 1932, escaping to France when it was no longer tenable for a Jew to teach in Germany. He lived and taught in Paris until 1940, when it was necessary to flee again. And so he came to New York, teaching at the New School, then at Columbia, then at JTS. (He lived and taught in Los Angeles at the American Jewish University, then the University of Judaism, in the early 1950s as well.) But it was in his final professional incarnation as a professor at JTS that I knew him and studied with him. When he died in 1981, I had been his pupil for years.

Readers unfamiliar with his work should start with his entry-level book, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees (published in 1962 and still in print more than half a century later), in which the author sets the larger picture of Jewish history in the centuries before the Chanukah story we all sort of know at least something of in the larger context of world politics and the military, social, and economic realities of the day. He also wrote many other historical works, including true classics in their field, but I’d like to focus on the man in the classroom here…because it was in that specific setting that I learned the art of reading slowly.

Very slowly! My first course with Professor Bickerman was in the Septuagint, the translation of the Bible into Greek commissioned by King Ptolemy II in the first half of the third century BCE and thus the oldest surviving translation of Scripture into any language at all. It was going to be, I thought, fascinating…to see how the ancients understood the Hebrew text, to feel them struggling to find ways to convey the way the Hebrew felt to them in their own language, to see them developing, even occasionally inventing, new terms to explain ideas that had no obvious parallel in the cultural milieu in which they were working.  And so there I was the first day, my newly purchased Septuagint on the desk in front of me, ready to wade into waters I had wanted to sample for quite some time. And in walked the professor. He looked a bit disheveled, but when he spoke—he certainly didn’t bother with anything as mundane as taking attendance, asking who we were, distributing a reading list or a syllabus, or assigning any specific work to us—when he spoke, he spoke with the clear, powerful voice of someone who knows exactly what he wants to say. And his first sentence on that first day stays with me still. “I am here,” he said, “to teach you how to read slowly.”

And “slowly” was to say the very least. Our classes were ninety minutes long. The first two, comprising a full three hours, he devoted to the first word on the first page, geneisis, the Greek version of the title we all know, “Genesis.” Where did this title come from, he asked. The Torah itself has the text of Genesis in it, obviously…but it has no title at all in the scroll we read from in synagogue. The rabbis made up names for the books of the Torah the more easily to reference them. But those names have mostly fallen away and will be familiar to almost no one. The names we do recognize (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.) are the Greek ones. But where did they come from? And what of the “other” Hebrew names, the ones in use by Hebrew speakers today? Each is the name of the opening verse in the book, apparently. But where did that practice come from? And so he began to answer his own questions, leading us through—this was done entirely without notes, incidentally—through a thousand different side topics. Greek books and Latin books. The use of titles in Aramaic literature and even in Egyptian literature. Which books first had titles and what those titles were. The question of who named Homer’s ancient epic poems. The use of names to designate Sanskrit books in ancient India, and the endlessly fascinating (who knew?) question of whether the sages of Jewish Palestine in antiquity had any contact with India or with Indian literature.

You get the idea. It took two days…and then Professor Bickerman forced himself to move on…to the first word in the actual book after the title. Or rather to the first two words: en arkhei, “in the beginning.” Is that what the Hebrew b’reishit means exactly? Why two words instead of one. In the beginning of what? Is that normal Greek or were they mimicking the Hebrew? And to what effect? This all took another class or two. By the end of the semester, we had finished, maybe, eight verses. And that was with leaving out lots of side topics on which Professor Bickerman would have liked very much to expatiate, but which we had nowhere near enough time to consider even in what our teacher would have considered cursory detail. It was a year-long course. The second semester opened up, as I recall, on the third day of creation.

Somehow Simchat Torah, our annual festival of finishing the Torah and starting immediately to read it again—this closing festival in our long holiday season always brings Professor Bickerman and his class to my mind. I read a lot, as you all know. And I read quickly, as you’ve probably intuited by now. I rarely read books a second time. And when I do it is almost always to revisit some issue that I recall only vaguely and wish to remind myself about.  For all those reasons, Simchat Torah constitutes a kind of challenge for me…the challenge laid down for me all those years ago by my teacher at JTS who only wanted to teach me how to read slowly. And so we do exactly that in synagogue. We read slowly. Over and over, the same texts, the same stories, the same laws. As it is, we probably read far too quickly…but at least we never stop revisiting passages we have already read so many times that we almost know them by heart. There’s always something, always some ore hidden beneath the surface we have yet even to notice, let alone successfully to mine. Reading quickly is good for graduate students, I suppose. But reading slowly is the thing, the art that leads to the true pleasure of the text.

When Professor Bickerman died in 1981, I was working as the assistant to the librarian at JTS and it fell to the librarian, in those days Professor Menachem Schmelzer, and to me to visit Professor Bickerman’s home to get an initial sense of how many books the JTS library was about to acquire according to the terms of his will.  We did our work quickly, as I recall, just counting shelves and estimating the number of volumes on each. But as I wandered around in his space and looked at the books that were his lifelong companions, I could almost hear his voice challenging me to see this huge mass of printed books before my eyes, but not to lose track of the lesson he himself taught me: that reading quickly is useful, but reading slowly is sublime.

And that is what I would like to tell you as we approach Simchat Torah. It isn’t dull or uninteresting to hear the same text again. It is crucial—not because you may not recall this or that detail in the book, but because you haven’t ever heard it before at this specific moment in your life, at this particular point in your own intellectual and spiritual development. You’ve read it before, to be sure. But too quickly—trust me on this—and with too great an emphasis on completing the task at hand. Perhaps this year we should all focus on the far more difficult task of reading slowly…and finding in the slow, considered contemplation of Scripture a highway towards communion with the living God, whose divine spirit inheres in each sacred word of our holy Torah. Finding that possible is the challenge Simchat Torah—as we begin to read again—lays at our feet. Will we respond successfully and productively? That remains to be seen!

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