And so we finally come to the end of our festival season. Not quite, but almost! Shemini Atzeret, the next-to-last stop on the holiday bus line, looms before us in all its mysterious opacity and then, finally, we get to Simchat Torah…the last stop of all before it’s all finally really over and the “real” year really begins with all of its tasks and challenges.All of our Jewish festivals have features that are to some degree out of sync with the modern world, but Simchat Torah is in some ways the most egregiously out of step with the values moderns espouse and which we teach our children to esteem. In a world that values efficiency, Simchat Torah is about doing something—in this case, pondering the text of the Torah and mining in its quarries for new meaning and renewed inspiration—in a way that couldn’t possibly be less efficient: by reading it aloud slowly and precisely, over and over and over, year in and year out. In a world that values speedy attention to pressing matters, we could not possibly do our pondering more ponderously…or more laboriously. And, of course, we don’t just read the text out loud, we chant it according to a set of musical notes that, because they are not actually written in the scroll, must be memorized in advance. It’s true that those signs serve as a kind of bare-bones punctuation system, but what they really do is make it impossible to race through the text at breakneck speed even for the most accomplished reader. Instead, each word is sung out, thus of necessity separately pronounced and individually presented to the congregation for its ruminative contemplation. Most Americans, of course, are done being read to when they learn how to read in first or second grade. But shul-Jews are never done…and we never quite finish either: as soon as we get to the last few lines of the Torah, we open a different scroll to the very first column and start reading again. Again.
We train our students in school to read as quickly as possible. I remember occasionally having to read several hundred pages from one class to the next in college and graduate school, which, since I was generally taking at least four or five courses at once, meant having to develop the skill not only of reading at top speed but also somehow of retaining all, or at least most, of the insane number of pages I was attempting to read at once. I took notes, obviously. But even that had to be done according to a streamlined system that didn’t impede my progress too dramatically. The key was to find the right balance between volume and comprehension: reading without recalling content was useless, but not getting through the reading assignment before the next class was not a very good plan either! In the end, I learned how to read very quickly, which skill I retain to this day. And I remember most of what I read too. So there’s that!But there’s reading and there’s reading…and to participate in the annual reading of the Torah requires learning to read extremely slowly, carefully, and deliberately. It requires being open to insights hiding behind the details of a confusing narrative or a complex exposition of details regarding some abstruse area of law. Mostly, it requires a level of humility that no professor in grad school sees any point of attempting to instill in his or her students: listening week in and week out to the weekly lesson, on the other hand, requires bringing a level of surrender to the enterprise that stems directly from knowing that the same text read this week will be read aloud next year (and the year after that as well), yet knowing that none of us will ever truly get to the point at which we’re done learning, at which we’ve simply managed to squeeze all the juice there is to have from that particular orange, at which there is simply no point to review the same text again again. The bottom line is that you can’t read Scripture too slowly, too deeply, or too carefully! But who in our modern world wants to do anything slowly at all?
This much I know from shul and from study. But how surprised was I to learn just recently that I’m not alone—that Jews are not alone—in their devotion to the art of the slow read.As far as I can tell, the earliest non-Jewish author to write positively about the experience of reading slowly was, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche, who described himself in the introduction to his The Dawn of Day as a “teacher of slow reading.” Okay, that was in 1887, but he was only the first of many who argued that the relentless emphasis on reading quickly has had a peculiarly negative effect on Western public culture. In 1978, James Sire published How to Read Slowly, a call-to-arms in which he invited Americans to learn how to read thoughtfully, not racing to get any specific book finished but instead using the experience of reading as a kind of internal gateway to ruminative speculation about the world through the medium of the written word. In 2009, his work was followed by John Miedema’s Slow Reading, an interesting book in which the author finds traces of encouragement to read slowly in classical sources and then moves slowly forward to find similar kinds of ideas in works from later centuries as well. Then came Thomas Newkirk’s 2012 book, The Art of Slow Reading, And then came David Mikics’ Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, published by Harvard University Press in 2013.
Mikics comes closest to what Jews mean by reading slow. He identifies slow reading with intensive, thoughtfully ruminative reading and approvingly cites Walt Whitman, who wrote that “reading is not a half-sleep, but, in the highest sense, a gymnast’s struggle…Not the book so much needs to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.” That’s pretty much why we read the Torah over and over in shul: not because the book needs to be read but because the kahal needs to be read to…and through the experience of being read to and thus obliged to consider word by word an ancient text, and to do that same thing over and over without being bored or irritated—that is what we mean by the book being a door to step through into the world behind the world, into the space that Plato labelled “the world of ideas” but which Jewish people know as the world behind the great parochet that separates the day-to-day world of human goings-on from the larger picture of the human enterprise, the one in which we participate willingly not because we can or because we must, but because we wish to see ourselves as willing witnesses to God’s presence in history, and as harbingers, each of us, of the redemption promised by the very scroll we read so deeply and thoughtfully year after year after year.David Mikics is a professor of English at the University of Houston. I have used and enjoyed his edition of Emerson’s essays since the book came out in 2012; when I’ve occasionally discussed Ralph Waldo Emerson in these weekly letters, I’ve almost always been relying on the text Mikics published and on his thoughtful introductions and notes. In his book, he distinguishes slow reading from its partners in insight, “close reading” (a term coined at Harvard more than half a century earlier by Professor Reuben Brower) and “deep reading” (a term coined by Sven Bikerts, the author best known for his Gutenberg Elegies, the subtitle of which, “The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age,” tells you most of what you need to know about this thesis). Mikics book is very worthwhile…and worth reading slowly and carefully.
Much of what he writes will be challenging for all who care deeply about the fate of the written word in the digital age. But large sections of the book—written in an engaging, very appealing style—will be resonant in a special way for Jewish readers. We are the original slow readers! And Simchat Torah is our annual festival devoted to the celebration of that very concept. So, as we prepare for the final days of our holiday season, I encourage you all to focus on the larger enterprise in play: the celebration of slow, intensive, deep, close reading that is the hallmark of the way Jews relate to the sacred text. Each word, after all, is a gateway to the world behind the world, to the sacred space in which the knowledge of God, for all it comes to us dressed up in language, is not language or anything like language…but an amalgam of hope, faith, courage, and dreamy optimism. The bottom line: you really can’t read too slowly…and Simchat Torah is our annual opportunity to pay public homage to that quintessentially Jewish idea.