Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Donkeys Laden with Books

In the Qur’an Jews are compared to a “donkey laden with books” (Surah 62). The idea, clearly derogatory, is that while Jews carry the sacred Torah from place to place, when it comes to understanding her we are as illiterate as a donkey.

Derogatory or not, this isn’t that far off the mark. But illiteracy regarding holy books isn’t limited to Jews. I was speaking to an Imam the other day, and he used the same analogy to refer to Muslims: they revere the Qur’an as holy, but have no idea how to understand it. Donkeys one and all.

I’m thinking about this as I fly to Houston to speak at the city’s 40th Annual Jewish Book Fair. My assigned topic is my new book, out this month: Amazing Chesed, living a grace-filled Judaism. But what really excites me is the very existence of Jewish book fairs.

I am proud to be associated with a people devoted to books. Yes, our knowledge of Torah may be limited, but our love of books is not. And yes, our love of books may become anachronistic as humanity takes to post-modern cave painting via HD televisions and iPads, but one medium doesn’t preclude the other, and I take pride in being the donkey bearing the books for a world where emotion–driven video drives out rationale discourse and the books upon it depends.

When I was a kid growing up in an Orthodox shul I stood in awe as the Torah Scroll snaked her way to where I was standing with my father and Zayde (grandfather) so I could stretch out my arm and touch the cover with the tzitzit (fringes) of my tallit (prayer shawl) and bring those holy threads to my lips. In my adolescence I found this fetishizing annoying, but as I grew older I reclaimed the magic and added to it the knowledge that in addition to honoring the Story of my People I was honoring the magic of writing and the printed page as well.

I don’t care how many monkeys you have, or how many typewriters you give them, they will never—even in the fullness of eternity—create the oeuvre of Shakespeare. Chances are they won’t even tap out a close approximation of Planet of the Apes. Only we humans can do that, and as our ability to tell stories moves beyond the printed word, I revel in being a donkey (and the son of donkey and the grandson of a donkey and the great grand son of a donkey and—Halleluyah!—the father of a donkey) all of whom carry literacy and the word on our backs.

So tonight I plan to thank the sponsors of Houston’s 40th Annual Jewish Book Fair for inviting me, but more importantly for keeping alive the link between Jews and books that is one of our greatest gifts to humankind.


rbarenblat said...

Beautiful. Thank you for this.

Myles Raucher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

I have contemplated your view about Jews as Donkeys with books. Though you do not agree with it you feel it is "not far off the mark."

Though I know that you are a man capable of deep contemplation and meditative abilities, you have perhaps not contemplated the monumental hubris necessary to come to such a self-righteous and judgmental stance.

The orthodox of any faith are pilloried, demeaned, mocked, and derided at every turn.

Of course you can make these fine gradations as to which Jew is a braying mule with a book of who is not. Presumably, you do not place yourself in this category. Perhaps when you next meditate you might meditate upon the word "humility"

I wonder what calculus is utilized to determine who the donkey is and who is not. Are you offended by the Aristotelianism of Maimonides? Or is his Mishna Torah unacceptable while the Guide to the Perplexed is acceptable? Was Hasdai Crescas's Neo-Platonism "off the mark" or was Gersonides a fool? Ibn Daud? The Karaites? The Satmars? The Sephardi? Was the brave and noble Nachmanides a braying donkey with a book or was Rashi? Was the Baal Shem Tov such a donkey?

How about other religious theorists outside Judaism? Were they braying donkeys with books? Should we dismiss Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, William of Ockam, Roger Bacon, or any number of other geniuses of the Roman Catholic faith?

Please answer one question please. Are you a donkey with a book?

Fraser said...

Call me a donkey with a blog Mordecai but I thought humility was the point.Celebrating words/books and realising anyone's limited ability to know anything.I'm sure that does apply, even to that really impressive list of names you reeled off there.
I doubt the temptation to defend his own humility will be very strong to our friend.
In fact I think your comment matches the post perfectly. Given a text to contemplate the meaning can be missed entirely.