Rabbinic Reflections: Book People

Do you love to read? I do. Can you imagine being a book, not just a bookworm? You read that correctly, can you imagine being a book? For all that Jews are called “people of the book,” referring to our roots in the Bible’s Hebrew Scriptures, once upon a time, there were rabbis whose job was to be a book.

I remember clearly the class in rabbinical school where my teacher tried to help us understand the idea of people being books. He had us read “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury and “The Storyteller” by Mario Vargas Llosa. He brought the two together with the stories of Roman persecution of rabbis in the early 100s. The idea that someone could be the repository of a cultural heritage connected with zealous book burning turned the stories of famous rabbis being burnt at the stake into a conflagration of stories, with figurative touches including letters ascending like sparks.

The Romans set out to destroy Judaism by destroying Judaism’s books. In particular, they tried to kill off a class of rabbis known as the tanna’im, from tannaor reciter. Each tannawas responsible for one book of the oral law: to be able to recite it in whole or in part, to be able to recite a pertinent passage at will (like a Google search result today), and to do so without error in transmission. Once the Romans started killing the tanna’im, Rabbi Judah the Prince decided that the oral law had to be written down to preserve it; completed around the year 200, the resulting book is known as the Mishnah. It grew into the Talmud, another oral tradition eventually written down, this time around the year 600, to preserve its contents.

It is now 2019. We have books in hardback, paperback, digital, and audio. Books are made into movies, Broadway shows, and even theme parks. If you are a bookworm like me, you have been able to immerse yourself in text anywhere you happen to be and anywhere along the way from one place to another. Our access to text is virtually unlimited (price is, of course, a factor).

Rabbinic texts are a little different, even if they are available in multiple formats today. Rabbinic texts are not stories per se, not repositories of information as data, and not authored either. Rabbinic texts are conversations between rabbis throughout the ages and also between them and us. The Mishnah and the Talmud are invitations to join the debates, to take sides, to root out contradictions, and to find one’s place in the book.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked that we needed fewer textbooks and more text-people. We learn more from how someone acts than from what they say. As we approach the observance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I am struck by our need for positive role models. Heschel marched with King in Selma, Ala., he said he felt like his feet were praying. In their honor, let us see each other as books worth reading. Learn each other’s stories. Join the conversations that make up our histories. Together, we can write a new future worth preserving.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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