My wife likes to say that my best friends are long-dead men. There’s a chilly truth to that. I spend most of my waking hours with men who died long before I was born. As a boy, of course, I had little time for such fellows. I preferred to play checkers and Monopoly, to race my bike and go swimming, to watch TV and fight over nothing with boys like myself who were very much alive and in good health. But when, in my first year as an undergrad, I met my first long-dead man, a gentleman by the name of Socrates, I fell so powerfully under the spell of his personality that I ended up learning his language, just to be able to hear him speak in his own words, without the interference of translators.
When people find out that I read Ancient Greek, they raise their eyebrows and ask me how well I get along as a tourist in Athens. I tell them, pretty well if I find myself in conversations with very old Greeks. “What do you mean by very old?” they ask. “At least two millennia,” I explain.
Over the years I laboured to learn other languages as well. German for example. And in this case too it was mostly to be able to spend quality time with Kant, Nietzsche, Rosenzweig and Kafka. Sometimes I am recommended a book bearing a title I had not heard of. My first question is, “Is the author alive?” And when the answer is in the affirmative, I wince politely and mumble apologetically, “I see, well, I don’t really read living authors.” The answer often strikes the nice book-recommender as a little macabre. “Really? Why not?” I shrug my shoulders. “I really only trust books that have survived their writers.”
There is probably no need for me to explain the dizzy, rapturous, swooning emotion that overtakes me when I step into a bookstore. Or how I feel when I look at my own bookshelves in my little home office. “Ah, my dear friends!” I almost blurt out. In any event, I am quite convinced they feel much the same way about me.
Of course, I must admit, there are times when, by some inexplicable mood swing, even the most beautiful bookshelf will suddenly appear like a vertical cemetery, as if above the author’s name on each book spine were engraved the solemn words, “Here lies ….” At such times, there is only one thing to do. I pull myself together, I walk over to the shelves, I take down a book, and I open it. Even the foulest mood is helpless before a good open book.
My life with my long-dead friends has had many ups and downs. I have come to know long-dead men (also some long-dead women, but, alas, mostly men) quite well. I am fortunate to have developed some friendships that lasted for years and decades. More than once, to be sure, I have had a bitter falling-out with one of them after many years of keeping their company. Sometimes the break-up was so bitter, indeed, that I simply had to sell all the books of this or that author, or even just give them away. There were even dark times when I turned my back on an entire circle of long-dead friends. And other, happier times when I would embrace an entire circle after having met only two or three of its members.
Which finally brings me to my real topic. (The circumlocution was strictly necessary, of course.) During all these vicissitudes in my life as a bibliophile and a friend of long-dead men of letters, one circle did come to have a privilege for me above all others. It is the only circle that I never left after having entered it, and the only one whose many members I never grew tired of getting to know. I mean the circle of long-dead Jewish teachers. The rabbis. The sages of the Talmud, their predecessors all the way back to the Bible, and their successors all the way forward to our day.
My friendship with the long-dead men of our Masorah, our Tradition, has not always been easy. More than once a rabbi has leaped from the Talmud page and offended my sensibilities to the core. More than once have I felt that Rabbi So-and-So addressing me from page x of this or that book was being unnecessarily obscure in his words, or overly didactic, or frivolously concerned with picayune details, or making unreasonable demands on my personal life. But I have never resented the rabbis. I have never felt them to be lacking in wisdom or in generosity of soul. I have never wanted to leave their company.
How is it that I can spend so much time with long-dead Jewish guys?
The beginning of an explanation, I think, can be found in the talmudic tractate Ta‘anit (5b) in a pithy report on a conversation about a conversation. After breaking bread together, Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Nachman remain at the table to share some words of Torah, by way of a spiritual desert. Rabbi Yitzchak mentions how he once heard a most peculiar proposition put forth by Rabbi Yochanan, namely: Yaakov Aviunu lo met, “Yaakov Avinu did not die.” Rabbi Nachman finds the proposition perplexing. For good reason. After all, he wonders, “Was it for nothing that the eulogizers eulogized Yaakov and the embalmers embalmed him and the buriers buried him?” Not to mention that Genesis describes quite clearly how, when the patriarch filled his divinely destined one hundred and forty-seven years in this mortal coil, “he gathered his legs into the bed and expired and was gathered unto his people.” (Genesis 49:33)
Rabbi Yitzchak defends Rabbi Yochanan’s proposition by appealing to a promise that the prophet Jeremiah makes to his fellow Jews during their captivity in Babylon: “Therefore do not fear, Jacob My servant, says the LORD, neither be dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity” (Jeremiah 30:10). What we learn from this verse, says Rabbi Yitzchak, is that “just as his seed lives, so too he lives.”
With these words, Rabbi Yitzchak explicates the deeper and fuller meaning of the expression “our father,” Avinu, in Rabbi Yochanan’s initial statement. The “our” pulls the name “Yaakov” from the claim that death made upon the patriarch’s existence. Rabbi Nachman, of course, is not wrong. The patriarch Yaakov was a man. Men die. The man Yaakov did die and was buried and embalmed and eulogized. But Yaakov our father cannot be so readily co-opted by the impersonal grammar of the word “man.” Men die. Men who are fathers die. But my father—if only I can say this “my” with the same vital force that I say the word “I”—my father remains alive as long as I am around to embody the living principle, the holy spark and élan vital, that was in him and and which he gave to me.
When I contemplate the long-dead men who continually, patiently, quietly wait for me on my bookshelf—Jacob our father, Jacob my father, among them—I know that the long-dead Jewish men have an unfair advantage in their claim upon me over their gentile counterparts. I do still count Socrates and Nietzsche among my good friends. After so many years, I still spend time with them, listening to them, arguing with them, joking with them. But I have little compunction about telling my dear long-dead Greek and German friends that they have to leave the room when Moshe Rabbeinu calls out to me from a page inside my Mikraot Gedolot or the Alter Rebbe calls out to me from somewhere in the Tanya.
What is the difference between these two types of long-dead friends? Is it nothing more than a prejudice of my life? And why is Moshe Rabbeinu like Yaakov Avinu just as alive for me as the Lubavitcher Rebbe and as Rabbi David Baruch Lau?
One could say that it’s a question of a certain “archeological” limitation of which my long-dead rabbinic masters are free. Perhaps an example will serve to illustrate what I mean by “archeology” here. Howard Carter was the celebrated archeologist who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Reflecting on the exhilarating moment of his discovery, Carter writes as follows.
“For the moment, time as a factor in human life has lost its meaning. Three thousand, four thousand years maybe, have passed and gone since human feet last trod the floor on which you stand, and yet, as you note the signs of recent life around you—the half-filled bowl of mortar for the door, the blackened lamp, the finger-mark upon the freshly painted surface, the farewell garland dropped upon the threshold—you feel it might have been but yesterday.”
When I read a book written by one of my long-dead friends, I feel the presence of this good old friend in a very similar manner. When I leaf through my copy of Plato’s Republic and hear Socrates talking to Glaucon, for example, I feel like I am in the room with them or they are in the room with me. Their words reach deep into my mind. And they are alive. Or very close to being alive. They are quite alive, that is to say, except for one fact that a certain “archeological gap” still separates me from them. This gap, small but trenchant, exists simply because, of all the university professors who taught me how to hear Socrates and Plato and Nietzsche—and I was fortunate to have some truly excellent professors who were extremely fine and refined individuals—not one of them ever put his arm around me and handed me a book, saying: “Here, my dear boy, here is a book to live by.”
Nor was it their place to do so. The things I have learned from the long-dead men of Greece and Germany are things that I have had to excavate. They are things from the past. I unearthed them, with help from my excellent professors, by digging and discovering.
By contrast to this archeology of ideas and truths from the past, the ancient truths of the Torah were brought to me from the past by way of the Masorah, the Tradition. The Masorah involves a relationship to the past that is profoundly different for the archeological relationship.
The Masorah does not present artifacts. The Masorah offers items that are here today as they were here yesterday, as they were here a century ago, as they were here three millennia ago. One can visit the Israel Museum in Jerusalem today and see a set of Tefillin that is more than two-thousand years old, and if one simply points them out to a little Jewish boy he will recognize them without explanation.
The Masorah does not speak in a dead language. Unlike Ancient Greek and Latin, Hebrew was a living language of prayer and rabbinic literature since Moshe Rabbeinu. A citizen of Athens today can pronounce the text of the Iliad, but without understanding a word. A little secular girl from Bat Yam, on the other hand, can open up the Book of Genesis and read it like a storybook.
The Masorah does not need to be deciphered. Ancient texts need to be carefully prepared in “critical editions” by professors who have spent lifetimes of research comparing texts and reconstructing the meanings of words, meanings that were lost for centuries. The Masorah, by contrast, is an open book. The meanings of the words of the Torah do not need to be found, for the simple reason that these meanings were never lost.
The Masorah is not a subject taught by a professor. It is a vibrant quantum of living wisdom handed down, hand to hand, and handed over, hand to hand, from teacher to student, from parent to child. The action of the hands is absolutely vital in this gesture. As is the fact that two hands are involved. The parent or the teacher who hands the Masorah to the student or child does so with one hand. With the other hand, the parent or teacher embraces the child or the student. “Here, my dear boy,” or “Here, my dear girl,” says the parent or the teacher, “here is a book to live by.” Quite often there is also a kiss and a blessing.
So, yes, when I take Socrates down from my shelves and hear him engaging in conversation in ancient Athens, my old and wise Greek friend is quite alive. Or very close to being alive. And when I heard Yaakov Avinu summoning his sons to give each one a blessing from the unfathomable depths of his paternal love and the incomparably crystalline purity of his holy mind, I feel a tender hand upon my head, and I am quite certain: Yaakov Avinu lo met. Our father Jacob lives.