The Book of Job
One of the Tanach (Bible) courses I took as an undergraduate at the Jewish Theological Seminary was the book of Job. In the many years, decades, perhaps centuries in its transmission from the original till the final canonized book, the words, syntax, phrases of the actual text emerged nothing less than chaotic.
The book has the reputation of the most muddled condition of all the entire 24 books. The joke among Bible scholars was that there are three kinds of books in the Tanach: Psalms, where this is no relation between one chapter to another; Proverbs, where this is no connection between verses, and Job, where there is no connection between words.
My professor, with whom I had studied many other books, was H.L. Ginsberg. In the academic world of scholars of the Holy Book, he was recognized as a true giant, a genius. I have often wondered what the appropriate adjective would be to describe him, “renowned”?
“distinguished”? “pre-eminent”? The third descriptive seems the most appropriate.
For example, he might say something like “Isaiah would not have said it that way”, correct the text according to 7th century prophetic Hebrew, and a student could feel comfortable that he was right. His command of philology, syntax, and all other aspects of text analysis was legendary. He was famous for emending the written text frequently, and often radically when what was on the written page simply made no sense to him. There is a joke about that, too: If you take Professor Ginsberg’s course in Job, bring your Tanach and a pair of scissors.
It was an extraordinary experience watching The Master at work. I enjoyed it in particular because of my growing interest in Biblical philology. By then, I had also developed the freedom to take individual verses that moved me and — even taking them out of context — use them for my own teaching. This is how I settled on 8:7, a line by Bildad, one of Job’s debate-partners:
Though your beginning be small, In the end you will grow very great.
I was moved by this verse and quoted it several times to my students. This would easily serve as a simple yet powerful phrase for any endeavor. As a Jewish educator my thoughts were not on Wall Street of learning how to flip houses, but on adults learning to read Hebrew or on Jews struggling to resist assimilated secular values like status and perfectionism.
The Little Engine That Could
For some reason that even now I cannot fully understand, I disliked this book. I had not read it as a child, but when I read it when I was older, I reacted almost viscerally, and even telling friends that it’s message disturbed me terribly. It just wasn’t true in real life with all problems, crises, disasters, the many inexplicables that accumulate over the years. It was the wrong message to teach children.
It was too naïve, too Pollyanna-ish. In a way it is a “partialism” like “No pain, no gain” which is only true if pushing yourself to the limit in the gym doesn’t cause permanent damage.
Maybe that was what troubled me. Bildad is explaining to the suffering Job that God’s rules of reward and punishment make sense. But the Book of Job is for grown-ups who will find their own way to deal with such an enormous life-issue. And I’m not saying we should ban The Little Engine That Could and spend more time with Good Night Moon. I am not a child psychologist and, therefore, in no way competent to say that the book will scar their little psyches and lead to years of therapy for years to come. Frankly, I am at a loss, though I am optimistic that there are wise educators of our children who have ways to do it for the child’s little psyches ultimate benefit.
For many such “heavy” issues, The Tanach, Talmud, and Midrash do provide practical solutions. One of my favorite examples concerns some parents who respond to their child’s complaint about a verbally-abusive teacher, “I had the same thing, and I handled it. Now man up!”
The Talmud has a solution (Ta’anit 8a):
If you see a student whose studies are as hard to him as iron, it is because the teacher is not
Mom and Dad should be going to the school (or the student himself or herself if this happens at college) and request a transfer to a Menschlich teacher. In the case of the university, of the many reasons the student might give, he or she could explain that the result will be that his or her grades will improve, the reputation of the institution will be enhanced, and it can therefore justify its outrageous skyrocketing tuition.