Do you know OTSOG? That is the shorthand for “On the Shoulders of Giants,” an absolutely singular book. In the mid-1960s, the renowned sociologist Robert Merton decided to find out the origin of the phrase attributed to Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The search takes him through many lands, fields of learning and languages (including Hebrew and Jewish scholarship.) He rambles and speculates with wit and astonishing erudition. It is an intellectual romp and a tour de force.
Merton also illustrates how thoughtful human beings throughout the ages have felt the benefit of those who preceded them. We are all on their shoulders. Judaism, with its penchant for quotation and citation, constantly acknowledges its debt to the past. To ignore the wisdom of earlier generations is to condemn oneself to poverty of the mind.
As we learn, the phrase goes back — at least — many hundreds of years before Newton. For all we know some Philistine child coined it atop Goliath before he was felled by David. We stand, all of us, on the shoulders of giants. But to appreciate the view it helps now and then to open a book.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).