Monday, September 03, 2012

Converting useless knowledge

A guest post by GENE

Whenever I asked my father why he got together with the boys for a blat gemara
every week, he used to tell me you don't study for subject matter, you always have
to learn how to learn. And it doesn't matter what you study, he insisted; there's no
such thing as useless knowledge.

I usually disagreed with him. The yeshiva was teaching me all kinds of things that
seemed either useless or questionable. And they were hard to avoid. One day
word circulated around the Beis Hamedrish that there were four elements making
up the world – fire, air, earth, and water. It was a revelation and a sensation for
many talmidim there that day. I could only shake my head at their gullibility.

From an early age, my main defense against this kind of ignorance was in other
books. Lots of other books. When other kids were playing with their toys, I was
reading as much as I could. If I found the afikomen, it was a foregone conclusion
that I would ask for a book as my ransom reward. Authors became my most trusted

I learned to treat books with respect at about the same time as I learned about
hierarchies, holiness, purity. It was all part of the same lesson – never sit on books
that contained the shem, never put them on the floor; disregard their size and
arrange them from top to bottom according to degree of holiness.

Books could be ends for me, not means. Sometimes that meant seeing them more
as physical objects than as repositories of chochma, bina, and daas. I craved the
feel of books, their heft, their smell. The challenge of learning what they held was
something else altogether, and the adventure of comparing them with each other
put me into still another dimension.

I eventually learned that writers were only people and that I would have to develop
judgment and discernment if I wanted to avoid confusion and outright error. Not
all authors could be trusted, and none could be trusted all the time, no matter how
inspired they may have been.

An attitude like that, of course, made for an internal conflict when I dealt with
sforim. It was easier to judge novelists and philosophers than to acknowledge that
targum and drash were also written by people.

This was especially true of the most important books. I identified the Kitzur
Shulchan Aruch on my shelf more with a dozen rabbis than with any individual or
individuals who lived centuries ago. My parents were proud of the inscription inside
the front cover of the copy I won in a round-robin Chumash quiz: “Presented by the
Ladies of Yeshivath Beth Yehudah in recognition of excellent scholarship.” They
might have thought differently about me if they had known exactly how it came into

my hands.

The circumstances that brought it to me showed I was far removed from
embodying a Torah life.

There were only two of us left standing, and the other boy did not know the
name of the servant of Abraham who had arranged to bring Isaac and Rebeccah
together. It was esoterica: a scholar could study for years without running across
the name.

The rabbi who was asking the questions tried to give the answer away with one
syllable, then two, then with his body language. None of it helped. So he turned to
me for the answer. But I didn’t know it either. Prompted by the hints he had already
given, I mumbled “Eliyahu.” The rabbi could barely contain himself. He asked, “Did
you say Eliezer?” and I nodded weakly. The prize was mine.

I had cheated. My lie won me a book summarizing the basic practices of Torah life.
When I took it home, my parents thought they had good reason to praise me, but I
was ashamed, not proud.

I learned to be skeptical of texts long before I learned to value what was worthwhile
in them. It took years more for me to realize that books have little value if they are
just words on a page, even if those words were expressed by ancient authorities in
Aramaic or Hebrew.

This lesson applied to me in a special way. I knew not to judge a book by its cover,
but (and it's a big but) I enjoyed a good reputation as a student even though I
knew that the student persona showing on the surface masked a hollow and
disingenuous personality. That reputation remained a cover for my character flaws
for years. I found it easier to maintain books than to follow the principles they

As a result, one section of Pirkei Avos continues to resonate with me, by Rabbi
Meir, Al tistakel b'kankan eleh b'ma sheyesh bo. Don't focus on the packaging, but on
what is inside. Don't buy the hype; recognize the essence.

Once I could apply this statement to myself as well as books, it was no longer a
truism, useless knowledge. Because of what I have been, Rabbi Meir's observation
has become an admonition and a moral reproach.

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