What is Jewish literature?
What makes a book or its writer Jewish? Whatâ€™s â€œinâ€ and whatâ€™s â€œoutâ€ of the contemporary Jewish syllabus? Who gets to make such judgment calls? Should they even be made at all?
Some time ago, an Orthodox scholar I know suggested a different way of thinking about this issue. He pointed to a distinction between books that Jews â€œreadâ€ and those that they â€œstudy,â€ i.e., secular vs. sacred texts. In my mind, this distinction largely hinges on the question of the authority we invest in books. Those that we readâ€”for pleasure, for a course, to make ourselves culturally conversantâ€”exercise little authority over us. But those that we studyâ€”for moral instruction, for answers to ultimate questions, to inspire us and develop our characterâ€”guide our lives and matter profoundly to us. If a particular book is itself in conversation with other Jewish books, we then become part of that conversation as it becomes part of us. If a book is not in dialogue with other Jewish books, then our reading will lead us away into a different conversation. Whether or not we ever find our way back into the Jewish conversation is anyoneâ€™s guess.
In a review of Ruth Wisseâ€™s book The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture published in Commentary Magazine, the eminent Hebrew translator Hillel Halkin argued that â€œthe question of provenanceâ€”who wrote a given text, with what personal background, motives, and opinionsâ€”cannot ultimately determine a modern Jewish canon, any more than it can determine a textâ€™s worth. What matters is less where a book is coming from than where it is going: to, or not to, a lasting engagement with other Jewish books.â€
Thus, in a kind of Darwinian way, Jewish literature has preserved the best of its writings and cast off the derivative, the insignificant, the merely timely or imitative. What survives are those texts that are in dialogue with what came before, that engage with what matters to Jews. What ultimately makes our books our own is not their authors nor their critics but us, their readers, the People of the Book.
Ellen Frankel will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council. Check out her new book, JPS Illustrated Childrenâ€™s Bible.