Monday, September 09, 2013

Small book on a large subject

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, memoirs, religion, philosophy of science

He claims to be an agnostic, one who prays and studies the Talmud daily and keeps kosher. Now age 98, Herman Wouk has written novels that span three generations of readers. While he still can, he has written of his exploration of the boundaries of science and religion, based in part on three conversations with Richard Feynman, and a great deal of his own experience. In their first conversation, Feynman asked him in parting if he knew calculus. He confessed he didn't, and Feynman responded, "You had better learn it. It is the language God talks."

The Language God Talks: on Science and Religion is Herman Wouk's memoir of how his stories developed in the context of his own religious convictions, and the people whose influence meant so much to the way they came together. He confesses that all attempts to learn calculus defeated him. Yet he has persisted nearly a full century in learning the original language God talks, the Hebrew of the Torah and its ongoing commentary, the Talmud.

The Hebrew itself is not really the language of which he speaks, but rather the incisive reasoning behind these great books. As he imagines himself saying to Feynman in a fourth conversation that he wished had happened, study of the Talmud, and earlier the debates and reasoning that produced it, represent the mental recreation of generations of thoughtful Jews during centuries with no technology of entertainment, no telephones or TVs or iPods (I wonder what the great sages would make of Wikipedia, whether they would contribute to it enthusiastically, or shun it. Probably the former!).

There is more insight into what it means to be Jewish in this little book than in any other I have read, of any size. I look upon the continued existence of the Jews as the foundational proof of God's existence. As a prophet wrote (here I paraphrase), God chose Israel not because they were greater or stronger or better or more numerous than the nations around them, but because He desired them for a testimony to His name. While He promised repeatedly to bless Israel, this "blessing" has been rather backhanded: they have endured continual attempts to exterminate them, for more than 3,000 years. Indeed, the first mention of Israel outside the Torah is an inscription in Egypt, dated about 1210 BCE, announcing that Israel had been "totally defeated". That long-dead pharaoh Merneptah spoke too soon.

But Wouk is the great writer here, not this poor scribbler, and dwells for a third of the book on his fictional character Aaron Jastrow, whose sermon "Heroes of the Iliad" is included as a coda to the book. That sermon, which morphed into a meditation on the meaning of Job's suffering, is the core of Wouk's belief and a most powerful statement of the Jewish understanding of the delicate choreography of God and His people.

What Wouk says indirectly I will state more frankly. God's own writing, His Bible, states that humans, "male and female", are in God's image and after His likeness. And just as we begin as infants and grow through a long process, so does God! If you read through the Torah, the Songs and the Prophets with a view to God as a juvenile, growing to maturity, you can reliably sort the books in time. The great figures of Genesis, particularly Abraham and Moses, sometimes had to talk God out of doing something rash. The man for whom the nation is named, Israel, formerly Jacob, was so named because he "wrestled with God, and prevailed". This view will be seen as rank heresy by my Christian colleagues, but I think a Talmud scholar would understand.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate!
He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him.
Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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