Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 9, 2020 / 21 Tishrei 5781
Summary: This week, I focus on a Jewish poet who won the Nobel prize for literature yesterday and what that can teach us about being Jewish and human.
Yesterday, the Nobel Committee awarded its prize for literature to a very worthy writer, the American poet Louise Glück. Her verse is stark, controlled, tight. You read her poems, and you think, “the words are simple, the lines are clear, but their meaning is elusive.” That would bother some. For other readers, that is the source of their power and grace.
Louise Glück is now a member of a very small club. Since the prize was first offered in 1901, 49 poets have been awarded a Nobel. If we narrow that down to those who won primarily for poetry and not other forms of writing, the number goes down to 17.
But if we add her to a different club, the gates widen. You see, Glück is a Jew. Her mother’s family were Russian Jews, while her father’s parents were both Hungarian Jews.
At least twenty percent or more of all Nobel prizes have been received by Jews. Yet we are only .2% of the world’s population. Much effort has been made to determine why that is, and a rigorous, evidence-based answer is still lacking. That said, here are two reasonable cultural suppositions.
The first harkens back to the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. Jewish religion took a drastic turn in Yavneh, and our intellectually demanding oral tradition was finally written down, making it accessible to greater numbers of people, and emphasizing the life of the mind. Of course, the life of the mind can take many forms. For Jews, free inquiry, exemplified by our adoration of the question, was a result. It became a cultural habit.
The second reason is that for much of our history, we placed the life of the mind before other attainments, such as sports, money or political power. Some of that was conditional. If you have been expelled from countless countries, denied entrance to professional guilds or prevented from owning land or seeking office, then the one possession you have the best chance of keeping is your mind and its knowledge.
In America, where the barriers to other social goods have been far fewer, we are no longer the most-educated group per capita. That is worrisome to me (and not because some other groups are doing well, which is fantastic). It is great that we have more freedom to seek success in the broader culture, to pursue money, status or power. That should be the hallmarks of a free society, that anyone who wishes, regardless of background, gender, orientation or race, can direct their lives as they choose.
But at what cost? A special cultural characteristic of Jews has been our willingness to think long and hard. The privileged position we gave to the question was not so that all opinions would be considered equivalent. The question— and our initial answer—is not supposed to be the end goal, but the start of inquiry. The role of the question is to instill a habit of truth-seeking.
That habit of mind has produced so many gifted individuals across dozens of fields. Winning a Nobel prize is nice but secondary. The impulse behind those who win, however, is of primary relevance. Those who win a Nobel prize are the people who have labored on behalf of all global citizens. They have advanced knowledge in the arts and sciences, teaching us what it means to be human, and solving problems that cure illness and better life for all. For every Nobel prize winner, thousands of others are toiling in the same field, achieving the same ends of making life better. That is what really matters.
When Jews give up scholarship and a dedication to a life of the mind as an essential part of our culture, the whole world suffers. The planet needs more problem solvers, not fewer.
Let’s step away from academics for a second, because there is another feature of Jewish life that Louise Glück typifies. Her poetry is marked by a painful introspection forged out of trauma. We Jews are deeply introspective. Anxiety-ridden even. Our long history of trauma makes us ask questions not just about the arts and sciences, but about our own morality. Why am I the way I am? What role did I play in this dysfunctional relationship? Did we do something wrong that they hate us so much?
We shouldn’t forget that we gave the world the field of modern psychology. While the modes of psychology have grown and there are now many approaches to relieve human suffering, in its origins, psychology was the application of the question to the suffering human soul. It was followed by a fearless exploration of the question until the deepest truth, a primal hurt, could be identified. Implicit in that process was our belief that the truth will set you free.
Since yesterday morning, I have read 14 poems by Glück. Partly that was to reacquaint myself with her work, as I hadn’t read her in quite some time. There was also a more pragmatic reason, as I am researching and preparing for a class on Jewish poetry that begins in December, called “Songs from the Heart: Sacred and Secular Jewish Poetry.”
A few lines from another poem of hers appeared in a newspaper article that seem an appropriate way to conclude. Glück poignantly asks, “Why love what you will lose?” In that powerful question, we can all identify with the many losses we have suffered. The possessions, the jobs, the homes, the pets, the people we loved. At some moment of loss, perhaps in the midst of a broken heart, most of us have asked, “why invest so much if the end of it all is loss?”
Her answer is equally charged and profound: “There is nothing else to love.” In those six words, she teaches us that everything is transitory. More importantly, she reminds us that we must love, that to be human is to love. And that at the end of every answer, another question awaits us.
That’s a suitable message as we prepare to celebrate Simchat Torah. For we conclude our learning of the Torah by beginning again. We do so to ask different questions, to further our understanding and more importantly, our wisdom, our knowledge of why we are here and how to live. Perhaps there’s nothing better to love than that.
Shabbat Table Talk
- How did questions figure in your childhood home? What sort of questions were encouraged? Were some topics off-limits?
- Why do you think Jews have such high representation among Nobel Prize winners? Is there something of value in that for you? A lesson you can draw?
- What is your favorite question? Why do yo ask it? What does it say about you?
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