I was talking with someone the other day who was as baffled as I was with someone else’s fascination of gematria. Just to be sure, I don’t mean the product line. I mean the assigning of numbers to alphabet letters and then adding them up and manipulating them to show that the numbers have meanings. Of course, I do often give chai or 18 or multiples thereof for tzedakah or charity, so I guess to a certain extent I do “believe” in it. But not the game that people play.
So what is the reference that I stated at the top? It was a book that was very significant to many of us “of a certain age”, apparently. I’ve used the book a few times as a reference, drawing blank stares from people. So I explain that it was a book of Hermann Hesse, he of the Steppenwolf and Siddhartha fame. This book, The Glass Bead Game, also known as Magister Ludi, stands in for me as a symbol of senseless point-making in games of no consequence.
Here’s what Wikipedia says about the game itself:
The Glass Bead Game is “a kind of synthesis of human learning” in which themes, such as a musical phrase or a philosophical thought, are stated. As the Game progresses, associations between the themes become deeper and more varied. Although the Glass Bead Game is described lucidly, the rules and mechanics are not explained in detail.
Of course, wouldn’t you know, in this day and age, there are actually people who have “figured” out the game and I’m sure play it with great gusto for hours on end. I’m not linking. You can do it yourself, if you’re interested.
But the reality is that there are many who have done it, played this type of game before, for generations, and the aforementioned gematria is one tiny little slice of this heaven.
It’s called your basic yeshivah learning. Pilpul. Luftmensch.
I know I’m overstating. I know that there is value in doing the work; going through the gemara for its own sake. I’m reading a fascinating book called The Burnt Book. Here’s what the publisher says on Amazon:
In a profound look at what it means for new generations to read and interpret ancient religious texts, rabbi and philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin offers a postmodern reading of the Talmud, one of the first of its kind. Combining traditional learning and contemporary thought, Ouaknin dovetails discussions of spirituality and religious practice with such concepts as deconstruction, intertextuality, undecidability, multiple voicing, and eroticism in the Talmud. On a broader level, he establishes a dialogue between Hebrew tradition and the social sciences, which draws, for example, on the works of Lévinas, Blanchot, and Jabès as well as Derrida. The Burnt Book represents the innovative thinking that has come to be associated with a school of French Jewish studies, headed by Lévinas and dedicated to new readings of traditional texts, which is fast gaining influence in the United States.
The Talmud, transcribed in 500 C.E., is shown to be a text that refrains from dogma and instead encourages the exploration of its meanings. A vast compilation of Jewish oral law, the Talmud also contains rabbinical commentaries that touch on everything from astronomy to household life. Examining its literary methods and internal logic, Ouaknin explains how this text allows readers to transcend its authority in that it invites them to interpret, discuss, and re-create their religious tradition. An in-depth treatment of selected texts from the oral law and commentary goes on to provide a model for secular study of the Talmud in light of contemporary philosophical issues.
Throughout the author emphasizes the self-effacing quality of a text whose worth can be measured by the insights that live on in the minds of its interpreters long after they have closed the book. He points out that the burning of the Talmud in anti-Judaic campaigns throughout history has, in fact, been an unwitting act of complicity with Talmudic philosophy and the practice of self-effacement. Ouaknin concludes his discussion with the story of the Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, who himself burned his life achievement–a work known by his students as “the Burnt Book.” This story leaves us with the question, should all books be destroyed in order to give birth to thought and renew meaning?
In fact, I think everyone should read this book. Especially people who sit in yeshivah. I’m also reading a wonderful book by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun called ארץ אבות, The Land of the Fathers, which has an amazing introduction by Rav Cherlow. He concludes this introduction by stating that the purpose of learning Torah is not just to learn, and he quotes from the prayer we say before the Shema:
וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּנוּ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשכִּיל. לִשְׁמעַ. לִלְמד וּלְלַמֵּד. לִשְׁמר וְלַעֲשות וּלְקַיֵּם אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי תַלְמוּד תּורָתֶךָ בְּאַהֲבָה
Give in our hearts to understand and to comprehend, to listen, to learn and to teach, to uphold and to guard and to do and to fulfill all the words of the learning of your Torah with love.
Oh, and with love.
If you can prove that this is what you indeed do, I’ll donate chai dollars to your institution.