Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Talmud, modern epic poetry and me.

I have long marvelled at modern epic poems like Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Louis Zukofsky’s A. These works seem to strive to embrace the entire universe and history in their pages. In fact, they each struggle to create a world into which the reader can step into, if they are willing to and learn about themselves as they interact with this “epic” world. All subjects were possible, nothing was off limits for these writers.

While I enjoyed strolling through the pages of the Maximus Poems, and at times found wisdom and expansive ideas there, I also found much that I could not follow or thought was perhaps meaningless. Even though George Butterick had created a companion volume to Maximus that highlighted the references and connections, I usually thought, “Why am I doing this? Is it really worth the effort? Are there just a few gems in a mountain of dust? Has this work truly affected many lives? Does anyone still care about this work, other than a professor or two?”

My answer was usually that the general effect of Maximus was small and short lived, as I believe is true of the other poems mentioned above. But I really loved the breadth and depth of the work. Recently, I was wondering if other works were currently being written like these and even though I came upon a work, ARK by Ronald Johnson, I had an epiphany, a revelation . . . the Talmud.

For months now I have been regularly reading small snippets of the Talmud, Judaism’s great, seemingly infinite source of wisdom and law. This is truly a work that contains everything it. While I have just begun entering into it, it is clear nothing is off limits: food, birth, death, love, etc. And while the poetic epics where attempts to bring history into the poem, the Talmud is truly a work of history that took hundreds of years to create. In fact, when it is studied today, over a thousand years of commentaries are available for discussion. This work is “alive” and still living and breathing.

When one studies it, one is studying with all the commentators, one spans the centuries. One sits with Rava, Abaye, Akiva, Hillell, Rashi and Rambam and we all struggle together to understand God’s will, to understand the “four amos of the halachah,” to understand the whole world that is contained within. As the Rambam says, “The lone soul in the study hall poring over a Gemara, delving into the halachah, charting his own observance, he is the culmination of Creation.” What I love in this line is that observance isn’t left merely to the experts, the priests, the gurus, the lamas, the rabbis to explain or teach or define. Each person is commanded to study and to chart “his [or her] own observance.”

And so the Talmud is now for me the truly epic poem that is immensely alive and breathing and creating every day. It is studied, discussed and debated constantly by observant Jews, and so, why can I not walk through its pages discovering what I can find out about myself, God’s will and halakhic observance and in doing so begin or continue charting my own observance, which can only take place in the day-to-day world I live within.

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