Monday, June 16, 2008

Chaim Potok at Yeshiva University, JTS - Bible study & the history of the Hebrew language

Here's an interesting excerpt from an essay1 by Chaim Potok in A Sign and a Witness: 2,000 Years of Hebrew Books & Illuminated Manuscripts (exhibit book from a 1988 showing at the New York Public Library):

Over the words of the teacher I hear the rustling of newspapers. I am in my senior year in Yeshiva College. The school authorities have decreed that students of Talmud ought also to be studying Bible. And so each Thursday one hour has been taken from Talmud study and given over to the Bible. For reasons known only to the faculty, the text that has been selected is the Song of Songs.

Most of my classmates are angry at this theft of precious time from Talmud. They manifest their anger by openly reading newspapers in class as the teacher-a mild, mustached Bible scholar in a rumpled gray suit, steel-rimmed spectacles, and a wide-brimmed gray fedoraattempts to cut a path through the text. The noisy pages of the Post, PM, the Times, the Herald Tribune display an open disdain of the harried efforts of the teacher of Song of Songs.

He is teaching the text in the traditional manner: it is a love song between God and His people Israel, written by King Solomon in his lusty youth. How hard he tries to arouse our interest in its bizarre similes! It is all in vain; the air of the classroom is dense with stoney resentment. Clearing his throat, he gazes down at his text. In a suddenly lowered voice, he reads the words, "Your breasts are like two fawns, / Twins of a gazelle, / Browsing among the lilies," and explains them by saying, "This refers to Moses and Aaron." Behind me a newspaper rustles. All around me there is a low buzz of conversation. The classmate to my right yawns audibly and without embarrassment.

Eight months later, I am sitting in a Bible class in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. We are studying Song of Songs.

The tradition of Solomonic authorship has been briefly explained by
our professor, and dismissed. "If Solomon wrote Song of Songs, there is no history of the Hebrew language. " He dates the book to the third century B. C.E. (A book of the Bible with a specific date! What a rousing notion that was to me!)

1 "Text and Texture: Early Adventures in the Fourth Dimension"

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