Sometimes ancient holidays wither into mere occasions for a shared meal and genial palaver. I have no problem with that. But some holidays, perhaps because they are so out of sync with mainstream culture, offer us perspective on the world in which we believe we live.
A bookish people, we Jews celebrate a fall holiday that affords us an opportunity to shamelessly express and demonstrate our bibliophilia, our erotic attachment to the sheer beauty of the written word. In an age of gradual digitalization and virtualization of the reading experience, an age that weans us slowly from the touch and fragrance of magazines, journals and volumes, students here and around the world will soon remember and reenact once again what it means to love a book — not merely a printed folio edition, but a parchment scroll hand written by a scribe who devoted a year to the project.
Jews will sing and dance with their book of books, their ur-text, known variously as the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. They will chant the final lines of the last chapter of Deuteronomy where Moses dies and then the first words of Genesis where God says, “Let there be light.” And they will dance and whirl and sing as they clasp the scrolls in their arms, giving legs to the written text.
We Yalies know that we are privileged to live and work in one of the world’s great book cultures; we can feel the sacred hush inside the nave of Sterling Library, the sense that, like pilgrims, we are entering the precincts of “Our Lady of the Book.” Library culture treasures silence, a climate within which one may hear the disembodied, still, small voice. I am grateful for it.
But the holiday of Simchat Torah — to be celebrated on campus on Monday night, October 8th — reminds us that human love is carnal, that book-love is passionate, romantic, tactile and noisy, that there is a time to make love to our books.
Imagine: a professor of physics dancing with an early edition of Einstein’s “Cosmological Considerations in the General Theory of Relativity;” a philosopher whirling with Spinoza’s “Ethics” or Kant’s “Critiques;” a political scientist dancing a tango with Machiavelli’s “The Art of War;” classicists giving legs to Homer, Horace and Ovid. Ah yes, and a troupe of economists dancing with Malthus, Milton Friedman, Galbraith and Marx. A supply-side waltz, a revolutionary polka, an unemployment-deficit-downsizing ballet. Book and reader merge, as author and book merge, a Dionysian bookishness explodes for a moment, and we are all once again people of the book.
So consider, my fellow freshmen of the spirit: though Sterling and Bass may feel like dungeons just now, your world having shrunken to papers, problem sets and midterms, in reality you sit in a dance hall, and yours is the opportunity each moment to come to your feet to stomp and jump and twist and spin, to remember the book love that brought you and me here in the first place. Remember: Love cannot be graded, or proved or earned, or lost. Though sometimes we forget.
James Ponet is a 1968 graduate of Timothy Dwight College and the Howard M. Holtzman Jewish chaplain. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org