“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,” reads Robert Fagles’ translation of the first two lines of the Iliad. As a student in Directed Studies, I have read over these lines so many times in my first semester that I find myself automatically reciting them in my head anytime I see that first word, “rage.” Being moved thousands of years later by writing so old and celebrated, studied by the greatest minds for millennia, has been a highlight of my time at Yale.
But I am constantly wondering about the voices we aren’t hearing in our old and ancient texts. The texts I have been reading in Directed Studies were written almost exclusively by men, not women. Men in power. Men with education and privilege. How does one reconcile the beauty and power of a text with the fact that its writing was so deeply exclusive?
The answer to this question is definitely not to disengage. Whether we like it or not, everything — our culture, our political system, our music, our literature — is a product of what was before we got here. Not studying the works that brought us to where we are today makes it much harder to understand why we’re here. More importantly, it makes it harder to direct where we’re going.
Reconstructionist Rabbi Sarra Lev, in an article titled “Talmud that Works Your Heart: New Approaches to Reading,” calls for readers of the Talmud, a 6th-century Jewish legal text, to treat the work as a new genre, what she calls a “summons.” The Talmud, says Lev, is a text that “pushes our buttons,” one that provokes us to become “more reflective, understanding, empathetic, discerning, and expansive.” In encountering the text — one that challenges us and, at times, disturbs us — we are moved to have difficult conversations, to grapple with ancient and modern problems, to ultimately become more analytical and ethical people.
Homer writes vividly about the horrors of war in the Iliad, demanding that the reader ask the frightening question, “Why?” That is — why are the Trojans and Greeks fighting? Is Helen really enough of a reason to cause two armies to plunge into the fray? The two sides are often indistinguishable, both possessing long lists of great and noble warriors who fall fighting for glory. In this and so many other ways, the Iliad is an enduring summons to its readers to question the purpose of war altogether.
The language of “summons” can help us deal with so much more than just Homer and the Talmud. Encountering the texts we read as mirrors for our modern world and for ourselves is a way to find value in works that may otherwise feel stale or outdated. It can help us engage with central texts despite their exclusive authorship, despite how upsetting the content of those works might be for a modern audience.
In high school, I learned a section of the Talmud that vehemently outlaws homosexuality. As a member of the LGBTQia+ community — who, granted, was not “out” back then — having to deal with that text was extremely difficult. It made me give up hope in the rest of the work, feeling like studying such an oppressive text was a waste of my time. We’ve moved past this, I thought. It’s 2018.
But maybe I should have treated the Talmudic passage as a summons rather than as a relic of history. The Trump administration recently tried to end federal recognition of transgender people, and according to the FBI, bias against sexual orientation and gender identity accounted for one-fifth of single-bias hate crimes in 2014. These texts force us to grapple with how far we still have to go, not only how far we’ve come.
So keep reading your Plato and Aristotle — they might just summon you to accomplish incredible things.
Gabriel Klapholz is a first year in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .