Consciously or unconsciously, we expect our rabbis to be deep readers. We want them to mine our traditional sources for wisdom that can speak to our hearts in 2020; and to identify secular literature that deserves to be elevated because it teaches us in some way how to be holy. Our BJ rabbis often identify and share readings that inspire us to think differently about how we are acting in our lives.
By this time next week, we will have begun the month of Elul that leads us into Rosh Hashanah. There are many ways for us to begin preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days. In his beautiful new book, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, Harvard Divinity School Fellow Casper ter Kuile describes the powerful practice of deep reading—or what he refers to as sacred reading. His book draws on a variety of religious traditions to suggest that each of us can read deeply like our rabbis do. In fact, ter Kuile writes about applying his sacred reading practice to the Harry Potter books!
In discussing how to embark upon sacred reading, he draws on several Jewish textual practices. In havruta, we read aloud with a study partner to discover together insights based on our deciphering of the text as well as by bringing our life experiences into the conversation. Ter Kuile also speaks about how sacred reading requires re-reading, something our tradition emphasizes in numerous ways. Not only do we have our annual Torah reading cycle, but our books of ethical literature either implicitly or explicitly instruct us to review them regularly, so that their teachings take hold and stay with us.
Additionally, ter Kuile describes a sacred reading practice from a 12th-century Catholic book, Scals Claustralium or The Ladder of Monks. It involves taking a small piece of text at a time, such as a sentence or a paragraph, to thoroughly explore its meaning through a multi-layered process. I encourage you to read Casper’s book or listen to his podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text to see how he and a colleague apply this process to the popular fiction series you might already have on your bookshelf.
One Jewish sacred reading tradition is to spend the summer leading up to the High Holy Days reviewing Pirkei Avot—Ethics of our Fathers. Borrowing this 12th century Catholic methodology of delving deeply into a very small piece of text at a time is especially fruitful in reading Pirkei Avot. Its opening lines state that as Torah was initially transmitted from Moses to the leaders and teachers that followed him, it came to The Great Assembly which distilled three teachings. The first of these teachings is “be deliberate in judgment” which are the several words I will focus on to illustrate this sacred reading practice. Here are the layers I identified in deeply reading the phrase “be deliberate in judgment”:
- While many rabbinic commentators understand this phrase as pertaining to formal judgements, such as adjudicating a case in court, the fact that it is the first essential teaching of Pirkei Avot seems like it can or should be more universally applied.
- Sometimes the adjective here is translated not as deliberate, but as careful. This makes the teaching feel more relatable. It becomes a reminder to me to be careful about judging another person.
- In Maimonides’ commentary on this phrase, he suggests that if we slow down, new matters might be revealed that changes our thinking. Again, this makes the text speak to my everyday life.
- One of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, wrote this interpretation: “Judging is part of life, but certainty is not. Be humble in your judgment and careful not to mistake hallowed opinion for sacred truth.” This addresses my discomfort around judgment being enshrined in this first teaching of Pirkei Avot. His commentary places the emphasis on how we should be—humble and not certain—when we (naturally) make judgments.
- At this moment, the phrase has a particular resonance. In the day-to-day conversations with friends and loved ones, it is easy to slip into judgment about how their lifestyle choices related to the coronavirus may be too strict, too lenient or “just right” in our eyes. I can hold back my judgments, listen for considerations that may not be immediately apparent, and remind myself to be humble.
During this period when we find ourselves mostly at home, we have an opportunity to practice sacred reading in any number of ways. We can delve into a traditional Jewish text such as Pirkei Avot, return to a favorite novel that has inspired us in the past, or pick up a recently published nonfiction book that deals with the state of our world today. This Elul, each of us can be sacred readers, by slowing down with an important book and giving ourselves the gift of words that can inspire us to grow and do better in the year ahead.