Monday, June 26, 2006

Beginnings

A friend loaned me a copy of Chaim Potok's In the Beginning. I read it before she left town, and now I wish that I'd copied a few bits of dialogue before returning it. The novel is flawed in some ways, but it touched me, and there are parts that I wish I remembered in greater detail.

Since the book was published over thirty years ago, I don't think it's giving too much away to say that it's about an Orthodox Jewish boy who grows up to be a Bible scholar. Certain parts of David Lurie's intellectual development were achingly familiar to me: the first stirrings of doubt in a deeply religious soul; the joy of discovering a new way of reading the Bible; the fear of where it might lead. When David first begins to be convinced of the validity of the Documentary Hypothesis, he abandons his biblical studies and enrolls in a rabbinical program, hoping to find intellectual satisfaction in the study of Talmud. I remember a time in my life when I, too, was looking for something other than Bible to study -- something equally compelling, but less dangerous. In the end, I had to concede that nothing less dangerous could be so compelling. The study of the Bible appealed to me, and still does, because it touches on the origin of Who I Am and Where I Come From in ways that I still can't fully articulate. When David is asked why he insists on a career that will alienate him from friends and family, he struggles to explain his decision, but the reader, who has followed his story from the very beginning, understands. David has always loved studying the Bible, and he doesn't love it any less now that he has come to understand it differently. He has to go wherever it takes him.

Like many of Potok's characters, David is a genius. I am somewhat ashamed to say that at this point in my life I find geniuses exceedingly annoying, and only slightly less so when they are fictional. As much as I relate to David, I feel more of a kinship with his younger brother, Alex, who, as a child, slams shut a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, declaring "I hate it!" because it is above his reading level. All beginnings are hard, but they are harder when you aren't as bright as you would like to be. Some beginnings can seem to drag on forever.

These days I spend a great deal of time accomplishing very little, and I often worry that going into academia was a big mistake. Usually I worry that I'm not smart enough or talented enough to be successful, but in other, more sinister moments, I worry that I don't have passion I used to have. Then, once in a while, I read something that reminds me why I wanted to be a Bible scholar in the first place. Usually, it's a work of scholarship; sometimes it's a biblical text. Much more rarely, it's a work of fiction.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

I'm not a Bible scholar (a fact of which I am reminded often -- like every time I sit down to try to prepare the coming Shabbat's Torah portion) but your post resonated with me a lot anyway. Thank you for sparking some powerful thinking.