A Celebrity on Gemara
Many years ago, I met a mechanech (Torah educator) who had been a Pirchei Agudah leader in his younger years back in Germany. One of his young charges had submitted an original essay to him, which he remembered for its clarity and force. A central thesis of the essay was that a Jewish homeland was unthinkable unless it was predicated upon Torah.
The young man’s last name was Kissinger. As in Henry.
I was reminded of this by a submission by one of our readers, who wishes to remain anonymous. It is poignant for much the same reason as the Kissinger story. In the final analysis, both stories are reminders of the terrible toll galus (exile) has taken on us, luring away some of our brightest and most creative. The following essay was submitted by a student at the famous Boston Latin in 1935
My father is a very complicated human being. A man of irregular temperament and unusual convictions, he is a rare combination of the shrewd businessman and the ardent religionist. It is rare that one finds such a combination. In my father’s case, I attribute whatever degree of material success he has attained to this very suboccupation, religious activity.
His books follow very closely along the line of religious teaching and religious thought. His life’s textbook is the Talmud. The Talmud is his guide to business ethics and economic construction. It has been so from his earliest childhood, and he has known no other teacher. He finds an analogy in the Talmud for every problem that arises in his business. If you should open his desk drawer nearest his right hand, you will find therein a small edition of the Bible and a well-thumbed copy of the Talmud.
The Talmud is his guide to moral and social ethics. If he is called upon to speak, his discourse invariably begins with a quotation from the Talmud. Nor does he omit it from casual conversation. It is his unfailing source of reference. He lives according to its principles, and it hurts him to see that others do not.
The Talmud is his reading matter. He can derive more pleasure from one of the many stories offered by it to illustrate a Biblical technicality than he could ever get from a novel. He is unacquainted with the English classics because he has no desire to be acquainted with them. He does not know English poetry because the music of Talmudic prose is sufficient diversion for him.
Why are all these things true? Why can the Talmud supplant all other literature for him? Because, first of all, his mind is adapted to the study of the Talmud; his studious nature is sated by nothing less erudite than the Talmud. Because, secondly, the Talmud is sufficiently diversified to offer every type of literary material. Because, lastly, the Talmud has become his food since he could first read; he has become part of it, and it of him. And, because of his diligent study, his work has flourished materially, and he is a leader in his field–living proof that the wise man combines the spiritual and the material in order to ensure a sound life.
The author was Leonard Bernstein. His father had learned in a yeshiva till he came to America at the age of sixteen, and had to support himself cleaning fish at the Fulton Fish Market