I recently completed the reading of all 15 volumes of “The Cambridge History of English Literature” by A.W. Ward and A.R. Waller. It took me several years.
When it came to the history of religious writing having to do with Christianity and its various forms and manifestations, the authors paid tribute, in passing, to the Jewish people. They cited “the religious genius of the Hebrew People,” referring to the Old Testament, which they characterized as consisting of “prose, prophecy and poetry.”
I had to put aside my reading of “The Cambridge History of English Literature” when I took part in the two-week Spirit program this summer at Congregation Chofetz Chayim, which brings young men in or about to enter Chofetz Chayim Yeshiva in Queens, N.Y., here so that Jews in Tucson can engage with the students in Jewish learning.
I studied with a nice young man who is actually related to Rabbi Israel Becker for the duration of the Spirit program. We studied the Talmud, which consists of the Mishna (Oral Law) and the Gemora (the commentary on the Oral Law), which was very challenging. I grew in my Judaism by studying the Talmud.
The young student was a great teacher and I felt secure with him. We studied laws in the Talmud regarding liability when there is property damage, for example, with an ox belonging to one Jew goring the ox of another Jew, or property such as an earthen pot belonging to one Jew causing an injury to another Jew. In the Talmud, things get very complex because the rabbis and sages continually discuss all the myriad ramifications of the issue at hand. It really takes effort to study the Talmud and my young teacher said that in the yeshiva, the students study the Talmud 10 hours a day for 10 years. Imagine that!
Toward the end of our study session we talked, in a philosophical vein, about various life issues as they affect us as Jews or as just ordinary human beings. Life, death, morality, the nature of good and evil: we all ponder these issues as they affect all of us as we journey through life in this world and toward our ultimate destination, the World to Come.
As I studied with this young Jewish scholar just on the threshold of manhood, I gazed into his eyes. And, as I stared at him, it was HaShem (God) who was gazing back at me. I saw in this young man, a soul untroubled by mental illness, a young man in full control of his mental faculties and his reason, not tormented and tortured by the mental pain and agony I experienced when I was about his age. I will be 63, HaShem willing, and I have been mentally sick since the age of 18.
“Why, HaShem? Why me? Why couldn’t I have been like this young, bright, enthusiastic, normal young man? Instead, I’ve had to endure a life of mental agony and struggle. Why, HaShem? Why me?”
And He answered me. He said, “Steven, you have your Judaism! ‘(I am) the God who balances the clouds, who spread / The sky above (you) like a molten glass, / The God who shut the sea with doors, who laid / The corner-stone of earth, who caused the grass / Spring forth upon the wilderness, and made / The darkness scatter and the night to pass — / That (I) should clothe (Myself) with flesh, and move / Midst worms a worm [like Christ] — this sun, moon, stars disprove.’” (From “An Epistle” by Emma Lazarus, section XXXIII, which is based on the Book of Job.)
Steven Freedman graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with an undergraduate degree.