What Is Jewish Literature? -- By: Abram S. Isaacs
BSac 66:261 (Jan 1909) p. 171
What Is Jewish Literature?
If you would ask the average man or woman, What is Jewish literature? you would receive probably the one answer, It is the Old Testament; and perhaps there would be a further reply, It is the Hebrew prayer-book. That it is a fairly comprehensive term, which includes the rise and development of a vast, all-embracing literature, extending over two or three thousand years, on every conceivable topic, and touched by the spirit of each century, the varied currents of changing civilizations, is a view of the subject which might arouse defiant doubt. And yet it is the truth, without a shred of romance or exaggeration.
The reason for such skepticism is not far to seek. It is largely due to the fact that all literatures but Jewish are studied in the schools. Jewish literature remains an unknown realm, and what the rabbis thought and wrote, what the sages in all epochs planned and accomplished, are regarded as antiquarian—material for your literary fossil, or dry-as-dust, but not for the rest of us. Some people have a vague idea that the rabbis were mere pedants and theologians and that their work is utterly out of touch with the present age, as much as the curious messages which cuneiform tablets bear from buried cities of primitive times.
There could be no greater error. Theology is by no means the only note in Jewish literature, which includes ethics, history, folk-lore, science—medical, physical, mathematical,— poetry, philosophy, with plentiful humor to relieve soberness
BSac 66:261 (Jan 1909) p. 172
and pathos. Such was the buoyancy of the rabbis, such their receptiveness and plastic character, despite a natural conservative bias, that their literature clearly reflects the movements of every age, of whose culture and progress they were far from being passive spectators. And just as their constant migrations over so long a period insured their physical vitality, as they overcame obstacles and unfavorable conditions, so their continuous contact with new epochs of culture, now in Persia, now Arabia, now Spain, now Central Europe, here in Italy and there in Poland; whether it was the Renaissance or the Reformation, the age of feudalism or the age of steam, this continuity of impressions and influences gave freshness and vigor to their intellects. Their view-point had to be broadened, if unconsciously, and if the rabbis in a measure influenced their times, they were no less unconsciously influenced in turn. The exchange was well-maintained.
What, then, is Jewish Literature? What are its distinctive elements and epochs? There is but little to help the general reader to form an opinion. Let us compare it to a building of imposing proportions. Its found...
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