A glutton for punishment, I recently slogged my way through all 316 online comments attached to a New York Times piece in which two Howard University officials, Brandon Hogan and Jacoby Adeshei Carter, defended themselves against the accusation by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate in The Washington Post that their decision to eliminate Howard University’s classics department to save money was a “spiritual catastrophe.”
It took hours, but I couldn’t help myself. There’s no more revealing question about a community, any community, than what books everybody in the community is expected to read. Fights about required reading lists are reliable headliners in the culture wars and have been for decades. Think of the 1980s, when universities were struggling to add female and minority voices to their survey courses, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson ignited a national conservative backlash over Stanford University’s eminently reasonable reforms in that direction by showing up to lead students in chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go.”
The Jewish community has pursued its own canon wars, most recently a dust-up over whether a collection of important recent voices in a “new canon” should include men with #MeToo offenses on their record. But a community with a common reading list, however contested, has a tremendous advantage over a community without one. The warring factions of an increasingly polarized Jewish community should take note.
Jewish tradition is known for zestful arguments
That, at least, was the conclusion with which I emerged from my prolonged immersion in the comment section. Passions ran high for what might seem a fairly specialized question—whether students at a preeminent historically Black university, such as Howard, should have the option to major in the study of Plato and Aristotle. Derision rained down on the administrators’ argument that maintaining a classics major is just too expensive a luxury and that Howard students can still get all the classics they need in updated and diversified philosophy courses featuring, say, “Plato, Locke and Angela Davis.” Some professors, not satisfied with defending Aristotle, quoted him in the original Greek.
Most supporters of the classics major harked back to a better time—unspecified—when all college students and indeed all educated people in society read and grappled with the same texts, problematic or not. But no one mentioned why this was a good thing. Was it that obvious? I found myself thinking of a question I’d been asked at a Zoom talk about a book that Moment published earlier this year, drawn from our long-running “Ask the Rabbis” column, which poses a question in every issue to ten rabbis from ten different denominations.
The rabbis in the book disagree, of course, on nearly every question, from “Does Jewish law forbid racism?” to “Are Jews still expecting a Messiah?” That’s the point: Jewish tradition is noted for zestful argument and, historically, has not been damaged by it. I was surprised to be asked during the question period, “Is there anything the rabbis agree on? What are the common beliefs that make them all Jews?”
I had to think. Belief in God? Nope. The Reform movement considers “ethical monotheism” the core of Jewish heritage, but in our book, rabbis of at least one denomination, the Humanists, adamantly insist they don’t believe in a supernatural deity. Kosher laws, Shabbat observance, the existence of an afterlife? More disagreement. I finally answered, “I think what they have in common is the book.”
Not our little book, of course, but the book, or books—the shared treasure of Torah, Bible, Talmud and commentary. With that text in common, disagreements may be fierce, or go on indefinitely, but argument remains possible. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the Bible and the Constitution to force Americans to reckon with how far short they’d fallen of their own founding ideals, rabbis who disagree fervently on identity, practice or doctrine can peaceably argue over the meaning of a quote they both know.
Would a common reading list save American politics? It’s not really true that when the whole country watched Walter Cronkite, we were one nation; even the best news source leaves out multitudes.
But books are different. Surely, if Americans grew up studying and arguing over some common books—Plato, Aristotle or the Federalist Papers—we’d improve on the ghastly non-dialogue of today, in which each man sulks under the vine and fig tree of his very own information ecosystem.
I emerged from my comment spree more depressed than usual over the prospects for American political discourse and, paradoxically, more optimistic over the equivalent prospects in the Jewish community, despite widely noted polarization and the tendency of Jews—like Americans generally—to get their news from increasingly disparate newspapers and news feeds. We may disagree on everything—religion, politics, the news. But to disagree about a book—to have a book to disagree about now that’s a tie that binds.
Amy E. Schwartz is Moment’s opinion and book editor.