Sami Rohr Prize — acceptance speech

Every Shabbat afternoon my husband Daniel and I try to learn another mishnah from Pirkei Avot with our kids. We think of it as part of their moral education, as a way of introducing and reinforcing our core values. Chief among them is the study of Torah as an intergenerational experience – one that binds parents and children and links us to all those who have studied the text in generations before. Pirkei Avot famously begins by recounting a line of transmission: Moses received Torah on Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, who passed it on to the elders, who passed it on to the prophets. Moses describes Torah as a “morasha,” an inheritance passed down through the generations. My children don’t know how to read yet, but whenever we learn together, I pass out copies of the text to each of them. I want them to feel like they are receiving Torah, that it is becoming theirs.

But for Torah to become theirs, they have to feel not just that they are inheriting the text, but that they are discovering themselves in it. One of the most oft-quoted lines in Pirkei Avot, is “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it.” I recently learned that the earliest reliable manuscript version of the Mishnah actually renders this line differently: “Turn it over and turn it over, for all of it is in you, and all of you is in it.” When we study Torah thoroughly, turning it over and turning it over and leaving no stone unturned, we find ourselves in it. We realize that the text is speaking the language of our experiences, that even before the text becomes a part of us, we are a part of the text.

I came to this realization only gradually. My book emerged out of the notes I took in the margins of my volumes of Talmud. As I was writing, I thought of the book as my own commentary on the text, trying to make sense of what I was learning by reading it against the backdrop of my life experiences. I was startled when my editor referred to it as a memoir. Memoir? Since when had I written a memoir? “The book is about you,” she told me. “It’s about Talmud,” I countered. But when I turned it over I realized that in writing about the Talmud, I was writing about myself, because all of me was in the text. I understood that when we read ourselves in the texts of our tradition, then commentary and memoir become, in a way, one and the same. The text begins to tell our story, and we begin to see ourselves as if we, too, have gone forth from Egypt.

This is true of writing about Talmud, but it is true about Jewish literature more generally. All Jewish literature is a commentary on what came before. There could not have been Rashi if there were no Talmud; there could not have been Tosafot if there were no Rashi. But there also could not have been Philip Roth if there were no Saul Bellow, and there could not have been Rebecca Goldstein if there were no Cynthia Ozick. As Ozick might have put it, we all dip our ladles into our ancestors’ wells, and what we draw up is ours but it is also theirs.

And so it is not just text study, but also Jewish literature, that is an inherently intergenerational experience. Daniel and I study Pirkei Avot with our children for much the same reason that we read aloud to them – because the core of Jewish tradition is about the transmission of ideas and teachings from one generation to the next, and for hundreds of years, books have been the vehicle for doing that.

This is something that Sami Rohr z”l, whose memory we celebrate this evening, understood very well. Sami Rohr was a voracious reader who read widely and across disciplinary boundaries, and he transmitted his love of reading to his three children, who grew up in Bogota in a house lined with books. The Sami Rohr Prize is a testament to the power of books to forge generational bonds, linking parents and children, our ancestors and our descendants. The Prize reflects an awareness on the part of George, Evelyn and Lillian and their spouses and children, as well as the Jewish Book Council, that Jewish books and Jewish writing matter. I am so deeply honored to be among those who have benefited from their commitment to Jewish literature as a vehicle for Jewish continuity.

The Talmud has been the foundation for all major codes of Jewish law. But the Talmud is not just a legal tract; it is also a work of literature, filled with puns, intertextual allusions, and a rich cast of characters – primarily rabbis, but also learned heretics and Roman matrons, angels and demons, unicorns and sea monsters. Like all great works of literature, the Talmud reads differently each time we encounter it – no two people read the text the same way, and no one person reads it the same way at different points in his or her life. When we engage with the texts of our tradition – when we teach them to our children, speak of them when we are at home and when we are on the way, when we lie down and when we rise up—we begin to tell our story through them, and those stories become the next generation of commentary, and of Jewish literature. The line of transmission continues, the inheritance is passed on, and we are all so fortunate to be its heirs.

3 thoughts on “Sami Rohr Prize — acceptance speech

  1. Marilyn Kincaid says:

    The foundational text is the TaNaKh, isn’t it? From this is the Mishnah, including Pirkei Avot derived. Parashat haShavua is a good place to start.


  2. Sharon C Urbas says:

    Ilana mazal tov on winning the prize. As always when you speak or write you open up new ways of looking at the written word and Jewish scholarship both of which are areas of thought that have always been so important in my life as I feel are so important to you. Thank you


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