One of life's great pleasures is discovering a new thinker who expands one's horizons. I don't know whether Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Russian literature at Northwestern University, does that precisely. But he has gone a long way towards reminding me of why I loved reading novels so much as a child and what I gained from him.
Morson teaches the most popular undergraduate class at Northwestern, and I can easily see why. His popularity is one of the most encouraging signs for America's future that I have come across.
His "Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature" in the current Commentary makes a powerful argument for the value of great literature. (Yes, he does believe that there is both great and mediocre literature.) Quite simply, the "great novelists know more about human psychology than any social scientist who ever lived."
They not only teach us psychology, however; they help us develop one of the most crucial middos: the quality of empathy. When we enter the thoughts, feelings and dilemmas of a character from within, we "learn what it feels like to be someone else. . . [and] what it is like to perceive, experience and evaluate the world in various ways."
The quality of empathy, of being able to imagine another's perspective and how they view a particular situation, is crucial to any successful relationship – spouse, parent, or friend.
But it is no less crucial at the societal level as well. I suspect that much of the small-mindedness expressed as insufferable intellectual arrogance that one observes today derives from the monochromatic, politically correct culture on so many campuses. Too many of society's most educated products simply cannot comprehend that others – who are neither morally depraved nor cretins – could actually think differently from them.
Morson makes this point explicitly: "Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions." And he notes that much of today's academic culture involves professors restricting students to the teacher's viewpoint, with the result being that products of academia find it increasingly difficult to "escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments." Only by being able to put ourselves in the position of those who think differently can we hope to grow wiser and understand ourselves better, Morson argues.
Were chareidi society better at being able to enter imaginatively into the minds of those from outside that society, I think we could do a much more effective job of conveying and defending our unique values, and would be in a much stronger position to demand that others attempt to understand our perspective. To understand does not mean to agree.
Chareidi writers like Chaim Walder, in his writing both for children and adults, and Mishpacha's own Dov Haller have made an important contribution to our society by helping readers develop the capacity to enter imaginatively into another's life. No one reads Rappaport 55 for the plot – e.g., to find out whether Melberg's shidduch will go (though we hope it will.) Rather we savor Haller's ability to take us on a journey into the thoughts and feelings of the apartment's diverse bochurim, and learning in the process – to take just one example -- the different, but both real, challenges faced by the rich Grunberg and the poor Makovsky.
Reading good fiction is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for developing empathy. I've known miserable people who read many novels. And I've known talmidei chachamim who never read one, but who nevertheless possessed an acute understanding of human nature and deep wellsprings of empathy for others. But good fiction nevertheless remains a valuable tool in helping our children (and ourselves) develop those crucial traits, and a fun one to boot.
Woman of Valor
Just before Tisha B'Av, I had the privilege of hearing Mrs. Miriam Peretz speak. Mrs. Peretz lost two of her sons, Uriel and Eliraz, in combat – the former in Lebanon in 1998 almost twenty years ago and the latter in fighting in the Gaza Strip in 2010. Both were officers in the elite Golani Brigade.
The timing just before Tisha B'Av was appropriate, as one of Mrs. Peretz's topics was yearning for the Beis HaMikdash. She described a miniature model of the Beis HaMikdash in her home. She told of two stones in her possession that she imagines will somehow be part of the Third Temple.
Those two stones come from the booby-trapped rock in Lebanon on which Uriel was killed. The first is charred by the explosion that killed him, and was brought to her by soldiers in his unit. The second, washed clean by subsequent rains, was brought by Eliraz during his own service in Lebanon.
Mrs. Peretz spoke of a phone call she received from Eliraz while he was in combat in Gaza. He told his mother that he had a few hours and was coming to see her. She told him that he should visit instead his wife Shlomit and their four children, including a one-month-old daughter whom he had never seen. But he said there not enough time to reach his home in Eli. (Eliraz was like a second father to the children of his Eli neighbor, Maj. Roi Klein, Hy"d, who was killed when he fell on a live grenade to save soldiers under his command.)
Following his mother's advice, Eliraz arranged to meet his wife in Jerusalem. In a letter written after his death, she described those last hours together. They went first to Meah Shearim so that Eliraz could daven with a minyan. He shared with his wife a story of how he had fallen asleep in the chair of an army barber, a new immigrant from Russia, who had proceeded to cut off all his hair and his long peyot. Eliraz pointed out to his wife that the letters of the word peyot are contained in the word sh'ifot (aspirations or ambitions), and suggested that perhaps the fate of his peyot was a sign from Heaven that he needed to change his aspirations.
From Meah Shearim, they went to the Kotel. With tears in his eyes, he told Shlomit in front of the Kotel, "Do you see? For this. For this, we live. For this do we beseech [Hashem]. For this, we fight. And for this, if it's required, will we give up our lives."
Listening to Mrs. Peretz, I could not imagine how she had the strength to read her daughter-in-law's letter, and not just read it, but use it to inspire an audience of young women. More than that, I was awed by her palpable confidence in the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash and how central that belief is to her life.
Mrs. Peretz comes from the national religious world – a world that frequently seems far removed from my own. And perhaps because of that she shook me: She rendered untenable any complacent assumption that deep wellsprings of emunah v'bitachon are the exclusive province of the great tzadikim of my own community. Besides the inspiration of her words, I thank her for the powerful reminder of how much there is to admire about fellow Jews in Israel from communities other than my own.
Thinking Before Speaking
Not so long ago, I met Rabbi Nosson Kamenetsky at a siyum being made by a mutual friend. More than two decades ago, we spent a fair amount of time together when I was writing a biography of Reb Nosson's father Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky. That biography rested to a large extent on interviews conducted by Reb Nosson.
So naturally when we meet Reb Nosson usually has some interesting new insight about his father to share. On this occasion, the subject was Reb Yaakov's famously deliberate, slow manner of speaking.
Reb Nosson related how in 1963, Reb Yaakov travelled to the Soviet Union to visit at least two siblings who had survived the Second World War. About 25 years later, Reb Nosson made his own visit to what was by then the former Soviet Union. By then, the only surviving sibling was Reb Yaakov's sister, who was then close to one hundred years old.
The first thing that she asked Reb Nosson was: "When did my brother start speaking so slowly." The question surprised Reb Nosson, for he had never known his father to speak any other way. And he deduced from his aunt's question that Reb Yaakov's manner of speech was not natural, but something that he had taken on quite consciously.
Reb Yaakov spoke slowly so that he would never say anything that he regretted. He knew there is no equivalent of the "unsend" button for hastily sent emails with respect to speech. Once the words are out of our mouths, the damage is done.
Reb Nosson's insight reminded me of another story about Reb Yaakov a close friend once shared with me. As a bochur, my friend always sought out opportunities to drive gedolim. He would take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and tape the conversation, after first asking permission from the gadol in question. One day, however, he was driving Reb Yaakov and forgot to ask permission. In the middle of the ride, either the tape either clicked off or fell out of the place where my friend had tucked it away.
My friend was completely unnerved as he awaited Reb Yaakov's response. But he needn't have worried. Reb Yaakov was completely nonplussed. "I've never said anything I would be embarrassed to have taped," he told my friend.
Everything about Reb Yaakov was thought out in the same way as his manner of speech so that it came across as absolutely natural. A bochur who slept in Reb Yaakov's house for a period of time, whom I asked what he observed there, told me, "Nothing, I saw absolutely nothing." In other words, everything he did was so natural that nothing called attention to itself. Dr. Yaakov Greenwald aptly described being with Reb Yaakov as like riding in the most luxurious car on the road: "You didn't feel you were moving."
None of us are ever likely to achieve Reb Yaakov's level of foresight, of every action coming with a chesbon, but he still provides a model towards which we can strive.