Arts & Culture

What the Mishna’s Really About

Martin Samuel Cohen, author of The Boy on the Door on the Ox, will spend this week guest blogging as one of Jewcy‘s Lit Klatsch bloggers.  In his book, Cohen, a student of rabbinics, explores the Mishnah using its own … Read More

By / November 17, 2008

Martin Samuel Cohen, author of The Boy on the Door on the Ox, will spend this week guest blogging as one of Jewcy‘s Lit Klatsch bloggers.  In his book, Cohen, a student of rabbinics, explores the Mishnah using its own characters as spiritual guides to make the text more relevant to readers.

Hello… hello… is this mic on? (Taps microphone, smiles shyly – or tries to, steps back, clears throat, steps forward, surreptitiously wipes sweat from brow, clears throat again, smiles again.) Okay, so I don’t know much about how to do this. But what I do know about, I know a lot about. I’ve been a student of rabbinics – the great sea of talmudic and extra-talmudic literature that the ability to swim along well in is supposed to be the defining feature of the intellectual life of anyone who calls him or herself a rabbi. I’ve been studying this stuff my whole adult life, which is way more than half of it. And, except when drowsy or in a poor mood, I still feel far more energized than paralyzed by my studies, which I continue to keep up: a daily chapter of Rambam (always) and a daily chapter of Mishnah (almost always), plus whatever I’m working on with an eye towards making it into…something: a book, an article, an essay, a sermon, a lecture, a class… something!

You’d think that the obvious question (what exactly do you get from all that studying?) would have an equally obvious answer. I suppose, even, that it does have an obvious answer (you get to know a lot of things you wouldn’t know otherwise), but – and this is the point of my new book, The Boy on the Door on the Ox, published two weeks ago by Aviv Press – there are also all other sorts of answers, some only tangentially related to the "real" subject of whatever it is you’re studying at the moment.  The Mishnah – the oldest extant Jewish law code, the basis for the Talmud, the foundation document of all subsequent rabbinic law – is a good example. It’s "about" a lot of things… about civil and criminal law, about the commandments, about the festivals, about societal institutions of various sorts, about the ancient Temple, about the laws of impurity and purity… but it’s also supposed to be about Jewish spirituality, about the path a devoted student of its six huge volumes can follow not towards knowing more and more details about ancient tort law, but towards spiritual fulfillment, towards wholeness, towards not only knowing of God, but towards the actual redemptive moment that beckons the faithful, always slightly out of reach, at the confluence of faith, observance and hope.  So the first part is the easy part: to learn the things that the Mishnah is "about", you have to read, to study, to master commentaries, etc. But the other part, the part about using, say, the Mishnah, as your personal path forwards towards your personal Jerusalem–that’s the part that it’s way less obvious how to manage. And that’s what my book is about.

I’ve always like the last of the Mishnah’s six great sections best of all, the part that deals with the laws of purity and impurity. Why that is… who knows? Maybe it’s because the sixth section, called Seder Tohorot, depicts a world that reminds me of the one I actually do live in. It’s a world of broken things, of uncontrollable forces, of only sometimes governable outside factors. More to the point, it’s a world intersected by the three great axes of death, illness and putrefaction… and in which the will towards degeneracy, decrepitude, and despair can only occasionally be warded off in advance, thus effectively dealt with by not being dealt with at all. It’s a world in which people are forever battling against forces they can’t quite see, malign influences generally masquerading as the most banal, ordinary appurtenances of daily life. It reminds me of the real world… and to a far greater extent than the other parts of the Mishnah. 

This week, while I’m posting these notes for you to read, I want to introduce you to the specific way that I’ve found to read Mishnah as a spiritual document, as a kind of guide book for people interested in using the literary heritage of ancient Judaism not as a library to read books in, but as a path to journey forward on.  Herman Melville (in Redburn, a vastly underrated novel) wrote that all great novels are essentially guide books. I think that’s right… and that its true of great literary works in general as well.  If you read along with me this week, I’ll show you what I’ve done… and, I hope, make you want to read the book and to see how this all works in far greater detail.

I also have some other books that might interest readers: my edition of the Psalms, called Our Haven and Our Strength, my edition of the prayer book called Siddur Tzur Yisrael, my book on grief, loss, and restoration called Sefer Zot Nechamati (the words mean "This Is My Consolation"), and my novels and books of essays. Just lately, I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a new novel set in ancient times, tentatively called Jerusalem Ghosts, all about the murder of a Levite and introducing just the kind of sleuth I’d like (a lot) to be remembered one day for having introduced to the reading public. Stay tuned!

The Temple Mount at Dusk,

Martin Samuel Cohen, author of The Boy on the Door on the Ox, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.