R Jeffrey Saks / The news that science fiction author Ray Bradbury died yesterday at age 91 was a moment of pause and reflection for me. Not that I was such a huge Bradbury fan, or even a reader of sci-fi in general (despite having been a bookish kid, and a devoted Trekkie). In fact, aside from a few short stories I can’t otherwise recall, the only thing I had every seriously read of Bradbury’s was Fahrenheit 451 – and that as a ninth grader in 1984. Perhaps some curriculum planner noting the year decided freshman lit should cover the dystopian novels, starting with Orwell’s foreboding prophecy about the year we were living through. Perhaps it was because the Cold War was not yet over, and the cautionary tales of Animal Farm and the like were part of our indoctrination against anti-American worldviews.

Ray Bradbury and Jewish Education in the Internet Era

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Guest Post by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks

Rabbi Saks is the Executive Director of ATID and its WebYeshiva.org program.

The news that science fiction author Ray Bradbury died yesterday at age 91 was a moment of pause and reflection for me. Not that I was such a huge Bradbury fan, or even a reader of sci-fi in general (despite having been a bookish kid, and a devoted Trekkie). In fact, aside from a few short stories I can’t otherwise recall, the only thing I had every seriously read of Bradbury’s was Fahrenheit 451 – and that as a ninth grader in 1984. Perhaps some curriculum planner noting the year decided freshman lit should cover the dystopian novels, starting with Orwell’s foreboding prophecy about the year we were living through. Perhaps it was because the Cold War was not yet over, and the cautionary tales of Animal Farm and the like were part of our indoctrination against anti-American worldviews.

Last year I had occasion to revisit my high school reading lists through my work at ATID with Prof. William Kolbrener on a soon-to-be published research project on the English literature curriculum, and how it can and should be a vehicle to advance the larger goals of Jewish education. I had remembered Fahrenheit 451 as a dark tale of a future in which books had become outlawed, and firemen no longer extinguish fires, but confiscate contraband books and burn them (451° F being the temperature at which paper ignites). But, because I conflated the novel with the larger dystopian genre, I completely misremembered the essence of the plot, mistakenly thinking that it depicts a totalitarian regime, whose Thought Police suppress the imaginative powers of literature as a tool of propaganda and thought control.

So last year, on revisiting Bradbury’s 1953 novel I was surprised to discover that’s not the plot of Fahrenheit 451 at all (how many of you similarly misremembered?). Unlike 1984’s screens in each home allowing Big Brother to keep an eye on everyone, the homes in Fahrenheit 451 are covered in parlor screens on each wall, a kind of interactive chat room and delivery system for incessant bursts of short entertaining nuggets. When away from the screen people have “audio seashells” or “thimble radios” that fit snugly in the ear to pipe-in entertainment. With society’s collective brain atrophied, books are viewed with great suspicion in an increasingly anti-intellectual world. The Fire Chief Beatty explains to the novel’s hero, Montag, “There you have it. It didn’t come from the government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them you can stay happy all the time… [Firemen, i.e. book burners, are] custodians of our peace of mind… People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

Montag meets Faber, a former English professor who suffers under the guilty weight of not having defended books before it was too late. In explaining the virtues of reading he suggests that it is the best access to leisure. “Oh, but we’ve plenty of off-hours,” counters Montag, to which the professor responds:

Off-hours, yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension it tells you what to think and blasts it in, it must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!’

Bradbury is asking us why anyone would want to read – really read widely and deeply, not just the comic books the novel’s firemen still allow – when we might rather watch cats play with a piece of string or see Charlie bite a finger a half billion times.

But reading is a crucially important component of an engaged life, and especially so for those aspiring to be thinking religious people. I recall entering the Yeshiva University library for the first time and being stopped in my tracks by the quote from R. Yehuda Ibn-Tibon that once graced the old entrance foyer: “Sim Sefarim Chaverekha” – “Make books thy companions. Let thy cases and shelves be thy pleasure grounds and gardens.” Towards the novel’s end Montag encounters the book underground – exiled book lovers who have committed whole libraries to memory, this one Jonathan Swift, that one Plato’s Republic, etc. (Montag himself ultimately takes on Ecclesiastes), like so many Tannaim and Amoraim they are the “baalei mesora” of a literature she-ba’al peh. Isn’t that what reading is? Don’t our books become part of us?

In education, as in life, we have to emphasize that the simple act of reading is the best exercise to develop that essential characteristic of an engaged religious life: inwardness and reflectivity leading to spiritual maturity. The formula Prof. Faber suggests is that the right kind of reading leads to the interaction of “quality of information” gained through books, the leisure to digest it, and “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.” Thoreau, again, in that same celebration of reading, promised that on a pile of worthy books “we may hope to scale heaven at last.”

About Jeffrey Saks

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the founding director of ATID. His frequent lectures at the Agnon House in Jerusalem are broadcast on WebYeshiva.org/Agnon.

15 comments

  1. The quote from ibn Tibbon is still there. Alas, far fewer people see it than in former times since this entrance is no longer used.

    I very much enjoyed this post, although I dispute the notion that TV/movies are all essentially mindless endeavors. The importance, however, of knowledge, of thinking, of engaging is very well said. Also, the critique of fun and its ability to serve as an “opium of the masses” is very true as well, and is the central theme of Huxley’s “Brace New World” too.

  2. Somehow “Torah U’Mada” always winds up meaning “Torah U’Humanities”. I’m waiting for the day when someone says “knowing *how to do* math/science is important for the religious individual” as opposed to “knowing the content given by the methods of math/science is important for the religious individual”.

  3. Moshe Shoshan

    Jon
    Just read Lonely man of faith, which focuses on math an physics.
    Rabbi Lamm is also science oriented as
    I recall

  4. Jon
    Just read Lonely man of faith, which focuses on math and physics. The Rav pushed his talmidim to study math.
    I also think that your distinction between “doing” science as opposed to “knowing” it is artificial.

    Furthermore Math and Science are accepted in much broad range of the community Hum. people have to defend their position.

  5. R’MS
    I think math more than science due to hashkafic implications of biology (e.g. evolution) and physics (e.g. multiverses, big bang) etc. Math is viewed as harmless (except when applied by actuaries?)
    KT

  6. Moshe – true, but I’m referring more to more recent attitudes. Wherever it comes from, people think that being “Adam I” means reading “secular novels”.

    And I don’t know why you find that distinction artificial.

    R Joel: are you an actuary?

  7. Lawrence Kaplan

    “People think thar being Adam I means reing ‘secular novels'” Really? Where did you get that from?

  8. R’ Jon,
    I am a recovering one 🙂
    KT

  9. I dont see how a person can reallt understand Math and Science with out learning to solve problems, do measurements etc. I would agree if all you mean is actually taking course on modern physics vs reading George Gamow.

  10. We should also acknowledge that many rabbonim throughout history supported book burnings. They obviously aren’t able to effectively do this today, so they rely on book BANS: an general ban on secular books (the internet ban is just a logical extension) and specific bans on dangerous Torah-related ones (e.g., Slifkin.) Knowledge is dangerous to those who want to maintain their power and control over the masses. The thought police are alive and well in Orthodoxy.

  11. In education, as in life, we have to emphasize that the simple act of reading is the best exercise to develop that essential characteristic of an engaged religious life: inwardness and reflectivity leading to spiritual maturity.

    Sounds like an INTJ praising himself.

  12. jeffrey– I enjoyed your article. But since you mentioned the quote from Ibn Tibbon on the entrance wall to the Library/Museum, let me tell you how it got there. In 1983 the Museum organized an exhibition of children’s books on Jewish themes, that was mounted on the walls of the entrance Hall and the downstairs well, for those of you who remember. I went to Israel before that exhibition , and while there I purchased plastic Hebrew letters so we could hang an assortment of classic Jewish quotes about books and reading. when the exhibit was dismantled, some of the quotes survived!

  13. jeffrey– I enjoyed your article. But since you mentioned the quote from Ibn Tibbon on the entrance wall to the Library/Museum, let me tell you how it got there. In 1983 the Museum organized an exhibition of children’s books on Jewish themes that was mounted on the walls of the entrance Hall and the downstairs well, for those of you who remember. I went to Israel before that exhibition , and while there I purchased plastic Hebrew letters so we could hang an assortment of classic Jewish quotes about books and reading. when the exhibit was dismantled, some of the quotes survived!

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