This is the first installment in a new biweekly series, in which the First Things junior fellows share mini-essays on their current reading endeavors.
George Herbert, metaphysical poet of Easter Wings fame, penned only one prose work during his life: a short volume titled The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life. Although I first discovered it tucked into the back of my Everyman’s edition of Herbert’s The Temple some months ago, I only recently decided to give it a read—and have found it a delightful little book.
Rector at the village parish of Bemerton, England, for the last three years of his life, Herbert’s The Country Parson—later known as A Priest in his Temple—is his compilation of advice for rural Anglican clergymen. His purpose is “to set down the form and character of a true pastor, that I may have a mark to aim at, which also I will set as high as I can, since he shoots higher that threatens the moon, than he that aims at a tree.” In the process, Herbert has also set down something of his own character, giving us a glimpse of the artist behind The Pulley and The Altar.
The man who considered prayer “the Church's banquet” and an “engine against th'Almighty” provides in these pages an example of how to pray unceasingly; intercession, praise, and thanksgiving are always on the parson's lips. He recommends turning to pray even while during the sermon, “making many apostrophes to God, as Oh Lord, bless my people and teach them this point.” And at “Communion times,” when the parson is in a tumultuous frame of mind while preparing “not only to receive God, but to break and administer him,” Herbert advises that the parson “throw himself down at the throne of grace,” saying,
Lord, thou knowest what thou didst when thou appointedst it to be done thus; therefore do thou fulfill what thou dost appoint; for thou art not only the feast, but the way to it.
Herbert’s pious advice makes for a refreshing read, but the chief charms of this volume are the insights it affords into Herbert’s art; by examining the priest at work in the temple, we better know The Temple itself. When I first read Herbert years ago, I found his poems to “preach” too much for my liking; Country Parson, however, gives me new appreciation for the blunt morals of his verses. They are, after all, aimed at the farmers and laborers of Bemerton, whom Herbert describes affectionately as “thick and heavy” and difficult to raise to the heights of “zeal and fervency.” Sermons, moreover, cannot help but slip into whatever Herbert writes, for the “Country Parson preacheth constantly; the pulpit is his joy and his throne.”
Country Parson offers us a more complete picture of Herbert the man—a pastor who sees his poetic talents as inseparable from his priestly vocation. The little volume ends with a short devotion, called “The Author's Prayer Before Sermon,” that seems to drive this message home. In it, while preparing to preach, Herbert cries, “Awake, therefore, my lute, and my viol! Awake all my powers to glorify thee!” It’s a line nearly identical to one Herbert writes in The Temple, while attempting to write a verse in praise of the Resurrection: “Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part/with all thy art!” For Herbert, it would seem, sermons and poetry are not all that different: both are a kind of song, the music-making of Herbert’s soul for the end of Christ’s glory.
This week I’m reading the Talmud.
Well, let me rephrase. One doesn’t “read” the Talmud, but rather studies it, or “learns Talmud,” or “shteigs” simpliciter. Reading for pleasure is so—forgive me—goyish. Furthermore, “This week I’m studying Talmud” is true in about the way “This week Francisco Franco is dead” is true. So a lot of Talmud is the point you see, which is appropriate given its two-million word count, mostly in Babylonian Aramaic, a language that makes Hebrew seem downright periphrastic. This week I happen to be trying to figure out why, when a man consecrates a woman (a prerequisite to full marriage), he may, if he chooses to consecrate her monetarily (two other methods, by document and by intercourse, are available), use either hard currency or an article of equivalent value. Truly fascinating, I assure you.
But imparting anything novel about it—zogen a chidush, as they said in the old country—exceeds my poor knowledge. And maybe you’re already thinking to yourself, “How come the Jews are always fighting about a word here, a word there? It’s like listening to the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, and I’m not just saying that because he changed his name from ‘Lev Davidovich Bronstein.’” Quite right. The Jews can be downright talmudic in their quarrels, which often last into the night. I’d like to try and show, through a bit of schematic show-and-tell, why “talmudic” should be predicated of discussions not just weirdly picayune, but almost neurotically subtle and attentive.
The Talmud introduces some notion A, and there are three ways for it to work: UV, WX, and YZ. Ah, the Talmud asks itself, why did we have to say WX? W seems to add nothing. No, the Talmud replies, for you might have thought, had we not said W but only said X, that the second way this notion worked was identical to the third way some notion B over there worked. But it’s not so—in fact, working X-wise is simply the genus, while W is a differentia.
On one level this is quite simple. The same word or term in two places calls for like analysis unless some sufficient reason can be found to suggest a material distinction. To foreclose the possibility of such an error, the Talmud added an extra term, calling our attention to a difference between two concepts.
There is a more profound point, for it’s very likely that X is found all over the Talmud. Which raises the question—why is it specifically (dafka) notion B that the Talmud wants us not to understand as parallel to notion A? Which aspect of notion B is so foreign to (which aspect of?) notion A that the two should be so far from one another? And why wasn’t that obvious—why, in other words, was great conceptual distance masked by superficial closeness?
Many centuries before Hegel, the rabbis of the Talmud mastered the “determinate negation,” the rejection of an idea that reveals an insight about both that idea and its relatives. The inquiry into what you might have thought is part of an analytic repertoire enabling millennia of Jews to find infinite riches in innumerable little rooms.