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From the Bridge: The 48 Ways

book cover

By Marvin Diogenes

I’ve mentioned the Ethics of the Fathers a couple of times during September Sessions when describing a rhetorical tradition that my father, born in 1914 and raised in Poland between the two world wars, brought with him to the United States.  I don’t know for certain, as my father didn’t tell many stories about his youth—perhaps he would have if I’d asked—but I assume that he studied this chapter of the Mishnah (the oral law preserved in writing in the second century to maintain a religion and culture for a people with no home country) with his father at the accustomed time, on Sabbath afternoons between Passover and Shavuot, six chapters over six Saturdays in spring and early summer.  We didn’t stick to this schedule, as my impatience to be released to play pick-up baseball with my friends limited how much we could cover each week.  Thus I remember bits of the early chapters well enough to recognize phrases the way I recall snippets of pop songs I heard on the radio growing up, but until recently I hadn’t read a passage in Chapter Six listing the 48 qualities necessary for Torah study.  The full passage (available here in the sixth section of the sixth chapter, begins by stating that “Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities.”  That says something about the importance of study in the culture and why my parents made success in school the highest priority for my sisters and me, even though the curriculum of the Oak Park public schools was determinedly secular.

 In reading through the 48 qualities, I understood more clearly than I did when sitting at the kitchen table with my father, anxious to get out to practice the national pastime, the emphasis of the entire passage on improving one’s character through humility, kindness to others, and ethical behavior.  In another word, rhetoric.  As Andrea Lunsford often shared with the PWR community during her years as faculty director, rhetoric in essence is the art and science of ethical communication.  In the daunting list of qualities I noticed also the interactive or conversational elements of study put forward.  Specifically, the 48 qualities include “listening,” “companionship with one’s contemporaries,” “debating with one’s students,” “qualifying one’s words,” “lack of arrogance in learning,” “asking and answering,” “listening and illuminating,” “exactness in conveying a teaching,” and “saying something in the name of its speaker.”  Those could serve with minor tweaks as guidelines for a TIC, along with “reluctance to hand down rulings.”  Conversation, commentary, communal inquiry, with questions settled for the moment by precedent and consensus but always open to further study.

Stanford Daily columnist Courtney Cooperman (now a sophomore) wrote this about her eventful first year on campus in her column on December 1, 2017: “I ended up attending roughly 40 different lectures, panels, conferences and discussions. Many were Stanford in Government events, with people such as Hillary Clinton’s political director Amanda Renteria ’96 and Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson. Thanks to lucky lottery outcomes, I was able to see both Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. One of my favorite events was an Ethics in Society lecture that presented New York City’s Central Park as an embodiment of democratic ideals.”  She then asks, “By spending so much time exploring ideas, was I missing opportunities to make concrete change?”  She then connects her question to a conversation from a cultural rhetoric she brought with her to Stanford: “These choices bring to mind a conflict within Judaism, raised in a passage of the Talmud in which two rabbis debate the question: ‘Which is greater, study or action?’ One rabbi asserts that action is greater. The other asserts that study is greater. Their followers ultimately conclude that study is greater because it leads to action — a paradoxical rationale, as it suggests that action is the ultimate goal while proclaiming the greater significance of study.”

Joining the conversation, she provides commentary first by describing an example of her own ethical action in the Palo Alto community, serving breakfast at the Opportunity Center for the homeless adjacent to Town & Country Village, and then asserting that her exploration of the question remains in progress: “Of course, harnessing the privilege of a Stanford education for social good is not a choice between extreme dedication to others and single-minded focus on developing one’s own potential. I don’t call attention to these philosophies so we can sort ourselves into the categories of ‘learner’ and ‘doer’ and consistently defer to the approach with which we most strongly identify, but rather, to acknowledge that these tradeoffs constantly reemerge as we choose how to spend our time at Stanford. While I have not yet come upon a satisfying resolution to this conflict, I believe that asking such questions is an important step in itself.”  

Cooperman’s wrestling with study and action engages for me with Maggie Anton’s trilogy of historical novels entitled Rashi’s Daughters, the first volume of which tells the story of eldest daughter Joheved.  (There’s no Joheved in my family, but my sister Miriam shares a name with Rashi’s second daughter and my niece Rachel with his third).  Rashi wrote a comprehensive and now essential commentary on the Mishnah in northern France during the 11th century.  Such was his love of teaching that, ignoring tradition, he taught his daughters Talmud and didn’t object to Joheved and Miriam praying while wearing tefillin (phylacteries), again ignoring tradition.  Joheved balances her own love of study with performing good deeds and learning a trade—in the novels the family business is wine-making, and Joheved learns how to run a vineyard, make deals, and keep the books from her grandmother Leah.  Sort of a Stanford undergrad circa medieval Troyes.

Early in Attitudes toward History, Kenneth Burke weighs in on the relationship between action and study in this way: “’Action’ by all means.  But in a complex world, there are many kinds of action.  Actions require programs—programs require vocabulary.  To act wisely, in concert, we must use many words.  If we use the wrong words, words that divide up the field inadequately, we obey false cues.  We must name the friendly or unfriendly relationships in such a way that we are able to do something about them.  In naming them, we form our characters, since the names embody attitudes; and implicit in the attitudes there are cues of behavior.”  So he may not have meant PWR when he writes that “actions require programs,” but I like to think we qualify.  And by vocabulary he likely didn’t mean rhetorical analysis, texts in conversation, and research-based argument, but maybe they count as ways to divide up the field of our pedagogical mission to guide us and our students toward ethical character and behavior.

My father died in January 2006.  The only promise he asked of me was a pledge to say Kaddish in his memory.  I did so for the customary 11 months, discovering that the ritual was crucial not only to keeping my word to my father but also to managing my grief, which in the past dozen years has given way to memory, and regret that I didn’t ask him for his stories, that I didn’t stay longer at the kitchen table to read and discuss with him the 48 ways.  But study remains available to me, and conversation, and action.  They interweave, together comprising how I talk with my father across time and tradition.

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