Last weekend, as we celebrated Shabbat following the beginning of a new year, a Christian clergyman in Florida threatened to burn copies of the Koran, the Muslim Bible, in protest to what some fundamentalists did on September 11 nine years ago. The majority of our nation was outraged at his plan and how it might put our troops in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries in further danger, in retaliation of such a despicable act. It is good to know that at the present time cooler heads are prevailing. However, this was not true at other times in the history of humankind, when the burning of a Torah or the Talmud, along with other Jewish texts was meant to burn a hole in the hearts of the Jewish community.
For example, the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar is considered a minor fast day. Three weeks prior to TIsha b’Av when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed on two separate occasions, we recall when the Romans breached the protective wall to Jerusalem in their assault onto the Temple Mount. On this same day, prior to Bar Kokhba’s revolt, Roman military leader Apostomus burned a Torah scroll. Other burnings of the Torah are recorded as part of our history. On Yom Kippur, in the traditional martyrology service, mention is made of several rabbis who were executed by the Romans, who wrapped them in a Torah scroll as part of their torture.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian church sanctioned the burning of copies of the Talmud as an appropriate response for anti-Christian speech or actions. In 1242, for example, more than 10,000 copies of the Talmud were burned as the Jewish community of Paris witnessed this public display while being held back by soldiers. Jewish communities throughout Europe mourned the loss of twenty-four wagon loads of precious texts.
Who can forget what the Nazi government did in Germany prior to World War II, burning not only Jewish texts, but also books written by Jewish authors. One can see in the old movie clips the passion of the soldiers as they tossed loads of books onto the flames, feeding their frenzy for more heat and hate.
In the early 1950s Ray Bradbury wrote an epic novel in which firemen were given the responsibility for burning books “for the good of humanity.” The title, Farenheit 451, refers to the temperature at which book-paper burns. This leads us to a more interesting question. At what temperature do our emotions ignite, causing our fury to rage uncontrollably? At what point does our reason leave us for darker and more dangerous emotions?
My Talmud mentor, Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams, shared with her students the following response to “Book Burning in the Yerushalmi.” (Maqom.com) Even though books were not plentiful at the time that the Yerushalmi Talmud was compiled, she did find a reference in Tractate Shekalim, which is not included in the Babylonian version of the Talmud. There she discovered a story about two men who were convicted of arguing to the point of ripping a Torah scroll. The event takes place in Tarsus, which is perhaps the same place where Jonah ran to escape God before returning to Nineveh and his mission to learn a lesson about Teshuvah and the need for an entire city to repent. Located along the Mediterranean Sea, Tarsus was a busy port city with the transportation of textiles. Two sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yose, were engaged in a heated debate concerning a door bolt when the two of them tore a scroll of the Torah. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yochanan said in disbelief, “They actually tore a scroll of the Torah?” The narrator of the text responds, “Rather, a scroll of the Torah was torn.”
Who is to blame for such a blasphemous act? It appears as though the sage, Rabbi Yochanan, was ready to place blame on the two participants. However, the narrator had a different perspective on the matter. When we let our passions rule our thoughts and our desires, it is our emotions that are to blame, because we believe that if cooler heads prevailed, such an act would never have occurred. According to the passage in Y. Shekalim 2:5, “Rabbi Yose bar Kisma said: I shall be surprised if this synagogue is not turned into a Temple for idolatry.”
Idolatry is not limited to the worship of icons or images of God. When we allow certain thoughts or ideas pollute our mind, and our behavior becomes enslaved to such things, this is idolatry and it flies in the face of the values that are a part of both Christianity and Judaism.
In her Discussion Questions, Rabbi Abrams asks us, “Do you see how people of strong conviction can destroy the very object of their conviction today, not only in the recent threat to burn the Koran, but in zealots in any religion?” She then asks us, “How do we bring such people back to their senses before they destroy that which they proclaim to love so much?”
According to Jonah, when the prophet showed them a way back to God and a way back to behaving with reason rather than with passion ruling their actions, we read that they “returned” to living in a more kinder and gentler life style that respected the rights of others, as God has laid out for us in the Torah, our book of instruction. God reconsidered their fate. But what about reconsidering the fate of our own behaviors? Must we burn holy books to display our displeasure at the zealots who intended to destroy the very fabric of our country’s cloth? Must we unravel the seams that have been sewn throughout time that stitch people of varying religions and philosophies, as well as cultures and nationalities, from living together in peace on the same soil?
It is not the books themselves that are the problem. It is the people who misinterpret lofty ideals that create obstacles to peace and understanding. Let us tear down these walls instead of incinerating the books that speak about living in peace with our neighbor.
Gamar Chatimah Tovah. May we all be sealed in the Book of Life.