My life has been intertwined with books. I have written some and read many. When my school started a library I was its best customer. The family knew they could palm off unwanted books (especially Jewish ones) on me. When a wealthy great-aunt died, relatives said, “Surely she’ll leave Raymond a good yerushah [inheritance]!” She did: her mahzorim.
Maybe it is because of books that (presumably inappropriately) I like Tisha Be’av. As the day of mourning and fasting over the destruction of the Temple, it includes a series of dirges which bewail centuries of calamity.
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But some, like Me’ir of Rothenburg’s “Sha’ali Serufah Ba’Esh,” do not weep for the Land of Israel, for Jerusalem, the Temple, or even our martyrs, but for our burnt books. Why does it bother with books when there were so many burnt bodies? Because books in their own way are precious souls.
From June 17, 1242, when the mobs, incited by an apostate Jew and acting with the sanction of the pope and the king of France, threw 24 cartloads of Hebrew manuscripts into the flames in a Paris square, there have been centuries of holocausts of Jewish writings, up to the Nazi attack on Jewish cultural treasures which destroyed three million (or more) Jewish books.
Our enemies feared these books.
They represented independent, defiant, deviationist thinking. For Jews, on the other hand, books were often their only friends. Books overcame the constrictions of the ghetto walls.
In times of turmoil, they were a haven. Heine wrote: “Nations rose and were vanquished, states flourished and decayed, revolutions raged throughout the earth – but the Jews sat poring over their books, unconscious of the wild chase of time that rushed on above their heads.”
Jewish reverence for study went with reverence for books. Psalm 19 called the Book more precious than fine gold. Judah the Pious said in the 13th century, “If you drop gold and books, first pick up the books and then the gold.” Jacob Moellin (14th century) said, “If two men are about to enter or leave a house and one has a book, the man with the book goes first.”
Books were beloved friends, members of the family. If books were on fire, we all felt the pain and agony.
That is why Me’ir of Rothenburg cried so bitterly: Dismay hath seized upon my soul; how, then,
Can food be sweet to me,
When, O thou Law, I have beheld base men
In sackcloth I will clothe and sable band,
For well-beloved by me
Were they whose lives were many as the sand –
The slain of thee....
Our enemies knew that even if a Jewish body was destroyed, the Jewish soul was indestructible. But the enemy did sometimes confuse that soul, by targeting our books. That is why the Jewish book had such a struggle in the Soviet Union. The miracle is that the message of the book still seemed to circulate behind the Iron Curtain – almost by telepathy.
I had an uncle who was awestruck at my personal library. He had never seen so many Jewish books in one place and didn’t know that so many existed. He was not mollified to be told, “I’m not really a collector; this is just a working library.”
When I was a rabbi in the Diaspora, I was often in Jewish homes (especially shiva houses), and would look at their bookshelves. Most had a siddur (maybe a bar mitzvah present); possibly a Chumash, sometimes taken on unofficial loan from the synagogue) – but little else. In Israel, apart from religious homes which have bookcases of religious texts, there may be a Tanach from school or the IDF, rarely a siddur, and not much more.
Obviously Israelis have books in Hebrew, but that doesn’t prove the writers’ or readers’ identification with Jewish thinking and history. True, there is no one answer to the question of what makes a book or other cultural product Jewish. Is an Israeli physics textbook Jewish because the author is a Jew? Is a Rembrandt picture of a Dutch Jew non-Jewish because the artist was a gentile? What is the criterion? The ethnicity of the author? The language in which they work? The subject matter? Is it true as (I think) Cynthia Ozick wrote, that something is Jewish if it has “a liturgical quality”? Is this the same as Albert Memmi’s view that “To be a Jewish writer is to express the Jewish fate”? There are so many Jewish books available today in so many languages – whatever your definition of a Jewish book – that no one has an excuse not to have a Jewish bookshelf.
Even those who are not religious can respond to its fascination.
For every book which our enemies destroyed, let’s give life to two more.
Not everyone will choose to be an observant Jew, but everyone can be a knowledgeable Jew.
The Rosh, Asher ben Yehiel, said that the law to write one’s own Torah can be satisfied by building up a library of Jewish books. Whether this is fulfilled by modern technological substitutes for books is debatable.
Technology does make some things much easier. Kindle readers are flexible.
The Internet as a research tool obviates traipsing to libraries.
But these media lack aesthetics and emotion and cannot rival what Moses ibn Ezra wrote: “A book is the most delightful companion – an inanimate thing, yet it talks. There is in the world no friend more faithful and attentive. It will join you in solitude, accompany you in exile, and serve as a candle in the dark. It gives, and does not take.” I admit I use the Internet for research, but I also handle and savor my books.
Technology has of course changed everything for historians and made their task that much harder. Because of emails and social media, and also because social mores and sheer courtesy have undergone immense change, people no longer write letters or issue paper documents. Apart from self-published works, fewer and fewer people are producing books.
The documentary raw material (ranging from correspondence to laundry bills) which once gave historians the stuff of study will be scarcer and rarer in years to come. Because a people without history has lost its identity, the art and technique of historical research and recording will need to be reconstructed and reinvented. The result may well be a reclamation and revamping of two calendrical occasions – Tisha Be’av and Simhat Torah.
On Tisha Be’av we will mourn for the loss of books in more than Me’ir of Rothenburg’s sense. On Simhat Torah we will not only celebrate the Torah but rejoice over the blessing of such books as remain to us.
The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.