Digital World: Getting back at the book burners

Dictators of all types - religious, fascist, imperial and so on - have always feared freedom, especially freedom of the press.

Dictators of all types - religious, fascist, imperial and so on - have always feared freedom, especially freedom of the press. Putting subversive words down on paper has always been the first step in the dissolution of whatever oppressive regime freedom fighters were agitating against. "The people" - whether they were called peasants, proletariat or peons - could think what they want; there was no way for the authorities to get inside their subjects' heads, although some, like the Nazis and the Inquisitors, tried hard. But once those thoughts were actualized - in the form of words on paper - those in charge of the regime knew their days were numbered and they realized that only way to stay in control was to put a stop to the "agitation" of the opposition. As it happens, fear of "the subversive other" has historically not been restricted - or perhaps even primarily aimed at - the writings of self-proclaimed freedom fighters. Such people can be "handled," most dictators know - either by buying them off or through less delicate means, like torture. What really worries un-benelovent despots is the presence of a committed group of ideologues who take seriously a lifestyle that is perceived by the authorities to be diametrically opposed to their rule. A group like, say, the Jews. Why have the Jews been oppressed and hated so much by absolute dictatorships like the medieval church, the Nazis and the Communists? Historians have many answers - or rather, conjectures - but looking over the persecutorial measures invoked against Jews, it's clear that fear of the Jews - of their ideas, lifestyle and their threat to the established order - was always an important factor. See, for example, the writings of one of the early church fathers, John Chrysostom, about the Jews ( There's plenty of hate here, true; but there's a clear undercurrent of fear, as there is in the list of other original sources of medieval anti-Semitism at Now put the two together: The fear of Jews for their independent spirit and their refusal to assimilate, along with their prolific publishing of books on philosophy, law and ritual, and you get one of the most popular anti-Semitic traditions - the burning of Jewish books ( But today's dictators don't fear the printed word any longer. And anti-Semites no longer burn the Talmud to express their hatred/fear of the Jew. Opponents of freedom - of the press, of religion and of thought - have much bigger fish to fry nowadays: Electronic information, in the form of Web sites or e-books. These have a greater reach than books ever did; all you need to disseminate subversive information today is an easy to put together Web site, or even just a floppy disk or, more likely, a USB storage drive. So, as we commemorate Tisha Be'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, it seems appropriate to visit Internet sites that have taken on the task of storing and digitizing some of the very works that instilled so much fear in the despots that sought to destroy us. They burned the books, but the books still live - and that, in the end, is the victory of the Jewish people. And thanks to the efforts of some very dedicated people, a whole world of Jewish literature is available to everyone - for free! Tens upon thousands of books have been digitized or transcribed, in Hebrew, English and many other languages, ranging from the basic texts to esoteric works that were virtually unknown before Internet era. The most basic Jewish text, of course, is the Torah - the Five Books of Moses - and the rest of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. While there are many sites on the Internet with translations of the basic books of the Bible, many are based on Christian translations, from the KJV to more modern renditions. One authentically Jewish translation can be found at, a Chabad site with a translation by the Judaica Press publishing house. And, as an extra bonus, the site includes the entire commentary of the medieval luminary Rashi (, in English, laid out in an easy to read format, with commentary right under each specific passage. If you prefer the translation of the Metsuda publishing house - for the weekly portion and Rashi - check out If you prefer your original texts in Hebrew, check out, where you'll find not only the Tanach, but also the Talmud, Mishna and the Mishna Torah by Maimonides. Even those who hated the Jews could recognize the beauty and the glory of the Bible; but when it came to the Talmud, the story was quite different. The Talmud was burned publicly dozens, if not hundreds, of times by Church authorities - a tradition continued into modern times by the Nazis and even the Arabs ( Today, the Talmud is accessible to all, on-line, in its original Aramaic, and although there have been some attempts at translations, Talmud aficionados will often tell you it's easier to struggle with the Aramaic! If you want to take a stab at one of the classical English translations, check out this rendition of the Rodkinson Talmud (, the first English translation of the Talmud. The Daf Yomi site (, geared to those who learn a page a day, is also a great resource for the casual Talmudic browser as it has a free translation of every page of the Talmud. Then there are the classical texts, of which thousands have been digitized. These books span the centuries, coming from Golden Age Spain through Europe and the Near East of the Middle Ages, down to America and Israel, all of them until recently out of print and virtually unknown. Sites with books like these include and, with 11,000 such books available for download. And for more modern reading, check out the Virtual Jewish Library (, with books and articles about the Holocaust, Zionism, and issues in modern Jewish life. These sites, with these books, are our answer to the challenge of Tisha Be'Av: They tried to destroy, but we rebuilt - better and stronger than before.