People of the Book

There is no substitute for the text as the prime tool of human expression.

The theme of this year’s Hebrew Book Week, among other things, is thoughts on the future of books in an age of digital media. Different voices have expressed opinions about a world that seems to have disappeared and no longer exists. There has been no shortage of statements about the fact that the need to reduce the amount of paper we use in order to save the rain forests, coupled with new technologies for disseminating computerized information, will eliminate the turning of pages and a host of feelings that come with the very act of reading and have been an integral part of this experience.  Under such circumstances what will happen to the traditional bookshelf that has held intellectual treasures and passed them along from one generation to the next?  Much more importantly, what will be the significance of the phrase “the People of the Book,” which has up to now been an integral part of Jewish culture and Jewish identity?
It would seem that these fears are highly exaggerated, even totally unnecessary. We were “the People of the Book” long before that sobriquet was given to us by Muslims in the Koran; way before the appearance of paper and the printing press and the odor of glue emanating from the binding, we became a people with creation of the book of books – the Bible. The world, we learn from the Book of Genesis, was created by statement; that is, through text or by combining words.  And the moment these are written down, you have the beginning of a book. You have the beginning of history and in the words of the poet Uri Zvi Grinberg, “What is left in writing is the immortality of the soul.”  This, in essence, is what sets man apart from the other creatures. This is man’s inherent Divine image.
Not for nothing, and not coincidentally, does Chapter 5 of the Book of Genesis begin with the words, “This is the book of the generations of Adam. On the day that God created man, He made him in God’s image.” 
This – and the book in which this can be found – is the most important principle in Judaism. 
Here we are acquainted with the essence of human culture, and from here we derive human dignity, “Beloved is man who was created in the divine image,” and a host of commandments between man and his fellow man.
ALL OF this has nothing to do with the material aspect of books, per se.  The Ten Commandments were given in writing carved into tablets of stone. Scrolls, and of course, Torah scrolls, were written on parchment. We don’t know how the visions of the prophets were first documented, or how the extraordinary poetry of the Psalms and the Song of Songs were preserved. But there is no doubt that this task was successful even without the technologies whose loss is presently being eulogized.
Preserving the book – independent of the medium – during peace or during war, tragedy or Holocaust, was and remains a premier Jewish value. Evidence of this is found in the letter sent by the court of Judah the Maccabee “to our Jewish brethren in Egypt.”  The letter says about Judah, “we collected all of the books that were scattered because of the war, and we have them.”  Over a thousand years later Rabbi Judah the Hassid ruled that “if a man shall be holding gold and he shall be holding books, and both the books and the gold fall from his hands, he shall first pick up the books and then the gold.”
And in this vein,  as it should be, the foundation stone of Israeli academia with all of its achievements and breakthroughs in every sphere of endeavor, was the National Library.  Yosef Hazanovitch, a Jewish doctor from Bialystok and one of the first members of the “Lovers of Zion” (Hovevei Zion), laid the foundations for that building in Jerusalem in 1890 from which eventually grew the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, followed by all the other institutions of higher education.
We recall fondly the writers and poets whose works accompanied the Zionist movement from its inception and disseminated its ideas better than any speech or program, and went like a torch before the Zionist camp.  These works were with us in times of joy and distress, when we were faced with grave national challenges and when we nurtured hope and encountered, heaven forbid, frustration. Nathan Alterman wrote in this context:  “For the wind in the mountains is strong, nothing is as pure as the sheaves, nothing is as bright as the fresh dew that falls on Ephraim. Their spaciousness and their beauty is their inheritance from God but their soul, my brothers, is taken from books."
This spirit, we can say without doubt, is still with us in full force. There have been vast changes in our leisure culture. There is an information explosion and fierce competition for our attention. Again, as Alterman writes, we need to preserve books not only “from dampness and the conqueror’s vengeance” but also from “idiots and folly and foolish wisdom as from fire.” 
But there is no substitute for the text as the prime tool of human expression.  There is no substitute for the book, no matter what form it takes. And we have no future other than as the People of the Book.

The writer is the president of Bar-Ilan University.