Yom Kippur Sermon 5780
Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed.
When I was in the fifth grade, I read a book which, unbeknownst to me then, would eventually change my outlook on life. It was “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. It is a book about a dystopian future in which books are outlawed and firemen are civil servants who don’t put out fires but instead cause them, destroying any books that can be found. According to the chief fireman, the reason all books were banned is that some people started to complain about books that challenged their own worldviews and the practice spread like, well, wildfire. In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon, Scientia Potentia Est, Knowledge is Power, and oppressors will try to control knowledge to protect their power. Ironically, this book about banning books is one of the most banned books in US History due to the fact that one of the books burned by the firemen is the Bible.
When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, he saw it as a vision of America in 1999 - which is now 20 years in the past! I realized upon learning world history, especially Jewish history, that this is not a vision of a dystopian future but a retrospective of a very real dystopian past.
Book Burning is not a new concept. For as long as words have been written on flammable media they have been burned. Jewish history goes back to words carved into stone and our written words have been frequent victims of destruction. If you look at the Wikipedia article "List of book-burning incidents" the most frequent books listed are Jewish, starting from the Judean King Yehoyakim burning the scroll written by the Prophet Jeremiah and when Antiochus IV ordered all Jewish books burned - a causus belli for the Hanukkah story.
Today we are about to recite the Eleh Ezkera which begins with ten of the Rabbis who were martyred by the Romans; one of these rabbis was Hananya ben Tradyon. He violated the capital crime of teaching the Torah and he was burned, wrapped in the Torah scroll with which he was caught teaching. He tells his horrified and heartbroken students that, though the parchment burns, the letters of the Torah are flying back up to their Author in Heaven.
In 1242, urged by Pope Gregory IX, the Talmud was put on trial in Paris and found guilty of blasphemy against Christianity. The Pope was allegedly shocked to learn that Jews did not solely follow the Old Testament but also the Talmud! 24 cartloads of an estimated 10,000 volumes were burned that June. This was especially staggering considering this was 200 years before Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable printing press so many of these volumes were handwritten and forever lost.
It is perhaps the ubiquity of books after that point that, last year, Time Magazine, commenting on the 85th Anniversary of Hitler’s 1933 Berlin book burning, wrote,
“the idea that you could get rid of the books you didn’t like seemed impossible. That is perhaps [...] why it took a little while for the wider world to understand what the Nazis were up to. Some authors initially felt pride to have been included in such a bonfire, [and that] that some book lovers in English-speaking countries expressed a certain wistfulness that in Germany books were thought to hold such power. But the Nazi authorities really were out to close off society to certain ideas, and they were unfortunately far more successful at it than many expected.”
The very same Time Magazine in May of 1933, prophetically dubbed this book burning “The Bibliocaust”. A few years ago, I saw the words of 19th century Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine inscribed in that Berlin plaza, The Bebelplatz, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” How tragically correct he was!
With the creation of electronic media, the Internet, and the Cloud, it once again seems that the written word is indestructible and eternal, much like it must have seemed at the development of the Movable Printing Press. While government agencies may try to control and block information people also successfully find ways around blocks and fight for Net Neutrality.
While one war may be fought in the clouds another is taking place on the ground and in ivory towers. Go to any college campus in America today and you will stumble upon something counterintuitive. You will see people protesting for their own freedom of speech while simultaneously denying another’s ability to share their own worldviews and exercise their own free speech. I, myself, have been involved in such shouting matches.
From 2001 to 2005, I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, a place that has been well-known as a hotbed of debate since the days of Alexander Hamilton. Before he dropped out to fight in the American Revolution in 1776, Hamilton engaged in heated debates on a campus evenly-split over Independence vs Loyalism; Hamilton supported Independence but decried the ubiquitous mob violence.
I entered Columbia University in the City of New York only a week before everything changed on 9/11 and things got even more polarized and vocal on campus. In 2004, voices crescendoed when a documentary was released, Columbia Unbecoming, which created a firestorm about allegations of academic intimidation in Middle Eastern department classes. The David Project interviewed a number of Israeli or pro-Israel students, many of whom are my close friends, about cases of Muslim anti-Israel professors in the department being explicitly prejudiced against them for their nationality, religion, or political views; these range from professors not allowing contrarian students to share their views to a professor asking an Israeli student how many Palestinians he murdered when serving in the IDF. Both sides claimed the other side was academically intimidating them and it launched an investigation and ultimately dismantled the Middle Eastern department.
One of these accused professors, it should be noted, is Rashid Khalidi, a founder of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction) movement which attempts to eliminate all dialogue in favor of completely shutting down the Israeli side. Thankfully, his and others’ attempts to bring BDS to Columbia have been repeatedly and overwhelmingly thwarted by students and administration, both in my era and in recent months. However, it seems that things have changed for the worse. Whereas, 15 years ago, we would be very vocal in our defense and support of Israel, today’s students, particularly those who are pro-Israel, are engaging in self-censorship. They are remaining silent so they will not be attacked or bullied by those who oppose their view. Instead of the wise child or even the wicked child, many are now the child who does not know how to ask, how to speak up for themselves!
In my final month as an undergraduate, in my capacity of serving on the Executive Board at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel and being the chairman of Koach, the Conservative movement’s group, I was invited to be one of the two representatives of the Jewish people at Barnard’s first annual Interfaith Summit. It was an event explicitly created in order to create healthy dialogue in the wake of the Middle Eastern department controversy. In the very same issue of the Columbia Daily Spectator that covered this event in which I was pictured having deep theological discussion with Hare Krishnas, the grumbling began against the pulling down of flyers advertising a speaker who was about to arrive on campus: US Attorney General John Ashcroft. He was invited by the College Republicans and, very quickly, a group formed, calling themselves the “John Ashcroft Welcoming Committee,” composed of members of the College Democrats and the ACLU.
In college, I was fortunate to be present for speeches by luminaries such as the Dalai Lama, Natan Sharansky, First Lady Laura Bush, and Senator John McCain. Somehow, I got a ticket to the free, but sold-out, event with John Ashcroft. I didn’t go to support nor to protest, I went to hear him speak, more out of curiosity than agreement or disagreement with his policies, positions, or deeds. After all, he was an important government official who had just left the administration! I came to listen. Others came to scream at the top of their lungs. They said they would protest outside and some got tickets, ostensibly, in order to ask hard-hitting questions. This was meant to be a dialogue but what happened is that the “Welcoming Committee” didn’t even let him speak. I was shocked and dismayed at what I was witnessing, what I was hearing and what I was not hearing due to the attempts to drown out the speaker like we drown out the name of Haman on Purim! Here I was, weeks away from earning my Bachelor’s Degree, majoring in American Political Science and I was suddenly becoming disillusioned by politics! Roone Arledge Auditorium became an echo chamber that night and I was not having it.
In college, I was also a member of the Philolexian Society, Alexander Hamilton’s own college literary & debate society given a name, a name which translates as “lovers of discourse” and our raison de’ȇtre was to engage in friendly debate and never take ourselves too seriously. What was happening that night was completely anathema to my identity and my college pride. Where was the Columbia of vigorous but respectful debate, the one where I witnessed the healthy protests and counter-protests during my prospective-student visit in high school during the confusion three weeks following the 2000 Presidential Election, the events which made me want to be a Political Science major in the first place? Columbia’s motto is “In Lumine Tuo Vidibimus Lumen,” from Psalm 36: “BeOrcha Nireh Or,” “in Your Light we shall see light.” And yet, Columbia was becoming a place of darkness. Ashcroft’s speech, or, more specifically, the disrespectful reception that silenced him, really struck me that day. I decided then-and-there to listen to everybody and make my decisions - not by agreeing with a partisan slate of positions and political platforms - but by learning to listen to everything and everyone and making educated decisions. We may not be burning books today but we ARE definitely burning bridges!
I should feel the same way about the students shutting down Attorney General Ashcroft as I do toward the professors and students who intimidate and bully the Israeli, Zionist, and Jewish students. Free speech swings both ways! We live in a country where freedom of speech, expression, religion, assembly, press, and petition are enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution. As much as we treasure that right for ourselves, it would be hypocritical to deny it to those with whom we disagree.
Other countries don’t have that blessed right. Take Iran. A year after the Ashcroft debacle, Columbia invited the President of Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Now, let me make it clear that I wouldn’t have invited him (nor fellow Holocaust-denying anti-Semitic Malaysian President Mahathir bin Mohamad a few weeks ago) to have an unqualified bully pulpit at my alma mater, however, I was thrilled to see him get defensive when the university’s president, Lee Bollinger (who argued free speech cases in front of the US Supreme Court) asked Ahmadinejad about the mistreatment of homosexuals in Iran. Ahmadinejad was flabbergasted and flustered! “In Iran we don’t have any homosexuals. In Iran we don't have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you we have it,” he exclaimed to the derisive laughter of the audience. In the wise words of an elderly King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:17, “Words spoken softly by wise people are heeded sooner than words screamed by a foolish leader.” As long as there can be fair dialogue is it that dangerous to hear from a plurality of opinions, to open a dialogue and perhaps learn something new and teach something new? Open dialogue is very Jewish.
In fact, our own Jewish tradition is a strong proponent of us attaining as much knowledge as possible from as many sources as possible. The very first reference to knowledge in Judaism is Etz HaDaat Tov v’Ra, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Ancient Greece warned against Prometheus giving the world fire, Pandora succumbing to curiosity, and they executed the great philosopher Socrates for corrupting the minds of Athenian youths and not believing in the gods. In our own story, Christian interpretation calls the eating from the Tree “Original Sin” with which each and every baby, a descendant of Adam and Eve, is born into the world tainted by sin and must be purified by the waters of baptism. It seems to me that Judaism not only does not denounce the action of Adam and Eve but supports it! In God’s perfect Paradise where would a disobedient snake have come from and why would God tell us about an easily seen and accessible tree that could have been hidden or locked far away? It could be open for debate that God never intended us to remain in the blissful ignorance of the Garden of Eden! For the early rabbis, the idea of Paradise in the World to Come is the ability to learn directly from God. Eating from the tree was not an Original sin; on the contrary, eating from the Tree is the beginning of the Jewish tradition to learn and teach as much as possible to the next generation.
We are commanded, in the Shema: Veshinantam Levancecha v’Dibarta Bam, “You shall repeat them to your children and speak of them!” It is a paramount mitzvah to teach Torah to your children. The first petition we make in the weekday Amidah, Chonen HaDaat, is asking God to give us knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. God is pleased with Solomon when the newly crowned king asks God for wisdom. Among many other aphorisms about wisdom, Solomon writes in chapter three of his book of Proverbs:
Happy is the man who finds wisdom, the man who attains understanding. Her value in trade is better than silver, Her yield, greater than gold. She is more precious than rubies; All of your goods cannot equal her. In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful. She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy. (Proverbs 3:13-18)
You might recognize that we just sang these last two verses in reverse as we put the Torahs away: עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכָל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
Just this past Shabbat we read in Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 30:19) that God places before us life and death, blessing and curse and we are commanded to choose life. We are invited to return to Paradise with unfettered access to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. We weren’t expelled from the Garden to protect the Tree of Life; in fact, it wasn’t eternally forbidden fruit, we just weren’t ready - but we are now and God commands us to choose it!!
In the context of Proverbs chapter 3, King Solomon is not just talking about Torah but wisdom in general! Knowledge and life are inextricably tied together! There isn’t meant to be esotericism in Judaism. Modern tradition may restrict the study of the mystical Zohar to men above the age of 40 but this tradition isn’t universal and has nothing to do with one’s caste or level of wisdom. Even the more forbidden fruits should be tasted, as in the Talmudic story of the student hiding under his rabbi’s marital bed to learn about sex. Upon being chided by his teacher the student responds, “This too is Torah and I must learn it!”
We are commanded to acknowledge and learn from those with whom we disagree. It’s Debate 101 and Judaism 101! The Mishnah and Talmud, the fonts of Jewish law, record multiple opinions and often don’t come to conclusions or resolutions. You may have heard of the famous debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, but there was never any acrimony between the two. In Talmud Eruvin 13b we read: “Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagreed. These said: The law is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The law is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Eilu v'Eilu Divrei Elohim Chayim Hen, both these and those are the words of the living God... v'Halachah k'Veit Hillel, However, the law is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel. The Talmud asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the law established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the law, they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.” That’s how you win a debate!
Indeed, we can - and should - learn from everybody. We can’t just preach to the choir. The editor of the Mishnah and Rabbi par-excellence Yehuda HaNasi says in Pesachim 94b that, contrary to popular belief, even Rabbis don’t know everything. In fact, Rebbe says that there are things that gentile scientists know that we don’t know and that we should learn from them as well! We should learn about other faiths not only to be good global citizens but also so we can dialogue and respond when someone tells us something that challenges our faith or understanding. I teach a class to my 8th graders that includes significant time learning Comparative Religion. They will certainly meet people who aren’t Jewish. A former student of mine told me that a girl on her soccer team asked her about Isaiah 7:14, a key text for Christians from the Hebrew Bible, and she was not only able to identify the verse but successfully refute the teammate’s claim. If we refuse to learn from one another, to learn about one another, to dialogue, we don’t have a chance as individuals, as Jews, as Americans.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, “man is a messenger who forgot the message.” I realize now, as I realized back in college, that one of the purposes of life is to gather information and to learn as much as possible, not just to win hundreds of dollars in HQ Trivia (though I’ve done that) nor to appear on Jeopardy! (still waiting on that) but so I can be an informed citizen of the world and know as much as possible.
The very first mishnah of Pirkei Avot, the Lessons of our Sages, says one of the three most important things for a rabbi is to raise many students. In a battle between quality vs. quantity, one might think that quality is the better ideal. You might have a few great students, but with quantity everyone has a chance. I’d like to think I do the same with my students, I’m never gonna give up on them and there’s always a better chance of finding a diamond in the rough if I teach many than if I only teach a few. So too with content; even if you think you will never need math or science or a random sugya of Talmud, you never know what you might do with your life that will require it.
In Ray Bradbury’s fictional America of 1999, the country was burning down, page by page. Twenty years later, in 2019, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. They tried to incinerate our knowledge.“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” However, all is not lost! We can learn once again from the rabbinic pair of Hillel and Shammai:
A gentile came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me to Judaism on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Annoyed, Shammai pushed him away with the measuring stick in his hand. He then came before Hillel. Hillel converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.
We have the ability to learn and to teach. You can be a Shammai, shutting down and chasing away anyone who is disagreeable to you. Or you can be a Hillel, welcoming in people of different opinions and starting a dialogue with them, even if they annoy you. The world is filled with Firemen and Shammais, burning down the world and pushing people away. In a world where there are no Hillels be a Hillel! Create the brilliant light of learning that will burn even brighter than the fires of those burning books. Let there be light.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
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