I have been following with astonishment and shock in recent days the legal discussion surrounding the desire of an individual who labels himself a “social activist” to set fire to the sacred Jewish scriptures as a symbol of Swedish freedom of expression to protest the desecration of Islamic sanctities and the burning the Quran in the country. Faced with these heinous acts, the Swedish authorities stand weakly, muttering empty words about freedom that are diminished in the face of such terrible actions — both those committed and those yet to come. This is not what freedom looks like; this is what a loss of direction looks like.
Both the sacred scriptures and the natural sciences teach us that the greatness of man lies in the power of speech. The soul of man, G-d’s gift, is called in Aramaic, “ruach memalla” — a speaking soul. With the power of speech, we have formed communities and societies, engraved hidden values of ethics in our hearts, and crafted dreams and aspirations. Through the power of speech, we have risen above all living creatures on Earth, and with the power of speech, we seek together the path to act responsibly and compassionately towards all living beings on Earth.
The struggle for freedom of expression is intended to enable all of this. It aims to prevent authoritarian regimes and violent forces from silencing the word of G-d that emanates from the soul of man. The struggle for freedom of speech arises from the belief that speech is a sacred duty whose purpose is to improve the world, and that it is our obligation to allow every person to fulfill their duty and to use the power of speech to create a better world every day.
What does this holy duty have to do with the distorted and immoral act of burning sacred scriptures? Is this the freedom Europe swore to uphold after its dark years? Freedom to destroy, to harm, to degrade, and to trample? Is this the purpose of European culture, with its lofty aspirations? To be a haven for the most provocative, base, and harmful ideas?
As a rabbi, I am proud of the rabbis who stood together with the Muslim community in Sweden in an attempt to prevent the despicable act of burning the Quran. For too many years, the false claim has spread that religion is the root of war and conflict. Ironically, Europe’s own bitter experience teaches us that the two most murderous movements that humanity has produced were movements that trampled upon everything sacred. Those who seek the greatness of man without the kindness of G-d will ultimately lose their way and turn violence — towards sacred scriptures, towards people, or towards entire nations — into their sole purpose.
Only at the last moment did that provocateur confess that his true intention was provocation and not action. I do not know if he did it under public pressure or if he had planned from the beginning to attract public attention and then retreat. However, the important lesson we must learn and engrave in our hearts from this painful and unnecessary story is that freedom of expression is intended to elevate us as individuals and as a society, not the opposite. Heaven forbid that we desecrate the sanctity of speech.