Barry Lerer
Senior Rabbi, Central Synagogue London

Tisha B’Av, Cancel Culture and Book Burnings

This coming Thursday we will be observing the Fast of Tisha B’av. Our Scriptures tell us that from the beginning of the Month of Av (which we ushered in last Wednesday) we are to reduce our enjoyment, as we build-up to the Ninth, a date in Jewish History synonymous with tragedies and disasters which have befallen our people. With all the woes currently in the world between the pandemic and its impact as well as the racial unrest and growing cancel culture movement, it seems like we have spent the past few months preparing for this date.

When the Children of Israel believed the false report of the Spies in the wilderness and cried and mourned on that date 3332 years ago, God said “You who cry over nothing, I will give you something to cry about in the future.” Ever since then, the Ninth of Av has been a day of national mourning. Our sages say that it will continue to be so until the Messianic Era when it will become a national Holiday. Both the First Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians and Second Temple destroyed by the Romans were set ablaze on the Ninth of Av. The city of Betar, the last stronghold against the Romans, fell on Tisha B’Av, and thousands died by the sword.

The Edict of the Expulsion of Jews from England by King Edward 1st happened on this date in 1290. The deadline for the Expulsion from Spain, by which all Jews were forced to abandon their property and leave the country on pain of death, was the Ninth of Av, 1492. And, more recently, World War One which was the start of the process of destruction of Germany, and the rise of Naziism, broke out on Saturday evening, August 1, 1914, the Ninth of Av.

On Ninth of Av, we recite Kinot/ Elegies liturgical poems that express the suffering of the Jewish People throughout the ages. We recite these while sitting on the floor or low stools in the manner of a mourner during shiva. Most of these Kinot deal with the destruction of the Holy Temples and the aftermath. Others deal with massacres that took place during the time of the Crusades. And there are even Kinot relating to the Holocaust.

One of the Kinot we will be reciting is called Sha’ali Serufa Ba Eish….”O law that has been consumed by fire.” It was written in the 13th Century by the famed Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg. The Kinah tells of the public burning of 24 cartloads of the Talmud and other holy texts in Paris, on 17th June 1242, witnessed by Rabbi Rothenburg. This burning was performed after Nicholas Donin, a Jewish convert to Christianity who translated the Talmud, pressed 35 charges against it to Pope Gregory IX by quoting a series of allegedly blasphemous passages about Christianity and God. One estimate is that 10,000 volumes of Hebrew manuscripts were burned. When you consider that the printing press did not yet exist, this means all copies were handwritten. How many scholarly writing were lost forever on that bonfire?

However, when you consider that the other Kinot are written for massacres, crusades and, destruction of the Temple and the subsequent bloodbaths, is the burning of these holy books something comparable to mourn over?

In Berlin on 10th May 1933, more than 6 years before the 2nd World War, books by Jewish, liberal or communist authors and thinkers, and others deemed to be “contrary to Nazi ideology” were among those burned by a Nazi crowd in Berlin’s “Bebelplatz” under the direction of Joseph Goebbels. Today a memorial consisting of a glass plate set into the cobble of Bebelplatz gives a view of empty bookcases (large enough to hold the total of the 20,000 burnt books).  Furthermore, a line  from Heinrich Heine’s play Almansor is engraved on a plaque inset in the square

“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am ende auch Menschen.” (in English: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”).

With the rise of cancel culture, there is an attempt to erase history and arts and culture, to call out anyone or anything that doesn’t fit within a specific agenda and world view. This has led to a letter by some 150 writers, academics and, activists in Harpers Magazine, including authors JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and, Margaret Atwood denouncing the “restriction of debate”.

Whereas they say they applaud a recent “needed reckoning” on racial justice, they argue it has fuelled stifling of open debate. The letter denounces ” an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

We have seen TV shows and films being canceled or edited out, and a couple of weeks ago The Washington Post book critic Ron Charles suggested that books will also face a day of reckoning in a piece headlined “While offensive TV shows get pulled, problematic books are still inspiring debate and conversation.” He invokes famous literature that may be seized upon in the national dialogue like Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

And once again we return to that quote from Orwell from 1984:  “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.”                                                                          

About 9/10 years ago, we held an “Any Questions” evening with former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks at my previous community Barnet Synagogue. This took place soon after kindles and smartphones had become commonplace, and a member of the audience was bemoaning those people who use a Siddur App on their smartphone to pray from during the week, instead of praying from a proper Siddur. The member felt that it was wrong and that it cheapened Judaism. He was concerned that it would spell the end of the printed Siddur altogether. He asked Lord Sacks what he felt about it.

Lord Sacks replied. “It’s all well and good to have these Apps and devices. However, since you cannot use your smartphone on Shabbat, you will always need a Siddur.” He followed that up by saying “You can rest assured, we have always been known as “the people of the book” and no matter what technology comes up we will continue to be “the people of the book”.”

Students at Humboldt University hold a book sale in the Bebelplatz square every year to mark the anniversary of the Nazi Book Burnings to show defiance, and that books, much like the Jewish people themselves are here to stay. The Nazis might have tried, but in the end, both the written word and the people of the book have prevailed.

Long may both continue.

About the Author
A community Rabbi for over 18 years, Rabbi Lerer is Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue London. He also teaches in the Beis 6th Form Programme at Hasmonean High School.
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