4th Elul – holy texts holy people

Elul 4 12th August

On this day in 1553 Pope Julius the third ordered the confiscation and burning of the Talmud.

‘Once these books are removed,’ an advisor to the Roman Inquisition had written, ‘it will soon be that the more that they are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and,’ what he calls, ‘the wisdom of the word of God.’

The Inquisitors confiscated every copy of the Talmud in Italy; On Rosh Hashanah 5314 (9 September 1553), that the Talmud and many other Jewish books were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.

On 12 September 1553 another papal decree was issued, demanding that all copies of the Talmud throughout the Catholic world be gathered and destroyed. In Venice – then the world centre of Hebrew printing  – the order was interpreted to include other Jewish books as well. On Saturday, 21 October 1553 , 3rd Cheshvan 5314 all  the books gathered were burned in Piazza San Marco.

Other Hebrew books were burned in 1568 in Venice.

Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth-century, a complete edition of the Talmud could not be found anywhere in the region.

Later, the printing of Hebrew books was permitted once more, but under censorship. They were checked and licenced by the authorities (licenza dei Superiori)  whose imprimatur can be found in all Hebrew texts printed in Venice from the second half of the 16th century onwards.

The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and studying it has shaped Jewish thinking. Those of us who have read a page a day (daf yomi) for the seven and a half years it takes to complete the books  will attest to a change in how the world is perceived. Yet the ideas of a people do not only reside on the printed page, and the burning of their books did not destroy the Jewish people.

Judaism resides in the spirit of the Jewish people. Ideas may be suppressed, people may be martyred, but as Leo Baeck wrote centuries later “A people only dies when its spirit dies”.

On the plaque recording the great burning in Rome there are two quotations. One from the Talmudic story of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, who, wrapped in a burning torah scroll called out “The parchment is burning but the letters fly up to heaven”, the second from the lamentation Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, a kinah by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, written in the 13th century after the Disputation of Paris led to the destruction of almost every copy of the Talmud in Europe. The question is directed at the Torah, how can the text given in holy fire be destroyed in worldly fire?  “My question, burned in the fire, about the welfare of mourners” (Sha’ali Serufah ba’Esh, leshalom avelai’ich”

For all that study of our texts has sustained and nourished us, informed and shaped our thinking, allowed us to express our reality and pursue ideas to their sometimes extraordinary conclusions, the texts themselves repeatedly tell us that it is the ideas they embody rather then the physical artefacts that matter. What is given in holy fire cannot be destroyed in worldly fire. It is our interaction and engagement with the ideas of Judaism that keeps our spirit alive, and keeps our people alive.

This coming week, month, year find some texts and engage with them. It can be bible or siddur, Talmud or commentary. Let yourself be touched and changed, discover for yourselves the holy fire.

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