Sermon: On books and book bans

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 29 March 2014

I don’t know if you ever think about religion in the Middle Ages.
Probably not.
It may be more a clergy sort of a thing.

But if you do ever think about religion in the Middle Ages – or, if you’ve ever seen the relevant episode of Horrible Histories… if you do, then one of the images you might have in your head is of a monk sat laboriously in a medieval monastery copying out a book.

Sat in a room called a scriptorium, attached to a library (or often just sat for hours in a recess alone in their room) a monk would spend literally years producing a single book.
With extraordinary attention.
The act of copying not merely a transmission of words but an act of devotion and prayer.

Of course, this was an age before printing, and manuscript production was in part a necessity.  But it was also an act of love.  It spoke of the veneration of literature, of text, of a society in which the preservation of culture through writing and reading was paramount.
The invention of printing, far from removing this love, allowed it to be shared beyond the monastery walls.  The book remained a thing of special beauty and power.

Hold that image in your head.
Because, there is another image – one from the other end of the spectrum – I’d like you to consider.
Scan through the pictures of Nazi Germany you hold in your mind.
At some point you will alight upon the picture of burning books.
Other pictures from that period are more painful, of course, but the image of burning books represents the destruction of a culture, an intellectual tradition, of literature and learning – just as it did, also in the Middle Ages, when truckloads of Talmuds were burned at the order of the Church.

Be we monks or murderers, the point is that our relationship with books – or rather, with text, with literature – is one of the things that defines us as a people.
It expresses how we understand culture, how we relate to history, or story, how we privilege our past, what we think is worth keeping.

This is certainly true for us as Jews. The book – the text – is everywhere.
Just look around us: Each of the sifrei torah in the ark behind me is the product of an equal love and devotion, dedication and care as that shown by the medieval monk.  We may still use the pre-codex form of book, a scroll, and the pre-paper form of paper, animal skin, but the thing we all sit to face, the thing we rise with is a book – a book not just as object but as symbolic statement of peoplehood, law, culture, values.

And in each of our hands, this morning, the ability to read and engage in a democratic act of prayer, and of study, facilitated by the book.
The book is central to our Jewish life.  We read it, engage with it.  Bizarrely we do so even when what it says is ghastly.  How else can we explain the fact that we have given up part of our busy lives this morning to once again hear laws that we will never use, carried out by priests we will never appoint, about a fungal infection we will never experience.

How else to explain the fact that in our cultural life, we express the transition to adulthood, as we did for Zac this morning, not with tests of strength, not with fertility rites, not with proclamations of faith, but with a heavily ritualised public book reading.

The primary act of human existence in Rabbinic Judaism is reading… well, study.  It is engagement with the text that defines our relationships with each other and the world.  When the rabbis were reshaping their people’s religious life after the destruction of the temple, they put in place of the privilege of lineage and sacrifice, the power of learning and study.
If you ask me a Jewish question I can’t answer off the top of my head, what will I do?  I will get up, I will go to a bookshelf – either an actual one, or nowadays an electronic one – and I will read from a book.

The week after next, we will have the annual Jewish People’s book night.  For every Jew around the world we will tell a story, from a story book.  We will read together the narrative of the Exodus – often from slightly different versions from among over 3000 published editions of the Haggadah.  We will argue, and debate, and laugh and love being with one another with books in our hands.

And we don’t just read books, we invest in them, and cherish them.  One of the privileges of my role as Vice-Chairman of the Leo Baeck College has been to be part of new plans to develop the college library – to think about its future and its place in the heart of the Progressive Jewish world in this country and internationally.  Even without some very exciting plans to move forwards (of which more another time) we are already blessed to have the leading English language Jewish library in Europe, possibly the world, on our doorstep.  A home to real scholarship, a place for reading and study.  And, as reflects our cherishing of the book as a core expression of our history it is also a conservatory for some of the heritage of our people – rare books of inestimable value, and huge symbolic significance.

As Jews, it is the Text that binds us, that inspires us, infuriates us, contains our stories, ask our questions.  We are indeed Am ha-sefer, the People of the book

All of which is why, even though I don’t do politics from the Bimah, even though I have never before expressed a personal view about a specific UK public policy (as opposed to principle) from up here, I do so this morning.

This week saw the introduction of rules first announced in November that it will no longer be possible to send books to people in prison.  Access to books will become part of the reward structure, the incentives and earned privileges scheme.  Books will become a privilege to be accessed subject to behaviour.

Now, there has been a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing about whether this is a ban on books, or just a sensible part of prisoner behaviour management.  Even the Chief Inspector of Prisons yesterday expressed reservations about the policy from a practical perspective.

But whether it will work is not the issue.  Underlying it is a fundamental question about our relationship with literature, with learning, with reading.  Do we understand reading as sacred or as another human base activity.  As a letter from more than 80 leading authors stated “While we understand that prisons must be able to apply incentives to reward good behaviour by prisoners, we do not believe that education and reading should be part of that policy.”
I’m no author – but as a rabbi I agree.

Perhaps the most powerful challenge came from the author Michael Rosen.  Prisoners, he argued earlier in the week are those who most need that which books can give: the ability to learn about the humanity of others.  And this, I would suggest, is absolutely the Jewish view.

The Russian author Dostoevsky said that “the degree of civilisation of a society can be judged by entering its prisons”.  Perhaps to corrupt the quote, the place of books – or rather, of text, of literature – in our prisons is really something that defines us as a society.

Our culture, our whole tradition is based around the understanding of the book as special.  Not bibliolatry – not worship of the book over and above human beings – but certainly ours is a bibliocentric tradition.
It says that books are not a privilege or a reward, but the very stuff of human existence.

Think back to that image.  A book is no longer a thing of the monastery of the Middle Ages.  But it is precious and sacred nonetheless, and our society needs to treat it as such.