In 1953, science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury published an enlarged version of a short story set in a dystopian America of the future where “firemen” are charged with burning down any house in which a book was discovered. The novel was entitled Fahrenheit 451, presumably the temperature at which a book would burn. Bradbury was later to comment that his intent was to author a dirge over what he perceived to be a decline in the reading habits of Americans and an increasing reliance on television for all kinds of information. Readers, however, understood this novel as an indictment of censorship: a particularly volatile issue in the 1950’s when both the “Red Scare” and changing sexual mores convinced some that radical ideas must be silenced.
Judaism has largely avoided imposing censorship. Dissenting opinions appear on almost every page of the Talmud. And Biblical commentators were not averse to offering novel and controversial interpretations that were challenged but never suppressed. Nevertheless, Maimonides’ philosophical and theological writings were burned in thirteenth century France by rabbis who were offended as much by his arrogance as by his critique of more traditional views. The church then took the opportunity to burn Jewish books as well. After all, if Jews could burn books written by “heretics” so could the church. The burning of books did not prevent the propagation of the ideas contained in them. But that did not stop later would-be censors from trying. In some cases book publishers were bribed to omit certain offensive material. In other cases, the threat of government intervention was enough to keep wayward authors in check. And when this could no longer work, the threat or the imposition of social ostracism was used to prevent the publication of provocative ideas. Such was the case with the isolation of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan by his academic colleagues and the “herem” imposed on Rabbi Natan Slifkin who dared to demonstrate that evolutionary theory is not at odds with Judaism.
What mainstream Judaism has learned over time is that ideas are indestructible. Books can be burned but the ideas in them cannot be destroyed. Maimonides words can be consigned to the fire but his ideas persist. And, ironically, the ideas that were once reviled are now venerated. Unfortunately, there are still those who believe that any idea with which they disagree must be eliminated. Such is the thinking behind the reported burning of the library in Timbuktu, Mali by fundamentalist insurgents who have denounced even the ancient geographical works housed there as “un-Islamic” because they were written and preserved by a sect of Isalm (Sufis) with whom they violently disagree. The world is deprived of a literary treasure. Islam is denuded of a part of its richness. Yet scholars around the world will continue to analyze and debate the ideas expressed in those texts. So the books will have been destroyed to no avail.
When the Romans martyred Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon (Avodah Zara 17b), they wrapped him in a Torah scroll and set in on fire. His disciples asked him what he saw. He is reputed to have replied: “The parchment is burning but the letters are soaring upward.” Burning books is an atavistic and useless pursuit. It only serves to expose the censors’ ignorance.