Rabbi Sessler D’var Torah

On Books

The greatest living Hebrew writer is the Israeli novelist Amos oz. In his memoirs, Oz writes that his father (Dr. Yehudah-Arieh Klausner Z”L) was a man “horny for books” . According to his son, Dr. Klausner was a man existentially stimulated by books. The author’s father would sensuously caress books, passionately smell and kiss the pages and the print, and sometimes he would even embrace a particularly beloved volume, and squeeze it very tightly, close to his heart. Amos Oz’s father couldn’t take his hands off books. He was a man “possessed” by an overpowering literary lust. To be sure, books are not the exclusive fetish of the Oz-Klausner family. We Jews are by and large a very bookish people, and a hyper-literate one at that. In a sense, to an extent, many of us share some of the affectatious syndromes of Dr. Klausner’s bibliomania.

Perhaps we are not all literate and proficient in some fifteen languages as Dr. Klausner was, but we certainly revere and admire great books, and first and foremost a particular book, namely the Book of Books – the Hebrew Bible. And that’s why we stand in synagogue services when the Torah is in motion, as if she were akin to royalty. And that’s also why we dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, as if she were our bride. And oh, yes, we also love to kiss the Torah each time she passes us by, like an impassioned lover. We are a people gripped by great spiritual Eros and reverence for the written word.

In the words of the great German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the Torah is “the portable home of the Jewish people”. And in the words of literary critic George Steiner, for the Jew, the “Text” is homeland.

Two weeks ago, the civilized world commemorated 83 years, since the grand Nazi book burning at the Berlin Opera Square, which took place on May 10th, 1933. Thousands of books created by some of humanity’s finest minds were annihilated in a huge bonfire. These included works authored by Freud, Einstein and the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. The latter passed away more than half a century prior to the Nazi book burnings. During his lifetime, Heine chillingly prophesied the atrocious outcome of Nazi barbarism: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings”. And indeed, a dozen years following the mass Nazi book burnings, the world stood aghast, as it came face to face with the ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The reading face is a Divine face, observed once the French-Jewish thinker Immanuel Levinas. And no people depended for so many centuries on reading as an existential imperative for its very cultural, spiritual and indeed – national survival, as much as we have. We are the people of the Book, as Mohammed once astutely observed. Our people’s material, spiritual and intellectual successes are all chiefly a derivative of our millennia-old and pious mode of hyper-literacy. Hold on tenaciously to our people’s unquenchable thirst for the written Word, cultivate it, and nurture it in your children. “And you shall teach them diligently to your children” commands us the Torah and the Shma prayer. “Meditate and ponder this Book by day and by night” – the Almighty commands all Jews for perpetuity, in the very commencement of the Book of Joshua. We are the people of the Book. And we must protect its right to exist, be displayed, and also be proliferated, in every society on the face of the earth. And in addition to that, we are invited to embrace the Book “as a seal upon our heart” (Song of Songs 8:6).

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sessler

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