In July 2012, the Bible Society in Israel [“Messianic Jews”] sent Christian Bibles to all 120 Members of the Knesset. In response, one MK, Michael Ben-Ari, publicly cut his up and threw it in the trash. In December 2001, a teacher in Beit Shemesh led his students in burning a copy of a Hebrew translation of the New Testament that had been given to a student by missionaries. In another episode in 2008, kids burnt hundreds of copies of the New Testaments sent by missionaries, arguing it was a commandment to do so.
While the insensitivity of particular groups of missionaries needs to be addressed seriously, this situation should be handled by the police, and book burning is never appropriate. Those who argue that Christianity is idolatry, and that therefore that it is a mitzvah to destroy copies of the New Testament, are in error. While it is prohibited for Jews to practice Christianity according to Jewish law, it is not "idolatry," and even if another book embraced idolatrous ideas, no one worships the actual book. Even further, destroying things unnecessarily violates the Torah prohibition of baal tashchit (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20, Hilchot Malachim 6:10).
Books should never be burned, as they represent learning. As Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin declared in opposing the action of MK Ben-Ari: “I condemn any disrespect of holy texts of any religion… Every holy book is important to its believers.” Book burning has a terrible history connected with anti-semitism, censorship, small-mindedness, and oppression. The Rambam’s books were burnt, as were Rav Moshe Feinstein’s. Torah scrolls have destuctively been burnt for centuries. These are shameful moments in Jewish history. They are part of a disgraceful tradition of infamous acts, such as the Nazi book burnings, the burning of the books and burying of scholars under China’s Qin Dynasty, the burning of the Library of Baghdad, the destruction of the Aztec codices, and the destruction of the Sarajevo National Library.
America has had its share of book burnings. In 1836, the Quaker abolitionists Angelina and Sarah Grimké, who came from the South, wrote an anti-slavery tract, Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States, which was filled with religious references. When copies reached Charleston, the postmaster seized all the copies and publicly burned them. This increasingly fanatical defense of slavery fueled the secessionist movement – South Carolina was the first state to secede and the state where the Civil War started, with the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861. In 1953, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy dispatched his aides Roy Cohn and David Schine to search U.S. Information Service Libraries in Europe and Asia in a paranoid quest to find Communist influence in the United States government. As a result, several “subversive” books from these libraries were literally burned to symbolize that the State Department had been purged of the alleged influence of Communism. This helped spur the banning of books and blacklisting of scholars and performers for a decade, in addition to promoting the mindset that led to the Vietnam War.
In a similar way, the recent Quran burning here in the United States was extremely disturbing. This practice insults the core religious faith and humanity of nearly 2 billion people worldwide. In addition, it carries a warning. In Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play, Almansor, a Moor [Spanish Muslim], commenting on Christians who publicly burned the Quran, says that this burning is but a “prelude,” and adds: “Where men burn books, they will in the end burn people.”
Holy books are sacred even when we disagree with them or with their advocates. We should not only respect other religions and people of other faiths; we should seek to learn from them. While we, as Jews, are committed to being firmly rooted in the Torah and to Judaism, we still must have the humility to open our minds and hearts to the teachings of other faiths.
The Mishnah (Pirke Avot 5:17) teaches: “Every dispute which is for the sake of Heaven in the end will be permanently established. And every dispute which is not for the sake of Heaven in the end will not be permanently established.” When religious people are arguing with good intentions to pursue the truth, they should be listened to. The Rambam taught that we should “accept the truth from wherever it is found.”
The Maharal, the great 16th-century Jewish philosopher in Prague, taught (Baer haGolah, chapter 7):
It is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you do not [summarily] reject anything that opposes your own idea, especially so if [your adversary] does not intend merely to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs… And even if such beliefs are opposed to your own faith and religion, do not say to him, “Speak not and keep your words.” Because if so, there will be no clarification of religion. Just the opposite, tell him to speak his mind and all that he wants to say so that he will not be able to claim that you silenced him. Anyone who prevents another from speaking only reveals the weakness of his own religion, and not as many think, that by avoiding discussion about religion you strengthen it. This is not so! Rather, the denial of one who opposes your religion is the negation and weakening of that religion… For the proper way to attain truth is to hear [others’] arguments which they hold sincerely, not out of a desire to provoke you. Thus it is wrong simply to reject an opponent’s ideas; instead, draw him close to you and delve into his words.
We should also remember that attempts to repress other religious beliefs that we disagree with frequently backfire, and that these religious factions grow even stronger as a result. A poignant Midrash teaches: "Do not be so quick to destroy the altars of non-Jews lest you be forced to rebuild them with your hands" (Midrash Tannaim Devarim Mechilta 4). The Roman Empire, through brutal episodic efforts at suppression, only strengthened the faith of Jews and Christians; similarly, the Roman Catholic Church, through the Inquisition, torture, and executions, only strengthened the faith of Jews and, during the later Reformation, Protestants. On the most self-interested and pragmatic level, we must never be destructive to other religious factions because those people will come to hate us and may seek to harm us (mishum eivah). Rather the halachah is that we must pursue the ways of peace (darchei shalom) in all that we do.
We must draw closer to others with different theologies, to be respectful and to learn. The last thing that should ever happen is a public desecration of the works of another faith. The great majority of Jews and Israelis believe this, and no attention should be paid toward the extremists acting against Jewish values. We must speak out against others who shows intolerance to others and who shame their sacred texts in acts of spite. We can heal the world together when see decency and dignity in all people and show respect to their theologies even when we disagree with them.
Even when we are provoked and our tolerance is tested, we must rise above. The Torah's "ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace," (Proverbs 3:17).
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"