Sunday, April 25, 2010

Burn it

This Shabat we shared a picnic with a family of Messianic Jews, followers of "Rabbi Yeshua". We were meeting them because Tova has an anthropology project about communities in Israel, and this was a good opportunity to gain some insight into their way of life.

Half way through the picnic, a friend of theirs who is not fully mentally fit, walked over and gave me a New Testament. Our co-picnickers were horrified as they realized that his actions could easily be seen offensive. I didn't, however, take offense, for a few reasons, one of which was that our friends clearly didn't want that to have happened.

Anyway, to the point of the story, I had this gift and wasn't sure what to do with it. The truth is I don't mind having a copy of it around the house, for reference (for example I didn't know that Mathew 2.20 has one of the first uses of the term "Land of Israel" outside Tanach) just like I don't mind having a copy of the Kuran to hand. But at the moment we live a small apartment, our books are in the living room, and I just don't feel like having it out there on display next to everything from the Chumash to my Excel book. It's just very political, and at the moment I can use the internet if I want to look something up.

So, what to do? I decided a good option would be to just hand it over to a Christian. San Simon park has a Greek Orthodox monastery and I walk past there often, so this morning I took a detour and tried to find the entrance. It turns out that the entrance is opposite an old age home, and as I buzzed and buzzed, I felt eyes watching me. Behind me were two men, sitting next to a third more elderly man. I assumed they were visiting their father or grandfather, and they were just watching me buzz. Nothing.

Eventually, a bewildered looking monk popped his head up from the roof top and asked me in Hebrew what I wanted. I'm not sure if he was annoyed because he had been meditating, or had little trust for Israelis, but he looked a bit scared and clearly had little time for me. I yelled up - "I have a book for you!" and he just looked at me blankly. "It's a Christian book!". Still a blank look , and then he was gone.

I waited, and nothing happened.

Then the men opposite me started talking. "Just burn it, why are you giving it back?"

"Burn it??"

"It's Avoda Zarah"


"They would burn your books"

"So that means you should burn theirs? Leviticus 19:18 - Love your neighbor as yourself. If you don't want them to do that to you, don't do it to them".

An astounding exchange. Burning books reminds me of what was done to us so often in our history. As if in recognition of how much faith and strength we find in our texts, the burning or our texts is an assault on our faith and identity. And whilst I might not share a faith with a Greek Orthodox monk, the last thing I want to do is attack it, or him.

Of course, I don't think these men represented anything other than a bunch of brutes, similar to those that I have found in the US and UK. I placed the book inside the gate on a ledge (hopefully out of the two men's reach) and walked away.

But the one line I wish I would have had to mind was a line in Almansor, a play by Heinrich Heine written in 1821:

"Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings."

How true.