Lovers of Books

Pekudei By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 11, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

In my office hangs a haunting painting (courtesy of the Jewish Museum) by the immigrant artist Moses Soyer. Done in 1934, the painting bears the name “The Lover of Books” and consists of a full length portrait of a smallish, elderly and shabbily dressed man with a large book under his left arm. It could well be a tribute to Soyer’s father who in Russia had been a maskil, a purveyor of Jewish and general culture in Hebrew. The bust on the bookcase in the background suggests a man of broad horizons, though quintessentially Jewish in appearance. The dark shades of the painting and the contrast between the sturdy tome and the fragile figure convey not only a sense of precariousness, but also the power of the book. Love of learning holds the key to the mystery of Jewish survival. What finer emblem could there be to the mission of the Seminary than Soyer’s evocative work!

It also points for me to a rare Hebrew word which appears in this week’s haftarah, “devir.” In its scriptural context the word refers to a piece of sacred space, the corner of Solomon’s Temple rendered especially holy by the Ark and its contents. “The priests brought the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant to its place underneath the wings of the cherubim, in the Shrine (devir) of the House, in the Holy of Holies…. There was nothing inside the Ark but the two tablets of stone which Moses placed there at Horeb… (I Kings 8:6, 9).”

Our haftarah is a well chosen sequel to the parashah. If the latter describes the final erection of Moses’s mobile Tabernacle, then the former shifts our focus to the dedication of Solomon’s Temple nearly 500 years later. The continuity between them is the numinous presence of the Ark from which emanated in oracular fashion God’s will. But “devir,” though sharing the same consonants as “daber“–to speak,” is not an oracle. Rather, on the basis of an Arabic cognate, it carries the meaning of the innermost chamber at the rear of Solomon’s Temple. The Torah, in fact, avoids the word altogether, preferring the term Holy of Holies (kodesh ha-kodashim) for the space sanctified by the Ark (Exodus 26:33-34).

In any event, with the destruction of the Second Temple, the word “devir” should have slipped out of usage, at best a verbal shard of a distant memory. (It still appears in the daily Amidah and Maoz Zur). But in the context of a talmudic discussion, which may reflect Jewish practice in early synagogues without a permanent niche for the Torah scroll, where it was still brought in from outside to read, the Rabbis extended the word “devir” to mean book (B.T. Avodah Zarah 24b; Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue, pp. 328-30). After all, it had always been the written word that imbued the Ark with its potency. Nevertheless, a small stretch of momentous significance!

Not that “devir” would ever replace “sefer” as the common Hebrew word for book. But the redefinition of the word did encapsulate the history of Judaism. The fact is that taking refuge in a sacred book became the repeated response to national catastrophe. Thus, the book of Deuteronomy, inspired by ideas from the north, appears in Jerusalem a century after the destruction of Samaria in 722 B.C.E. The Torah takes final form in the Babylonian exile after Solomon’s Temple goes up in flames in 587 B.C.E., as does the entirety of Hebrew Scripture, the Tanakh, in the wake of the razing of Herod’s Temple in 70 C.E. Nor is it implausible to regard the Mishnah edited around 200 as yet another instance of literary reaction to military defeat, this time the futile Bar Kochba revolt against Rome that ended calamitously in 135.

As Judaism lost control of its sacred space, it increasingly expressed its sense of the holy in terms of a book, and it is that transformation that endowed it with the capacity to overcome the fate of exile. The sacred was now portable. God’s presence assumed the form of the written word to be read publicly or studied privately anywhere. Without Scripture, the institution of the synagogue is inconceivable.

Moreover, a book is far less vulnerable than a Temple. Its destruction is not the end of its contents. According to the Talmud, when Moses broke the tablets, the letters of the Ten Commandments returned to heaven for another time (B.T. Pesahim 87b). The burning of the Talmud by the Church in Paris in 1242 and in Italy in 1553 made its study more difficult, but surely did not thwart it. In the fifteenth century Jews swiftly embraced the invention of printing in order to multiply copies of their sacred books.

Finally, sanctity in book form bears the seeds of democracy, especially when translated into the vernacular and made the content of public discourse. No longer the preserve of priests or susceptible to ritual pollution, Torah, Tanakh and Talmud were accessible to all. The commandment to study was seen as the obligation of every male Jew (expanded in our day to every Jew) and leadership became a function of learning.

By the time that early Islam begrudgingly came to tolerate Jews as “people of the Book,” the shift from sacred place to sacred book had long been achieved. But it did put a premium on literacy and education. The power of the book works only if its contents reach the hearts and minds of those who venerate it. Jewish law requires every community to found an elementary school and invests the talmudical academy with a higher degree of holiness than the synagogue. It was not for naught that in 1921 poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik named his new Hebrew publishing company in Berlin Devir. In an age of expanding opportunities and weakening communal constraints, it was more urgent than ever that Jewish culture be inculcated and internalized to effect a Judaism without walls. And thirteen years later in a different medium, Soyer proffered the same truth: the secret to physical continuity in a disordered world is self-transcendence through the inner life.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on P’kudey are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.