Books for Justice & Justice for Books: Commentary on Purim 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
The public reading of the Scroll of Esther each Purim when I was a rabbinical student entailed far more than waiting to boo and to shake groggers to drown out the sound of Haman’s name. The congregation would chant special verses highlighting Esther’s heroism and would greet the name of Haman’s spouse Zeresh (זֶרֶשׁ) with hisses. We neighed at every mention of horses, and our readers would read different characters’ lines in exaggerated voices. Upon mentioning in Esther 4:1 that Mordecai dressed in sak (שַׂק, literally “sack-cloth”) (now-Rabbi) Yonina Creditor would hold up a large sock, and, whenever the narrator would share that a character would speak belibbo (“quietly” or, literally, “in their heart”) Rabbi Bill Lebeau would stand and wave. The puns were next-level, and the text held our utmost attention. In turn, many of us held our books high in the air when in Esther 9:20, we learn that Mordecai (and perhaps someone else in 9:30) “וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים אֶל־כׇּל־הַיְּהוּדִים” (vayyishlach sefarim el kol hayyehudim, “sent books to all the Jews”).
Books are living entities among the Jewish people. Two millennia ago, the first generation of rabbis sought to prevent us from bringing anything other than ourselves outside of our private domains on Shabbat. Still, these sages permitted us on Shabbat to do whatever it took to rescue holy books from an impending fire (Mishnah, Shabbat 15:1). Saving books meant saving Jewish souls—saving the soul of Judaism.
Each day, we make conscious decisions to take sacred actions, to love God and our neighbors, and to yearn for the betterment of the universe. Books, however, do not make or require these conscious decisions. Books forever preserve moments in time as their words remain unchanged and committed to their values already imprinted on their pages. Jewish books sit for us, waiting to share with their readers Jewish stories, thoughts, meditations, prayers, traditions, poems, songs, and images. The books are ready for us at any moment—even when their owners are sleeping. Though far too many books on my shelves lie dormant, even just reading the titles on the spines activates a whole conjuring of images in my mind, reminding me each day how much more there always is to learn.
Inasmuch as the diversity and the multifaceted soul of the Jewish people rests in our libraries, Jews in 2023 are witness to the 131-year-old bibliographic miracle that is the National Library of Israel. The Library’s rich history long precedes the founding of the State of Israel, and the Library’s mission has long aimed for two high targets: to secure and to make accessible all published Jewish content and—Jewish or not—all content published in Israel itself. The National Library of Israel houses the largest collection of Jewish books in the world, and scholars from all over the globe visit and consult with the National Library for research pertaining to any variety of subject.
Although I do not live in Israel, I do fear that ongoing ad hominem political attacks have suddenly and quietly threatened the stability of the National Library. At the time of this writing, the events leading to this moment have been more covered in Hebrew-language media than in the English press. In this time when the ruling coalition in the Israeli government seeks to overhaul the country’s judicial branch, there still loom proposals for further major cultural reformations—including undoing the independence of the National Library. Israel’s Education Minister, Member of Knesset Yoav Kisch, has proposed that the Israeli government, which currently owns 50% of the National Library, should allocate to itself a majority in appointing members of the Library’s Board of Trustees. Indeed, the authority to appoint new management for the National Library rests with that same Board of Trustees. Shai Nitzan—who served as Israel’s Attorney General from 2013 until 2019 and oversaw proceedings related to corruption charges levied against then- and now-again Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—now serves the National Library as its Rector. Critics of Nitzan in this role often allege that the Rector position, created in 2021 and filled first by Nitzan, was established to divert attention away from David Bloomberg, who left his Chairmanship of the Library in 2022 after the reporting of a scandal linked to him. Kisch’s own critiques (published with more exclamation marks than I expected to find on official government letterhead), surround the lack of transparency in the search process that preceded Nitzan’s appointment and the question of whether Nitzan was ever qualified for this role.
As an outsider with the hopes that management of the National Library be performed by someone qualified for and capable in the position—I am somewhat baffled by the focus now placed on the management of the Library. Because Kisch, Nitzan, and Bloomberg were not trained as librarians or higher education administrators prior to any of their appointments, questions regarding “qualifications” do not appear to me to be truly at the heart of the controversy. I have rarely been privy to the selection processes or qualifications of the people who have managed the libraries in my life. So too I suspect few non-librarians have previously been concerned about these issues at the National Library of Israel. I therefore doubt that the attacks on Nitzan emerge from the murkiness of the job search alone. I do wonder however: Could a politician who distrusts both the justice system and a dedicated veteran of the justice system, such as Nitzan, feel threatened by an intellectual culture that might value the court system as a noble effort? As a Zionist who has long dreamed of one day retiring and moving to Israel (especially so I can study in my favorite room in the world, the Gershom Scholem Library in the National Library)—even hypothesizing any of these levels of deception in Israel both depresses and embarrasses me.
As a Jew, as an American, and as someone who believes in democracy, I have long cherished freedom of information. I perhaps have taken the public library and university library systems for granted, and I have rarely questioned the integrity of any library. Quite frankly, the same has largely been the case for my own relationship with the judicial system in my native United States and my spiritual homeland, Israel. Although courts make mistakes, and lawmakers err, I am grateful that the democracies I most cherish have thrived with systems of checks and balances—ensuring that neither one individual nor one collective be the sole voice of law and morality. Though democracy is not wholly native to Judaism, as Rabbi Dr. David Golinkin recently noted, Jewish civilizations have most thrived when systems of checks and balances have been upheld. Because I love Israel, because I love Judaism, because I love democracy, and because I love study and studying God’s ways of lovingkindness—I hope that there will be a better fate than what has been proposed for the leadership, if not the direction, of the National Library of Israel.
On the subject of books for all Jews—one cannot help but wonder how many times our ancestors tried to pen the final word in the Scroll of Esther. The short tenth (and final) chapter of the Book reads as something of an epilogue to the story that ended in Esther 9:32, which itself—taken with the verse preceding it—may even feel like an epilogue to everything that led up to Esther 9:30, which ends with an important category of books. Whereas Esther 1:22 also references books—patriarchal books authored by the kingdom, decreeing that husbands be the rulers of their households—Esther 9:30 ends literally with words of peace and truth:
וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח סְפָרִ֜ים אֶל־כׇּל־הַיְּהוּדִ֗ים אֶל־שֶׁ֨בַע וְעֶשְׂרִ֤ים וּמֵאָה֙ מְדִינָ֔ה מַלְכ֖וּת אֲחַשְׁוֵר֑וֹשׁ דִּבְרֵ֥י שָׁל֖וֹם וֶאֱמֶֽת׃
[Somebody] sent books to all the Jews—to the 127 states the under the sovereignty of Achashverosh—words of peace and truth.
Confusing and bizarre as the Scroll of Esther (and how we read it) may be, the authorial hands responsible for the Scroll of Esther knew that, ultimately, the point of books should not be about political hierarchies and deceptions. Good books—holy books—yield peace and spread truth. That is holy bookkeeping.
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