When Books Are People, and People Books

For the past several years, Princeton University Press has been putting out a series of short “biographies” of “great religious books,” which include everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Song of Songs to the Lotus Sutra and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The books in the series describe the origins of the texts under consideration as well as the way they have been received and interpreted over the decades or centuries. Reviewing some of the Jewish-themed volumes, Shai Secunda considers the series’ underlying conceit:

Centuries before Paris became known as the City of Light, it was remembered by Jews as the city of flames, flames which consumed cartloads of Jewish manuscripts following the infamous trial of the Talmud (also known as the Disputation of Paris) in 1240. The burning of books, from the kingdom of France to Nazi Germany, is one of many kinds of outrages perpetrated upon the Jewish people throughout their history, yet it has inevitably been experienced as an unusually cruel punishment inflicted upon the body politic. . . . The [1240] conflagration of sacred books inspired a Hebrew lament that mourned the loss as if it were a real massacre of human lives.

The intimate interrelations between people and books are a remarkable feature of rabbinic society, where Jewish sages are recognizable by the title of their scholarly achievements. Thus, the pious Lithuanian rabbi Israel Meir Kagan is known by the name of his book on the laws of slander, Ḥafets Ḥayyim (“Desirer of Life”), and the Galician scholar Yehuda Heller Kahana goes by the name of  his work Kuntres ha-S’fekot (“Notebook of Uncertainties”). Observing a group of rabbis seated around a Sabbath table, the narrator in an S.Y. Agnon tale says, “They sat one next to the other like holy books in a book closet. What one contained the other lacked, and what one lacked the other contained.”

The flipside of this bibliophilic equation is just as true: books are (almost) people, too. When a prayer book or other sacred text falls, Jews lovingly kiss it like a child hurt at play. In the synagogue, Torah scrolls are dressed up in sumptuous garb and presented as kings who divide their time between the dignified repos of the ark and the jubilance of a royal procession. On the holiday of Simḥat Torah, the scrolls are lovingly embraced and twirled like partners at a ball. When they decay, they are buried alongside scholars who dedicated their lives to Torah study.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Books, Judaism, S. Y. Agnon, Simhat Torah


How America Sowed the Seeds of the Current Middle East Crisis in 2015

Analyzing the recent direct Iranian attack on Israel, and Israel’s security situation more generally, Michael Oren looks to the 2015 agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That, and President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal after Donald Trump left it, are in his view the source of the current crisis:

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Barack Obama’s singular foreign-policy achievement.

In order to achieve that result, the administration has repeatedly refused to punish Iran for its malign actions:

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran repeatedly to assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one.

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. . . . Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity.

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

Read more at Free Press

More about: Barack Obama, Gaza War 2023, Iran, Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy