Some Jewish Rushdies [1]

News Item:

February 1989--The Iranian Muslim religious leadership declares its determination to assassinate British author Salman Rushdie for allegedly blaspheming the prophet Muhammad in his book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie begins a period of prolonged concealment.

Aside from the shock it has evoked among Westerners, the controversy surrounding the Ayatollah Khomeini's threats against Salman Rushdie has also tended to evoke a certain condescending smugness among members of other religions, as if to say "We are above such narrow-minded intolerance."

From the perspective of Jewish history I cannot think of a precedent for an author being put to death for his writings. Though blasphemy is undoubtedly a capital crime in Jewish law, as with other categories of capital offences the procedure was defined so narrowly as to make it virtually impossible to implement. The sort of in absentia sentence declared by Khomeini could not have been passed by a Jewish court.

Furthermore, Jews have tended to approach the heroes of their past with considerably more familiarity than is considered acceptable by Muslims. Traditional Midrashic literature has not refrained from criticizing biblical figures; and the sort of fun-poking that we encourage on Purim seems very alien to the straight-faced fundamentalism that characterizes the Islamic response.

Extraneous Works

Nonetheless, the notion of a banned book is not alien to Jewish tradition. In the course of our history, a variety of books have been declared religiously or morally unacceptable, and either forbidden for reading or consigned to destruction. The list is a fascinating one.

Talmudic literature speaks of a category of "extraneous" books (sefarim hitzoniyim), warning that those who read them will forfeit thereby their place in the World to Come. As an example of such "extraneous" works reference is made to the Book of Ben Sirah, a work composed in Hebrew around 180 B.C.E., very similar in spirit to the biblical Book of Proverbs.

In fact, the work is cited with some frequency in the Talmud, and it is hard to discern anything objectionable in it. Surprisingly, the same talmudic passage that bans Ben Sirah declares that the works of Homer, in spite of their obvious pagan character, may be read for pleasure.

The Book of Ben Sirah has been preserved in Greek translation (usually called Ecclesiasticus). It was Solomon Schechter's identification in 1896 of a manuscript fragment from Egypt as part of the Hebrew original of Ben Sirah that inspired him to recover the remains of the famous Cairo Genizah (a centuries-old repository of discarded Hebrew writings), one of the major landmarks in modern Jewish scholarship. Since then the Dead Sea Scrolls have furnished us with additional portions of this banned Hebrew masterpiece.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
Among the earliest works to be condemned by Jewish law were Christian scriptures, including the New Testament itself. Thus, the sages of Yavneh (around 90 C.E.) discuss the proper fate of the Gilyonim ("blank sheets") a derisive word-play on Evangelion: Should they be burned in their entirety, or ought the sacred names of God be removed beforehand? All the authorities are in agreement that the books themselves are to be destroyed.

As we move into the Middle Ages, we find that among the more distinguished Jewish authors of banned books was the great 12th century rabbi and philosopher, Moses Maimonides. Many of his contemporaries, especially in France, felt that his interpretation of Judaism in accordance with Aristotelian philosophy was too radical, and threatened to undermine traditional belief. Maimonides' opponents in France denounced the Guide to the Perplexed to the Church, which ordered copies to be burned in the public squares of Paris in 1233.

Poetic Works Forbidden

The reasons for banning a book were not confined to theological difficulties. Moral concerns also came into play.

For example, in describing the sort of reading that is appropriate for the Sabbath, the Shulhan Aruch forbids Jews to read the works of "Immanuel." The personage in question is not identified by the standard commentators, but is well known to students of Hebrew literature. He is indeed one of the most colourful Jewish figures of the Italian Renaissance, the poet Immanuel of Rome (1261-1330).

Immanuel, a contemporary of Dante, was a typical sort of bohemian poet, wandering about the Italian towns looking for part-time work (often as a synagogue secretary) or--better still--for generous patrons.

He was responsible for introducing the sonnet form into Hebrew poetry. He composed his own Hebrew tour of Heaven and Hell in the style of Dante's Divine Comedy. He also appears to have penned the earliest version of the Yigdal, the rhymed version of Maimonides' Thirteen Articles of Creed that has become one of the favourite hymns of the synagogue.

In a manner typical of his age, Immanuel had no qualms about mixing the sacred with the extremely profane. Much of his poetic output is downright lewd, going on, at sometimes tedious length, about his erotic conquests and graphic appreciations of female anatomy. In one sonnet he muses that, given the choice, he would prefer to be sent to Hell, because that is where all the beautiful women are to be found.

As noted, Jewish law as codified in the Shulchan Aruch has forbidden the reading of Immanuel's verse. The fact that such a prohibition was felt necessary does of course testify to Immanuel's popularity as reading material for leisurely Shabbat afternoons. To the best of my awareness however, no Jewish religious authority went so far as to order Immanuel's assassination.

Cultures and traditions are normally judged by the literary works that they have produced and honoured. Nonetheless, it is not entirely inappropriate to characterize them also by those works which they have banned and condemned.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: JS, March 31 1989.