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Modern Judaism 22.3 (2002) 213-233

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Where They Burn Books . . .

Stephen J. Whitfield

There is a specter haunting Jewish history: the burning of books. The writings of a people often described as logocentric have been especially vulnerable to fiery destruction, as though those pyres were a way of striking at the very existence of the Jews. The frequency with which the horror and the fear of burned books punctuate Jewish history can be discerned as a distinctive pattern of the Diaspora. For over two millennia, the books of this people have been deliberately burned by their enemies, who seized upon a way to inflict special and distinctive pain. To wish this people ill was often expressed by incriminating, desecrating, and incinerating the books that Jews studied and cherished. To set their sacred texts on fire was a way of accelerating the disappearance or extinction of those who read such works out of existential and theological compulsion. The aim of this essay is to suggest how intimate the connection has been between harming the Jews and destroying their books.

That connection was made in apodictic fashion in Almansor, which Heinrich Heine wrote between 1820 and 1822. No Jewish characters appear in this play, nor does it mention Judaism. Set in the sixteenth century, Heine's play addresses the victory that Ferdinand and Isabella had imposed upon over the Moors of Spain. Among the Moors is Hassan, a servant who refuses to compromise or to abandon his ancient Muslim faith. He transforms the public burning of the Koran in Granada into a terrifying prophecy: "Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort, wo man Bücher Verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen." 1 (That was only a prelude. Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.)

The playwright did not rely on his imaginative powers alone. In his homeland anti-Semitic riots had erupted as recently as 1819 and, after the Napoleonic Wars, German student activists showed hatred of the Jews. They were charged with cosmopolitanism, with favoring Napoleon and the French invaders, and with shirking military duty in the Prussian army. The Burschenschaften (national student leagues) wanted to expel Jewish students from the universities entirely. On October 19, 1817, at the Wartburg Festival, young nationalists hurled two dozen books onto a bonfire and shouted: "Woe unto the Jews!" One student [End Page 213] speaker wanted the world to "know what is to be expected from us in the future." 2 From the Wartburg Festival Heine might well have had a premonition of the terrible fragility of reason. Certainly no one was more acutely aware of what one particular book had meant for Jews. In Heine's fragmentary novel, Leaves from the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski, Little Samson calls the Bible "the written fatherland [das aufgeschriebene Vaterland] of the children of God; it is our sacred inheritance from Jehovah." His "ancestors carried it about with them all over the world; they endured much grief, misfortune, disgrace, and hatred on its behalf." In his portrait of Ludwig Börne, Heine added that "a book is their fatherland, their property, their ruler, their good and evil fortune. . . . Engrossed in this book they noticed little of the changes that took place in the real world around them." Their Bible was "a portable fatherland," 3 though Heine also called the German language itself the homeland of all those whom anti-Semitic patriots were denying the full rights of citizenship. 4

Such exaltation of the Bible—and the grief that devotion to it had caused his ancestors—was more applicable to the Talmud. The Hebrew Bible had, after all, been incorporated into the Christian canon, and the enemies of the Jews largely left the Old Testament alone. But the Talmud was a tempting target: it was uniquely Jewish. It was also mysterious and esoteric. Neither in Latin nor in Greek, the Talmud could appear sinister in the secrecy of its teachings and rulings. 5 Still, however misplaced was Heine's emphasis on the enmity the Bible aroused, he was right to underscore the extreme bookishness of...


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