Traverse City Record-Eagle


September 18, 2010

Perspectives: What is point of burning holy text?

I wish I could say my people never burned the holy books of others; but I would be wrong.

There have been incidents when the extremists within Orthodox Judaism burned the New Testament after missionaries distributed a large number of them in an orthodox village in Israel. In this situation, the missionaries were wrong to foist their holy books on the orthodox Jews; and the orthodox Jews were wrong in burning the books.

Both peoples showed a lack of respect for the other and debased their own beliefs in the process.

I am not aware of any passage in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament or Quran that supports the burning of anyone's holy book. There are passages in the Hebrew Bible that talk about destroying the holy shrines of a conquered people, but that was considered timely only when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan.

In today's world it would not be encouraged or tolerated.

I am aware of a minority within a minority that captures the public eye and makes fodder for sensational reporting — and in the process debases the very religion it purports to represent. Every Western religious group has a few outspoken public figures who, if they are honest, would admit they represent themselves and their opportunistic attitudes first and then, secondarily, their religious denomination's beliefs and values.

The burning of holy texts is demoralizing and debasing; more so to those who suggest or participate in the act than to those whose holy writ is turned to ash. There have been too many times in history when the church sponsored the burning of Jewish holy books and sacred texts. (The church has apologized for its past weakness.) Hitler, too, supported such blatant stupidity.

Fire has its constructive and destructive uses. People of different beliefs and faiths may sit around a fire circle and discuss their shared and unique beliefs and fears. They may also choose to bask in their ignorance and to create fires that that consume books and the innermost goodness of those who bask in the light of the deadening fire.

To say that we live in frightening and dangerous times is to overstate the obvious. To think that denying and attempting to obliterate the essence of the other, of his faith or her religious practices by burning the holy writ is to admit how frightened and impotent some feel. And I still wonder: After the flames die down and the ash settles will those who lit the match and danced in its glow feel any more secure? Will they be inclined to seek an understanding of the other, or will ignorance and fear continue to rule their lives?

Albert Micah Lewis is rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Traverse City. His latest book is "Soul Sounds, Reflections on Life."

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