In My Own Words: Book burning

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

On June 17, 1242, King Louis IX and Pope Gregory IX ordered that every copy of the Talmud on French soil be burned. The reason for this destruction was that the work contained sayings and sentiments they believed were offensive. Since this was before the printing press, the volumes sacrificed to the fire had been hand-written; all future copies of the Talmud were censored to remove the objectionable parts. 

Anyone familiar with Jewish history should shudder when they hear of book burnings. I’m betting, though, that most don’t associate book burnings with 15th century France. What they do think of is Nazi Germany and the burning of books by Jewish authors and others whose ideas the Nazis found offensive. Book burning is thought to be the first step in a long, dark descent into increased censorship and repression. Although that doesn’t always happen, reading about book burnings rightly makes most of us nervous. 

Why am I writing about book burnings? Some of you may have seen the following headline on or other news sites: “Virginia school board members call for books to be burned amid GOP’s campaign against schools teaching about race and sexuality.” School board members are not only calling for works they find offensive to be removed from library shelves. That in itself is bad enough. But they not only don’t want their children to read them, they want to physically destroy them so that no one can ever read them.

There seem to be several objections to the books the board members want destroyed. Several of these works include LGBTQ+ characters. Perhaps they fear their children might explore their own sexuality and decide they aren’t straight. Or perhaps they worry that their children won’t mind if others make different lifestyle choices, which the board members see as undermining societal values. 

They also seem upset about books that tell of the history of slavery in America, particularly noting how horrific those slaves were treated. The board members want to protect their children from uncomfortable notions and the idea that our country sometimes treated people unfairly and unkindly. However, what they end up doing is narrowing their children’s vision. They also refuse to see that America’s aspirations – its ideals – while wonderful have not always been fulfilled. That does not mean our country is evil: it means, like every other country in the world, there is always room for improvement. That is the American way. 

Before I started writing this column, I debated what to write in the opening paragraph. I thought about saying how I like to read books that offer me different worldviews, even if I disagree with them. I thought about mentioning that the Talmud includes minority opinions, ones that did not become law, but which continue to be studied for the lessons they teach. Another possibility was to mention that, when I used to subscribe to Rolling Stone magazine (several decades ago), there was a columnist with whom I radically disagreed: rather than suggesting that the magazine not publish him, I decided to simply not read his work anymore. Sometimes we can agree to disagree. 

What I cannot support is censorship and book burning. The reason that books get published (and TV shows and movies are produced, etc.) is because people buy those products. Don’t like a book? Don’t buy it. Think a TV show is vile? Don’t watch it. You can also write to the sponsors to say you won’t buy their products if they advertise on the show. That’s legitimate. But demanding that anything that makes anyone uncomfortable should be censored tells more about the people making those demands than it does about the objectionable work. 

There are parts of life that are, and should, make us uncomfortable. That includes parts of American history. There are types of sexuality we may not understand until they are explained. We don’t have to agree with them, because we are allowed to disagree with each other. That’s also the American way. But burning books? Threatening authors, writers, actors, etc.? That’s simply unacceptable.