The Central Library of Brooklyn recently started a program through which books that have been banned in other cities and states across the country are available electronically to young readers anywhere at no charge. It’s no surprise, really. Since the 1950’s, the American Library Association is on record as saying that the freedom to read is essential to democracy. Yay, librarians!!
In the Jewish tradition, we believe in reading texts – the easy ones and the challenging ones – over and over again. This week, in synagogues around the world, we are once again reading the Book of Deuteronomy – Moses’ farewell tour.
The Hebrew name for the fifth book of the Torah, D’varim, means “words.” The Hebrew method of naming books is to choose this first distinctive word in the book itself. Having a book with such a title ought to be enough to remind us that it is our job to share words – and not to hide them. However, the book’s other names are even more convincing.
The traditional rabbinic name for the fifth book of the Torah is the Mishneh Torah (see Deut. 17:18), which could be translated as “A Copy of the Torah” or “the Second Torah.” In fact, the name Deuteronomy is a Greek translation of Mishneh Torah, because Moses was actually retelling stories that we readers have already read in the books of Exodus and Numbers. According to some ancient rabbinic interpretations, the fifth book of the Torah was Moses’ repetition of the entire Torah and all of its laws.
As one reads more of the Book of D’varim, however, it becomes apparent that Moses introduced several laws, which do not appear elsewhere in the Bible such as the laws of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4).
Ramban (a/k/a Nachmanides), a 13th-century Spanish rabbi and Biblical commentator, solved this problem by saying that God told Moses these laws earlier and Moses simply waited before telling the Israelites. Rabbi Neil Gillman, who was a Professor of Theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary until 2009 (and my teacher!), solved this problem by saying that every time we tell a story, we tell it slightly differently.
When, we combine these two approaches, we understand the importance of reading texts and telling stories over and over again. We remember things that we might have forgotten to include, and we add our voices to the story. So, again, it’s no surprise that librarians – who have taken on the responsibility of preserving texts and stories for all of us – would make sure that no one gets to stop the telling of our stories.
Now, tell me again….