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Shuddering at burning Bibles

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America.<br />
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Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America.
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NEW YORK (JTA) – Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day – has come and gone. Together, Jews in North America and Israel joyously celebrated Israel’s 60 years of achievement and success. What Israel has accomplished in its short lifetime is a source of pride to all of us.

For six decades, Israel has distinguished itself as a bastion of freedom and democracy in a corner of the world where those values often are desecrated. It has been a haven of religious freedom and tolerance. It is worthy of note that Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists in the Jewish state are guaranteed by law the freedom to practice their religion openly. I am deeply proud of Israel.

But my feelings of pride are dampened by the distasteful behavior of Shas activists in Israel who burned copies of the Christian Bible, which they allege had been distributed by Christian missionaries. I certainly do not endorse missionizing activities in Israel, but the images of book-burning Jews makes me shudder. It is immoral for any Jew to act this way. For a religious Jew to do so is a chilul Hashem – a desecration of God’s name. Those Jews who burn books make a sham out of their personal piety.

I shudder at the irony of religious and committed Jews burning any books, whatever their content. Even if they do not remember the Holocaust, I do.

When German Nazi soldiers and civilians burned books in 1933, that action was widely condemned, especially by Jews. That act pained us to the core. For the People of the Book, the mere idea of burning a book is destructive. The act itself inflicts an indelible wound.

I shudder at the irony of Jews burning religious books. Whether the text is holy to Jews is irrelevant. The texts that were burned are holy to Christians. Imagine how any Jew would feel if non-Jews burned our sacred texts because they disagreed with them.

We Jews, whose ancestors have lived through the inquisitions, whose very essence was desecrated when Christians burned our treasured Talmud in European cities in the Middle Ages, know the tears that are shed when something holy to us is desecrated.

I shudder at the irony of book burning in Israel. Israel is more than a homeland for Jews. It is a light unto the nations. Israel must not permit revered rabbis who condone sin – much less those who encourage it – to go unchallenged. Israel must not permit misguided reactionaries to go unpunished, even if those misguided reactionaries, ironically enough, are the revered rabbis. Book burning in Israel is an attack on all that Israel stands for.

I shudder at the irony of silence. We know what happens when good people remain silent and evil edges out good. Israel and Jews throughout the world must condemn this atrocious behavior and take the bold and necessary steps to ensure that this one-time occurrence remains a singular nightmare.

(Rabbi Jerome Epstein is the executive vice president of United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism.)

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