Banned Books Week has come and is almost gone, but it presents an opportunity to discuss an issue that constantly engages us as Jewish and academic librarians: should we practice a limited form of self-censorship when it comes to publications that make us or our readers uncomfortable? Why should we buy and make accessible books that defame, deny, question and offend what we hold to be true and enduring?
Are there shared and value-driven guidelines that enable us to allow certain books an honorable re-entry into the Jewish cultural matrix?
Jewish books and books written by Jewish authors have been subjected to censorship by Christianity and Islam throughout their shared history, mostly on religious grounds. Books were burned, lines and paragraphs were erased, and public debates (also known as disputations) were initiated by the Church to denounce Biblical and Talmudic texts as heretical and blasphemous, and therefore unworthy of print. The result, more often than not, was not only “edited” editions of the Talmud, but also strong affirmations of Jewish beliefs by authors who responded by publishing and distributing their own arguments, or “apologetics”.
A lesser publicized practice however, is that of Jewish self-censorship. Rabbinic restrictions of reading are documented from the times of the “External Books” (ספרים חיצונים). These books, such as the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and the Aramaic translation of Job, and “books of the Minim” (probably referring to the books of the early Christians) were considered objectionable (Tosef., Shab. 13 (14):5).
In 1554, a rabbinic ordinance was adopted by a synod in Ferrara, Italy, establishing a system of internal control over the printing of Hebrew books. Fourteen rabbis representing the Italian Jews resolved that no Hebrew book be printed without the authorization of three recognized rabbis and the lay leaders of the nearest large community. The action in Ferrara was repeated in Padua in 1585; similar steps were taken by the Council of the Four Lands in Poland and the Jewish community of Frankfurt in 1603 and by the Sephardi community in Amsterdam in 1639.
In the past 400 years there have been a number of reasons for censorship within the Jewish community. Classic examples of a distinct prohibition were salacious and trivial publications such as Immanuel of Rome’s erotic מחברות , books that contained what were considered incorrect halakhic decisions and explications; books written or published by apostates such as Uriel Acosta and Baruch Spinoza; commentaries written by rabbis suspected of following false Messiahs; books printed on the Sabbath; and prayer books in which changes opposed by the rabbis were made by the editor or publisher were banned.
The banning of books was used as a weapon in ideological struggles in the Jewish community as well. There were objections to the study of philosophy for fear of misleading the masses and to the study of Kabbalah; books were banned in the fight against the Shabbateans, the Frankists, Ḥasidism, Haskalah, and the Reform movement. There were political considerations against political and cultural emancipation – the fear that assimilation and apostasy would come in their wake; Zionism, viewed by some rabbis as a dangerous ideology because of its secular aspects, resulted in efforts to control its publications.
In the past sixty years Jewish libraries were faced with decisions about including in their collections books written by Holocaust deniers, proponents of conspiracy theories such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The International Jew, and vocal anti-Zionists. Publications considered “heretical” by mainstream Jewish denominations such as books questioning the origins of Judaism and the scientific explications of Genesis have been added to the mix more recently.
The books displayed in our new exhibit come from our collection. They represent censored Jewish books that made Jewish readers uncomfortable throughout history – would YOU banish them from our library?