Saving Books From the Fire

By Leon A. Morris

I recently was speaking with a prospective donor about our work of bringing rigorous and relevant Jewish study to all, irrespective of practice or affiliation, and enabling Jews of all perspectives to own the the texts and ideas of Jewish life. He is a thoughtful person, highly intellectual, and deeply committed to Jewish life. Though we have known each other for some time, this was my first “post-Trump” conversation with him. The terrain had changed. Essentially he said to me: It’s very “nice” you want people to study Rashi and Rambam, but the world is on fire right now. There are more urgent concerns than Jewish learning.

I was thinking of that challenge when we opened our Beit Midrash (study hall) this week to more than 60 students in the 45th year of our “Pardes Year Program.”

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 115 a and b, is a discussion about saving books from a fire on Shabbat. The question arises because in general it is forbidden to carry things from the private domain to the public domain on Shabbat. So, if your home is on fire, may you carry out your books? The Talmud’s answer, in short, is yes, you may carry out a book.

The Mishnah, which initiates this discussion, states: With regard to all sacred writings, one may rescue them from the fire on Shabbat, whether they are read in public, (e.g., Torah or Prophets scrolls), or whether they are not read in public, (e.g.,Writings scrolls). This ruling applies even though they were written in any foreign language.

One can only be moved by the rabbinic imagination and the priorities that it reveals. Your house is on fire, it’s Shabbat, and what immediately comes to mind is saving your books. There is a sense of imperative that words must be rescued from the fire. This is part of why our students come to to learn at Pardes, and why I came more than 20 years ago. We are undoubtedly the most broadly, secularly educated Jewish community in the history of the Jewish people, and also the most ignorant of Judaism and Jewish books than any generation of Jews who lived before us. In a counter-cultural move, students from diverse backgrounds come to Pardes to rescue these books from the fire.

Part of why the world is on fire is divisiveness and demonizing those with whom we disagree. The Beit Midrash, grounded in the value of makhloket l’shem shamayim (disagreement for the sake of heaven) is an antidote to that. The Beit Midrash encourages learning from people who are different from ourselves. As the world becomes increasingly extremist and fundamentalist, the Beit Midrash values chidush, new perspectives brought to bear on a text.

When the Gemarra takes up its discussion of the Mishnah about saving books on Shabbat, these later rabbis ask the perfect Talmudic question: What exactly constitutes a book?

“If there is enough to compile from it eighty-five complete letters as in the portion of: “And when the Ark traveled…” one rescues it from the fire, and if not one does not rescue it.

The minimum number of letters required to be considered a book for purposes of saving it from the fire is 85. The two verses Numbers 10:35-36 that describe the journey of the Ark of the Covenant become the paradigm for all books, and define what it means to be a book.

By inference, then, the book is a group of words that set us on a journey. A book is a collection of words that are in motion, words that are in the process of becoming something more. Books lead us forward. We save books from the fire we do so knowing that they will set us and our world in motion. They will help us in our process of becoming.

When we save books from the fire, we are saving ourselves and others as well. The activism and dedication needed for this moment in history, and displays of commitment to our highest values, need to be anchored in timeless ideas that matter. Our Jewish lives, even now, demand from us that we not simply cherry-pick pithy verses that provide window-dressing to our commitments, but rather that we allow the great ideas of Jewish life to emerge from our classic texts. This requires us to cultivate a generation that can read them and apply their eternal teachings to the larger world.

Rabbi Leon A. Morris is the president of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and the first alumnus to head the organization.