In a particularly graphic moment, one of the instructions received in our weekly reading is "...to destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site" (Deuteronomy 12:2-3). This is a clear directive to destroy all the sites at which the native Canaanites worshipped throughout the sacred Land of Israel.
The severity of the decree reflects a fear that Israelites would revert to the old, traditional polytheism that was so commonly practiced all around them. "Remove all temptation," it seems to say. Today we tend to find this charge problematic because we feel that we have no right to impose our worldview on those around us. Do these verses from the Torah sound like an edict issued by the Taliban or ISIS to kill "infidels" and destroy ancient sites of worship? Perhaps we can feel better about this command knowing that the rule applied only within the Land of Israel, a small area allotted to the Israelites by God, who demanded that nothing else be the object of their veneration.
While the Israelites were commanded to destroy idolatrous religious sites within the Land of Israel, they were forbidden from doing so elsewhere or from imposing their religious worldview on other peoples (see Deuteronomy 2:1-9, for example). This is one of the reasons that Judaism has not been a missionary religion. Many other reasons may be added, including the Jewish position that divine reward and punishment are not meted out on the basis of faith or belief, but only on the basis of behavior. According to Jewish tradition, faith does not bring salvation, so trying to convince people to believe in a particular manner has little meaning. What is of real importance in our tradition is not so much what one believes as how one behaves. One cannot legislate belief, but one is obligated to legislate behavior.
The line that follows these difficult verses is very short. After a long oration about obliterating idolatrous sites of worship appear the words, "Do not worship the Eternal your God in like manner" (Deuteronomy 12:4). The language here is a bit perplexing. It seems more than obvious that the worship of the Eternal would not include the destruction of God's altars. So our Sages read the negative commandment as a reference only to the last phrase of the preceding verses: "obliterating their name," v'ibad'tem et-sh'mam. From this comes the requirement not to obliterate the name of God.
It is forbidden, according to Jewish law and tradition to erase or destroy God's name. But God's name is written repeatedly in Torah scrolls and printed in the Bible, prayer books, and often on contracts (including wedding contracts) and other important legal documents to ensure that the parties take them seriously. So what should we do when prayer books and Bibles get worn out and need to be replaced? What should we do to the old ones that can no longer be used?
They are not to be destroyed because their destruction would include obliterating God's name that appears in them. So it has been the practice among Jews to collect such books and documents until a large number has been collected, after which they are properly buried in a Jewish cemetery.
The place in which such documents are kept until burial is called in Hebrew beit genizah or simply, genizah. The word means "storing," "hiding," or "covering" (in its Arabic form, janaza, it actually means "burial"). It has been the custom for literally thousands of years for Jewish communities to lovingly collect and retain their unusable sacred books and documents until they could be buried. After Jews stopped speaking Hebrew on a regular basis, the Hebrew alphabet took on such a level of sanctity that some communities carefully stored up all Hebrew documents after they were no longer useful, until they could be buried.
Although Hebrew was not usually spoken locally, it became the universal language of Jews from Spain to China in the Middle Ages. And since Jews traded with one another throughout the world, sending furs from France to the Middle East, silk from China and hardened steel from the Middle East to Europe, and spices from India to North Africa, personal correspondence, commercial letters, shopping lists and bills of lading, and even love letters were written in Hebrew. When they were no longer of use or began to fade, these writings would be collected and put in the community genizah until they could be disposed of with reverence.
In some special cases, however, documents were collected but never buried. This happened in the famous Cairo Genizah, a storeroom in an ancient synagogue where some 300,000 manuscripts and fragments spanning over a thousand years were discovered at the end of the 19th century. A deep and abiding religious respect for the written word seems to have influenced Jews in Cairo and some other places to save all forms of writing, so the Cairo Geniza also contains documents written in other languages in addition to Hebrew, including Arabic and Aramaic. As a result, we know more about life in the medieval Mediterranean world — and not only Jewish life — from the Cairo Geniza than from any other source.
Every once in a while, a new cache of such valuable manuscripts turns up. Most recently, a trove of Jewish manuscripts in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, and Judeo-Persian was recovered from caves in a Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan. Some of those writings go back a thousand years, as far as the 11th century, providing information about thriving Jewish communities in Persia and Central Asia. More than two dozen have recently been acquired by the Israel National Library, but hundreds more are believed to be in the hands of antiquities dealers who may have purchased them from members of the Taliban.
The Jews are People of the Book. We read our sacred books regularly in synagogue and study them reverently in many ways, including through services like this one that you received from the URJ. Jews have developed a deep and abiding reverence for the written word, and this reverence has helped us to survive and thrive as a people. It seems that as much as we have labored to preserve our ancient texts, they have also helped to preserve us.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and Senior Fellow in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He is the outgoing president of the International Qur'anic Studies Association and author, most recently of Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford, 2012).