Remember Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street journalist beheaded by terrorists? Well Dad is back in the news. The recipient of multiple awards including the prestigious Turing Award (that’s like the Nobel Prize in Computing), Judea has just renounced his status as a distinguished alumnus of New York University, after the institution conferred its President’s Service Award to the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). His reason: “This decision renders other NYU awards empty of content. SJP resorts to intimidation…”
NUY is hardly alone. Let’s start with Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). This week-long event now occurs on 37 U.S. campuses. Funded mostly by the schools themselves (like Harvard) it promotes BDS and paints Israel as a colonialist apartheid regime. As the Israeli government is out of their reach, Jews on American campuses make a convenient target. IAW does not seek discussion, only disruption; not information, but intimidation. It’s all about attacking Jews because of their Jewishness. Could you imagine in today’s climate, any other school-sanctioned event in which a minority is singled out for harassment? Could Jewish students stand outside Muslim cultural centers chanting taunts?
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is rising and is even respectable. We live in an Orwellian society where hatred is harbored and given a safe haven. At Emory University, Students for Justice in Palestine put up fake eviction notices on the doors of Jewish students talking about ethnic cleansing. Jewish students speak of their fear when they hear the speakers’ angry voices amplified and the crowd’s reaction. Jewish professors are equally terrified. “My heart beats fast and I’m scared,” said a Columbia faculty member. “I avoid the main campus. I am scared as a Jew.”
This oldest of hatreds is reappearing everywhere. Over Easter, Polish children beat a Jewish looking straw-filled effigy with a large nose and side-locks. In Moscow, a Yeshiva was set on fire and ‘decorated’ with swastikas. These are not isolated events. All across Europe antisemitism is rising. France reports a 74% rise in offences and Germany sees a 60% surge in violent attacks. America is not immune. Signs with swastikas are appearing at Bernie Sanders’ rallies.
Perhaps, the world is transfixed by bigger problems, like the Sri Lankan attacks or the burning of the Notre Dame. So let’s focus on Paris. Notre Dame provides a snapshot of life eight centuries ago. When it was built, the vast majority were illiterate, so many of the friezes, statues and stained glass windows were also ‘educational’ meant to impart messages to the Christians. Not surprisingly, some of its most prominent artwork concerned Jews.
The Lateran Council in 1215 forced Jews to wear ridiculous clothes including tall pointy hats that marked them as different. We know because their likenesses have adorned the Cathedral for 800 years. Two other prominent statues on the church’s façade capture the sentiment of that time. One woman stands ragged, her head bowed, her eyes covered by a snake. She holds a broken scepter and the Tablets of Jewish law are slipping from her grasp. Under her feet lies a crown trodden into the dust: she is Synagoga, representing Judaism. On her left is a finely dressed woman standing upright, carrying a chalice and a staff with a cross, triumphant. She is Ecclesia, representing the victorious Catholic Church who wanted all those entering Notre Dame to believe that Judaism was humiliated and finished.
In 1239, Pope Gregory charged the Talmud of anti-Christian heresy. On March 3, 1240, church officials burst into French synagogues. It was Shabbat and synagogues were full. France’s helpless Jews watched their holy volumes being confiscated. King Louis placed the Talmud on ‘trial’. On June 17, 1242, twenty-four wagons piled high with all known, hand-written copies of the Talmud in France were brought to Paris’ Place de Greve, next to Notre Dame. There, they were publicly burned.
As officials survey the Notre Dame wreckage, the front facade seems largely intact. These artistic treasures depicting Jewish fate then still teaches us about Jewish fate now: Torah’s indispensable role to Jewish existence. Consider how much effort Jew-haters put into destroying our literature. They had this acute feeling that if you could just destroy the Torah, the people would follow suit. Actually, they were on to something! They made, however, one vital mistake.
One set of Talmud is 60 tractates consisting of 2,300 pages. Imagine, 24 wagonloads of Talmuds! That’s between 10,000 to 12,000 volumes! As the Notre Dame was being fashioned sculpture by sculpture to celebrate the Church, the French king sought to destroy Judaism, right near his splendid Cathedral. This was supposed to be the nail in our coffin.
But what happened after is the stuff of legend. Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris, one of four Rabbis who defended the Talmud on trial, gathered 300 students and taught them the entire Talmud from memory, which they recorded! Others build spires, we inspire students.
This idea was best captured by the 2nd century sage. Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon. In defiance of Rome, he publicly taught Torah. The Romans caught him, wrapped him in a Torah scroll and branches while wet wool was placed over Rabbi Chanina’s heart. They wanted his death to be slow and painful.
As the flames scorched his holy body, Rabbi Chanina shared a lasting image. “I see the parchment burning, but the letters are taking flight!” The parchments of the Jewish people may be destroyed, but the letters of the Jewish spirit are soaring. They never die. They endure and are transplanted into new places and new times
Today, Jews still study the very text burnt near the Notre Dame. The Germans also burnt books, 100 million of them. They were determined to destroy every last Jewish parchment. But their letters have soared! Their message, values, dreams, loves and traditions continue to live….in us.