In the Qur’an Jews are compared to a “donkey laden with books” (Surah 62). The idea, clearly derogatory, is that while Jews carry the sacred Torah from place to place, when it comes to understanding her we are as illiterate as a donkey.
Derogatory or not, this isn’t that far off the mark. But illiteracy regarding holy books isn’t limited to Jews. I was speaking to an Imam the other day, and he used the same analogy to refer to Muslims: they revere the Qur’an as holy, but have no idea how to understand it. Donkeys one and all.
I’m thinking about this as I fly to Houston to speak at the city’s 40th Annual Jewish Book Fair. My assigned topic is my new book, out this month: Amazing Chesed, living a grace-filled Judaism. But what really excites me is the very existence of Jewish book fairs.
I am proud to be associated with a people devoted to books. Yes, our knowledge of Torah may be limited, but our love of books is not. And yes, our love of books may become anachronistic as humanity takes to post-modern cave painting via HD televisions and iPads, but one medium doesn’t preclude the other, and I take pride in being the donkey bearing the books for a world where emotion–driven video drives out rationale discourse and the books upon it depends.
When I was a kid growing up in an Orthodox shul I stood in awe as the Torah Scroll snaked her way to where I was standing with my father and Zayde (grandfather) so I could stretch out my arm and touch the cover with the tzitzit (fringes) of my tallit (prayer shawl) and bring those holy threads to my lips. In my adolescence I found this fetishizing annoying, but as I grew older I reclaimed the magic and added to it the knowledge that in addition to honoring the Story of my People I was honoring the magic of writing and the printed page as well.
I don’t care how many monkeys you have, or how many typewriters you give them, they will never—even in the fullness of eternity—create the oeuvre of Shakespeare. Chances are they won’t even tap out a close approximation of Planet of the Apes. Only we humans can do that, and as our ability to tell stories moves beyond the printed word, I revel in being a donkey (and the son of donkey and the grandson of a donkey and the great grand son of a donkey and—Halleluyah!—the father of a donkey) all of whom carry literacy and the word on our backs.
So tonight I plan to thank the sponsors of Houston’s 40th Annual Jewish Book Fair for inviting me, but more importantly for keeping alive the link between Jews and books that is one of our greatest gifts to humankind.