Jews Are NOT People of the Book

Despite being huge consumers of literature, building a millennia-long history on ideas contained in books, and often referring to ourselves as The People of the Book, it turns out not to be true. In fact, the term "People of the Book" is, as far as I can tell, originally a Koranic term - Ahl al Kitab. Not, as Jerry Seinfeld used to say, that there is anything wrong with that.

People of the Book refers to those whom the prophet Muhammad taught were followers of a sacred literature that although not fully Islamic, was not inherently problematic or contradictory to his own teachings. Those originally included in the term were Jews, Christians, Sabians and Magians.

The idea that this was ever a popular way for Jews to identify themselves, at least until relatively recently, is simply wrong. And there is a very good reason for it. Simply put, Jews, at least for at least the first 1,800 or so years of their history were not people of the book, but people of the scroll, which is no small thing.

To be sure, books as we know them i.e. bound volumes are relative newcomers on the literary scene, not gaining real popularity until the 5th century, and even later among Jews. Why that is, and what it means to value scrolls over books, offers a powerful commentary on Jewish wisdom, and is especially timely this week.

Thursday night, September 26, the holiday of Simkhat Torah begins. This is the day on which Jews celebrate completing the annual reading of the Torah, or first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and begin the new cycle all over again. Like the Torah scroll itself - arguably the single most sacred object in Jewish tradition -- the holiday is celebrated such that the ending and the beginning run right into one another.

Unlike a book, which not only has a clear beginning and ending, a scroll just keeps turning. Unlike a book, which must be broken in order to add to it, a scroll simply needs a bit more parchment, a needle and some thread. And in those differences, a huge statement is being made.

There is a fluidity and flexibility to scrolls, which books simply do not have. There is remarkable power in telling ourselves and others, that that which is most sacred is also fundamentally open and expandable. There is a lesson to anybody who reveres any tradition in the necessity of holding onto to both the parts of your tradition that are fixed absolutely, AND the fact that nothing is really stable forever.

As the world continues to be filled with religious violence devoted to the supposed defense of that which is supposed to be absolute, and also with those who feel that things are so open, that nothing is sacred, it feels like we need Simkhat Torah more than ever. And if it is not through that particular holiday, no problem, just find a way that works for you - a way that embraces both that which feels non-negotiable and set forever, and the idea that those things most sacred must also invite ongoing conversation and adaptation.

I love celebrating that I am part of a people of the scroll, and invite you to apply that approach to whatever is most sacred to you.