Normally this space is reserved for the words of Rabbi Bassous. However, I hope he doesn’t mind this little intrusion.
The following are the words of Rabbi Elon Weintraub - a student at Yeshiva University. Elon grew in Etz Ahaim from a young child - at one time, our “youngest member”. All most all of those years were under Rabbi Bassous. Although the words are Rabbi Weintraub’s, his thinking and learning were formed under the tutelage of Rabbi Bassous
I was asked by Yitzchak Friedman to speak this Tishba Bav at the Beis about the qinna, שאלישרופהבאש, Ask After, O One Burned in Fire. It is a qinna I did not grow up say at Etz Ahaim, but one I know intimately well, as it is one of the most talked about elegies in the Ashkenazi Rite. Normally, I am terrible about recording speeches I have given, but I thought I would take a few moments as midday quickly approaches to attempt to preserve something of my thoughts and emotions on this day. What follows is roughly what I tried to convey.
For a long time, until the mid 1200s, we had a reprieve. I say that, and I know it sounds insane. We just read about the horrors following the destruction of the Temple. We talked at length about the Crusades and the gruesome events that followed. Yet, Christendom had left us a safe-haven. We might be persecuted as heretics, we might be murdered. But our retreat, our Torah always survived. Our enemies did not pay heed to what we were writing. There were probably two reasons for this. The first was that our books were written in tongues they didn’t speak, Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic. The second was that whatever a heretic and non-believer wrote was crass heresy by definition. You persecuted them for being a heretic. It didn’t matter what they wrote. It needed no examination, and that gave us a certain freedom of expression, which we took full advantage of.
Yet, around 1230, in French lands, that suddenly changed. The fight in France over the acceptability over the works of Maimonides in Southern France and in Provence became increasingly heated. And so it was that the Jewish Leaders of Montpelier had a bright idea. If they could convince the Inquisition, a brand new institution at the time, that the Guide and Yad were heresy, not because they contradicted Christianity, but because they contradicted universal truths about God, that they would then have a powerful ally in suppressing these works they considered the utmost danger. Thus, in late 1233, translated Latin portions of the Guide were sent to the Dominican Friars there who did indeed find these arguments convincing, and copies of Maimonides were put to the flame.
Not three years later, this spectacle perhaps inspired another Jew, the Christian convert Nicholas Donin, to approach the Inquisition and King Louis IX of France with a request to eradicate a second great Jewish work. He raised 35 different complaints against the Babylonian Talmud, among them that it mocks Jesus, that it contains obscenity, and that the Aggada and Midrash in it provide distorted and absurd readings of the Bible. He pointed out that the Bible is a holy Christian work as well as a Jewish one, and by distancing themselves from the written words, Jews deny themselves the truth. The Pope received his writings with favor, and the King granted Nicholas’s request to have all copies of the Talmud and commentaries seized and have the four leaders of the Jewish community be forced to stand in disputation against him.
Eventually, on a Friday in the summer of 1242 (Tammuz 5002 on the Jewish calendar), all seized Talmudic material, said to be 24 wagonloads in total, was ordered to be burnt in the streets of Paris.
This story is well-known and can be found in every elucidated Kinna book, and I wondered what I should specifically talk about. Should I talk about the role of informers in upsetting the Jewish community, and how the fear of them reverberates today? Should I talk about the harm of attacks on our own works, how even after the Talmud was burned as a result of what our leaders started, the shock wore off. There were further attacks and condemnations of Maimonides’s works and later the works of others. Should I mention that we did not learn?
Should I discuss the value of those 24 wagonloads, how hard it was to painstakingly write out a tractate by hand, and that was only possible if you could even find another copy of that tractate to use as the template. After 1242, that was just impossible in France; there were no originals. Should I tell how I would give my own right hand just for a glimpse at one of those wagons, to see what secrets it might contain? Should I offer rebuke and say how they in Paris would give their right hands to see all our printed books and the Bar Ilan Responsa, yet do we even appreciate fully what a gift we have?
In the end, I decided to let the words of the Meqonnen speak for himself. Maharam — R Meir of Rothenburg was a young Rabbi in his 20s at the time of the burning. After it, there was no place for him in France, and he moved back to Germany. At some point he wrote this about his experience. His qinna doesn’t talk about the history of the burning. It doesn’t bemoan how hard it is to replace manuscripts. He doesn’t even discuss all the commentaries that were destroyed or the halakhot that might now be forgotten. The qinna is really about an existential crisis. What does it mean to live through such an event, to see the torah and life as you know it reduced to ash.
Addressing those around him, he asks how could it be that words of fire, written by the God compared to Consuming Fire could be burned by human hands, and those humans are unscathed? Did God give the Torah with this fate in mind? Was it supposed to revert to the fire and smoke of Sinai? He wonders how he himself is supposed to go on, having witnessed such a disaster. He asks of Moses and Aaron, in their graves, was this supposed to happen? Is there now a new Torah, that we should burn the old one? And he rages at the Christian rulers, was it not enough for them to judge and kill us, that they also had to drag the Torah into it?
But mostly, following the lead of Yehudi Halevi, on whose ציוןהלאתשאלי, the theme and meter was based, he addresses his beloved, and demands that it think of his welfare. The beloved is not Israel as in the original ציוןהלאתשאלי, but the Torah. True, you were burned in fire, but now think of us. Your fate is known. But now that you are gone, how can we live? How can we function? You were our pillar of support and our desire. God, so to speak, walked away, and you were destroyed, and we remain wallowing in dust, blinded by pain, uncertain of the future.
Maharam was writing as a survivor. In a sense a tragedy is worse for the survivors than the victims. They are the ones who need to make sense of everything, to figure out how to pick up the pieces and move on. This was a calamity that tore out the soul of Israel, but left the people entirely intact. How does one make sense of something like that? Can one? We are all survivors of countless tragedies. We are the merest remnants of Israel. And all of us bear countless existential scars Can we comprehend what we’ve gone through? Will we be able to even survive?"