Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The events at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan yesterday, and the subsequent court injunction tussles regarding tents in the park and other assorted issues related to the use of privately owned public spaces, took on different dimensions for me when it was revealed that not only was the People's Library at the park treated as though it meant nothing*, there was the possibility that a Torah may have been subjected to the same treatment - and there were definitely some Tanakhs that were trashed.

Tanakhs - aka, the entire Jewish Bible - are bad enough. If a Tanakh, usually in book form, is ruined in some way, it doesn't just go into the nearest garbage can, because it contains the name of God in it. It must go into a special depository for ruined documents of its kind known as a genizah. The most famous genizah is that of Cairo, in which not just pieces of parchment were discovered, but also pieces of wood with God's name on them, illuminated manuscripts, art, and other fragments of all kinds in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. When I attended classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, there were clearly labeled receptacles in the library copy rooms that told us where to deposit any copies of sacred documents mentioning God that we weren't going to use, which certainly forced me to reconsider the power of words and how disposable they have become in society today. To have the NY Sanitation Department roll Tanakhs into dumpsters, when considering the genizah, adds extra insult to the injury of a donated library headed for a landfill.

The even greater problem, however, comes from the alleged disposal of a Torah scroll, which is a HUGE no-no in Judaism, one that crosses denominations. I was told as a kid by my father that if one merely drops a Torah scroll, everyone present at that unfortunate event must fast for three days. In some circles, penance for dropping it can last even longer than that. Torah scrolls are heavy - it's like holding a small child - and it isn't unusual for some wobbling to occur as its spindles are lifted, but everyone must take great care with them.

If - IF - a Torah was treated badly by those clearing Zuccotti...the first thing that comes to my mind is a scroll in my grandparents' synagogue on Long Island enclosed in a glass case for all to see as a memorial to the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah in Europe. This memorial is especially heartbreaking because the scroll has been opened enough to show the boot marks on it from Nazis who thought they could somehow stamp out Judaism by stomping on its most sacred document. The Torah cannot be used in services because of that desecration, but if it were even more badly damaged than that - as, say, the Torahs from the flooded Beth Israel Synagogue in Lakeview were - it would be given a burial with proper funeral rites. To not do such a thing would be tantamount to a grievous crime.

Hearing about these terrible events puts the denial of press coverage by those clearing the park into a more sinister light for me. Whether or not people can be allowed to settle nights at Zuccotti pales in comparison to the suppression of mere words and ideas concerning why protesters were there in the first place. If those booted out of the park can take that and run with it, Bloomberg will have ultimately failed and we will all be the better for it.

And, if - IF - a desecrated Torah scroll is indeed lost in this mess, as a Jew, Bloomberg should have known better.

*Edited & updated at 10:32 PM. Some books have been recovered, but their condition is terrible.


Anonymous said...

So by your standard, if Sotheby's put a bunch of Van Gogh's in the middle of the street, buried among a pile of "Family Circus" clippings, it would have no culpability when inevitably destroyed.

Leigh C. said...

Accidents will happen, certainly. The intention to destroy what had been built up at Zuccotti was no accident, however. Police & sanitation workers could have let protesters at least take the books out. Eyewitness accounts indicated that the cops who were there didn't care about any of that.

And some heads would probably roll at Sotheby's if something like what you're describing happened.

Leigh C. said...

Also, there are ultimately no hard and fast rules regarding how to repent when a Torah scroll is dropped. There's a lot of varying traditions, but their observance tends to be dependent on the circumstances of the event, which must be taken into account as well. When looking at a possible Torah tossing in the case of Zuccotti's clearing, intent must be taken into account there, too. The sanitation workers & the cops may not have known, but explicit directives from on high could've been handed down to them and probably weren't.