February 27, 2020

Books: The Jewish DNA

“I cannot live without books.” These famous words were spoken by Thomas Jefferson on June 10, 1815, but they were most likely born on the 6th of Sivan — Shavuot — some 3,300 years ago at Mount Sinai. On that day, when God gave the Jewish people one book — the Torah — the 3,000-year-plus Jewish love affair with books began.

On a daily basis in our evening prayers, we affirm that we cannot live without books, “for they are our life and the length of our days.” In their jointly written book “Jews and Words,” Amos Oz (father) and Fania Oz-Salzberger (daughter) say that “Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words,” and that Judaism’s lineage is “not a bloodline, but a textline.”

Drawing on a personal example of this “textline,” I was raised by a Moroccan father whose mother was the descendant of a long line of kabbalistic rabbis originally from Spain. My father’s grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Pinto (died in 1953), was the last in that line in Marrakesh. In Pinto’s old age, his eyesight was weary, and my father told me that he became his “grandfather’s eyes.” Pinto had an extensive library filled with classic Jewish books — Torah, commentaries, Talmud, Midrash and kabbalah — and my father spent every Shabbat and holiday in his youth reading from these books to his grandfather, and listening to his explanations.

My father was curious about his grandfather’s distinguished lineage, so one day he asked him, “Please tell me about our family. Where do we come from?” Pinto answered, “We come from a book.” Perplexed, my father asked for a further explanation, and his grandfather replied, “A long time ago, our ancestor Rabbi Jacob Pinto wrote a book called ‘Mikdash Melech.’ It’s a kabbalistic commentary on the Torah. That’s where we come from, that is our origins, that book.”

When my father asked his grandfather to point him to the place on the bookshelf where the book could be found, Pinto’s face turned sad and he said, “We don’t have the book. It was borrowed many years ago by students who left on a long journey, and they never returned. Not them, not the book.”

From childhood, I grew up with this story. I was blessed to live in a home whose bookshelves were filled with hundreds of Jewish books, but I nonetheless felt that one book was missing. As a child, I Imagined what that book might look like, its font, its pages, its binding. What would it feel like to hold the book that, according to my great-grandfather, is my roots, my origin, my DNA. I left a symbolic empty spot on one of my bookshelves, with the hope that one day this special book would find it’s rightful place in my home.

My journey to “Mikdash Melech” is but one of millions of Jewish journeys within the world of sacred books.

At the age of 17, I left Los Angeles to study in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel. The yeshiva’s main building comprised a large beit midrash — the study hall where we spent most of our day studying Talmud in pairs (chavrutot) — and a smaller library of rare books upstairs. The upstairs library was barely used, as most of the books were rare, out of print, and often not in readable condition.

One day, my study partner was sick and didn’t come to the beit midrash. Being a bibliophile, I took this opportunity to venture upstairs and check out the rare books. As I browsed through shelves of ancient books, I thought of my family’s missing book. I chanced upon a small card catalogue, and I flipped to the Hebrew letter “mem,” in search of “Mikdash Melech.” I flipped and flipped the cards, and almost flipped out when I saw one card that read “Mikdash Melech.” I nervously followed the catalog number to the shelf. My heart was filled with hope that this was the book, but my mind kept saying, “It’s probably another book by the same name.”

I found a book named “Mikdash Melech,” and with trembling hands I opened its frail pages, soon to find a name on the title page that had me jumping for joy like a little boy in a candy store: Rabbi Yaakov Pinto.

I ran to a pay phone to call my father, and when he answered the phone, I told him, “Guess what I’m holding in my hands? I’m holding our family’s DNA, what your grandfather called the book of our origins, the book where I come from, where you come from, where our family comes from.”

With tears of joy my father said, “Please read to me.” Here I was, long distance, doing for my father what he did for his grandfather. For that moment, I became his eyes, and over the phone, I read to him from the opening page of this one magical book, the book that represents my family’s textline.

My journey to “Mikdash Melech” is but one of millions of Jewish journeys within the world of sacred books. We are a people for whom reading is not just a pastime, it’s an act of spirituality. Studying is not something we do for exams; rather, it’s our primary mode of religious expression. We treat our books with respect, admiration and love. Every word is sacred, and every letter can give birth to a wealth of new ideas.

While Islam referred to the Jewish people as “The People of the Book,” I would say a more accurate title for us is “The people of the interpretation of the book.” Through thousands of years and millions of pages of interpretation, we have helped our original book give birth to innumerable other books, all that tell the Jewish story in one way or the other, and all that collectively speak to our passionate love affair with books.

In his book “The Genius of Judaism,” French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy writes, “The genius of Judaism is the Book and books. And it is when one chooses to close these books — that is, to comment on them no further, to challenge and oppose them no more — that the genius dies.”

As we enter our festival of books — Shavuot — let us renew our commitment to reading, studying, discussing, arguing, commenting, explaining and exploring the meaning of our ultimate symbol — our books. As we spend the night of Shavuot expressing our love for Torah and contemplating our Jewish identity, let us remember that, in my great-grandfather’s words, we all “come from a book.” Our DNA is not found in labs, but in libraries. I know that when I was 17, that’s where I found mine.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.