Today Sweden once again granted permission for a Torah burning protest outside the Israeli Embassy, this time by a woman concerned about children’s rights (the connection with Torah burning is unclear, and only four people are scheduled to attend.) Nevertheless, due to the provocative nature of the Torah burning this became a global story with Israeli government officials joining in demands that Sweden put a stop to these acts- coverage from the Jerusalem Post is available here.
Of course this comes on the heels of other similar acts. In June, an Iraqi immigrant to Sweden burned a Koran outside a mosque, igniting a global wave of criticism that included recalling ambassadors and other diplomatic protest, along with apparently the storming of a Swedish embassy (coverage from Reuters here). That was followed by more requests to burn holy books, including a Torah, at least some of which in spite of receiving the necessary permits never even happened. One organizer admitted he was just trying to draw attention and desisted as soon as he had the actual permit in hand (See coverage in the Times of Israel.) Whether these latest four people will actually gather today with their Torah and lighters remains an open question.
As is clear from the overwhelming outcry and protests, burning Bibles hits a sensitive nerve. This tragic nature of burning holy books is even codified in Jewish law. The Talmud (Moed Katan 26a) states that one who hears of the loss of a family member for whom he must mourn must also tear their shirt from the collar down as a sign of grief and agony. This is then extended to one who witnesses the burning of a Torah scroll, who must also tear his shirt as an expression of the torment one feels on seeing this.
Of course, the fact that an expressive act causes pain or anguish to someone else does not make it illegal or an affront to human rights. Freedom of expression is itself a right, and it is inevitable that some people’s expression will pain those who dislike it.
Two Rationales to Forbid Burnings
There are two rationales groups opposed to the Torah and Koran burning give as to why Sweden must forbid it. The first is to consider the burning of religious books hate speech.
Hate speech is most easily understood as a limitation on our right to freedom of expression, but unfortunately a limitation that is notoriously difficult to define. A good source for a definition is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an important human rights treaty ratified by 173 countries. In Article 19 it states as follows:
In other words, the only grounds upon which a government can legitimately ban speech or other expressive acts such as book burning is if it is libel or slander, the speech or act itself threatens national security or public order, or it threatens public health or morals.
Does burning sacred texts fall into any of those categories? It’s hard to see whose reputation is being harmed by burning a Bible. The Biblical characters themselves? But it’s not at all clear whether long deceased people have reputational rights to begin with, let alone which of the myriad characters in the Bible might be the targets of the burning. And it’s not clear that the burning is intended to convey animus towards any particular Biblical character.
Burning sacred texts does not threaten public health and has nothing to do with national security. As for morals, even if one believes that the Bible is a critical source of morality, it doesn’t the least bit follow that burning a few copies is going to lead to public immorality. Religious adherents should not abandon their faith because some non-believers burn a book, and there are still plenty of Bibles left for the faithful to study.
That leaves public order, as the fact that these Bible burning events spark riots and outrage around the world is frequently as a reason they should be banned in the first place. But unfortunately this is a misunderstanding of what the public order exception means.
The most often cited example of speech that is forbidden because it threatens public order is yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. In that case the speech itself may cause a dangerous stampede. But with regard to Bible burning, any violence results from a decision as to how to react to the speech, not the speech itself. In other words, what we have is a threat of violence being used to censor speech. The logic goes like this: If you burn the Bible, some people may decide to react with violence, so therefore you can’t burn the Bible. But that’s obviously flawed. The right way to look at it is that violence is never a permissible reaction to speech. Therefore, burning Bibles can’t be understood as violating public order. The people threatening to respond to the burnings with violence are the ones threatening public order, not the group burning the books.
A second reason given for banning Bible burnings is that this may violate the religious rights of believers. Unfortunately, however, that is based on a misunderstanding of religious rights. A Bible burner does nothing to detract from anyone else’s ability to practice their own religion, or for that matter to study and revere the Bible. The fact that Bible burning offends the feelings or sensitivities of religious believers does not make it an infringement on their religious rights.
For these reasons most Western countries recently voted against a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council calling on countries to pass laws prohibiting burning the Koran. The resolution passed because of support from Muslim and African countries, along with China and Ukraine. You can read news coverage from the Guardian here.
How Should We React?
Of course, most everyone except the burners themselves agree that torching holy books is offensive and rude. Countries voting against the UN Human Rights Council resolution made clear in the explanation for their votes that they condemn these protests, the only reason they voted no is that they consider book burning a protected form of expression.
If these burnings can’t be stopped, the question then becomes how we should react when it happens. Let’s begin by remembering a few things. First, these people are almost certainly not burning actual Torah scrolls. It’s hard to imagine any way protesters could possibly obtain one. They’re most likely just burning printed Bibles they can easily buy at bookstores or get online from Amazon. Burning a Torah scroll is heartbreaking because of the extraordinary effort that a scribe put into writing each of the 300,00 plus letters of the Torah painstakingly by hand, and because the scroll is central to our synagogue services. A $20 printed bible book ordered online doesn’t carry anywhere near the same reverence.
Second, and most important, let’s remember that the only reason they’re doing this is because it’s a cheap and easy way to generate world-wide attention. A small group picketing outside a Swedish mosque or Israeli embassy, no matter what they chant or what signs they hold, would likely receive at most a fleeting mention on the local news. But bring a Koran or Torah to burn, and suddenly reporters from every far-flung land want them for interviews! With that sort of publicity payoff, it’s inevitable that protest groups continue to do this.
In Ethics of the Fathers, the section of the Mishnah devoted to ethical teachings, we read the following statement in chapter 4, verse 1: ‘Who is wise? One who conquers his urges.’ This is frequently understood in the realm of personal growth- overcoming external obstacles is often much harder than changing our bad habits or personalities.
But this same principle applies here too. Our urge is to react to Torah burning with outrage and anger because it quite clearly is an insult to our values and our faith. It’s natural to demand that these burnings be made illegal.
But the result is similar to learning to deal with a child who grows accustomed to getting parental attention via bad behavior. If mom and dad learn to not give the child what they want as a result of misbehavior, the child will start to find more productive ways of getting attention. So too here- if we throttle our collective outrage and give the message that these protesters are gadfly provocateurs unworthy of our notice, then the motivation for them doing this will disappear.
Condemnation of Bible burning has been nearly universal. That should reassure us that these protesters are no threat to anything. An unnecessary campaign to criminalize the burning of sacred books won’t bring us any benefit, and it risks violating rights to freedom of expression that will harm everyone in the future besides.