How Do I Handle An Inappropriate Book Of Torah Commentary?

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Dear Miriam,

An elderly family friend recently passed away. Because I am an educator in a synagogue, his children told me they’d like me to have a selection of Jewish books he had in his office. In looking through the box, I discovered an old Torah commentary that, while an aesthetically beautiful book, expresses a number of no-longer-acceptable sentiments, particularly around gender and race. What should I do with the book, and what should I tell his children?


Baffled by a book


Dear Baffled,

I suspect most adults have had the experience of revisiting a favorite childhood movie or a book that’s considered a classic only to be confronted by stereotypes of women, offensive depictions of people of color, and worse. Standards have changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time and, from where I sit, that’s a good thing.

For starters, you don’t need to tell the children who gifted you the books anything other than, “thank you.” They don’t need to know your critique of this book (or any of the others), and they don’t need to know how you are or are not using them in your personal or professional life. It really is the thought that counts here; they’ve given you the gift of their father’s books, and you’ve given them the gift of giving something away in a manner that feels meaningful.

As for the book itself, my first thought is to bury it in a genizah. A genizah is a repository for sacred texts that are no longer usable, with the idea of eventually burying them in a cemetery as a sign of respect. Even if you don’t, in fact, respect the contents of this book, you can recognize and acknowledge its connection to the Torah and treat it as such. Your own synagogue likely has a storage area of items on their way to the genizah or has a relationship with a funeral home that collects such items for the local community. 

You could also recycle it. Even books containing the name of God written in Hebrew can be recycled (as opposed to going in the trash or the genizah). If this book is all written in English, you aren’t religiously required to treat it with any kind of sanctity, and given what you’ve seen inside its pages, disposing of it may make the most sense. Some books really do outlive their own relevance, and just because this book ended up in your possession doesn’t mean you have to keep it.

Given the current national rhetoric around banning books, and how very antithetical to the role of books in Judaism it may feel simply to throw a book away, I understand that the above solutions may feel too glib, or too close to censorship. Depending on who and what you teach at your synagogue, I wonder if there may be any value in keeping this around as an artifact. There may be a worthwhile lesson around changing interpretations and contemporary perspectives. But there might not. 

My very last thought is that a museum or library or archives may be interested, but even that feels like delaying the inevitable. You didn’t ask for or seek out this book, and if you don’t want to teach from it, don’t want it taking up space on your shelves, and don’t want anyone else to encounter the outdated perspectives within, then I think you know your answer.

Be well,