You’ve probably seen it in a photo or been there. The Hotel de Ville in Paris. Right next to the Seine River on the right bank. You know the famous post-war photo ‘Le baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville’ by Robert Doisneau? It was up on my wall when I was in university, as it was for many Gen Xers like me. But I had it up for another reason. My father, uncle, and grandparents lived in Paris around that time, and there are two pedestrians in the foreground of the picture who look like they just maybe could be my grandparents.

But that exact spot in front of the building has another, darker past. In medieval times it was known as the Place de Greves. And in 1240, more than 1200 copies of the Talmud were seized by the French authorities. In 1242, the leading rabbis of French Jewry were compelled to debate with the Jewish apostate Nicholas Donin before King Louis IX. The conclusion was foregone, and virtually every copy of the Talmud in the Ile de France was brought to the Place de Greves and burned, in June 1242, close to 800 years ago this month.

But this wasn’t the first burning of Jewish books in a square in Paris around that time. About ten years earlier, the philosophical works of Maimonides (Rambam) were denounced to the church as heretical. This was done by Jewish opponents of the Physician and Rabbi now recognized as one of the most important Jewish scholars of the entire 1900 year diaspora. His works were collected and burned by the Dominican friars in 1232.

The lesson for Jews in all following generations couldn't be more clear. Start burning each other’s books, start creating or widening divisions among our people, and soon enough our adversaries, our enemies, those who want to hurt and maim and end us will take their cue and smell our weakness. They will rip us, our communities, and our world-shaping culture to pieces.

In our collective memory, fire imagery is everywhere. Autos da Fe in Spain, burnt holy books in France, burning torches in the hands of Cossacks, or marchers in Charlottesville, burned bodies in Nazi Germany and in communities near Gaza, burned fields in Northern Israel, burned flags on the streets of New York and LA. Fire has always accompanied the destruction of Jewish culture, Jewish communities, Jewish people.

Fire, though, can also be something else. It can be the spur, the call to action. As my favorite author Tolkien wrote, accompanying a rousing horn call (not different than a shofar, actually) ‘Awake, Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!’ It can be the light that illuminates the way, that shines at the head of the march - a pillar of fire by night. It can be the candlelight that helps a reader find guiding words. It can be a light shining unto the nations.

It can be the fire in our bellies that compels us to action.

The manifestation of our culture at the time was being destroyed in that square in Paris. With the burning of the books of Maimonides a few years before for his audacious philosophy, we set the stage for our own downfall. But we kept those few copies of the Talmud we had left well hidden, so scribes could read and copy it by candlelight, secretly sharing and disseminating it once more. We did not give up. We kept the fire burning, however dark the times looked.

This week I listened to a podcast from the Miryam Institute led by my friend Benjamin Anthony, interviewing a man my age, a veteran of a special forces unit, who led a Kitat Konenut, a ‘First Response’ team in southern Israel on October 7th. His small group of 12 stopped and held off more than 80 terrorists heading for more small communities along the border with Egypt.

I cannot describe his explanation of why he does what he does as anything other than a flame burning bright within him, with the sole purpose of defending and fighting for the Jewish people.

Last week we saw ugly scenes from Los Angeles of a baying mob of Jew haters chasing and beating Jews outside of a synagogue. I for one have had enough of the destructive fire all around us. I choose the roaring flame of motivation. I choose the fire in the heart of every Jew. I choose the illumination of a motivated community and the brightness of well-thought-out plans. I choose light.

You can choose light too. Here are two ways to do so.

  • Join us on our Unity Mission to Israel, August 25-29. For highlights, more info and to register, click here.
  • Help us reach our $1,000,000 target for the Israel Emergency Appeal, while joining our partners at Congregation Sons of Israel Nyack and their lead sponsors in funding two Magen David Adom ambulances to replace those damaged and destroyed at Israel’s northern and southern borders. We are 75% there! Make a donation here!