Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
December 2005

Banning Books

The picture of burning books haunts the history of Jewish books.  When a book is burned, condemned, censored or banned it should make us cringe.  Censorship by a governmental or organization is a way of hiding the truth. The pursuit of truth is the goal of every scientist and scholar and we are all part scholar and scientist.  The task of a librarian is to help in the spreading of knowledge or in other words the multiple truths recorded by authors. If you are a librarian the whole thought of banning books is abhorrent.  Recently I learned about books by Rabbi Nosson (Natan) Slifkin that were banned as being heretical and anti-Torah.  Since I have not read his books, I can not comment directly on their content.  Rabbi Slifkin is a gifted young scholar who is able to combine the knowledge of Jewish sources with the knowledge of zoology and the natural world. Go to his web site (http://zootorah.com/) to read about him and the whole controversy.  This article is concerned with the concept of censorship. 

Public Morals

The word, censor, goes back to Ancient Rome.  The censor, an elected magistrate, had two duties, to count the citizens for tax purposes and to supervise their morals. The censor’s job was to restrict ideas that were morally, politically or objectionable in any way to the government. The word census and censor are derived from the same Latin word.  Since the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech, the terms, censor and censorship, have become politically charged.  Sometimes other words are used as euphemisms such as “whitewash” and “sanitize” are used because they are less politically charged. These words are used in the context of doctoring of documents to promote, hide, or prevent damage from actions or recorded words.  Sanitization is used to refer to the systematic doctoring of information that might otherwise be perceived as incriminating, self-contradictory, controversial, or damaging. Censorship may refer to the removal of information that may protect lives or defend a nation, more often it refers to a publicly set standard, not a privately set standard. Censorship is often alleged when an essentially private entity, such as a corporation, people or group, regulates or restricts access to information or communication in a forum that serves a significant share of the public. Official censorship may occur at any jurisdictional level including cities, states and nations that otherwise represents itself as opposed to formal or private censorship. The idea of censorship of ideas or entire books is “to protect” the public from viewpoints that disagree with those who seek the ban. 

We do have protected classes that do need some sort of external help to restrict their access to written or visual materials.  Children and others who may not be able to handle all of life’s situations need guidance.  Generally it is the parents and other caregivers who know the child best who restrict them.  This is the subject of another entire article.  Teachers and parents can restrict access to materials without censorship.  If one 9 year old can’t handle a particular situation, that is no reason to prevent all 9 years olds from reading about that situation.  If a librarian, parent or teacher says, “That book is not good for you.”  That is not censorship.  If a parent says to the librarian, “That book is immoral, heretical, or filthy and should be removed from the library,” consider that as potential censorship.

At a recent Shabbat lunch with neighbors (one of whom is a fellow librarian) we discussed the concept of censorship and banning. I asked around the table if there was a type of material that should be censored.  My 14 year old son, Asher said, “Books that incite and promote illegal and dangerous actions should be censored.  For example, the promotion of stealing, killing or rioting should be banned.”  The librarian was opposed to any banning of books and has even done a lesson with her students pointing out the danger of banning books.  The law student at the table kept reminding us about the First Amendment and freedom of speech and the right to take unpopular viewpoints. We also discussed what a freedom of speech issue is and what is a case of spreading of racism or lies.  Teenagers at the discussion were able to be logical, but they lacked the historical and real-world experience to put the issues into context.

On one level my son’s opinion is reasonable, logical and non-controversial. He could have been quoting from the production code of the movie industry from 1930.[1]  .Asher followed the principle that we do not have the right harm others to incite riots, or to encourage criminal activity.  Based on historical evidence, censorship did none of this.  Protecting the public is the justification given by the Romans, the Medieval Christians[2] and Stalinists for the censoring of ideas and entire books. Since censors did not care about the truth, they could not remove ideas in circulation.  They thought they were protecting the public welfare by the restriction of ideas.  However, as outsiders we see they were trying to protect their position, ideas, or power.

Should a library ban Mein Kampf or the Protocols of the Elders of Should controversial books have warning stickers?  Books may appear in our libraries as historical documents and example of deprived minds.  Judaica libraries sometimes collect anti-semitica so that scholars know what an enemy thinks.  Would we include contemporary works of anti-Semitism, anti-American, or anti-anything in our collection without a warning? In our collections Mein Kampf represents the depravity of history, not the current thought of a “reasonable” man.  We never expect any thinking American to believe what is in Mein Kampf. Would we ban a book on bomb making or how to incite riots?  The answer depends on our library.  A library on a military base may contain many books on bomb making and disposal. Libraries do not endorse views by the purchase of particular books.

The threat of censorship limits the freedom of expression. If an author knows the censor will not permit certain ideas or their expression, his words will be edited even before writing. A very real danger is that some ideas were never recorded.  Librarians collect materials that represent multiple viewpoints and help in the search for the truth. Next month I will deal with Jewish censorship and self censorship.

For further reading on the censorship of Hebrew Books:

Carmilly, Moshe. “Censorship” in Encyclopedia Judaica (1971) v. 5, col. 275-282,

Carmilly, Moshe. Sefer ve-sayif : hofesh ha-bitui veha-mahshavah etsel `Am Yisra`el. (Book and sword : freedom of expression and thought, among the Jewish people)  Yerusalayim ; New York : Mekhon Sura `a. y. ha-Yeshivah Universitah, 1966.

Levi, David D. "Censorship of Rambam's Sefer Ha-Madah and Moreh Nevukhim" in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries. 2000. p. 172-176. Also found at: http://student.ccbcmd.edu/~dlevy11/Maimonidean_Controversy.pdf.

Popper, William, 1874-1963. The censorship of Hebrew books. New York, Ktav Pub. House, 1969, 1899. 


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago , a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site at Stuhlman.biz to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net/~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.    E-mail author.


[1] “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong doing, evil or sin. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”  “The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code) http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html

[2] The theory of the Catholic Church was that they had a duty to protect people from endangering their “eternal salvation.”  For example Jews were required to remove all negative references to Christians from all their books.


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 ©2005, 2006 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised February 18, 2008