Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Book Review, Sunday, July 1, 2012: The Aleppo Codex

This fascinating book tells the ancient and the modern history of the definitive and most trustworthy copy of the Jewish Bible in existence, the Aleppo Codex.

And here why it's so interesting: it is, as the sub-title says, "A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.

Madame L cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you're interested in the Diaspora, ancient scripture, modern history, Israel and Palestine, or anything related to any of these, you'll have a hard time putting it down. It's not like a novel, where you can just keep reading and reading, though; it takes time to digest some of the details. So you'll have to put it down every once in awhile and think about it, wonder what Matti Friedman is going to find out next.

Madame L has read her share of books that tell not only the details of some mystery or historical event but also the details of how the author found out those details. But this is the first one of those kinds of books that Madame L has ever read that is actually interesting.

It's part of the mystery to know how Matti Friedman had to track down every bit of information he finally got --- part of the mystery, and part of the story --- because those details had been kept secret from so many people for so long that keeping them secret even longer was easier for so many people than telling the truth.

Madame L kept guessing: Was it the Arabs who burned the synagogue who tore out the 100 pages? Was it the rabbi  or the sexton who was supposed to be guarding it? Was it the Aleppo Jews who came to the synagogue to pick up the pieces and salvage what they could after the riots and looting? Was it the Gentile who kept the book safe until the violence died down? Was it the courier?

Madame L is very tempted to tell you the story's ending. Should she do it? If she keeps the ending secret from her readers, what good will that do? Will it make her readers decide to run down to their local library to get the book so they can find out for themselves? Or will her readers shrug their shoulders and say, oh well, Madame L is stingy with the truth, like those people who kept the secret of what happened to the Aleppo Codex secret for decades? 

Madame L doesn't think her job as a book reviewer is to string her readers along, and she knows many of her readers want to know more about the world and its history but don't have time to read this long book, so she will share this with her readers: The secret is not that the Arabs in Aleppo burned the book in 1947. It's not that the man entrusted to bring whatever remained of it to Jerusalem was a dishonest man. It's not that devious scholars wanted to suppress part of this ancient work because it would contradict their understanding and teachings.

It's this: Greedy and dishonest men in the very government of Israel, scholars at the very university that was supposed to be enlightening people, the very department charged with keeping this and other antiquities safe and available for scholars, stole parts of it.

So about 100 pages of the 400-page Codex are missing today, most of the first five books (the books of Moses), and some of the prophets, including parts of Isaiah. 

And those that remain, are they where scholars can translate them and make them available for the rest of us to read, to enhance our understanding of the Old Testament? No, they are not. 

There. Now Madame L has given away the secret. But there's more: Many similar codices and scrolls, brought by Jews from Yemen and other Arab countries when they fled to Israel, have suffered a similar fate. 

Reading about this made Madame L want to cry. As Mr. Friedman concludes his story:

"Had the mob destroyed the codex, my story would have been simpler...

"The hunger for old and beautiful things is not new...But here the object stolen is not a thing of beauty but a book that condemns theft. The page with the passage Thou shalt not steal was stolen. Also missing are the commandments not to bear false witness, covet another's property, or commit murder, all of which have been violated in these chapters.

"The Hebrew Bible, of which our codex was the most perfect copy, the one used by Maimonides himself, was meant to serve humans as a moral compass. Its story is a tragedy of human weakness. The book was the result of generations of scholarship...It was a singular accomplishment and a testimony to the faith of the men who created it. It was desecrated. Maimonides would have reacted with dismay to this story, no doubt, but perhaps also with a sad smile of recognition: this is what men do. The story of this book, he might say, should come as no surprise to any who have read it. There is noting new under the sun, reads the book of Ecclesiastes...

"Those who understand the book's meaning and those who do not; those who would protect it and those who would destroy it; and those who seek it for the right reasons and those whose desire for it is base and dark --- the book contained all these people and their conflicting motivations before it succumbed to them. We might file this tale between Cain and Abel and the golden calf, parables about the many ways we fail: A volume that survived one thousand years of turbulent history was betrayed in our times by the people charged with guarding it. It fell victim to the instincts it was created to temper and was devoured by the creatures it was meant to save."

Madame L checked this book out from her local library, but it's also available new at for $14.7l.

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