"pride of place" at the Library of Congress
by Michael Hoffman
Sept. 10, 2009
ON THE CONTRARY
James H. Billington, "the librarian" of the Library of Congress, is a conflicted man. His celebrated magnum opus, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, a history of the American Revolution, omits all mention of the intellectual impact of Algernon Sydney on the Founders.
Sydney, who was executed by King Charles II of England, in his debates with Robert Filmer, an advocate of the divine right of kings, transmitted to the Founding Fathers crucial theories of republican government originated by Catholic Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. Billington will have none of it.
He is big on Judaism's mythical influence on the founding of America and the supposed centrality of the Babylonian Talmud to our history. He cites George Washington's speech to the Judaic congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, the text of which reads in part: "For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support . . . May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants."
Like most people even today, Washington accepted ~ on no evidence ~ the self-described claim to the lineage of the "stock of Abraham" made by the Talmudic liars' fraternity.
Billington's conflict is this: in citing George Washington, without also mentioning Thomas Jefferson in this regard, he has committed a stark and revelatory sin of omission, for it was Jefferson who helped to found the Library of Congress with his recommended one hundred foundational books, none of which, needless to say, was the Talmud of Babylon.
In fact, Jefferson, who Billington is wont to frequently quote (but not on the subject of the Talmud), despised Judaism (though he would brook no warrant for an inquisition against Judaics on the basis of their beliefs alone, and rightly so).
THE FOUNDING FATHERS ON THE JEWISH QUESTION
Jefferson's views on Judaism were significantly influenced by Johann Jakob Brucker's Historia critica philosophiae as presented by William Enfield's 1791 The History of Philosophy. [For more on Jefferson and Talmudism see Judaism Discovered, pp. 88-93].
Like many Enlightenment thinkers both secular and Christian, Jefferson, the leading light of the nascent Library of Congress, viewed the Talmud as a tissue of superstition and darkness. Yet, it was the "Jeffersonian" James H. Billington's perverse plan to make the Bomberg edition of the Talmud, i.e. the edition published under the auspices of the Renaissance Catholic Church (in one of the more obscure chapters in the chronicle of its recondite history) ~ the centerpiece of the venerable American Library; an act which would tend to confirm Judaism's current status as the de facto state religion of the U.S. Thomas Jefferson was of course unalterably opposed to the establishment of any religion, de facto or otherwise.
It seems that the only thing that foiled Billington was the fact that his merchant-Zionist partners in the sale, substantially hiked the price of their "Valmadonna" collection (which, in addition to the Bomberg Talmud includes numerous other volumes of rare Judaica), once they had confirmed that the Library of Congress had met their initial sale price of $20 million. This is an old peddler's 's haggling trick. Billington was reportedly "livid." The deal fell through and is today in limbo.
We have excerpted passages from a recent report in Britain's Catholic "Tablet" magazine. Lengthier portions of the article immediately follow the excerpt and are worthy of your attention.
EXCERPT: "...Lunzer, in repeated conversations, said...'It would be the crown of the Library of Congress to have these things, and for the Jewish community in America,' he insisted....The idea of bringing the Valmadonna to Washington originated with the current librarian (of Congress), James Billington...Billington first approached Lunzer about the Valmadonna a decade ago, a few years before the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in America, in 2004 ~an auspicious time to begin fundraising for a monumental Hebraica collection. By 2002, the Library of Congress had raised $20 million, entirely from private donors, to buy the Valmadonna and refurbish a balcony overlooking the central rotunda reading room to give the core of the collection pride of place.
It would have been a great coup for American Jewry to have this thing cemented in that place,” said Hill, who was not involved in the negotiations. “The central document in the relationship between America and its Jews is George Washington’s communication with the Jewish community of Newport at the founding of this nation, and this is the only thing that would have had similar centrality. It was out of this world.' For the sake of Judaism, and the role of Judaism in the United States, this library is a must for the Library of Congress...”
Sept. 9, 2009
The story of one of the greatest coups in the history of book collecting began, as it happens, with a mistake. In 1956, an industrial diamond dealer and bibliophile named Jack Lunzer convinced a guard at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to let him leaf through several early Hebrew books on loan from Westminster Abbey for a show celebrating the tercentenary of Jews’ readmission to Britain, in 1656, after their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I.
Lunzer quickly noticed the books had been mislabeled; one, it turned out, contained pages from the Babylonian Talmud printed by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian from Venice who was the first to issue a complete edition of the work, starting in 1520. Curiosity led Lunzer back to Westminster Abbey, where he discovered all nine volumes of Bomberg’s masterwork had lain hidden for centuries behind layers of dust ~ a perfectly preserved copy of the most valuable Talmud in the world.
Over the next 20 years, Lunzer trawled auctions and book sales, amassing loose pages, or tractates, to recreate his own Bomberg set while also buying up other early Hebrew manuscripts and printed books from across Europe to add to a small collection his wife had inherited from her parents in Italy.
But the Westminster Bomberg never relinquished its hold on his imagination and, every now and then, he’d call the Abbey to ask the librarian if he would consider selling it. Each time, Lunzer was informed that the Talmud was not for sale. Not, that was, until April of 1980, when Lunzer happened to spot an item in the Daily Telegraph concerning efforts by the British government to block the private sale of a copy of the Abbey’s foundation charter to a prominent New York book dealer who had acquired copies of everything from the Gutenberg Bible to the Louisiana Purchase.
Lunzer realized the charter, dated December 28, 1065, was the ultimate bargaining chip. Within weeks, he had arranged his deal: he bought back the charter for the Abbey, and in return, the Abbey sold him their Talmud. A ceremony to mark the occasion was held in the Abbey’s Jerusalem Chamber.
The Bomberg Talmud immediately became the cornerstone of Lunzer’s private collection, called the Valmadonna Trust Library after a town in Italy’s Piedmont region where his wife’s family had ties.
Today, the collection encompasses more than 13,000 early Hebrew books, manuscripts, and broadsides ~ an exhaustive array of Mishnaot, siddurim, Haggadot, alef-bet tables, and ephemera that includes rare items printed on blue paper, vellum, and silk.
...It ranks among the greatest collections of Hebraica ever assembled by a single individual, and is one of the finest libraries of any kind assembled in contemporary Britain by a collector who is still living.
“You suddenly begin to glimpse what it means to gather the written Jewish heritage,” said Christopher de Hamel, a Cambridge professor and former head of Sotheby’s Western Manuscripts division. “It’s utterly, utterly dazzling.”
But now, after six decades of collecting, Lunzer is attempting to engineer what may be a feat greater even than his Bomberg coup: the $40 million sale of the Valmadonna... In January, the collection was moved from Fairport, Lunzer’s mansion in London’s Golders Green, to Sotheby’s headquarters in New York, where it was exhibited for 10 days.
Thousands of people waited hours in the February cold to see the full collection on display, arranged according to city of origin: Alexandria, Amsterdam, Baghdad, Bombay, and so on, a map of a lost Jewish world preserved in bound pages, despite the ravages of time and the best efforts of centuries of book-burners. But in the months since, there has been virtual silence from potential buyers.
“There are people who call up non-stop asking about the collection,” said Sotheby’s vice-chairman David Redden, but as yet there have been no serious offers.
Lunzer has spent his life brokering precious, rare commodities. He was born in 1924 in Antwerp, where his British father worked a diamond dealer for De Beers, but grew up in London and spent the years of the Second World War working in a Spitfire engine factory, making diamond tools. After the war, he went to work for his father, but young Lunzer, frustrated by the treatment he received when he went to the offices of the De Beers monopoly, decided to start his own firm, the Industrial Diamond Company, and took over his father’s business in 1949.
Over the years, Lunzer secured monopolies for industrial diamonds throughout West Africa and into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). By the early 1980s, he had $100 million in annual sales and the exclusive rights to a diamond mining venture in Guinea, along with the honorary title of Guinea consul-general in London.In 1948, at 23, Lunzer married Ruth Zippel, the Italian-born daughter of a Polish merchant. After the war, her brothers discovered their father’s small collection of Hebrew books had survived concealed in a Milan basement...
As a young boy, Lunzer ~ whose grandfather, Julius, was the founding president of the Adath Yisroel Synagogue, part of the resurgence of British Orthodoxy in the early 20th century ~ had studied liturgy with Solomon Sassoon, scion of one of Britain’s greatest Jewish collecting families, and was an avid amateur bibliographer. With the seed of his wife’s collection ~ technically owned by a trust incorporated in Liechtenstein ~ Lunzer began frequenting book sales...
Today, the value of the collection rests mainly in the Bomberg Talmud and a copy of an English Pentateuch manuscript from 1189. A sale last December at Sotheby’s, overseen by Redden, fetched $2.25 million ~ more than double the high estimate ~ for an incomplete Bomberg Talmud, inflating the value of Lunzer’s flawless Westminster copy. But the value of the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, if no buyer steps forward with an offer for the entire collection...
Even without the recession, the Valmadonna sale would have been a challenge. Few, if any, private buyers are able or willing to take on the responsibility of housing and preserving such a vast collection, let alone of hiring a librarian to watch over it, as Lunzer has done for decades.
Members of the Safra family visited Fairport in the late 1990s to inspect the collection, but decided against making the purchase because, Lunzer explained, “it wasn’t their field.” That leaves institutions, but many of the likely candidates already have substantial collections of Hebraica that rival the holdings of the Valmadonna. The British Library and the Bodleian, at Oxford University, both hold copies of the Bomberg Talmud, and Lunzer quipped, “Britain doesn’t need it.”
The decision to send the books to New York reflects his belief that the eventual buyer will be found in the United States, where Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania are most often mentioned as plausible suitors. “The fact is that any university, for example, that acquired the Valmadonna would immediately have by far the best collection of Judaica of anyone,” Redden said.
But Lunzer, in repeated conversations, said he doesn’t want just anyone to have his books. “It would be the crown of the Library of Congress to have these things, and for the Jewish community in America,” he insisted. “The world would gasp.”
The idea of bringing the Valmadonna to Washington originated with the current librarian, James Billington, who has made a practice of actively canvassing the world for potential acquisitions.
Billington first approached Lunzer about the Valmadonna a decade ago, a few years before the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in America, in 2004 ~ an auspicious time to begin fund raising for a monumental Hebraica collection.
By 2002, the Library of Congress had raised $20 million, entirely from private donors, to buy the Valmadonna and refurbish a balcony overlooking the central rotunda reading room to give the core of the collection pride of place.
“It would have been a great coup for American Jewry to have this thing cemented in that place,” said Hill, who was not involved in the negotiations. “The central document in the relationship between America and its Jews is George Washington’s communication with the Jewish community of Newport at the founding of this nation, and this is the only thing that would have had similar centrality. It was out of this world.”
Accounts of why the deal collapsed vary. According to Lunzer, some donors withdrew their commitments at the last minute for their own personal financial reasons. One person with knowledge of the negotiations said the problem lay with the trust’s decision to push the asking price higher once the initial $20 million had been raised ~ a move that could have looked like bad faith to an institution accustomed to receiving outright gifts, rather than having to buy its treasures.
Fiona Scharf, one of Lunzer’s daughters, told Tablet that the Library, in the end, simply failed to raise sufficient funds for the purchase, but declined to elaborate. What is clear is that everyone involved was left disappointed.
Billington, according to several people familiar with the affair, “got burned” and “was livid, absolutely livid.” (Billington declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Nonetheless, Lunzer insists the Library of Congress is still his dream home for the Valmadonna. He provided Tablet with a letter Billington sent more than a year ago, in January 2008, indicating that he was still open to negotiations.
“We are still interested in the Valmadonna Collection,” Billington wrote. But, he added, “the linchpin to further discussions ~ once the export approval is granted ~ will be the negotiation of a price, terms that both parties can accept, and the willingness of new donors to provide the funds.”
(In February, Billington told a Bloomberg reporter that Valmadonna “would find a great home here.”)
One view of the decision to ship the entire Belladonna collection across the Atlantic, without a firm buyer, is that it was an effort to entice the Library back to the table; another is that it was done with an eye to reigniting the interest of possible donors. The exhibit last winter ~ which marked the first time the collection had been displayed in its entirety ~ was designed by Sotheby’s as a marketing exercise, and succeeded wildly in attracting attention not just in the Jewish world but in the art world as well.
Lunzer admitted he had not spoken to Billington recently, but insisted that a deal could still be struck. “It’s not entirely a question of money ~ it’s a question of finding the right home for it,” Lunzer said. “For the sake of Judaism, and the role of Judaism in the United States, this library is a must for the Library of Congress...” (End quote)
On the Christian wing of the Enlightenment and its resistance to Orthodox Judaism, cf. Hoffman's annotated bibliography and introduction to Eisenmenger's Traditions of the Jews
On the role of the papacy in promoting the Talmud cf.
"The Catholic Church and the Talmud in the Renaissance"
On Algernon Sydney, Bellarmine and the Founding Fathers, cf. "Revisionist History Newsletter no. 36: Jesuits and Freemasons in Early America"
For a thorough decryption of Talmudism cf. Hoffmans' textbook, Judaism Discovered
Give something in return for the benefit you have received from our information. Donate to support the continuation of our vital research and educational work