I must confess that I never thought I would write a column defending the institution of library late fees. Our olam tends not to frequent public libraries – with good reason – and who in the world wants to pay fines?
In fact, the opening lines of Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat rule that we are no longer capable of levying fines at all. So why support something fairly irrelevant and surely irritating at this time? The answer is that all societal norms and traditions are crumbling before us and we must be aware of the consequences, even if we would rather savor the moment.
Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, recently (October 11, 2021) reported that “more and more Long Island libraries aren’t fine with overdue fines.” It seems that a tradition going back generations and centuries is biting the dust. The stated reason is that this is “a way to encourage library patronage and welcome those who feel alienated by the looming cost of a late return.” Now interestingly, no one claims that these fees were going to change anyone’s way of life or deny them lunch money. “Fines start at five cents a day and can go as high as 25 cents a day,” declares Andrea Niederman, a spokeswoman for the Port Washington Public Library. She admitted that “the amount collected in fines…was so low that library operations weren’t impacted.” Why, then, bother changing the system now? The odd answer is that, as a resolution by the American Library Association declares, “fines are inconsistent with the core mission of the modern library.”
What exactly is that “core message”? The seemingly even odder answer is that “libraries are about lending things out. They are not about restricting things. And this is another barrier to people borrowing items from libraries, and it’s one that is an artificial barrier that is not really necessary.” Leaving aside for a moment the irony of library representatives writing and speaking such incoherent English, let us turn to the Torah attitude toward the trend of eliminating “unnecessary boundaries” from the learning process.
We must begin with a story. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach was a young orphan but the eldest child in his family. He therefore elected to reduce the family’s already onerous burden of feeding many hungry little souls. He therefore spent the week in a frigid shul with no bed or food to speak of. For most of the week, he foraged for a morsel to eat and slept without even the most minimal blanket in the brutal Lithuanian winters. For what would usually be the most carefree years of one’s life, he learned by himself in a true freezer, unlike the warm pleasant bais medrash boys enter today for a few months of undisturbed learning. Yet, Rav Shach eight decades later would speak nostalgically of those “months of yore” when all he ate for breakfast lunch and supper were the words of Abaya and Rava, the Rambam and the Raavad, and the soothing teachings of the Ran in Nedorim.
What is the name of the religious system Rav Shach followed? It is based upon Shlomo Hamelech’s words (Koheles 2:9), “Af chochmosi omda li – Still my wisdom stayed with me.” Chazal rearranged these words to read “chochmah shelomadeti b’af hi amda li – the Torah I learned under difficult circumstances stood by me.” The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:22) teaches that when it comes to Torah study, “the reward is in accordance with the suffering.” The Rambam comments that “there is no purpose at all in studying Torah in tranquility and rest.” Whereas society seems to have jettisoned any such concepts as responsibility and exerting oneself to achieve a goal, the Torah praises and favors all the more effort, taking achrayus and paying one’s spiritual and monetary debts.
Interestingly, Rav Shach himself raises a contradiction to this approach to education and learning. He cites (introduction to Avi Ezri on Noshim) another statement by the Rambam on this matter. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos) lists as one of the 48 methods of acquiring the Torah the trait of yishuv, which the Rambam interprets as yishuv hadaas, tranquility. Now this would seem to contradict his other teaching rejecting the place of serenity in one’s study of Torah. However, Rav Shach explains that Torah study is different than the acquisition of other disciplines. For secular studies, it might be best to simply find a quiet place to study and concentrate. Torah, however, cannot be acquired without siyata diShmaya – Divine assistance – and therefore the process requires us to discover and create serenity in the midst of distractions and adversity, savoring the hand of the Creator in all of our learning.
The Steipler Gaon (Birkas Peretz, page 36) suggests that there are two reasons why the Torah rests with those who suffer for her. “First of all, it is only natural that one values that which he has acquired with difficulty. Secondly, he reminds us that every bit of suffering for Torah fulfills one of the methods of its acquisition and thus cements the Torah within him.” We might therefore conclude that, indeed, although Torah is truly different than any other branch of wisdom or knowledge, nevertheless completely decimating any sense of value or respect for the process of this study will ultimately destroy its effectiveness.
Despite all this being true, there is an even more urgent reason not to completely cancel all library late fees. The Torah teaches that one of our cardinal beliefs is that there is reward and punishment for all that we do in this world. It is one of the 13 core teachings of our religion and applies to all of mankind. Therefore, when we cheapen the opportunity to obtain wisdom and encourage a lackadaisical attitude toward books and learning, we are in effect slowly murdering the special value that mankind has always placed upon education. Thankfully, some library leaders have refused to join this particularly subtle and toxic aspect of today’s “cancel culture.”
Lampert Shell, director of the Roosevelt library, says that taking out books with a library card “is like a credit card. It teaches kids responsibility.” Even more, but not politically correct today, it teaches children that there are consequences to our actions. Returning a book late may not be a capital offense, but ignoring the disrespect of continuing such behavior can have far greater ramifications in a youngster’s life later on.
On the local and cosmic level, we already see the deleterious effects of this cancel culture on our society. In New York State, many criminals have been released without even the minimal bail, resulting in their immediate return to their old and even worse crimes. A number of current political races have been revolving around public opinion of those who have supported such destructive laws in our culture. It sometimes begins with something as small as a five-cent fine and ends with people who have no fear of punishment or jail time for egregious and horrific sins.
So, late fees and fines may not be the most burning issue on our current agenda or an item on the Agudah convention. But large events begin with small steps in the right or wrong direction. We must be vigilant to signs of decay in the moral fabric of our prevailing culture, even though it is not our own. We are influenced by them just as we can and should be a positive influence on society at large. Let’s learn Torah even under adversity, for that is ultimately what makes us great.