‘Improved’ Edition of Banned Book on Rabbis Released

By Steven I. Weiss

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Nearly three years after his book on famous rabbis, “Making of a Godol,” was subject to a high-profile ultra-Orthodox ban, Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky has released a revised version of the self-published work.

In his first interview since the ban was instituted, Kamenetsky told the Forward that he had “improved and ran through people of caliber…everything I heard complaints about.” The revised work, which can only be purchased at a bookstore in Monsey, N.Y., is marked with a red label on the cover with the words “Improved Edition.”

In both versions of the book –– which consists of two volumes and ran nearly 1,400 pages –– the author recounts stories about the youth of his late father, the Orthodox sage Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, as well as stories about other 19th- and 20th-century rabbinic luminaries. The first edition of the book was banned by influential rabbinic figures, including the world’s leading ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazic rabbi, Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, in the months after it was published in September 2002. Critics cited parts of the book that were said to portray the sages in a negative light.

Kamenetsky told the Forward that most of the changes to the protested passages are elaborations that “are likely to have been made in order to explain myself better — and thus not be seen as degrading gedolim [rabbinic greats].” He said it was never his “intention” to degrade rabbinic luminaries, nor did he think anyone who understood his words thought he was trying to do so.

The “List of Improvements,” which is an appendix to the revised edition, cites only one page where a passage was completely dropped. A review of the original edition reveals that Kamenetsky removed an anecdote about how Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the late founder of the prominent yeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., snapped at a red-bearded student who stood up and interrupted him with a question. “Red heifer, be still,” Kotler was quoted in the first edition as saying to the student. While Kamenetsky removed the anecdote from his revised edition, the new version includes the claim that Kotler’s “common and least offensive put-down” was to tell students “you babble like a drunken Turk.”

Kamenetsky said he has not prepared a list of changes and corrections specifically made in response to the ultra-Orthodox ban. But a comparative reading of the two versions gives some indication of which alterations fall into that category — and the vast majority seem to relate to Kotler.

This would appear to be no coincidence: In Kamenetsky’s unpublished, intermediate volume — titled “Anatomy of a Ban” — the rabbi argued that it was Kotler loyalists who launched the effort to get the book banned. These loyalists, he said, drew the most public attention to the book by, among other things, burning it at the Lakewood yeshiva, which is maintained by Kotler’s descendants.

Messages left for Kotler family members at the yeshiva seeking comment were not returned before press time.

Other corrections de-emphasize the degree to which sages and yeshivas approved of secular learning. Several edits cast religious rulings issued by several rabbis in a more favorable light by adding a sentence or two, or adjusting some wording.

Kamenetsky took the opportunity of editing the manuscript to do a broad revision, making hundreds of additions and corrections, but perhaps only a couple dozen specifically targeting those parts of the book that had been highlighted by opponents. When asked whether he thought a ban would be averted this time, he said, “I am not sure, just hopeful.”

Rabbi Gil Student, president of Yashar Books and a frequent commentator on Jewish books, said in an Internet posting: “We can now see exactly what the problems were in the original book and from what I’ve seen so far, they are very, very, very tame.”

In his unpublished, intermediate volume, Kamenetsky argued that “the ban should not have been issued.” In “Anatomy of a Ban,” and, to a lesser degree, in the new edition, Kamenetsky asserted that the ban was primarily the result of sages who do not speak English, such as Elyashiv, being lied to about the true contents of the book.

In an interview, Kamenetsky said, “Had I written the book in Hebrew, I believe that the [rabbis] in Israel would not have listened to how my book was described to them by several yinglakh [young students] and the ban would not have been issued.”

The new edition, 1,000 copies of which were printed, is being sold exclusively by Tuvia’s, an Orthodox bookstore in Monsey, N.Y. Kamenetsky said he is not distributing the book in Israel because he told Elyashiv he would only sell it in America.

Tuvia Rotenberg, the store’s owner, told the Forward that he’s sold around 30 copies of the revised edition. Rotenberg said he had carried the original version, despite the ban.

Rotenberg said he didn’t “really care to go advertise that” he is selling the revised edition. Customers looking for the book often purchase it “under the table,” Rotenberg said.

When asked if the edition was generating controversy, Rotenberg said, “At this point, I think most people are just ignoring it.” He noted, though, that there has been widespread distribution of the book –– on pirated discs.

“I think this time it’s gonna be a lot quieter,” Rotenberg said, adding, “The ban is there, but it’s like, who cares anymore? Those who wanted it got it and those who didn’t want it aren’t buying it anyways.”

Kamenetsky, however, noted that “the fracas regarding the original book did not begin till six weeks after the book appeared.”

“I think,” Kamenetsky said, “we’ll have to wait that long before we know” how the revised edition will be received.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.