‘Improved’ Edition of Banned Book on Rabbis Released

By Steven I. Weiss

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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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.

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