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Orthodoxy’s Inconvenient Truths

Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History
By Marc B. Shapiro
The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 360 pages, $39.95

Orthodox Jews — especially Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews — like to think of their religious practice as the most authentic form of Judaism. “We traditionally observant Jews… seek to observe the Torah’s mandate, as it has been preserved by the traditional Jewish transmitters over the ages” wrote Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, in a 2012 article for the Forward. “Our differentness reflects only our fealty to the Judaism of the Ages,” he wrote in another piece last year. That was a public relations professional in the Forward; similar and stronger language is ubiquitous in Orthodox media.

In fact, historians and sociologists have long debunked the changelessness of Haredi life; differences in dress, lifestyle and ritual practice between contemporary and historical orthodoxies are well documented. Like other forms of fundamentalist religion, Haredi Judaism isn’t a strict continuation of the past, but a reaction against modernity. Its belief in its own authenticity is a theological self-conception, not a historical reality.

But there is a good reason that observant Jews feel so deeply connected to historical Judaism. As Marc Shapiro writes in his new book, “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History,” the Orthodox community is a “community of scholars” for whom “the written word is central.” Familiarity with traditional texts fosters an intimacy with tradition; the study of rabbinic literature creates a feeling of continuity with the Jewish past, whatever caveats might apply.

But what if those texts are not the unchanging repositories of wisdom their readers assume them to be? What if they have been changed — censored, even — in order to reflect the needs of the present? This is the question underlying “Changing the Immutable.” And Shapiro shows, through an impressive accumulation of evidence, that Orthodox censorship is not an exception, but a rule.

Shapiro, chair of the Judaic studies department at The University of Scranton, has long been a thorn in the side of the ultra-Orthodox establishment. His first book, “Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884–1966,” published in 1999, examined a complex rabbinic figure whose acceptance as a halachic authority belied his more idiosyncratic views and associations. Even more significantly, Shapiro’s 2004 book “The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised,” argued that Maimonides’s principles of faith, commonly understood to be the underlying dogmas of traditional Judaism, were never universally accepted. Rather, Shapiro contended, different versions of Jewish belief have always been possible, even within a traditional framework.

Shapiro’s scholarship has been so important, in part because of Orthodoxy’s own success at covering up inconvenient aspects of its past. And in his latest book, Shapiro shows how far Orthodoxy has gone to make its textual legacy consistent with its present culture. Granted, the number of texts that have been overtly censored is relatively small in comparison with the overall corpus of rabbinic writing. But even a relatively small number turns out, on the whole, to be rather large. And what Shapiro demonstrates is that this kind of censorship is programmatic, intentional and has a history going back to the Bible itself.

Consider, for example, a change made to the Shulhan Arukh, Yosef Karo’s authoritative 16th-century code of Jewish law. In discussing the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of kaparot, in which one’s sins are symbolically transferred to a chicken, Karo refers to the practice as a “foolish custom.” (Other authorities went further, calling it a pagan practice.) Although that comment appeared in the first 18 printings of the work, it disappeared in the 18th century and is still generally omitted — a decision based on the fact that kaparot is now a normative Jewish observance. But should this change in practice justify distorting the historical text of the Shulhan Arukh? The goal, seemingly, is to give the false impression that one of the most important legal authorities in Jewish history had no problem with a now-commonplace ceremony. And “If Karo is not safe from censorship,” Shapiro writes, ”I daresay that no text is safe.”

This observation was borne out a few months ago, when Shapiro pointed out on The Seforim Blog that the Orthodox publisher ArtScroll had deleted a passage from the 12th-century commentator Shmuel ben Meir, or Rashbam, in a new printing of the Mikraot Gedolot Bible. The problem? The Rashbam had interpreted Genesis 1:5 — “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” — to mean that the day ends (and thus begins) in the morning, rather than according to the talmudic interpretation that the day begins (and also ends) at night.

In its defense, ArtScroll argued that those passages of the Rashbam were of dubious authorship and had been condemned as the work of heretics by Abraham ibn Ezra, another medieval commentator. Yet ArtScroll’s failure to alert readers to the omission (whose justification was not as clear-cut as they claimed) made it seem as though 21st-century editors had censored a medieval rabbi for arguing with the Talmud. In an even more egregious example, raised by Shapiro in “Changing the Immutable,” ArtScroll removed a comment by Rashi, one implying that the talmudic rabbis had themselves engaged in editing of the Bible — another verboten belief according to contemporary Orthodoxy.

Such instances of censorship are not limited to obscure legal or theological matters, either. Recent years have seen bans, censorship, and suppression of books and other documents that have challenged an increasingly extreme status quo. Shapiro points to the now-notorious practice of Photoshopping women out of news photos, as well as to the censoring of historical pictures of prominent religious women who are not dressed according to present-day standards of “modesty.” “That perhaps these ‘chosheve’ [important] people had different views of tseniut [modesty] matters is not even considered,” he notes dryly.

Shapiro pays particular attention to shifts in religious politics, and to the treatment of figures like Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Isaac Kook, who, though widely admired in their lifetimes, have fallen out of favor since their deaths. In the case of Kook, who is considered to be the ideological father of religious Zionism, hundreds of books have been censored in order to remove his approbations from the books’ front pages, despite the fact that the authors of those works desired to include them. “The fear of associating with Kook… is a reflection of the extremism that has taken root in Haredi Judaism,” Shapiro writes. As a result, he argues, Kook “has been the victim of more censorship and simple omission of facts for the sake of Haredi ideology than any other figure.”

All this could make for a hearty polemic against the Orthodox scholars, publishers and editors who are more concerned with enforcing ideological conformity than with dealing with historical truth. Yet for all his provocative material, Shapiro is no polemicist. Although he compares Orthodox censorship with the Soviet kind — “what was accepted as fact one day could be entirely rewritten the next” — he also shows how its practice is consistent with classical and medieval conceptions of historical truth that predate contemporary notions of academic scholarship.

So, too, Shapiro goes out of his way to show that censorship of Jewish texts isn’t just an Orthodox practice. In many cases, non-Haredi publishers have been guilty of similar distortions, sometimes out of concern for what liberal readers might think. Finally, in the last chapter of the book, Shapiro examines the concept of lying in Jewish law, and shows how some authorities believed it permissible to lie in order to encourage obedience to rabbinic leadership. Shapiro warns us that these examples might be shocking, but he often seems to be defending Orthodox censorship by showing its consistency with traditional practice. Maimonides himself warns, in the introduction to his “The Guide for the Perplexed,” that not everything he wrote was the pure truth, but was still a “necessary belief” for the masses.

Shapiro’s evenhanded, evidence-heavy approach will perhaps make the book more convincing to its detractors. But his argument could also have benefited from a more critical thrust. Although he claims that censorship has increased in recent decades, he does little to analyze the causes or consequences of this phenomenon. In a recent interview with radio host Zev Brenner, he noted that part of the rise in censorship is due to so many more books being published and to older books being reset, and in “Changing the Immutable” he notes the rise in Orthodox publishing for a nonscholarly readership, including many works of biography and history.

But he doesn’t go far enough in examining what role Haredi fundamentalism may have to play, and whether current Orthodoxy is more or less inclined to censor texts than Jewish communities of the past were. The phrase “da’as Torah” — an arguably contemporary notion that implies obedience to rabbinic authority independent of halachic justification — appears just once in the book, and is explained only in a footnote. And although Shapiro does address the particular role translation plays in censorship, he does little to address the phenomenon of increased Haredi literacy, whether through access to yeshiva education, English translations by publishers like ArtScroll or the return of Hebrew as a vernacular language in the State of Israel. Most noticeably lacking is any consideration of the effect that censorship has had on the Orthodox community itself. If Orthodox censorship is comparable to the Soviet variety, what does that say about the intellectual conditions of Orthodox life?

Still, if Shapiro is not himself a polemicist, polemics can be written based on his research. This is especially true when it comes to the Orthodox tendency of presenting itself as historically authentic, and of appealing to that authenticity as a source of authority, while simultaneously rewriting history to suit its own purposes. Indeed, this approach was explicitly recommended by Shimon Schwab, a prominent 20th-century German Jewish rabbi who argued that “a realistic historic picture” is good for “nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity.” Rather, he claimed, “every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful.” If that means doing without factually accurate knowledge, he continued, “We can do without.”

It’s not hard to draw a line between this view and the tens of thousands of young men and women in Israel and the United States who are living lives of desperation and poverty in order to fulfill an ideal of piety and scholarship that is presented as an age-old ideal but is in fact a recent invention. Covering up some minor deviation from theological dogma may not be of interest to more than a few academics, but the wholesale rewriting of history is a basic social concern. And as Shapiro writes in his introduction, “The acts of censorship… and telling a story which one knows to be false are simply different stops along the same continuum….” Here we have not just isolated examples of textual tampering or censorship, but also an entire ideology built on historical misrepresentations and half-truths. The consequences are already devastating.

Ezra Glinter is the deputy culture editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter, @EzraG

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