The Sagacious Scholar and the Censor – By Adam Ferziger

Adam Ferziger on Marc Shapiro’s Changing the Immutable

Marc B. Shapiro, Changing the Immutable:How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2015, 347pp., $39.95
Marc B. Shapiro, Changing the Immutable:How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2015, 347pp., $39.95
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Halfway through this exceedingly erudite and equally disturbing study, Marc Shapiro tells a story that illustrates why he has earned a reputation as Orthodox Judaism’s preeminent consumer advocate. On some occasion inside Harvard’s Widener Library, he bumped into a Haredi — fervently Orthodox — man who specialized in reissuing rare and inaccessible Jewish books. While perusing a volume from the early twentieth century that had recently been reprinted by this same individual, Shapiro noticed a blank space that would ordinarily contain a haskamah, a letter of praise from a well-known rabbi. Shapiro quickly located a copy of the original text in the stacks and discovered that the person edited out of the new version was none other than Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine and pioneering theologian of religious Zionism. Shapiro confronted the publisher: “You may consider Kook to have been a heretic, but the author of the book thought that Kook was a great man …What then gives you the right to take out his approbation?” The man showed no remorse. “The author is now in heaven where he knows the truth about Kook,” and is “therefore happy with what I have done,” he said.

That encounter represents in microcosm an indictment of Orthodox censorship that Shapiro advances through hundreds of detailed examples that fill Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History. Since the nineteenth century and with increasing audacity in the past few decades, Orthodox Jewish publishers have bowdlerized religious texts. They reshape events by removing controversial names, passages, and even entire rulings. They blithely distort the meaning of sentences and airbrush photographs that clash with the ideals they seek to uphold. Exposure does not bother them because their aim in publishing rabbinical writings and portraying the authors is not historical accuracy. It is hagiography.

In the words of Shimon Schwab (1908-1995), a German rabbi who became a key ideologue for post-World War II Haredi Orthodox Jewry in the United States, “What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historical perspective … We should tell ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people … Every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful …” Jews, he concluded, “do not need realism, we need inspiration from our forefathers in order to pass it on to posterity.”

No doubt, such statements can be read as consistent with what Yoseph Hayyim Yerushalmi referred to as traditional “Jewish memory” rather than modern critical “history.” Yet according to Shapiro, twentieth-century Orthodox writing (in particular) diverges not only from academic scholarship but from its pre-modern predecessors. For the Orthodox focus is not merely on offering an inspiring rendition of the Jewish past but on erasing, delegitimizing, or adjusting those sources that present a less monolithic picture. As such, from the outset of his prolific academic career Shapiro directed his energies toward exposing the underbelly of the picture that Schwab and his like-minded Orthodox compatriots sought to paint. He is by no means the only scholar to examine “Orthodox historiography” or to call attention to examples of intentional censorship. All the same, the scope and sheer quantity of material that he has collected, and for that matter the persistence with which Shapiro has been exploring this subject for over twenty-five years, is incomparable.

His first book (1999), which emanated from his Harvard doctoral dissertation, was an intellectual biography of the leading Orthodox rabbinical authority in Germany in the years leading up to World War II, Jehiel Jacob Weinberg (1884-1966). After the war, Weinberg was venerated by Haredi Orthodoxy as one of the few remaining vestiges of the European “Torah greats.” Shapiro depicted Weinberg’s Talmudic brilliance but also explored his intrepid efforts to bridge the gap between modern culture and Jewish tradition. More dramatically, Shapiro did not hesitate to detail Weinberg’s thorny personal life, his initial apologetic attitude toward the Nazi regime, and his ongoing close friendship with a leading faculty member of the Reform Hebrew Union College. In his second book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology (2004), Shapiro aimed his sights on the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” authored by the famed medieval Jewish philosopher and legal codifier Maimonides (1138-1204). The goal of the study was to demonstrate that, notwithstanding their canonical stature in current Orthodox Judaism, each of the individual tenets was disputed by contemporaries of Maimonides, as well as by authoritative rabbinical figures that lived well after him. It was only in response to the fundamental reevaluation of Judaism initiated by the “enlightened” Jews and by the founders of Reform Judaism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that Orthodoxy adopted Maimonides’ doctrines as unconditional fundamental beliefs. Shapiro also published, among others, a short volume entitled Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox (2006). Lieberman (1898-1983), who stemmed from preeminent Lithuanian rabbinical pedigree and was acknowledged to be the outstanding academic Talmud scholar of the twentieth century, committed denominational “treason” in 1940 by accepting a position at the nascent Conservative movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Concurrent with his numerous “scientific” publications, Shapiro has produced two editions of Weinberg’s religious writings based on previously unavailable archival materials (1998 and 2003). He did so under his Jewish forename Melekh [Shapira], seemingly in order to lower the defenses of potential Haredi readers. He has also long been an active blogger on Jewish literary and legal issues, developing a loyal following among rabbinic bibliophiles — whose ranks, protected by the anonymity of the web, range from ardent Hasidic Jews to avowed secularists — who search high and low for newly-revealed manuscripts and long-concealed religious controversies. In fact, various sections of his new book first appeared in blog essays, and numerous footnotes cite the contributions of fellow members of this virtual community in which loyal practitioners interface with university-trained scholars. These efforts testify to Shapiro’s desire to reach beyond the “academy” and engage the Orthodox Jewish community head on.

The writing in Shapiro’s latest full-length exposition is not overly elegant, but it is lucid, accessible, and argument-driven. He does not introduce elaborate theoretical models of analysis. Instead his method is straightforward and thorough: painstaking close readings and comparisons of texts predicated on his meticulous command of the full gamut of rabbinical literature through the ages, his resolute ability to procure the most obscure sources, and his awareness of the social and historical contexts in which the authors lived and produced their works. Indeed, the range of Jewish disciplines and subjects that he investigates, each with the same rigorousness and attentiveness, is astounding.

Changing the Immutable begins by defining the parameters of the phenomenon of Orthodox censorship. The author argues that, notwithstanding the postmodern critique of the subjectivity of all historical narratives (and the well-trodden debates over what distinguishes history from memory), the “distortion of the facts” detailed in the book is categorically different. He then goes on to delineate the variety of tactics drafted by the Orthodox — mostly of the Haredi ilk — to achieve these ends, including “deleting passages,” “rewriting,” “removal from pictures,” and “mistranslation.” Here I would add that another, more subtle, form of censorship, is to print the full original text but to introduce a misleading title beforehand. For example, when publishing posthumously some of the more contested rulings of the renowned German rabbinical authority, Jacob Ettlinger (1798-1871), his son took it upon himself to group them together under the heading, “These responsa are theoretical and not intended for practical application.”

The core six chapters of Shapiro’s work explore the application of this range of censorship techniques through the following topics: “Jewish Thought,” “Halakhah,” “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,” “Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,” “Sexual Matters and More” (wife-beating, misogyny), and “Other Censored Matters” (relations with non-Jews, enlightenment, Hasidism, and Zionism). Not only does Shapiro offer unimpeachable documentary evidence to support the multiplicity of examples that he cites in each chapter; in many cases he includes copies of the original texts and pictures side by side with the republished ones. Thus we learn, for example, that: a line in Joseph Caro’s (1488-1575) authoritative Shulhan Arukh (“Set Table”) that refers to the prevailing pre-Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Ashkenazi ritual of kapparot (swinging a chicken around one’s head for vicarious atonement) as “minhag shel shetut” (a foolish custom) was omitted with rabbinic approval from the new and most exacting version of this universally recognized code of Jewish law; a bareheaded photograph of a thirty-nine year-old Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902-1994), who later became the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe (leader of Chabad Hasidism), was reprinted with a large black yarmulkah adorning his scalp; and a leniency originally presented as no longer in practice regarding when the Sabbath begins on Friday evenings appears as a legitimate option in the Talmud commentary of Moses Sofer (Hatam Sofer, 1762-1839). The latter was the most influential central European rabbinic adjudicator of the nineteenth century; Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), the leader of the Ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic sect, requested that this ruling be left out of a 1954 photo-offset reprinting of the original text.

The increase in quantity and enterprise of Orthodox censorship in the last few decades, opines Shapiro, “is a reflection of the extremism that has taken root in Haredi Judaism.” There is certainly merit to the basic tenor of Shapiro’s explanation. The book, however, would have benefitted greatly from a more in-depth examination of the correlation between “rewriting history” and religious fundamentalism in general, as well as attentiveness to the varieties of zealous Jewish responses to societal change over the past two centuries. This is especially so since Shapiro, to his credit, does not limit himself to examples from Haredi Orthodoxy. Although the majority stem from this sector, he also supplies the reader with instances of blatant Jewish internal censorship from the time of the invention of the printing press in 1440 onwards including more recent examples among Modern Orthodox authorities, religious Zionist followers of Rabbi Kook, and even the Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust chronicler, Elie Wiesel. If the Haredi Orthodox are nevertheless the most active in this endeavor, nearly 300 pages of text would have been enhanced by a more involved and incisive elucidation as to why different groups of entirely different stripe resorted to censorship, even at the cost of offering a slightly less exhaustive collection of testimony. Those especially interested in additional materials could easily turn to the vast array of Shapiro’s bountiful, but more freely associative, blog presentations.

I will raise briefly two fruitful directions for further consideration of the Haredi proclivity toward censorship that Shapiro so ably catalogues, but minimally analyzes. The first relates to attitudes toward secular approaches to acquiring knowledge. Although more American Haredi Jews are attending college than in the past, there is still considerable ambivalence regarding scientific methods of reaching “truths,” be they biological, archeological, psychological, or historical. On the contrary, for them religious truths are the only absolute ones, and when they undertake research or disseminate information, it is under the assumption that it will not contradict certain paradigmatic beliefs and practices. Therefore, as Shapiro emphasizes, Haredi consider censorship a justifiable means for ensuring that the “eternal” understanding or tradition remains unqualified. This, of course, highlights the irony that so many of the Haredi English-language books that have recently flooded the market adopt the “facade” of academic writing including a scholarly style, footnotes, and bibliographies.

A second path for understanding Haredi censorship is predicated on the now-classic works from the 1990s of historian Haym Soloveitchik and sociologist Menachem Friedman. Both reached common conclusions regarding the cause for the gradual increase in legal stringency that has characterized Haredi Orthodoxy since the mid-twentieth century. They pointed to the disintegration from World War I onwards of centuries-old European centers where local customs held sway, and the consequent displacement of the majority of their inhabitants to Israel and North America. Under such circumstances, there was a marked decline in the process by which long-held “mimetic” traditions were internalized in the home and in communal surroundings and seamlessly adopted as the authoritative foundations for proper religious behavior. The alternative resource that stepped into the void were legal and moral “texts” that spelled out a more uniform code of conduct, often based on what were formerly considered elite standards. The new power given to the printed word may account in part for the manner depicted by Shapiro by which the contemporary Orthodox subject books to censorship. In a society predicated on mimetic authority there is less danger that a multiplicity of printed views will undermine the commitment of the believing public. But the more books become the prime vehicle for communicating how Orthodox Judaism is to be lived, the more important it is to remove or edit out materials that can confuse the reader as to the proper way to think or behave.

As dramatized by the episode in the Harvard library with which I started, Shapiro is an indefatigable and uncompromising fact finder, who calls to task those — regardless of their stature — who are found to have acted or ruled in ways aimed at hiding inconvenient and controversial information. His underlying project, be it in his academic or popular frameworks, is to bring to light the most precise renditions of Jewish historical events, rabbinical biographies, theological and legal debates, and sacred texts. His chief concerns are accuracy and honesty, without fear for the political or ideological fallout that may ensue. Indeed, it appears that the current work was designed to serve as the culmination of Shapiro’s decades-long “truth mission.”

Already in the preface the reader learns that the “altering and conscious rewriting of Jewish history and thought” that pervades Orthodox-sponsored accounts is comparable to that which is associated pejoratively with Soviet-style journalism and historical writing. While he acknowledges in the introduction that both Jewish and non-Jewish writers in premodern times focused on “celebrating the past” rather than achieving full accuracy, at this point in the book he still seems steadfast in his exceptionally negative evaluation of the Orthodox phenomenon. Throughout most of the book he labels the hundreds of instances of censorship that he catalogues as “pernicious,” “down-right coldhearted,” aimed to “fool people,” “paternalistic,” “fraudulent,” and “insulting.” How incongruous, then, that he closes the book by demonstrating that these activities are religiously legitimate since there is a well-established and accepted trend in rabbinical Judaism from ancient times that parallels Plato’s notion of the “noble lie” invoked for a “higher purpose.” Did the “Ralph Nader” of Orthodox Judaism have misgivings about the merits of his decades-long campaign?

Some may perceive Shapiro’s location of Orthodox censorship within a genuine, perhaps even dominant, strand of Jewish convention as his own resort to religious apologetics in the face of the magnitude of the phenomenon. My own understanding, however, is that the dialectical tension at the foundation of Shapiro’s engaged scholarship reached a boiling point at which he had to choose between two opposing sides of his personal moral compass. As an ethical activist who venerates “full disclosure” as the foundation of just society, as well as a religious Jew, the idea that pious figures would sanction the deliberate activities that he chronicled is detestable. As an academic scholar, however, his intellectual honesty could not deny the solid historic and legal trends upon which the “perpetrators” had predicated their actions. Unwilling to succumb to apologetics, he refused to dictate the narrative such that the two poles could achieve artificial synthesis, and — distasteful as this may have been for him — opted instead to “let the cards fall as they may.” Regardless of one’s opinion of this decision, the book is the outstanding product of a master of rabbinic literature and an extraordinarily sharp-eyed and meticulous scholar. The book should be accessible to the widest possible readership, including traditionalists; therefore, one hopes that it will be translated soon into Hebrew.