Monthly Archives: June 2015

Marc B. Shapiro- Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History

This week’s Economist has an article on the British Haredi community entitled Shtetls of the Mind: The Sad State of British Haredi Jewry. The article points out that the self- imposed restrictions that the Haredi community places on itself are causing economic and social downturn. This recent interest in the Haredi would by outsiders is shared by many of the American Jewish newspapers and, in turn, by the broader Jewish community seeking to be acquainted with this seemingly exotic and closed element of the tribe. Currently, most are gaining their knowledge from the confessional memoirs written by Ex-Hasidim. Marc B. Shapiro took an alternate route to Haredim by documenting how they censor and rewrite their history in his recent book Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History (Littman, 2015).

changing the immutable

Marc B. Shapiro holds the Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton. He is the author of Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg and The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, both of which were National Jewish Book Award Finalists. Shapiro’s writings often challenge the bounds of the conventional Orthodox understanding of Judaism using academic research while adhering to Modern Orthodox sensibilities.  Shapiro was the last PhD student of the late Prof. Isadore Twersky at Harvard University.

Clinton photoshopped out

Shapiro’s book starts off with the blatant censoring by a Haredi newspaper that photo-shopped Hillary Clinton out of the photo of the White Staff watching the assassination of Bin Laden.  He uses this stark example to show how in various ways the Orthodox community rewrites its past and present. According to Shapiro, the Haredi feels that it needs to keep information from the masses, censor things that do not support their view, and to remove inappropriate statements from books. At the end of this introductory litany of distortions, he contrasts this with the motto of the Modern Orthodox school that some of his children attend “Truth and Nothing but the Truth.”

The book is arranged topically collecting the censorship in books by category: Jewish Thought, Halakhah, Writings of Rabbi SR Hirsch, Writings of Rav Kook, Sexual Matters, and Everything else. The final chapter, clearly the most thoughtful, is on the concept of truth and its less than assumed importance in Orthodox Jewish life. The chapter gives cases where a rabbi can use false attribution to give greater credence to what he says, or he can claim that a prohibition is more severe than it really is in order to gain obedience or that the Rabbis can let a scholar can lie in order to save himself from embarrassment. He even has a case permitting forgery of a phony will to prevent one of the parties from going to secular court.

While the book is ostensibly on contemporary Orthodox, along the way we are also given cases of the Victorian removal of sexuality from Judaica, the removal of Renaissance nudes from printing, removal of wild passages from Hasidut and Rav Kook, the medieval practice of hiding things from the masses, and process of paraphrasing during the process of translation.

Last year, I heard a wonderful lecture by Shapiro on how then Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks self-censored his own book Dignity of Difference away from explicit pluralism, but still accepted an award specifically for the first edition with the awarding organization highlighting the removed passages as the reason for the award. Nevertheless, Shapiro’s criterion for this book is censorship by editors and therefore he leaves out acts of self-censorship.

Shapiro accounts for the censorship in Orthodox books as acts of pedagogic truth, while in other places he writes that they distort the truth like the communist party paper from the Soviet era Pravda. But the book does not concern itself with who the editors are, what are their methods, or their social context. Is the agency of book editors the same as the governmental agenda of Pravda? Is maintaining a certain type of respect for rabbis, the same as fabricating alternate accounts of world events?

The book has a clear moralizing tone toward the rewritten truth of the Orthodox and the style clearly seems to be written to address them directly. The buzz on the street and on social media is that this book will help change the Haredi community, that it will expose its problems, that it will open up new horizons for the community, and that it will actually cause social change in the community. However, in the interview below Shapiro demurs. He claims that those are not his goals, rather he is nothing but a historian presenting objective facts without a desire or goal to challenge or change the community.  He wants The Truth and Nothing but the Truth.”

1) How do you think Orthodox Judaism is currently engaged in a systematic censoring of the past?

When we speak of “Orthodox Judaism” censoring the past, we must be clear that we are obviously not speaking about all individuals who identify as Orthodox or haredi. It is, however, the case that among some of the Orthodox there has been an effort to rewrite the past. This rewriting takes on different forms and sometimes it is indeed much like Pravda. There are many more examples of this than I was able to discuss in the book, as the book focuses primarily on censorship and I wanted to tell the story in this fashion.

The late Chabad historian of Hasidism Yehoshua Mondshine wrote many columns debunking phony stories that double as “history” in the haredi world. He seemed to take great pleasure pointing out the factual inaccuracies and often the absurdities of the stories.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that in many such cases the person recording the story must know, or at least suspect, that it is false. However, the point of these stories, and indeed the larger genre of “Orthodox history”, is not factual history but inspirational history. The term pedagogic truth goes hand in hand with distortions, as you can’t have the former without the latter.

The role of the masses is quite important in the story I am telling, since it is precisely the masses that are the focus. The elites have the information and they know the truth. Yet it is thought that this truth would be dangerous in the hands of the masses. Often that means that historical facts are covered up, and at other times it means that “facts” are invented in order to further the goal of strengthening haredi society. To give an example, I am certain that pretty much all of the haredi works that attempt to destroy R. Kook’s reputation knowingly distort the truth. They leave out many important details that would complicate the story they are trying to tell. And that is the point. They don’t want their readers to be exposed to complexity. Rather, they want to indoctrinate their readers and that is really what so-called Orthodox history is. It is a form of ideological indoctrination of which “history” is the means.


2) Why did you write this book? What was your motivation?

I wrote Changing the Immutable for the same reason I wrote my other books: I thought that I had an interesting and important story to tell. There was no additional motivation, no desire to influence the wider community, to hit back against certain trends in Orthodoxy, or anything like that. I say this fully cognizant of the fact that non-academic readers of the book will be overwhelmingly from the Orthodox community, as the issues I discuss are of immediate interest to them.

I understand that people may use the book to further their own ideological goals and that is fine, but it has nothing to do with my motivations, at least my conscious motivations. Anyone who reads the book and can appreciate the work that went into it will, I think, realize that it is a work of scholarship. Someone with a non-scholarly motivation would not put such effort into a book. My first interest in the matter of censorship was an outgrowth of my interest in the history of Jewish books. But it soon became apparent to me that what I was discovering was not merely of bibliographical interest, but could be part of a story whose focus was Jewish intellectual and cultural history.

3) Why the moralism toward the Orthodox Approach? You clearly see their lack of honesty as a problem to condemn.

There are a couple of issues at stake here. To begin with, it must be made clear that before the rise of modern historical studies history was always written with an agenda. This leads me to be more understanding than many others when it comes to “ArtScroll history”, which is another way of saying hagiography. Everyone realizes that what ArtScroll and others like them they are writing is not what we regard as history in the academy, but what they are doing is actually very much in line with tradition, as I will later explain. I also see a place for such works, and in certain communities this is what is desired. However, for communities whose members read general works of history and serious biographies of United States’ presidents and other figures, you can’t expect, and shouldn’t want them to settle for anything less when it comes to Jewish history in general and biographies of great rabbis in particular.

Quite apart from the writing of history, which I do not focus on in the new book, there is the other matter of distortions through altering texts of the past. That is what I devote a good deal of time to in the book. Although I try to write with scholarly detachment, my own feeling is that when people begin to actually alter the words of great rabbinic figures, and to literally cut out things that they don’t like, these distortions must be combated.

As I point out in the book, history used to be written with an agenda. Inventing dialogues was thought to be proper. Thus, as mentioned already, the way ArtScroll writes history is actually very traditional. It is just that many of us have moved away from this approach. I don’t think any academic historians are naive enough to say that we can write “objective” history, but we try to remove ourselves from our prejudices and preconceptions. In the haredi world they are still writing history in the old-fashioned way, whereby history is in many ways designed to serve the needs of the present.

4) Does it matter? If they don’t have basic knowledge of history nor concepts of historicity, authenticity, and authorship so why not let them present things in didactic terms?

It matters because historical truth matters. We are not dealing here with issues of interpretation where there is no absolute “truth”. We are dealing with an attempt to recreate the past in the guise of the present. This doesn’t mean that I believe that everyone needs to be exposed to the complete truth of every matter. But for those who care the truth must be established.

When I say that not everyone needs to be exposed to the complete truth, let me share a story to illustrate this. I realize that some people might find this story surprising coming from me. Some years ago after a lecture someone approached me. He was quite upset that his son had become a hasid and he wanted my help in this matter. He wanted to know if he should give his son David Assaf’s book on Hasidism, as he thought that seeing some of the unsavory history of the movement would change his son’s views. I told him that I thought this was a bad idea. If his son is happy in his newfound spirituality why attempt to destroy it? If his son is interested in the history of Hasidism, sooner or later he will come to Assaf. But I don’t think it should be a goal to have all hasidim become acquainted with these matters. Isn’t this also how families operate? Does everyone in the family need to know all of the difficult and dark secrets? Often life works out better for them if they are blissfully ignorant of certain things.

5) How was Hirsch censored by Netzach publishing? Or Feldheim not publishing the lecture in praise of Schiller until you did?

Netzah censored much that was not in line with the haredi Weltanschauung, so Hirsch’s criticism of Maimonides and his negative characterization of Kabbalah were deleted. On one occasion they even deleted a comment of his dealing with Torah im Derekh Eretz. In a future blog post I will show how they deleted Hirsch’s citation of Wessely. (I only learnt of this when the book was in press and thus could not include it.)

The situation with Hirsch’s Schiller lecture is a bit different. It is not like the Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer Foundation, which published the multi-volume English translation of Hirsch’s writings, printed the Schiller talk but deleted certain sections. They simply chose not to publish it at all, even though they had a completed translation available for use. As you mention, it was only after I published a translation of it did they release their own translation. As I was told, the reason why their translation had not been released until then is somewhat different than what we find with Netzah. It wasn’t that they wanted to cover up Hirsch’s views, and there is indeed plenty that they did publish that breaks with the haredi viewpoint.

The reason they did not publish Hirsch’s talk on Schiller is that in the post-Holocaust years Hirsch’s praise of an aspect of German culture was simply too painful for some to read. I don’t entirely understand this reaction, as the ideals of Schiller have nothing to do with Nazism. By the same token, Professor Mordechai Breuer told me that his father’s love of Kant was never affected by what Germany became. Yet because of the sensitivities of some in the Washington Heights community, it was thought necessary to embargo the translation for a number of years. At least this is the story that was told to me.

6) In your last chapter, you write that truth is not an absolute value for the Orthodox and that one can lie for a purpose? Can you explain?

There are times when other values can trump the value of truth, and the precise details are subject to dispute. In the book I give examples that many people will find understandable and other examples that I think most people will find shocking. Thus, I cite an opinion that one collecting money to pay for publication of a book can falsely tell people that he is collecting for a poor bride. There are also rabbis who permitted lying to donors about how many students attend a yeshiva in order to receive larger donations. How many people today would even consider countenancing such falsehoods?

I don’t think that people find it problematic that parents are not always honest with their children, especially young children. Parents often assume that it is in the child’s best interest not to know the truth about certain things. Doctors used to act the same way when it came to bad diagnoses. It thus shouldn’t be surprising if rabbis acted in a similar fashion, and as I point out, there is plenty of support for this sort of paternalism in rabbinic literature.

7) You mention that Zionist historians censored the history of Israel so as not to mention that the Zionists expelled the Arabs. Is this the same phenomena as the Orthodox? 

I mentioned the creation of the myth that no Arabs were ever expelled from their homes in the new State of Israel. The narrative pushed by the government and widely accepted in the early years of the State was that all of the Arabs left on their own. I haven’t investigated how much this myth is found in academic works of history as opposed to works designed for the general population and polemical works by defenders of Israel. In my lectures on the book I actually spend some time on this point. I do so since I think that most defenders of Israel understand and are sympathetic to the circumstances that led to the creation of this myth, while at the same time recognizing that today we are able to examine the historical record in a more impartial fashion.

They understand that in the years following the creation of the State of Israel, an era which also saw Jews driven out of Arab countries, that it would have been demographic suicide for Israel to allow all the refugees to return. Yet for obvious reasons Israel could not publicly acknowledge that many of these refugees had been driven out and at the same insist that they not be allowed to return. The solution to this problem was the myth that all of the Arabs had left on their own. Even if they had left on their own, it was still not a simple matter to explain why after the war they couldn’t return, but this was better than stating that they had been driven out and were not going to be allowed back in.

In my talks I make the point that if people can understand why this myth was once viewed as important, both for reasons of realpolitik as well as to soothe Jewish consciences, then they should also be able to understand that in the haredi world other myths are important. I try to make the point that myths can have value to societies even if they are not true. Historians also recognize the value of myths even as our research undermines them.


8) Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin in his book The Censor, the Editor, and the Text The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century– thinks that censorship is and was good for creating a more tolerant Judaism. Do you disagree?

There is a non-tolerant verse in the original version of Aleinu that refers to non-Jews bowing to vanity and praying to a god who doesn’t help. . It was censored from the prayer and it might have originally been Jews who self-censored it to avoid problems. Such a verse recited a few times a day is not the sort of thing that will inspire good relations between Jews and their neighbors. So from that standpoint one could argue that it was good that it was removed.

Now that the censors no longer operate should this verse be reinserted? After all, don’t we want to return to the original text? From a historical standpoint it is vital that we understand what the verse meant and why Jews said it. We also need to recognize that Jews were subjected to terrible persecutions and murders and although they could not respond physically they did respond with the pen. This is understandable and nothing to be ashamed of. However, when it comes to reinserting the line that has been gone for so long, and whose absence might have helped create a more tolerant Judaism, my own opinion is that it is best to leave it out. This line, which states that non-Jews bow to vanity and pray to a god who does not help, is not applicable to Muslims and according to many, and this is my opinion as well, is not applicable to Christians either. In any event, I want adherents of other religions to treat Jews and Judaism with respect and therefore it makes sense that Jews should adopt the same approach in their dealings with the non-Jewish world.

This is not just smart politics and important in terms of Christian support for Israel. It is also the right thing to do. In our day and age it is vital that tensions between the religions be lessened. When R. Moses Feinstein was asked about reinserting the line he said not to. What is surprising is that R. Jonathan Sacks’ siddur, the Koren Siddur, has reinserted the line, even if only in parenthesis. This reinsertion is in direct opposition to Sacks’ message of religious tolerance and diversity that is seen most vividly in his book The Dignity of Difference. Even the message of the second edition of this book, in which Sacks retracted some of his more provocative expressions of religious relativism, would not countenance referring to those who worship God in a different fashion as bowing to nonsense and worshiping a god who does not hear them.

9) What about the censorship and rewriting of Modern Orthodoxy? For example, the leaving out of the importance of Rackman as the leading opponent of Lamm for presidency in the official book. Why not document the revisionism of Rabbi Soloveitchik within the YU world?

Regarding Lamm, I too don’t understand how a book on the history of Yeshiva University could avoid discussing the politics behind his triumphing over R. Emanuel Rackman to be selected as president of YU. This was an important event in its own right, and it also spoke to larger trends in American Orthodoxy. I myself interviewed Rackman about his own perspective on the matter.

There are, to be sure, plenty of distortions in Modern Orthodox writing, much of which revolves around R. Soloveitchik. Yet my sense is that for the most part we are not confronted with conscious rewriting of the historical record for ideological reasons. One can be wrong and guilty of propagating a terrible distortion, but when I speak of censorship I am referring to the conscious altering of our perceptions of the past. The run-of-the-mill revisionism of R. Soloveitchik is something I have discussed in blog posts, but I didn’t think that it fit into the theme of the book.

10) We regularly edit works to fit with the times, why are these cases different than the Orthodox? The way we remove rape jokes from the Greek classics or racism from American classics?

You are correct. Some of what I have documented in the book should be placed in the same category as that which you mention, and I could add many more examples (e.g., removing the “N” word in Huckelberry Finn). However, it is one thing to do with when dealing with elementary and high school students, and quite another matter at the college and post-college level. When it comes to college students, I am strongly opposed to any politically correct “updating” of classic texts. As to your basic point, my experience has been that people are very surprised to learn that some of their religious texts have been “updated” in the same fashion as the other works you refer to.

The question assumes that what I want is relevant. But that is really beside the point as my book is not prescriptive. You are on target in referring to the censorship and editing of Shakespeare and the like. In fact, some of what I describe in the book arose for the very same reason. I too would not want to tell fairy tales with graphic endings. I also completely understand the motivation of hagiography, and it could be that certain sections of the Jewish community need hagiography, as their interest in the past is to be inspired by it, not to understand people and events in a historical fashion. I don’t object to that at all, as long as people realize that this is not history.

11) How was it working for Professor Twersky as an advisor?

As to how Twersky was as an advisor, I know that there are difficult stories from the decades before I was there, of students having to work for a decade or two before receiving the PhD. However, my experience with him was fantastic. In fact, right at the beginning it was made clear to me that my time there would be on the short side, and Twersky read my material fairly quickly. Unlike other students who went to Israel or other places in the summer, I didn’t go anywhere, so during the summer I got to spend quality time with him. He hired me to be his gofer, as it were. He had me retrieve books and articles for him and he also asked me to give him interesting things that I found. I was pleasantly surprised that one of the sources I showed him made it into the additional notes at the end of his Hebrew edition of Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, p. 400. In describing what I owe to him as an advisor, here is what I wrote in the preface to my dissertation.

My debt to Professor Twersky is also enormous. From him, more than anyone else, I learned how difficult it is to produce even one sentence of original scholarship. I hope my work has lived up to the high expectations he always set for me, and encouraged me to set for myself. His tremendous learning and genuine humility are an example for all.

I actually did have a couple of disputes with Prof. Twersky. After reading one of my essays, or it might have even been a chapter of my dissertation, he told me that I had a “chip on my shoulder” when it came to Hasidism. He obviously didn’t like something I wrote, but I was never able to understand what he found problematic, as he didn’t elaborate. Perhaps I shouldn’t call this a dispute, just a difference of opinion. However, we did have a real dispute during the writing of the dissertation and it had nothing to do with scholarship. To this day I find it very strange.

He told me that when I refer to great rabbis I should put an “R.” before their names. He said that it was jarring for him to read sentences such as “Weinberg wrote to Kook.”  I was quite surprised by this, and I wasn’t sure if he was making a request of giving an order. I can’t imagine that in his younger years he would have raised this issue, but I knew that in an essay that appeared in 1987, focused on R. Yair Hayyim Bacharach, Twersky continuously refers to him as “R. Bacharach”.

I thought then, and I continue to think, that referring to someone by his last name, which is the academic convention, does not imply a lack of respect. I understand that in yeshiva circles they see things differently, but I was sitting in his office at Harvard University, not in a yeshiva, and I was writing an academic work, not an “Orthodox” work. I was relieved when after I expressed my disagreement he told me that he was not insisting on the point. Interestingly, I later heard from my other advisor, Prof. Jay Harris, that Twersky raised the issue with him as well. Harris replied that if I were to start putting “R.” before the names of rabbis then I would also have to write “R. Geiger”. Twersky had no reply to this and the matter was never again brought up.

Let me also note that for many years I have been working at a Catholic university. Before Pope Benedict assumed his office, the most conservative Catholics academics on campus had no hesitation in referring to him as “Ratzinger”, without prefacing his name with “Cardinal.” In other words, the notion that it is disrespectful to refer to someone by his last name is an Orthodox convention but it doesn’t have general applicability. In fact, in yeshiva circles it is seen as disrespectful to speak to a great Torah scholar in the second person, a convention that has fallen by the wayside among the Modern Orthodox, none of whom would see anything disrespectful in asking a great rabbi, “Do you think I was correct in my understanding?”, as opposed to asking, “Does the Rosh Yeshiva think I was correct in my understanding?”

12) How do you envision the Orthodox community will change in the next decade?

Predictions are always dangerous, which is one reason why I prefer to stick to studying the past. When it comes to Orthodoxy, changes are happening very quickly. I think it is obvious that we have now reached a point where women rabbis are a fait accompli. In the coming years synagogues and Hillels are going to have Orthodox women on the payroll serving as rabbis, even if not all of them go by that title. There already are OU synagogues with such women. It seems to me that it would be too difficult for the OU to take a stand on this and push out these synagogues. This means that, whether people like it or not, women rabbis are now an accepted feature of Orthodoxy. Just like some Orthodox synagogues will have women presidents while most others won’t, so too some Orthodox synagogues will have women rabbis even if the great majority will not. This is a development that no one could have predicted even fifteen years ago.

Marc Michael Epstein- Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts

Most books on Jewish illuminated manuscripts seem to be written for the wealthy collector of manuscripts or for the pedantic cataloger. In a recent book Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein (along with many contributors), we finally have a Jewish art book for the rest of us. The book explains the meanings of the decorative arts as a whole, their history, how to read the metonymy of the images, and even the process of ink and dye by which the manuscript was illuminated.  This is the best Jewish art book out there, worthy to give as a gift to friends and to keep a copy for oneself.SPSI-Epstein-jacket.indd  Marc Michael Epstein is Professor of Religion and Visual Culture on the Mattie M. Paschall (1899) & Norman Davis Chair at Vassar College has a unique position in that he teaches  both Jewish thought, especially Kabbalah as well as Jewish visual culture. This is what makes the book interesting in that he asks conceptual questions of his manuscripts.

How did they conceive of God? What was their cosmology? Why is there Christian iconography? Why is God depicted as a hand or a face? What was their map of the world? Why are there nudes? Why men given faces and the women are not? The manuscripts were chosen for their unique content and form, not that they just happen to be in the patron’s or museum’s collection. One should read the book twice, first just for the  wonderfulness of the pictures and then a second reading for the narrative. The book does not force answers to these question and many times leaves the issues open. Here is the introduction to the book as pdf.

Even the  introduction is worth reading and has reproductions of many illuminations including those depicting God, but notice on pages 11, where he gives two side by side illuminations of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, how he calls on the reader to make her own judgement about how each community interpreted the events and in the latter illustration the role the communities gave to  God, Moses, or the people Israel.

These questions frame the book as a whole and produce a usable history of the past that focuses on culture, self-perception, and wealth. Rather than some of the Jewish art books of prior decades that highlighted persecutions, history, and yearned for messianic redemption, this volume is more about Jewish thought patterns and their use of metonymy to record these patterns.

For years, I have also contacted Marc M. Epstein when I wanted basic information that no one else had such as: What do Griffins eat? Griffins (the legendary creature with the body and legs of a lion with the head, wings and talons of an eagle) are ever present at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a vast collection of griffin illustrations and sculpture spanning Spain to China. After, an afternoon of looking at medieval bestiaries, if I want to know about what do griffins eat, he has the answer. (According to Herodotus, they eat horses. But the manuscripts show that they had a wider diet). More importantly, Epstein changed Jewish art history by showing that the well-known “birds-head”  images in medieval Ashkenaz manuscripts are really Griffins.

The book could be a textbook in a course on the visual culture of the Jews. The interview below mainly focuses on the medieval elements in the book but the volume has much more. The novelty of the book is that includes Persian Jewish illuminations, Yiddish works, as well a solid chapter on contemporary illuminated manuscripts.  Among the contemporary artists, he naturally includes  Arthur Syzk and David Moss, but he also includes Siona Benjamin from Bombay, Archie Granot’s paper cuttings, and JT Waldman from the JPS publications. His volume concludes with a discussion of the current 21st century flourishing of the illuminated Ketubah. The contemporary chapter does not engage in the same cultural analysis offered of prior centuries.  This decade may be too close to ask about its self-representation and cosmology, but it leaves the reader to ponder what will be explainable to future generations about our images.

  1. What is unique and different about your book?

It’s the first comprehensive survey of Jewish manuscript illumination in several decades, the first to use the very highest quality digital imagery.

In terms of content, traditional surveys of what have been called “Hebrew illuminated manuscripts,” (but which also contain Yiddish and Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Arabic and Persian books) generally begin by explaining why Jews have art in spite of the infamous Second Commandment, then go on to provide a brief survey of illumination by time and country of origin, followed by a chronologically organized collection of single openings from thirty or forty manuscripts facing codicological and paleographic descriptions, descriptions of style, national characteristics of the manuscript in question, and the iconography of the particular image shown, and ending with some bibliography.

People bought such books for the beautiful illustrations (nobody, myself included when I purchase a book for a wedding, bar mizvah or host/ess gift is very much interested in enumerations of pickings, quire gatherings and blank sequences.) They were of little use for getting to know what manuscripts were, how they were created, organized, how they functioned as books, what they have to tell us about history, sociology, theology and a myriad of other topics. This book is the first to discuss these wonderful books topically and in depth, addressing questions from how one makes a manuscript to what iconography has to say theologically and polemically. It is a book that is uniquely positioned to speak both to established scholars, students, and lay people. portrait2. How did you become involved in Jewish illuminated manuscripts?

My interest in medieval art generally dates back to my earliest expeditions with my father, an artist (who had himself left behind the world of his of Slonimer and Lubavitch origins, ending up as a student of Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt at Brooklyn College and the Art Students’ League)  to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, trips that were pilgrimages that always culminated in the wonderful room of the Unicorn Tapestries. Those tapestries—in the richness of the interplay between their “reality”— the details of the flora and fauna, the hunting paraphernalia, and the expressions of the protagonists—and the consummate irreality of the depiction of the hunt of a mythical beast; the powerful symbolism of the beast and its hunt; and the illusionistic three-dimensional, volumetric depiction of all the figures by means of the magic literally woven by warp and woof threads— intrigued and  cast a spell over me.

At Oberlin College I pursued the study of medieval art, but grew more and more discontent with its pervasively Christian contents. So in my junior year of college, I took a year in Jerusalem, to try and figure out what “my guys” were doing in the Middle Ages.

When, at the ripe old age of 17, I approached the late Professor Bezalel Narkiss at the Hebrew University regarding working on animal symbolism in medieval art made for Jews, he told me “Mr. Epstein, I have been studying Hebrew illuminated manuscripts for over 50 years, and I can assure you that no image of any animal in these works has any significance beyond the decorative.”

Stunned, I asked him “Does this mean you won’t support my research?” “On the contrary,” he intoned, “I will OPPOSE it!” And for over 30 years, until his death, he did. Ironically, having a door slammed in my face inspired me to go on and work hard to demonstrate that iconography concerning which the “last word” had been written by scholars of Narkiss’ generation still might yield interesting and compelling food for thought.

As unhelpful as Narkiss was, during my sojourn at Sothebys’—first as an intern, and later as the director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of the Judaica Department I had a colleague, Jay Weinstein, whose wisdom, experience and humor were inspirational, and under whose guidance I was able to experience and explore first-hand a wide range of manuscripts that would otherwise have been inaccessible to me.

  1. Was there a tension between the verbal culture of the Jews and their visual culture?

The visual culture of Jews is an extension and amplification of their verbal culture. For Jews, art doesn’t merely serve to illustrate text or exegesis, it actually becomes exegesis in and of itself. The illustration of the plague of frogs in the Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, probably Barcelona, c. 1320, London, BL Add. MS 11639, fol. 12va) simultaneously illustrates 1) the biblical text, 2) the midrash that speaks of the gigantic frog that emerged from the Nile, which “they beat” and from which the other frogs emerged, and finally, 3) the invention of the authorship in order to polemicize against the “Pharaohs” of their own time—the distinctly scatological detail of the horde of frogs emerging from the gigantic frog’s rear end.

Or—from the ridiculous to the sublime—the opening folio of the Book of Numbers in the so-called Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, illuminated in the Lake Constance region around 1300, (London, British Library MS 15282, fol.179v) on which  four knights hold banners with the symbols of the major tribes camped around each of the four sides of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Tabernacle is represented as a word — the opening word of the Book of Numbers, Va-yiddaber: “and [he — (God)] spoke.” It is thus the word of God manifest as the sacred center of everything. It literally stands in for the Tabernacle in the center of the Israelite camp, which was, after all, built to enshrine the Tablets of the Covenant: a physical manifestation of God’s word. It represents, by extension, the centrality of scripture — of God’s words to Moses — in the Israelite experience, in this biblical book, in the entirety of Pentateuch, and in subsequent Jewish tradition. This concept is profound in itself, but it is most fascinating that the creators of this manuscript chose to represent this concept visually: they chose to represent the primacy of the word in the tradition via the image.

  1. Why use bird’s heads and what are their relations to griffins and Jews?

My contention is that the heads that people usually call bird’s heads in the illuminations of the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah, made possibly in Mainz, around 1300 (Jerusalem, Israel Museum, MS 180/57,) are not birds’ heads at all—they have manes/beards and animal ears. They are, thus, lion-eagle-human hybrids and evoke both the kruvim on the Ark of the Covenant, and the martyrs of Mainz (where this manuscript was likely made) who are described liturgically as “lighter than eagles and bolder than lions” to do God’s will. They represent symbolically those qualities of Jews that would otherwise be difficult to depict visually. My reconsideration of these images has begun to cause a shift from referring to the manuscript as the “Birds’ Head Haggadah” to calling it the “Griffins’ Head Haggadah.”

  1. How can the illustrations depict God, isn’t it against Judaism?

The amount of iconoclasm depended upon the relationship between the illustrator and the patron. In some cases, we are talking about Jews creating the images; in other cases it was non-Jews working for Jews. In some cases there was extraordinarily close collaboration, and in other cases it was very little collaboration. In some cases the book was ordered and accepted as it was because the patron was unconcerned about the iconography. In other cases, the patron was very involved and returned the book for revision of the illustrations.

The hand of God appears in medieval art made for Jews, just as it had in antiquity (see, e.g. The Griffins’ Head Haggadah, Jerusalem, Israel Museum, MS 180/57, fols. 22v and 23v, depicting the giving of the Tablets of the Covenant, and the descent of manna and quails respectively). Whether this demonstrates that the authorship of these images viewed God as somehow embodied is an interesting question—minimally it indicates that they sought a solution to the connection of the Divine and earthly realms that was minimally corporeal and that had classical antecedents (transmitted via the mediation of Christian iconography).

An interesting case in point that addresses the sort of negotiation discussed above is that of the RaShI commentary, illuminated in the Würzburg region of Germany and completed in 1233 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbiliothek, MS Cod. hebr. 5/I–II, fol. 47v). The illuminator was given an instruction (or just a translation) of the opening of Exodus 6, “And the LORD spoke with Moses.”

For this verse, the non-Jewish illuminator, probably following an instruction translating the phrase “And God spoke [to Moses]” depicted God—in the form of Jesus, no less—conversing with Moses. In this extreme case, the book was sent back and the offending image was scraped and a replaced by a gold semicircle.

The manuscript as it exists now shows a burnished golden semicircle to indicate the presence of God, but it is flaking and beneath it one can make out the image of Christ. Obviously what happened is that the manuscript was delivered to the patron, who took one look at that image and sent it back. Again, you can imagine the conversation, “Yeah, well we don’t do that. No way. I don’t care what you do, scrape it off, put some gold there, anything, but we can’t have that image!” So images were effaced, erased (sometimes post-facto by people seeking to magically neutralize them.) Sinai But images were also configured to display animal heads in place of human heads, presenting the viewer with a richer and more nuanced set of associations than a blank or effaced head, as in the case of the depiction of the revelation at Sinai in the second volume of the Tripartite Maḥzor made in the Lake Constance region around 1320. (London, British Library, MS Add. 22413, fol. 3r).  Here, the men and women, per midrashic interpretation, stand separately at Sinai, but interestingly, the male protagonists have human heads, but women are given the heads of various animals.

Why are the images of women’s faces not depicted? The reasons for this are unclear—a horror of the female face or a desire—as in the case of the griffin heads—to represent women symbolically in ways and for reasons that are unclear, ambiguous or ambivalent? This is a fabulous example of the fact that each manuscript employing facial distortion needs to be interpreted on its own. There are no universal solutions to questions of interpretation.

The relationship between Jews and potentially problematic images like this enables us to trace a variety of responses, and thus strata, of patronage configurations, and of Jewish receptive audiences, from the rich and oblivious to the rich and involved (it’s always the rich, given that these are very expensive books).

  1. What was the secular realm opened up in the High Middle Ages to allow illustrations?

Around 1300, with the growth of more urban centers, manuscript illumination now moved from monasteries, to which Jews would have been unlikely to apply for illuminated works, to secular workshops on the high or cathedral street of nearly every important European city, often directly proximate to the Jewish quarter. Jews could now go into shops and order liturgical books that in form imitated the sort of things their Christian neighbors were using.

We might even imagine them paying for instruction for their sons or daughters with the proviso that the work would be for home consumption only, and would not infringe upon the prerogatives and the market of the guilds of illuminators. In some workshops Jews worked alongside Christians, but even when—as in the majority of cases—Jews ordered iconography from Christian craftspeople, it always involved an interesting conversation between the parties. “Well, I need an illustration of Moses, Zipporah, and their two kids fleeing Midian on their way to Egypt, and meeting Aaron on the way. So, give me that illustration of what you call ‘The Flight Into Egypt,’ but give me two babies, take out the halo on the woman, and put another, older male figure at the left. Oh, and put Moses’ shepherd dog in as well.”

  1. Do Jews have unicorns? Killer rabbits? Demons?

Art made for Jews contains all manner of creatures, from the naturalistic to the phantasmagoric.  We see unicorns—representing the Messiah in Jewish contexts, just as they represent Christ in Christian settings (Pentateuch, Brabant, 1310. Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Levy 19, fo1. 97r,). Add. 14761  f.30v We see hares triumphing over pursuing dogs,  for instance in the page from the Barcelona Haggadah  with the rubric “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, ” the lower margin and central illustration depicts the slaving Israelites, while at top, a hare is served a drink by a dog, perhaps articulating the wish that “one day the Egyptian dogs will serve us.” (London, British Library, MS add. 14761, fol. 30v.) And we see demons of various kinds, representing the forces of darkness and destruction (London, British Library MS 15282, fol.179v). Many of the creatures in manuscript illumination are symbolic in nature: the weak wreak vengeance on the strong, the powerless are vindicated. Fantastic beasts are a way of visually manifesting ideas and highlighting concepts that are either so inherent that they require rearticulation in a striking manner, or so subversive that they require encoding.

  1. What surprising images did you find?

There are many images that are initially surprising: how could such-and-such an image appear in Jewish art. But then one realizes that “Jewish art” is merely “art” and that regardless of ultimate origin, nobody totally owns iconography. By re-purposing classically Christian iconography, the Jewish authorship calls attention to its reconfiguration of the values of that imagery.

The dove of the Holy Spirit repurposed as the quails descending in the wilderness in the Griffins’ Head Haggadah (fol. 22v) is an excellent example of such a turn: Although the image assuredly originated simply as a downward flying bird that was available to the (Jewish) authorship in a (Christian artists’) model book, the dove representing the Holy Spirit is an indisputably familiar image expressing a distinctively Christian theological concept. By adopting and adapting it, the Griffins’ Head authorship makes us think about the role of Divine Providence in a Jewish context. Since the Holy Spirit represents the active outreach of the works of God in the world, it is in fact a perfect symbol for Divine Providence in the desert journeys of the Israelites. Holy Spirit stripped of its Christological, Trinitarian context, is an appropriate, (if edgy) analogue to Ruah HaKodesh.  The image thus both answers Christianity and articulates something important for Judaism.

  1. How were they syncretic?

Jews always both adopted and adapted, but they did so selectively. Sometimes, as in the case of the Eucharistic wafers and the dove of the Holy Spirit becoming the manna and quails in the wilderness, the adaptations were contextual and thus prompted to occur in the mind of the viewer. In other cases, there were particular adjustments—haloes removed, figures added or altered.

In the Golden Haggadah, during the cattle plague (fol. 12v), two Egyptians stand flanking a strongly vertical tower with a horizontal visual element, as they lament and mourn their dead livestock in positions and with emotions identical to the mourners around Jesus’ cross. This is a clear example of the exegetical potential of adaptation, in which a radically re-envisioned mourning serves to comment both on the ancient Egyptian enemies of the Israelites and parodies contemporary Christians.

  1. How could they allow nudes?

Attitudes towards nudity were different. In some ways, the utilitarian nature of nudity trumped its eroticism. The human mind can make anything erotic.

We have this myth of modesty—that is, that earlier ages were much more discrete about uncovered body parts. This is actually not the case. But they tended to de-eroticize body parts, particularly breasts, in a way that we do not do nowadays. So if nudity was didactic (medical charts), demonstrative (an image of a woman in the mikveh illustrating the blessing for the mikveh), or functional (a mother nursing, an illustration of a biblical verse, a narrative illustration) in some way, it wasn’t thought of as erotic—or at least not exclusively erotic.

In Agnes Vető’s intriguingly titled essay on “Naked Ladies in the Haggadah,” the nudes illustrating the quote from Ezekiel16:6-7 contained in the exegesis of the haggadah, (where Israel is depicted as a pubescent girl) have theological import, similar to the nudity of the infant Jesus, as discussed by Leo Steinberg in his controversial book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (1983) and as responded to by Carolyn Walker Bynum in the book’s second, revised edition in 1996.

  1. Did they have a different sense of space of visualization than we did?

In many medieval manuscripts made for Jews a different perspective on history—a world seen from the end of time—allowed patrons to envision a future in which the pursued could triumph over their pursuers. This influenced the physical and spatial organization and configuration of the images, in which different actions in different time frames—and their consequences—could all be depicted within a single frame of illustration.

In the various registers of this single page, viewers are often confronted with the past, the present, and the eschatological future. Images, thus, can simultaneously unfold in three different though interrelated chronological spheres. I’m particularly interested in the concept of what I’ve dubbed “implied ensuing motion,” in which a given image is a “slice of time,” before which something would have happened, and after which something else will occur. If the image invites us to contemplate—but not actually see— that future “something” and that “something” is subversive, we will have committed a thought crime only—neither the image nor the viewer is culpable for the sedition implied but not actually articulated in the present state of the image. Bird-hunt A hunting party, for instance, is depicted in the upper margins of double-page spread in the famous Cervera Bible, illuminated by Joseph the Frenchman in Cervera, Spain,  1299–1300 (Lisbon, Biblioteca Nacional, MS II. 72, fols. 444v–445r). On the right-hand page, we see a commotion. An armed man is drawing a sword and running toward the scene—we presume—of some great battle, or of the hunt of some dangerous beast requiring the coup de grâce of the sword. He is urged on by another man, who points him in the direction of the left-hand side of the two-page spread. There, expecting to see some scene of carnage or of a dangerous beast cornered and needing to be subdued and dispatched by the sword, we are surprised to see only two hunters attacking a little black bird, which has come momentarily to rest on a parapet, just having folded its wings.

The image is a bit of comedy on the theme of the threat of outrageously overdetermined violence. What I read here politically—I would not presume to say is what is “going on” in the minds of the authorship—seems to be that Israel, the abject raven (in medieval Spain, Jews often portrayed themselves in liturgical poetry as small, abject, darkened by sin and awaiting redemption) is hunted by various overpowering means. And there are always outrageously overmilitarized onlookers, ready to sweep down even more heavy-handedly at a moments’ notice to administer a fatal blow that is unnecessary and would be almost comedically exaggerated if it were not so cruel. So much firepower against so little a threat!

But what is important here is not what is going on in the image, but what will go on in the next moment, in the action that will ensue: In just another second, the little black bird will soar off, eluding the deadly but too heavy crossbow bolt and the swift—but not swift enough—hawk alike. And the armed hunter with his sword will arrive on the scene, earthbound, only to watch the little black bird sail away on the breeze, cawing in triumph at its escape. Since the potentialities and consequences of the implied ensuing action are constructed only in the mind of the enlightened viewer, there is no trail of evidence that could lead to the indictment of such a viewer on charges of sedition or heresy. Images employing a strategy of implied ensuing action enable intelligent readers with a thirst for uncovering subversive agendas to commit the perfect crime, a thought-crime only, one for which there is no visual—but only imaginal—evidence.

  1. How have you changed your field of scholarship and what are your future plans?

In some superficial ways: I’ve added new terms to the discussion. These have included reframing what has usually been called “Jewish Art” as “ art made for Jewish patrons and audiences” to foster broad inclusivity, and to deal with the question of the religious affiliation of the (often non-Jewish) artists, placing (properly, I think) the emphasis on the Jewish patrons.

I’ve introduced “authorship” to describe the constellation of actors—patrons, rabbinic advisors, scribes, preparatory workers, drafts people, illuminators, artists, etc. who worked together to produce manuscripts. I talk about “implied ensuing action” per the above.

But most importantly, because of my experience with Narkiss and the repercussions of his herem  for my own career, I’ve been particularly careful to attempt to create multiple opportunities for conversation between and among scholars. I’ve tried to be responsive to every query regardless of how “amateur”, and to every young scholar, regardless of how unseasoned. I’ve attempted to bring a breath of fresh air, a lack of pretentiousness, and most of all, I think, an openness both with my materials and my ideas for all who want to learn about this stuff. Being an “expert” in my field is kind of like living in the penthouse apartment of a one-story building—it’s no big deal, and everyone who wants to share both the (very minimal) glory and the (considerable pain) of being involved in it is welcome.

For example: when I was asked to write Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink, nearly twenty years ago and several publishers before Princeton University Press, I saw immediately the error of the several previous authors who had attempted and failed to write the book. While I know quite a bit about what I know, I’m certainly not expert in every area of manuscript illumination made for Jews. And so I decided to delegate: to gather a roster of star scholar-writers, and rather than write the whole thing myself, to supervise and edit what I hope is a scholarly, entertaining and engaging book.

I think the greatest achievement of the book is the achievement for which I have striven all my career—its balance of tone between the accessible and the rigorously scholarly. For me, scholarship is an enterprise of translation. I need to translate my sometimes abstruse and ingrown ideas into words that intelligent lay people can understand and enjoy. In a way, this is an extension of the main pillar of my personal philosophy: “if it encourages conversation, it is good; if it limits conversation, best to avoid it.”

Apropros this, I’m currently involved in the creation of the envisioned gorgeous multilayered, dynamic visual database of the most beautiful and important Jewish illuminated manuscripts that would become the global standard for virtual interface. This would be an online, web-browser accessible interface in which one could, of course,  “turn the pages” of the manuscript at highest possible resolution, click on an image or a detail, see it at whatever size and resolution one desired.

Now this is old hat in terms of the presentation of manuscripts online. But in our system, all analogues to the image or detail one hovered over would come into view (this image looks like that one but reversed, here’s an earlier example of this iconography etc.), at the bottom of the page, and all the scholarship on the image or detail in question would be available.

But there’s more: Any member of the public could access these books and notice things: “Why are these three angels barefooted, but the fourth one is wearing sandals”? and an actual living scholar (or a number of scholars, each with a different opinion) could weigh in on the answer, which along with the question (and the name of the questioner) would then go into the treasure trove of knowledge regarding the image. This would be a fabulous resource, on which we can envision working with multiple institutions.