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.

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