Do the Ultra-Orthodox Censor Historical Truth?

A new book explains, and over-explains, why ultra-Orthodox authorities resort to Photoshop.

From the cover of Changing the Immutable, by Marc Shapiro. Littman Library Of Jewish Civilization.

From the cover of Changing the Immutable, by Marc Shapiro. Littman Library Of Jewish Civilization.

Observation
Dec. 14 2016
About the author

Andrew N. Koss is an associate editor of Mosaic. A PhD in history from Stanford, he recently completed a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at Colgate University and is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.


In 1994, an Israeli ultra-Orthodox publishing house released a volume of writings by a highly respected sage named Rabbi Isaac Kossowsky (1877-1951). Among its contents is a curious piece, titled “A Eulogy for One of the Rabbis,” which never mentions the name of the rabbi in question or any specific markers of his identity. Comparison with other sources makes clear, however, that the deceased was none other than Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine and the spiritual and intellectual godfather of religious Zionism.

The omission was no mere oversight. The volume’s editors had deliberately scrubbed any mention of Kook, who is today considered a heretic in ḥaredi circles, along with the names of rabbis associated with him. In other words, the eulogy had been revised to conceal the fact that an upstanding figure like Kossowsky would have praised a figure so discredited in ḥaredi eyes.

The contemporary scholar who made this discovery, Marc Shapiro, had been noticing similar instances of selective editing in other religious texts and took to reporting them on the invaluable blog Seforim (“sacred books”). He has now collected these cases of censorship, as he characterizes them, in Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History. While the case of Kook and Kossowsky typifies those of greatest concern to Shapiro, he also includes an array of phenomena from other eras and circumstances. These include the Talmud’s apparent repression of certain views and anecdotes; the sanitized history found in 21st-century rabbinic hagiographies; the deletion, in venerable texts, of halakhic or theological opinions no longer deemed acceptable; politically “corrected” translations of Hebrew liturgical texts found in Conservative and Reform prayer books; the bowdlerization, in the 1918 Soncino English translation of the Talmud, of sexually explicit passages; the erasure of women from photographs in ḥaredi newspapers; and many more things besides.

The first seven chapters of the book catalogue these and other cases, sorted into categories. In the final chapter, Shapiro presents a comprehensive examination of attitudes toward truth-telling and lying in Jewish thought. Combining his conclusions with explicit statements made by some editors themselves and by the rabbinic authorities who have encouraged them, he argues that his discoveries are evidence of a callous attitude toward truth that can be justified from within Jewish tradition. When faced with a conflict between the past as it was and as it should have been, compilers and editors have felt not just free but positively obliged to sacrifice truth in favor of the greater good. Although he doesn’t say so outright, Shapiro would clearly prefer the opposite situation in which publishers of rabbinic texts, and Jews in general, would look more to those voices in the halakhic tradition that put a higher value on open honesty and make fewer allowances for evasion or mendacity.

 

Thorough, comprehensive, based on the painstaking examination and comparison of primary sources, Changing the Immutable is an impressive feat of scholarship. Yet, for all its erudition, it fails to make sense of its data in a satisfying way. The problem is not that Shapiro’s assemblage of halakhic loopholes sound as if gathered from an anti-Semitic handbook (though they sometimes do). Nor is it his slighting of the fact that only in the modern West did the assumption take hold that all information should be revealed. Nor would it have fundamentally mattered, as Allan Nadler urges in his perceptive review of the book, had Shapiro included in his final chapter a more sophisticated discussion of philosophical and theological conceptions of truth. The real problem is that, in lumping together so many disparate phenomena as instances of “censorship,” Shapiro not only obscures his most important discoveries but permits only a single, true-or-false criterion of judgment—and this criterion is the wrong one entirely.

For instance: emending an edition of the Kitsur Shulḥan Arukh—a popular 19th-century digest of a major law code, intended for lay use—to reflect current standards of halakhah isn’t really censorship or an instance of “rewriting history,” any more than would be the updating of a medical textbook to include information about the Zika virus. In this case, the intended audience is composed not of historians seeking to ascertain the authentic opinions of the work’s 19th-century author but pious Jews looking for guidance in practical matters of observance.

Worse, the book’s excessive breadth renders it ahistorical. Never does the author investigate how the exercise of selective editing might have changed over time, or how contemporary Gentile culture has affected Jewish opinions of what does and what does not constitute censorship. Since the subtitle announces a concern with “Orthodox Judaism,” one might like to know when and why selective editing under Orthodox auspices became more common, or different in kind. Was it in the early 19th century, when Orthodox Judaism first emerged in contradistinction to Reform? Or perhaps in the past half-century, due to an increasing tendency toward ideological and halakhic stringency? Or just after World War II, with the felt need to construct an image of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe as a utopia of Jewish piety? Not only does the book neglect such questions, the reader isn’t even given a clue to how they might be addressed.

Shapiro would have done better to focus more narrowly on the specific type of censorship that evidently drove him to his subject in the first place: the erasing of any acknowledgment that current standards of ultra-Orthodoxy were not in place from time immemorial. Had he done so, he would have necessarily had to restrict his discussion to the past century or so, which in turn might have enabled him to attempt an answer to the right questions.

 

Before returning to those questions, it helps to be aware of some missing historical context. For that purpose, let’s go back to Rabbi Kook, to whom Shapiro dedicates an entire chapter. Born in 1865 and educated in the great yeshivas of northwest Russia, Kook belonged to a small circle of rabbis eager to embrace Zionism and open to a variety of secular and non-Jewish influences. In Kook’s dynamic theology, which draws on kabbalah, ḥasidic teachings, secular thought, and various Western influences, the Zionist movement emerges not only as part of the divine plan but as an opportunity for a rebirth of Judaism itself within parameters that at the time, and now, could only be categorized as Orthodox.

Orthodox though they were, however, Kook’s opinions aroused serious controversy in his day. A large proportion of his Orthodox colleagues were, to varying degrees, anti-Zionist, and even those supportive of Zionism found talk of spiritual rebirth dangerous. By the 1920s, Orthodox Jews had organized themselves into two separate political parties, one Zionist, the other ultra-Orthodox—a split that, abetted by a number of social and historical factors, gave rise to two sub-denominations. In today’s Israel, the groups are characterized not only by separate political parties but by separate neighborhoods, modes of dress, educational institutions, and so forth. A similar, if less dramatic, split occurred in America between Modern Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy.

But at the time, nobody threatened Kook, or his contemporaries, with ostracism. He maintained close relations throughout his life with rabbis who would today be considered ḥaredi—and who sometimes defended him against his critics even as they disagreed with him on substantive issues. Although he was indeed involved in bitter controversies, these were seen as intra-denominational squabbles, not fights that would demarcate the boundary between two forms of Orthodoxy.

A generation later, though, such a schism was already in evidence—and nowadays the very fact that, for example, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, a founding father of Jerusalemite ultra-Orthodoxy, had associated with Kook is a scandal that must be covered up. In this respect, the treatment of Kook, unlike many of the other examples adduced by Shapiro, really does constitute a “rewriting of history.” Pious biographies of ḥaredi figures like Auerbach studiously avoid mention of Kook and other “modern” figures.

Still, to an extent Shapiro doesn’t completely acknowledge, such proactive editorial tampering is very different from, say, just omitting a no-longer-followed halakhic opinion from a manual for practical observance. Moreover, there is also a gap—as Jacob J. Schacter pointed out in a 1990 article on a related subject—between the propagation of outright falsehoods and simply deeming certain facts best left unpublicized.

 

Beyond the question of how and why specific facts come to be repressed, whether by omission or by deliberate falsification, is the question of how history itself, and in particular the history of halakhic change, comes to be denied. Take the fact that Abraham, Jacob, and other biblical heroes practiced polygamy, which later became impermissible. Ask any Orthodox rabbi why, and you’ll get a variation of the following: in the 10th century, a leading halakhic authority declared polygamy forbidden for Ashkenazim. You’d get a similar story from an academic scholar of medieval Jewish history, who might add that by that date polygamy had already long ceased to be commonplace among Jews living in Christian lands. Both parties would agree that the law simply changed: what was kosher for Abraham became treyf. The Talmud has more subtle, and more historically immediate, examples of halakhic change, but the upshot is the same. There’s no theological problem involved.

What’s different in the case of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis guilty of “censorship” is that they dispute this point, to the point of denying that either attitudes or laws have in fact changed. And here another set of cases from Shapiro’s book becomes pertinent. As he notes, photographs or other visual renderings of bareheaded rabbinic figures—from the 18th-century Italian sage Moses Gentili to an early picture of the 20th-century Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson—are regularly doctored to give them clearly recognizable kippot. The halakhic history here is murky, but the positive obligation to keep one’s head covered may not have become a definitive and mandatory sign of religious observance until a few decades ago. At least until World War II, it was common for even devout men to remove their head coverings when posing for pictures.

Nowadays, however, appearing without a hat or yarmulke is a clear sign of non-Orthodoxy. So today’s ultra-Orthodox establishment has faced a choice. It could say: “yes, Jacob had four wives, and Rabbi Gentili didn’t have to cover his head, but you only get one wife, and keep that kippah on.” Instead, it has resorted to Photoshop.

This response, to repeat, is very modern. Talmudic rabbis, without a modern sense of historical development, enthusiastically engaged in anachronisms but were also perfectly willing to acknowledge that Judaism had changed over time. Thus they made frequent mention of the rival schools supposedly founded by the 1st-century-BCE sages Hillel and Shammai, and their differences on many points of halakhah. According to the Talmud’s account, there was a period during which the opinions of both schools were acceptable alternatives; only later did the opinions of Hillel and his disciples become, for the most part, indisputably authoritative.

Today, one has the impression that, confronted with the task of redacting the Talmud, the targets of Shapiro’s criticism would omit any mention of Shammai and his school and simply paint a picture of continuous and universal acceptance of Hillel’s opinions. Certainly there would be no mention of Elisha ben Avuyah, the famous sage-turned-heretic whose words are quoted with approval in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”). Either we wouldn’t know that he became a heretic or we wouldn’t know that the great Rabbi Meir was his student, and we certainly wouldn’t know that Meir maintained warm and admiring relations with his former mentor even after he’d left the fold. (As for Shapiro, he does mention the case of Elisha and Meir but, tellingly, only to emphasize its supposed similarity with contemporary “censorship,” not the yawning difference.)

Here we arrive at the most serious problem Shapiro has uncovered: the impulse to deny the existence of any sort of ideological diversity. An inability to say, in the Talmud’s memorable phrase, “both these opinions and those opinions are the words of the living God,” or “we disagree with the approach of Rabbi Kook and his disciples, but see no need to anathematize him,” robs Judaism of one of its most compelling and powerful doctrines, one that should appeal to believers and non-believers alike. By contrast with the contemporary mood, rabbinic literature makes the point time and again that fierce internecine debates could and should be coupled with mutual respect, and that even revered figures erred when they allowed these debates to become too acrimonious.

How did this turnabout come to be? One wishes Shapiro had sacrificed a few examples and spared us so exhaustive a discussion of truth-and-falsehood and instead broached the question head-on. Most likely, the answer would have something to do with the powerful sense of fragility and vulnerability that has seized the ḥaredi world. Its watchmen have constructed high walls, fearful lest the slightest tap of doubt—like knowing that the “good” Auerbach and the “wicked” Kook were once friends—could cause the entire edifice to crumble. They have done so in order to protect the community they have created. Yet the walls are so high as to be, of necessity, unsturdy, and the fear so palpable as inevitably to trigger the doubt it guards against.

More about: Abraham Isaac Kook, Haredim, History & Ideas, Modern Orthodoxy, Religion & Holidays