Bad For The Jews

Historian Marc B. Shapiro gets flak for revealing things about Jews and Judaism that are widely seen as negative.

Marc defended himself here: “And believe me, there are plenty of “unsavory” things I have not printed here on the Seforim Blog (and was advised not to discuss by leading academics — I can provide further details for people who are interested).”

He’s referring to being told that such things are bad for the Jews.

Who are these “leading academics”? Marc won’t say.

Is our understanding of Jewish life and of Torah mishaped by the policies of these “leading academics” and those who follow them to not make public matters of importance that reflect poorly on Jews. How much is this promotion of group interest warping the interested public (Jewish and non-Jewish) understanding of truth? It would seem that this widespread silence on matters that reflect poorly on Jews by leading Jews justifies non-Jewish skepticism of Jews and Jewish claims (including on the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust, six million is the sacred figure and any quibbling is regarded as anti-Jewish). How can Jewish scholars be trusted when they continually silence themselves in the service of Jewish interests?

Marc Shapiro replied: “Everything is context. Some things should not be put out there on a blog in a sensationalist fashion but can be discussed in a scholarly work. That is what I mean.”

I wonder what sort of things should not be discussed on a blog but are fine to discuss in “scholarly works”? I wonder if “scholarly” means so abstruse that ordinary people can’t understand it, or perhaps publications in a medium where it is unlikely ordinary people will find it or find out about it.

Christian scholars in the academy (outside of the power of their church) don’t have this sort of self-censorship. Could you imagine the outcry if you found out that leading scholars of Christianity were self-censoring so as to preserve the reputation of Christians and Christianity? I believe in a big distinction between scholarship and apologetics and when I turn to scholarship, I don’t want to believe that scholars are self-censoring to promote their team.

In his blog posts, Marc often leaves the most incendiary material in Hebrew and doesn’t translate it.

Prior to my converting to Orthodox Judaism, I grew up a WASP (a Seventh-Day Adventist) and I never remember WASPs saying we should keep certain things secret because they would be bad for WASPs. There’s much more concern about such things among the Jews.

WASPs are pathetic at organizing in their group interest.

I asked historian Jonathan Sarna: “Do you give guidance to academics on what is appropriate and not appropriate to discuss publicly and if so, what is your advice? Is this self-censoring in group interest routine among Jewish academics, and if so, how much does it shape Jewish scholarship? In other words, how much credence can we give Jewish scholarship when it is shaped by group interests? I grew up a WASP and never encountered the idea among WASP academics (I grew up on college campuses) that there are truths we should not share about WASPs because they would not be in our group interest.”

Dr. Sarna replied:

Dear Luke,
I do not recall giving guidance to academics on what is and is not appropriate to discuss publicly, but I do sometimes to help graduate students to understand the difference between scholarship and advocacy. Scholars (like myself) who occasionally weigh in as “public intellectuals” need to understand, and make clear, when they are writing as “passionate advocates” and when they are writing as “dispassionate scholars.” The two roles are different.
There are, of course, times when scholars choose to exercise self-censorship, particularly at moments when national passions run high (wartime, after Sept 11 etc.). There are times — in personal life and in scholarly life — when a wise person stays silent. The ancient rabbis knew this and advised scholars to be careful with their words. I think that remains good advice.

Bar Ilan historian Ariel Toaff, who rose to fame in 2007 with his controversial book about the blood libel, replies to me:

In my opinion the search of historical truth cannot and must not be subservient to considerations of political expediency. Not can it be conditioned by the risk that its findings may be distorted and exploited.
It is true that when the intention is to conduct research into Judaism and Jewish history, the problems become especially complex. However If you do not intend to produce a predictable apology or to add yet another brick to the atemporal and hackneyed reconstruction of the past, there arises the real and intimidating danger of antisemitism, infinite distortions, generalizations in bad faith, and hatred for the Jews and Israel today so fraught with menace. So is the game worth the candle?
My answer is, despite everything, unequivocally affirmative. Learning the real history of the Jews and Judaism in both their positive and controversial aspects, and abandoning the narrative of the Vale of Tears where the victims are always the same, can only serve to strengthen Jewish identity. I refer not to the virtual and edifying Jewish identity projected always as benevolent and satisfactory (sometimes indeed completely invented by too many cautious and sensible defenders of Judaism), but to an active, real and effective identity in history: a vigorous identity which emerges with all its errors and inevitable contradictions, and is extraneous to artificial or instrumental schematism.
I intend to stress that it is not possible to charge those who conduct seriously academic research in Jewish history by accepting the anti-historical currents of Judaism today, that in my view are driven by worries which, though legitimate, are entirely extraneous to the work of the academic and scientific researcher.

If Jews in America can’t speak freely and openly about themselves and their tradition without worrying about how they will be perceived, then where can they speak freely?

In his latest blog post, Marc Shapiro wrote:

I am curious if anyone else had my reaction. While his return of the money was definitely a kiddush ha-shem, I think that his speech has the potential to be a hillul ha-shem, nullifying the kiddush ha-shem. First of all, he lets the world know that there are those who told him that it was forbidden (!) to return this money. He then tells the audience that his justification of returning the money was in order to make a kiddush ha-shem. This approach, which received applause at the convention (but not from those on the dais!), is not what he explained in a prior interview with the Los Angeles Times that his reason was “to do what is right, and thinking about the feelings of others. It’s looking out for one’s fellow man, and not just for one’s self.” (I assume this is how he really feels, not how he expressed himself at the convention.)

Let’s leave aside the point that as best as I can determine, according to secular law one is indeed obligated to return lost property of this sort. I understand that for those who don’t accept the Meiri, the halakhah Muroff is discussing can be quite a challenge in modern times. But I wonder what is going through the heads of the Agudah leadership. Do they really want the entire world to know that their approach in this matter has nothing to do with helping one’s fellow man, but is about doing what will make Jews look good in people’s eyes? Isn’t this the sort of thing that would be best not spoken about in public?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Jews, Marc B. Shapiro. Bookmark the permalink.