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

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this book for years. Surely it is the most anticipated Jewish book of 2015. When I checked last week, it was the top-selling Judaism book on Amazon.com.

Changing the Immutable does not disappoint. It is chock-filled with examples, illustrations and interesting ideas. There’s not an unnecessary word. It has the high quality that you would expect from American Judaism’s premier intellectual.

I feel great joy in engaging with a work that stimulates both my love of Torah and my love of truth.

* Inside flap: “Changing the Immutable focuses on how segments of Orthodox society have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the past…”

Not just Orthodox Jews do this. Truth has an instrumental value in much of Jewish life outside of Orthodoxy. That’s how the word “Jew” became synonymous in some circles with dishonesty. I can’t think of any areas of the world where “Jew” is synonymous with honesty. Even the most ignorant goy is generally aware that Jews are tricky. Is there any bureaucracy (Jewish or Gentile) in the world that has dealt with Jews and not found them tricky?

* “There is no Orthodox history.” (Jacob Katz)

* “One who studies the Jewish past and wishes to be taken seriously as a historian cannot for dogmatic reasons declare ahead of time what his research will reveal. Yet in the eyes of many Orthodox religious leaders, this is precisely the type of history that is needed, and it is what the masses must be indoctrinated in.” (Pg. 1)

* “Moral instruction [generally] entails misrepresentation of a harsh reality.” (Haym Soloveitchik)

* “Orthodox history…insists in viewing the past through the religious needs of the present.” (Pg. 2)

* David Lowenthal: “Heritage uses historical traces and tells historical tales. But these tales and traces are stitched into fables closed to critical scrutiny. Heritage is immune to criticism because it is not erudition but catechism—not checkable fact but credulous allegiance. Heritage is not a testable or even plausible version of our past; it is a declaration of faith in that past. . . .
…heritage restricts messages to an elect group whose private property it is. History tells all who will listen what has happened and how things came to be as they are. Heritage passes on exclusive myths of origin and endurance, endowing us alone with prestige and purpose. It benefits us by being withheld from others.”

* “What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture [of our great Rabbis]?… We should tell ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people, their unshakable faith, their staunch defense of tradition, their life of truth, their impeccable honesty… What is gained by pointing out their inadequacies and their contradictions? We want to be inspired by their example and learn from their experience. . . . Rather than write the history of our forebears, every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful. That means we have to do without a real history book. We can do without.” (Rabbi Shimon Schwab, Selected Writings, 234)

* “Israel is told that it must be a kingdom of priests and a holy people; nowhere is it suggested that it become a nation of historians.” (Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi)

* “The Sages understood clearly the superiority and benefits of a fictitious description.” (M.D. Herr)

* A secular Jewish friend of mine once remarked that nobody has come to religion by way of an intellectual journey. It’s always that the heart leads (in or out of religion) and the mind catches up.

* Shapiro writes: “Even the masses in the haredi world are avid consumers of the written word, which is not usually the case in communities where television, sports, or any of countless other pursuits are available for non-intellectuals. In fact, it is precisely because the written word is not reserved for elites that Orthodox writers and publishers worry about how certain texts will affect those who perhaps cannot ‘handle them’. When it is only intellectuals who are doing the reading, ideological censorship is not a pressing concern. However, since the masses are now at risk of being exposed to ‘dangerous’ material, this has created a phenomenon that as far as I know is not to be found in other religions. I am referring to pious guardians of the faith, usually self-appointed, who take it upon themselves to alter sacred texts, the texts written by great rabbis of the past and cherished by all traditional Jews.” (7-8)

* When Irving Bunim’s Ethics from Sinai was reprinted in 2000, “all references to secular works of literature were removed.” (Pg. 33)

* “In 2007 R. Avraham Arbel published his book Ahoti kalah. According to him, when women leave their homes they are forbidden to wear jewelry and should be dressed in worn-out clothes so as not to appear attractive to men. This book has approbations from a number of leading rabbis, including R. Ovadyah Yosef, none of whose wives follow(ed) the practices advocated by Arbel.” (33)

* “The typical non-hasidic rabbi’s wife in the United States did not even wear a sheitl (wig) until the 1970s or later.” (Pg. 34)

* “…A number of passages in the Talmud…were removed by Christian censors in various editions because they were thought to be insulting to Jesus and Christianity… The Artscroll edition of the Talmud, in both Hebrew and English, has not put these passages back.” (35-36)

* R. Reuven Margaliyot says the Mishnah did not discuss Hanukkah or the future messianic redemption for fear the Romans would regard it as politically subversive. (36)

* “As late as 1846 Moravian synagogues were forbidden to recite any prayers that inspired hatred against non-Jews, and Aleinu — the entire prayer, and not just the problematic line (“For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god that does not help”) was specifically forbidden.” (40)

* Numerous Jewish books published in Europe began with a clarification that all mentions of non-Jews refers to far-off pagans, not Christians, but all Jews knew this comment was not to be taken seriously. (42)

* Maimonides agreed with Aristotle that the sense of touch “is a disgrace to us.” (43)

* In the 1960 English edition of Elie Wiesel’s novel Night, he writes at the end about the Holocaust survivors: “The first gesture of freedom: the starved men made an effort to get something to eat.They only thought about food. Not about revenge. Not about their parents. Only about bread. And even when they had satisfied their hunger — they still did not think about revenge.” In the original Yiddish version: “Early the next morning Jewish boys ran off to Weimar to steal clothing and potatoes. And to rape German girls.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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