Censors For The Sake Of Heaven

Paul Shaviv reviews Marc Shapiro’s new book: “I just spent the recent holiday weekend reading this important and fascinating (if somewhat depressing) book from cover to cover. Marc Shapiro has given us another excellent work. With meticulous documentation he shows a series of different examples of how Orthodox rabbinic works have been altered, censored and mutilated to hide what the original authors wrote or thought (or wore – it includes a few examples of doctored photos), in order to conform with later, and, inevitably, narrower opinions. By removing evidence, the effect is to delegitimize and narrow the range of opinions, beliefs, views and behaviors within the Orthodox Jewish world. Two chapters are devoted to the overall treatment of two major Orthodox thinkers – S.R. Hirsch and Rav Kook – at the hands of subsequent editors. As he points out, his examples – which are many – are, however, only a representative selection. He also discusses the Orthodox view of the “function” of history, and the notion of historical or other truth in Jewish tradition. Although this serves as an explanation of the thought-processes behind the revisionist activity, it also strongly suggest that there is an unbridgeable gap between “history” and “Orthodox ‘history'”. Marc Shapiro has the gift of being an excellent, clear and easy-to-read writer. An excellent book for anyone interested in Jewish history and trends and currents in the Orthodox world.”

Another Amazon review: Having been a reader of Marc Shapiro’s writings for about twenty years, I’ve often been made to wonder about what motivates and animates Jewish thinkers to do and say the things that they do. His current book on Jewish censorship and revisionism places the question of motivation and psychology front and center.

Shapiro is, as always, encyclopedic in the scope of the sources he brings down. His observations on some outlandish forms of Jewish censorship and revisionism are often wry and witty, with minimal personal editorial and without being either cynical or unsympathetic to the subject matter. The one possible slant to which his book lends itself, of which Shapiro himself is aware, is that in accumulating every possible example of Jewish religious censorship and revisionism one could walk away with the impression that there are no Jewish authorities that defend being sincere and transparent, which of course is not the case.

There is a certain charm to Shapiro’s writings, as in how in the midst of a much broader discussion, Shapiro will share an embarrassingly true but conveniently forgotten insight, such as the fact that over hundred years ago the majority of Jews started (and ended) Shabbos later than they do nowadays, a practice that at present is rare and is deemed scandalous.

While modern scholarship would not condone any form of censorship, when reading Shapiro one can nevertheless distinguish between more excusable forms of hiding the truth versus completely inexcusable ones. At the excusable end of the spectrum are: censoring passages from non-Jews that, if revealed, could endanger the Jewish community; hiding awkward revelations about the personal failings or peccadilloes of a religious sage, especially sexual ones; genuinely believing a falsehood, without any ulterior motive and then propagating it; censoring gratuitously abusive language between respected scholars; the altering of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s writings by his handlers, for fear that some of his ideas would alienate his intended readership. In all these cases we can sense the imperfect choices being presented between on the one hand being completely transparent but on the other hand wanting to either exercise common sense or display good taste.

What appears, however, to be altogether inexcusable is the constant theological posturing that goes on in the Haredi world, to give the impression of a form of religious orthodoxy that is consistent throughout all time and space. Examples where historical photos are altered to either make Orthodox women from the past appear to be dressed more modestly than they actually were or to color a skull cap onto a rabbi’s bare head are only a small sampling of it. Much larger and more damning are the chapters devoted to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the aforementioned Rabbi Kook. While Hirsch’s philosophy and the community he advocated were forcibly made to appear more palatable to Haredi sensibilities, Kook, once the darling of the Orthodox world, had been rendered a persona non grata. This persistent practice of disfiguring history by making it more homogenous is absolute cultural vandalism. The censors in these cases have found it expedient to lie and cover up numerous facts, all in order to control the religious experience of the masses, to ensure uniform thought and practice. As Shapiro himself points out, people in power, by lying and hiding the truth, have predetermined how Judaism should have looked historically (evidence to the contrary be damned) and in the process they have chosen to be the judges over the great luminaries that preceded them.

And in no way do the Haredim have a monopoly over this sort of censorship, though they are the most persistent practitioners of it. Shapiro gives examples of censorship in other branches of Judaism. And it’s clear to any reader that rewriting the past is a standard practice in any sort of orthodoxy, whether it be political or ideological in nature, whenever the facts as they are do not conveniently corroborate what people “need” to believe at present.

Shapiro’s last chapter, which deals with the Jewish literature on when it is permissible to lie and to deceive is the most painful to read through. Shapiro frames the discussion in terms of the overarching problem: the Torah is replete with statements to the effect that it is important to be truthful and that lying is evil. Many rabbinical sermons are in fact delivered in which Judaism is couched as an unrelenting search for truth. How then to defend the frequent practice by religious publishers of deceiving their readership? The answers on the whole are of an extremely legal, technical nature, arbitrary in their application and completely inelegant. And even worse than the inorganic loopholes that various religious figures relied upon to allow themselves to be untruthful is a statement by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. In line with the thinking of certain secular philosophers, Dessler redefines the truth to be whatever is most expedient, whichever statement most practically achieves a desired outcome, i.e., extracting greater religious observance and devotion from the masses. The intellectual acrobatics Dessler uses to justify being deceptive come off as flippant, not too clever and disingenuous.

The notion that the greatest truth is whatever achieves a desired outcome begs the question: Isn’t there a greater truth to strive for than achieving mass obedience? Especially in an age in which orthodoxies of all sorts are on their way out, what exactly are we sacrificing in order to achieve uniform behavior? People en masse are leaving organized religion, especially Western organized religion –Judaism is being hit especially hard – and are pursuing more experiential/less dogmatic strains of spirituality such as Easter religion. There’s a good reason that Jews as a whole are over-represented among the numbers of Westerners who flock to either trendy new age spiritual movements or to Buddhism and Hinduism. Instead of addressing the spiritual poverty engendered by un-self aware orthodox dogmatism, we’re expending precious mental energy on hosting a beauty pageant of sorts, on upholding appearances of piety. In the end, Orthodox Judaism can end up becoming self selecting – retaining the traditionalists who would have naturally gravitated towards it anyway, while losing all of the sincere seekers who are genuinely curious and trying to understand.

Shapiro had me considering the subject matter from different vantage points. What, for instance, drives people to want to believe something to be true? I remember meeting a religious man a few years back, whose father was among the Jews who was saved during World War II by Sugihara, the courageous Japanese diplomat who defiantly gave out numerous visas to save Jewish lives. With complete conviction, the man related to me how later in life Sugihara converted to Judaism. Of course, nothing of the sort happened and I politely kept quiet. I sensed how the man very much wanted to believe that Sugihara was Jewish, as if a goy altruistically saving thousands of Jewish lives weren’t good enough. As with other urban legends, people find comfort in believing that certain things are true.

Urban legends, for course, are a universal phenomenon, not at all unique to Orthodox Jews, and people tend towards being suggestible. And it is sometimes hard to get at what is really true versus what we wish to be true. With the internet, however, becoming more ubiquitous and especially with the advent of web sites such as Snopes that devote themselves to debunking false legends the likelihood of people continuing to believe a bubbe meise are smaller. The question is whether this trend towards greater transparency will have the same sort of impact in the Haredi world. If so will the censors in Haredi world continue to be able to spin their personal story to their own liking or will they need to adjust their spin for an evermore skeptical public?

And what can we say about the cynical mindset that encourages censorship? In a world that is moving towards greater transparency and towards empowering individuals more and more, censors are elitists who continue to believe that people “can’t handle the truth.” It is possible that there are facts that are too damning and too overwhelming for people to process, but when people are constantly infantilized and lied to, it can become a self fulfilling prophecy by which the public can no longer stand to hear anything remotely threatening to their beliefs.

I highly encourage anyone interested in the subject of Judaism and its relationship to the truth to read Shapiro’s well written book.

* The book is fascinating and as usual Dr. Shapiro is second to none in his research. Most of the facts he quotes are just plain fascinating. How he manages to collect these sources is amazing. However, that being said, there are some downsides to the book.
For one thing the chapter on Sex which includes pictures of nudes is totally unacceptable. Why does he have to show pictures of nudes? Is he advocating for women to appear in such immodest ways?
Also, the book reads as just one long blog with examples following more examples.
That being said, the chapters on Rav Kook and Rav Hirsch are excellent and they are highly informative and enjoyable to read.
The chapter on halachik matters is also fascinating and certainly is worthy of reading for anyone interested in the development of the Halacha.
One more point, the last chapter about ‘truth’ and what is the Truth, is in many ways the most important of the chapters as it deals with the issue which is at the core of the book, namely, is truth always the accurate description of facts?
This chapter is certainly critical as it sheds light on the entire subject under discussion.
Dr. Shapiro has certainly made an important contribution to the world of Jewish scholarship.
I hope he continues to write and contribute to the world of Jewish education.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). 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 (Alexander90210.com).
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