The Lives of the Gedolim

Dr. Marc B. Shapiro gave a lecture for Torah in Motion on writing history vs. writing hagiography.

Near the end, he takes a question: "Why should we be tolerant of the hagiographical Artscroll approach? Just to take it to a large extreme, you could argue that the Palestinians have written a revisionist history of the Middle East and have done a good job of convincing a good segment of the world population of that history."

Marc: "Israel also has a revisionist history. They have their own national myths. The idea that no Arabs were pushed out, that they all left on their own, that they were going to come back when the land was conquered, that was a very important part of the national myth when Israel was founded otherwise Jews would demand, how could we have these people as refugees? Now you have people like Binny Morris and others show that it is not true. That Israel did drive many people out. Binny Morris’s point is that we should’ve driven them all out."

"If you read my blogs, you’ll see that I am a relentless exposer of the fraudulence not just in the chareidi world but in the Modern Orthodox world. It all needs to be exposed. But that doesn’t mean that every simple person needs to know… As Rav Kook says, if they come into our world and try to affect us with their fraudulent stories, it needs to be exposed. But if they want to live by these bubbemeisers (old wives tales), that’s a way of life. I’m like Rabbi Slifkin in this regard. Only if it threatens to interfere in the wider community. And for the intellectuals. Anyone can go on the internet and find books by me and others.

"The son of the first Lubavitcher rebbe, Moshe, converted to Christianity. Any Chabadnik who’s intellectually honest knows this. Do I need to go to the simple Chabad person and start telling him this? They just can’t grasp this. I don’t believe in universal enlightenment. Universities used to be places for elites… In America, they got the idea that everyone needs a university education."

"It’s hard to know what lashon hara (gossip) is. You don’t really know what lashon hara is. I have read many letters of gedolim and they are full of negative comments about other rabbis, which you would say is lashon hara. As anyone knows, they badmouth them all the time. If you asked the rav, he would say it is not lashon hara. The Torah says you have to expose chanafim (hypocrites, flatterers).

("The admonition to expose hypocrites is stated in Yoma 86b where it is derived from [the legal category of] Chillul HaShem" emails Marc in reply to my question.)

"We are supposed to expose hypocrisy. I would say that if you asked all these rabbonim who say terrible things about other ones and were great talmidei chachamim, if you asked them, they would say it is not lashon hara, but he’s a fraud and I have to expose him. It could be that he’s not a fraud and that it’s just a personal dispute.

"I don’t think it’s lashon hara to talk about a dispute that the whole world knew about and it was in all the newspapers… If a certain rav did a bad thing. There’s a rav, not a gadol of the first calibre but of the second calibre, but he had a child out of wedlock when he was about 17 and in yeshiva. About 20 years ago, one of the Israeli newspapers exposed him and published the birth certificate. I think that’s a terrible breach of privacy. He made a mistake when he was young. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. I would never expose something like that. If I knew about it, I would probably choose not to write about him because how could you write about him and not talk about it?

"If there was a case like this where he abandoned the girl and wanted nothing to do with them and then he became a big scholar, a Talmud Chacham, a posek, I don’t think that’s lashon hara. This would be an example of exposing the hypocrites."

"I try to balance Jewish values with secular values. As a secular historian, you go into a grave and dig up the body if you need to. They dug up Zachary Taylor’s body to see if he was poisoned. I would have no problem as a secular historian if I was writing about a figure like Einstein, but among gedolim, I do not do that. I can honestly say that I’ve never had to make that choice with Rabbi Yaakov Jechiel Weinberg. I would rather not write about somebody than have to cover something like that up… Certain great rabbinic figures, I would treat differently than other figures. If that is not in correspondence with historical [analysis], what are they going to do? Take my tenure away? Life is not only about historical craft."

Dr. Marc B. Shapiro posts to Failed Messiah:

What I was trying to say (and you have to hear it, as reading a transcription of a lecture does not always come off so good) is that there are times when I would choose not to write about a certain figure. If I didn’t think I could do an honest job, and to do an honest job meant to slaughter some sacred cows, I might choose not to write about this topic. I choose what topics to deal with. I don’t have to discuss every historical personality. If I am uncomfortable with dealing with a certain figure, for whatever reason, there is nothing wrong with choosing not to deal with him. What would be dishonest would be to write about X and cover up certain things. Then you would not have an authentic portrayal. But what is the problem with choosing not to write about something?

Here is an example: If I was writing a biography about politican X I would report about the child he father out of wedlock and supported throughout his life. But if a great rabbi (not one of the phonies) made this mistake, and lived up to his responsibilities, I wouldn’t want to make this public. I wouldn’t want to tear him down. But I certainly couldn’t write a biography about this person and leave out this information. So the answer is not to write about him.

Many archival collections have restrictions barring access until after the death of an individual or sometimes even many years after the death. This is not in opposition to any historical standard. That was my point

About Luke Ford

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