I always laughed inside when I listened to Orthodox rabbis preach about their religion’s great commitment to truth.
What’s most interesting to me about a religion is not its theory but how it is practiced.
I’ll give you two examples and then ask you which religion is more interested in truth?
On the one hand, I give you the openness of the Catholic world to the publication of Mother Theresa’s private letters, which showed she doubted the existence of God, and on the other hand, I give you Orthodox Judaism’s widespread condemnation of Haredi rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky for publishing, "Making of a Godol: A Study in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities."
It has become the ”Lady Chatterley’s Lover” of the Orthodox Jewish world, a book whose banning has made it so enticing that it is fetching $500 bids on the Internet.
But ”Making of a Godol: A Study in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities” is not about illicit sex. Rather it is an affectionate biography of an esteemed Lithuanian rabbi who had the good fortune to meet up with some of the most revered Torah scholars of his time. The book is written by the rabbi’s son Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, who wanted to give flesh-and-blood portraits not only of his father but of the great rabbis of the early-20th-century yeshivas in Lithuania, several of whom, after the destruction of European Jewry, founded prominent yeshivas here and in Israel.
What has made the book so controversial is that the portraits are perhaps too human. Rather then the saintly figures often depicted in biographies for the Orthodox market, the Lithuanian sages — a godol is a great sage — are shown wrestling with the lures of secular life and with their own sometimes crusty personalities. Even as they display remarkable analytic powers in tackling the Talmud, they read Tolstoy, they have relatives tempted by Communism, they write love letters to their fiancées, they are mercurial and moody.
The head of a yeshiva in Brooklyn said last year that it would be better to buy a crucifix than to read the book. And in November, 23 leading sages in the United States and Israel, including three members of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America, the dominant traditional Orthodox group, declared in open letters in community newspapers that the book ”disgraces and denigrates our great Torah masters of past generations.”
Using a Hebrew term for God, they proclaimed, ”We hereby publicly declare our decision that this book is forbidden to be brought into the community of Hashem whether into one’s possession or for sale purposes.”
In his 2008 Torah in Motion lecture on "The Lives of Gedolim," historian Marc B. Shapiro says: "In this book [Making of a Godol], he provides a realistic portrayal of Gedolim from someone who grew up with a father who was a gadol, who knew these gedolim. He provides a realistic portrayal of Gedolim. In his introduction, he [Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky] says there have been two ways history has been written in the Orthodox community — the hagiographic approach and the realistic approach. And he tells us that he is going to write real history. And he’s a rosh yeshiva.
"We all know that the response to him was severe. His books were banned. He was even put in cherem (excommunication). He wrote another book, Anatomy of a Ban. He asked me if he should publish it. I said, if you value your sanity, don’t. But he’ll give it to anyone who goes to see him. He gave it to the Hebrew University to be seen in 25 years.
"He tells the story with documentation. He styles himself as an historian. Pictures of all the bans. It is very revealing reading.
"But the conclusion we must draw from this episode is that the Haredi leadership is not interested in real history, but rather with inspiring tales. Afterall, they will argue, what Torah value does history serve? We look to the past to provide inspiration… The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) agreed with them. The Rambam writes that history is a waste of time.
"It is interesting that there wasn’t any great criticism in the Catholic world with the publication of the letters of Mother Teresa. In these letters written to her spiritual advisers over many years, we see that she had very dark times where she doubted God’s presence. She wanted these letters to be burnt. The Church hierarchy believed that despite her wish, it was too important for these letters not to be published. They see these letters as part of a heroic struggle to come to terms with crises of faith… People can see that even a saint goes through times of a religious crisis and that she still had the strength to continue on with her good works… The most important thing was not what she felt inside but that the good works continued. That’s the real barometer of a life lived close to God. …I think the Church’s picture of Mother Teresa is a very real picture that can give strength to people who are struggling.
"Yet I know that these letters could never be published in our world. At least, they would try to prevent them. A great sage who is shown to have had periods of doubts as Mother Teresa had would no longer be regarded as a great sage, he would be regarded as an apikores (heretic), as a kofer… I have no doubt of that. Presumably there are letters like that but they will never be taken out.
"The Catholic gedolim are portrayed in a much more realistic manner where their humanity in all its complexity is allowed to be seen.
"Rav [Aharon] Lichtenstein writes in one of his essays about what we can learn from non-Jewish writers that we have nothing in our literature that approaches Augustine’s Confessions. He doesn’t get into the reasons why.
"Returning to [Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky], his response to his critics is interesting. He was accused of being disrespectful to the gedolim by portraying them in a realistic fashion. According to the charedi leadership, only an idealized portrait is OK. Kamenetsky shot back that it is his critics who are dishonoring the gedolim…Take Rabbi X. This gadol had a bad temper. It’s a flaw. Yet he was also a great man. And Kamenetsky will write about how he was a great man and how he had a bad temper.
"The charedim believe that the only way he’ll be regarded as a great gadol is if you cover up this fact. They are disrespecting a gadol by assuming that someone with a temper can never be a gadol. That means in their minds he really isn’t a gadol… They really are not portraying Rabbi X. They’re portraying the gadol they’ve contrived.
"Since you believe that a Zionist can not be a gadol, you have to portray this gadol as not being a Zionist.
"It is an ingenious approach but it is incorrect.
"The thing to remember about charedi society is that it operates on many levels. The intellectuals, the ones who are the censors, are more sophisticated than the masses. Yated Neaman, the newspaper, has a commitee of censors. They know all the truths. They know that there are gedolim who have faults, who are Zionists… But they are not in the business of pointing these things out. They are using biography as a form of hashkafa (worldview) training. That’s why they censor. It’s dangerous for the masses to know…"
"At times it is not at all clear that humanizing a gadol is negative.