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Changing the Immutable – A Review

Orthodox Judaism’s Tortured Relationship with Facts

Orthodox Judaism's mesorah

Orthodox Judaism

Look, we’re not children anymore, let’s not pretend that Orthodoxy’s mesorah which goes back to Moshe Rabbainu is any less crooked than the Tail of the Dragon and let’s not pretend it doesn’t have a proportionately equal number of annual casualties. Those casualties usually come, like those at the Tail, from those who love it most, who take it seriously and who therefore throw their lives into it.

One needn’t go further back in history than the past fifteen years when The Making of a Godol was banned because it told stories about the previous generation of gedolim that were true but which would have either unmade their godol status or it would have shown sincere young bochurim that they can read Anna Karenina during their lunch break between first and second seder and then grow up to be like R’ Yaakov Kamenetzky. Likewise Natan Slifkin’s books were banned, not because anyone could dispute what he wrote but precisely because they couldn’t dispute him, which should be obvious; obviously you don’t need to ban a book you can dismiss.

So the Orthodox Created the Past in Their Image

But what about books we can’t dismiss or ban? What’s to be done about those?

Look, we’re not children anymore, we don’t have to pretend that the Inquisition invented censorship and book banning. Luckily we live in the 21st century in a free country where a brilliant professor of Judaic studies has the liberty to research historical acts of Jewish censorship going all the way back to Chazal editing the Torah! Marc B. Shapiro expertly lays out the history of Rashi’s explanation of this Talmudic censorship of the chumash (Bereishis 18:22) and ArtScroll’s censorship of this Rashi.

Marc Shapiro Changing the ImmutableThe list of matters that are censored varies from the description of amora’im arguing over who has bigger genitals to erasing women out of Tanach to erasing poskim who were lenient regarding women wearing pants and not covering their hair to the famous line in the shulchan aruch about the minhag of kaparos being a minhag shtus to photoshopping yarmulkas onto gedolim to photoshopping longer sleeves onto rebetzins to photoshopping gedolim out of photos with other gedolim to making hundreds of haskamos in seforim disappear.

But who needs all that? I say the frum aren’t even shy about their censorship! Internally they’d like it if the issue is never raised, but if challenged they don’t deny it, they believe they are the arbiters of Truth and the past must be made in the image of the present.

What I learned from this Book

Some of the instances of censorship, as well as their justifications, (it takes more than a little chutzpah for a publisher to justify himself by saying the author he censored is now in Heaven and knows that he was wrong. I say the publisher should first go to heaven himself to find out if he’s right,) are a little shocking, even for one who doesn’t expect any better from the frum velt. Nevertheless, after getting over the initial shock I’m back to being unsurprised by it. Plus the list of censored material is endless and this book is very finite; Shapiro himself didn’t set out to compile a definitive authoritative list of all frum censorship.

So what did I learn from this book?

First, as usual, I was highly impressed with Shapiro, both for his careful scholarship and for his interest in this topic. I couldn’t help but reflect throughout my reading of the book how amazing it is to me that anyone could have such exposure to, and deep knowledge of, the all too human construct of Judaism and still take such an abiding interest in it. I had the same thought after reading Kugel’s How to Read the Bible, and yet I find that such Judaism is all the more real for its nuanced understanding, it’s certainly a lot less fragile than the chassidish/yeshivish variety.

Secondly, reading this book and the footnotes I was reminded to what extent frum censorship has been successful. I’m not even referring to any of the cases of censorship discussed in the book, rather I’m referring to the fact that your average yeshiva bochur will never hear of this book just as he never heard of all the sources Shapiro cites – Haym Soloveitchik’s famous essay Rupture and Reconstruction, Yoel Finkelman’s Strictly Kosher Reading, David Assaf’s books on chassidic history, let alone James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible and to speak nothing of the blogs he mentions – On the Main Line, Seforim and others.

So look, let’s not be children; read the book and educate yourself, and don’t be shy to give it to your children too, it may even help their Yiddishkeit.

P.S. see here for a real review.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joe Q.

    Can someone explain the Bereishis 18:22 issue to me in a nutshell?

    • Well essentially Rashi there says that tikkun soferim really means that “the sages reversed [the meaning of the posuk]” because they thought it was disrespectful to Hashem.

      • danieltb

        Is that where they call HaShem “master of war” instead of “man of war”?

  • asher770

    Shapiro’s book has an undertone of some ax to grind with the right wing Torah community. While it is true that much of the censorship is, in fact, excessive, there is a plethora of material that simply should not have been included in the book because it does not back up his thesis.

    There are times, of course, when censorship is just good editing or good business sense. Social mores do change over time and like it or not, the censorship to the general reader allows the reader to avoid seeing a warped or skewed work. As an example – Old English was once a living, vibrant, and spoken language. Reprinting a work in Old English can sometimes give the reader a warped view of the work precisely because the Old English no longer reflects the vibrant spoken language it once was. The change to modern idiom is thus not true censorship at all, but rather a form of upgrading. Shapiro’s inclusion of some of such material does not reflect this notion.

    The chapter on censorship in halachic works should also have included a discussion of machshirei ochel nefesh, the groundwork to the preparation of food, and the out and out permission to teach it when its laws do not apply imminently contrasted with the obligation to suppress information about machsirei ochel nefesh when it is actually relevant to the questioner. This whole concept would have informed the reader about the issue of censorship more fully. The various approaches and explanations of this halachic quirk would have been very welcomed.

    And perhaps I am just needling the author here, but it also seems that Shapiro has done some of his own censorship too. In his analysis of various versions and translations of Eli Weisel’s “Night” Shapiro’s innocuous translation of Yiddish terms with a more pejorative connotation reflects some of the same supposed censorship that he is knocking.

    • I’m not sure why you assume there’s an undertone of special criticism of the right wing “torah community” and then criticize, based on that, that there’s a plethora of material that doesn’t back up his thesis (you must mean your thesis).
      The book’s subtitle is How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History and that’s exactly what he discusses – starting with Chazal’s revisions of the Torah and ending with modern revisions of Rashi to conceal Chazal’s revisions.
      Shapiro finds censorship in the Soncino talmud, the Merkaz Harav editors of Rav Kook’s writings, including his son etc. and he ends with a look at historical Jewish and Christian views on truth-telling.

      Incidentally I think the discussion on truth would have benefited from a mention of Mark Twain’s ideas on truth. He argued many times that no one does tell the whole truth and that they shouldn’t. One that comes to mind off the top of my head is On the Decay of the Art of Lying.

      • Chaim Danzinger

        Please prove that Chazal revised the Torah and then the Rishonim conspired to hide this C”V.

        • Chaim Danzinger

          Also please explain this in light of the dead sea scrolls (Which were written by non-pharisees) as well as the fact that Samaritans possess the same five books of Moses as well as the book of Joshua. So the Samaritans who despised Chazal were in on the conspiracy too? See, this is how I know you heretics are full of shit.

          • Chaim Danzinger

            How did Rashi know Chazal revised the Torah, and no one else knew?

            • Chaim Danzinger

              Where is the text of the “true” Chumash?

              • Chaim Danzinger

                You people are worse than Alex Jones.

                • Chaim Danzinger

                  If you admit you just want to be a shaygetz, then I will leave you alone.

                  • Chaim Danzinger

                    Anyway, this is a good time to advertise this wonderful sefer:http://www.simchashachaim.com/books/the-truth-of-the-torah/

                    INB4 RAV MILLER BASHERS

                    Oh by the way, Shapiro Y”Sh literally had the chutzpah to say Rav Miller “isn’t important and isn’t influential.” Thats a quote I heard from Luke Ford when he was doing that show with the Rabbi from Banzai.

    • Yochanan

      Old English (pre-Norman) is pretty much incomprehensible to modern English speakers. I think you’re speaking about Middle and Early Modern English.

  • Chaim Danzinger

    Gr8 b8 m8, I r8 8 <|;^)

  • Chaim Danzinger

    Also, if Hashem didn’t reveal himself to 250,000 Jews, why did the first generation of Chumash-believing Jews believe in that account, with zero dissent, and why is there no historical gap when the tradition could have been fumbled only to be “re-introduced” by a figure that has zero mention in Jewish history?

    • Chaim Danzinger

      When Jews save fucking everything.

      • Chaim Danzinger

        And the Talmud is proof of that. Its a record of extremly minute details. Nothing would get pass those Rabbis. They argue on *every* little detail. Yet, they all agree on the text of the passukim.

        • zach

          Talmud doesn’t really prove anything. By the time Chazal were studying and explicating Torah, it had long since been standardized according to most Biblical academic scholars (more or less, there were still many variants in spelling, mostly regarding vowels like yud, aleph, and vav.)

          • Chaim Danzinger

            So they had one uniform text. Thanks for confirming that I am right and Marc Shapiro is a dumb-ass.

            • Aron

              Chaim you simply ignore the work and existence of the Masorites, the kri ketiv and any tikkun sofrim.
              You mention the Dead Sea scrolls and Samaritan Torahs; there are many other versions extant and discovered, have you looked into them?

              In the book you mention, the first line advertising a book on truth states:
              “Since Nimrod threw Avraham Avinu into the fire, Hashem’s teachings have been under attack.”
              BUT- Nimrod and Avraham is a midrash, and not a halachic one at that, so few would argue that it is literally true. An inauspicious start to a book truth and one that compels me to NOT read this book, so if you are connected to the author perhaps some revision of this advertising (if not reflective of the book…) would be in order.

              Chaim – you obviously have not read any of Shapiro’s books, as even if you disagree with him even reading one chapter would make it self-evident that he is clearly erudite and thus not a ‘dumb ass.’

    • Dizz

      Read Melachim ya dingus. Yehoshiyahu literally tells the people to accept the Torah and they do. They celebrate Passpver for the first time since Yehoshua according to the Psukim. Even if you say it isn’t literal, you still must understand that they certainly didn’t practice for a while and just accepted that they should.
      Oh btw the Sioux have a messora of mass revelation as well. So do many other Native American tribes. Oops, that fucks up 90% of Aish talks. Damn shame right?

      • Avi

        Where’s a source for that Sioux claim?

      • Chaim Danzinger

        Why did no one stand up and say the story was bullshit because their family history didn’t reflect what Yoshiyahu said?

        Show me the story. Most likely it originates from a single guy. Anyway, I call bullshit on that too and you probably haven’t done real research on it like everyone else who tries to pull this shit.

        • Chaim Danzinger

          Also, please explain why the Samaritans who replaced the ten tribes had that text of the Chumash, and why did the ten tribes have that text as well.

          HERETIC BUSTED

          • Avi

            Where are your sources? When did the Samaritans have the text? And what’s the source that the 10 tribes had it?

          • Marty Bluke

            See the Ramban in Bamiddbar 15:22. He writes (in the middle of a long piece):

            ???? ????? ??? ?? ????????? ?? ???? ???? ????? ?????? ??? ????? ????? ??? ??? ????? ?????? ?????

            It already happened in our sins during the times of the wicked kings like Yeravam that most of the people completely forgot torah and mitzvos

        • Avi

          Have you ever read 2 chronicles 34? It certainly sounds like Josiah never read a Chumash before Chilkiah found one and showed it to him. Then he read it in front of the whole nation and made them make a covenant to follow it. That’s the proof ppl bring that yes, you can bring out a book and make it national history and religion if you’re the king by simply making people do it. The next chapter says people liked him and liked his religious campaigns as well because he was a good king which probably went a long way too.

          • When You Gaze Into The Abyss

            Why would they write that their forefather Yehudah had a thing for whom he thought was a prositute?

            Why is Shlomoh HaMelech accused of idolatry and Dovid HaMelech called an adulterer? Makes no sense for the Kingship to make their ancestors look like sleazebag. BTW, this is one of the proof Rabbi Miller (ZYA) brings that the Torah is true.

            -Chaim Danzinger

            • Chaim Danzinger

              Im going to look into secular sources on that other stuff I wrote.

            • Avi

              I admit that that’s weird and Its hard to imagine that a group of priests made up the intricate stories and laws of the Torah in a few months (or however long it took for Josiah to clean out and rebuild the temple complex.) But if you go by the story, it does destroy the proof of 600,000 ppl couldn’t pull off a lie that involved them.

              • When You Gaze Into The Abyss

                If thats what they did, how did they pull it off?

                Im waiting.

                • Chaim Danzinger

                  You still have to explain why there was zero dissent. Also please note the Torah and prophets call Jews a stiff-necked people, meaning they are stubborn and refuse to change. So a stiff-necked people just agreed on a bullshit story “because they liked it?” Millions of JEWS? Who argue about *everything*?

                  • Avi

                    It doesn’t say there was zero dissent. It only mentions that the king brought them together and had them swear to follow the book he just found and they were like ok fine.
                    Also, historically there weren’t millions of Jews then. Most had been exiled.
                    Also, the king before and the king worshipped idols. The prophet says they did evil. There were always Jews who served idols in the navi. It was in flux. Sometimes the local idols, like asherah and Baal got served by the majority, sometimes the individual God of Israel did. Often both by the same people.
                    The navi presents a very likely story how it happened. The history: the kingdom of Israel had been invaded and exiled by Assyria. The remnant of Israel and Ephraim went to Jerusalem. There was definite fear for their safety because both chizkiah and menashe paid tribute to Assyria and menashe was only allowed to rule by their say so (divrei hayamim).
                    Towards the end of menashes rule, Assyrian dominance weakened. Amon, Josiah’s father, was loyal to the Assyrians and was killed by assassins for being idolatrous. There is no record that king Josiah continued paying tribute to Assyrians. He and the people were sick of foreign rule and foreign gods. He made sweeping campaigns to root out idolatry (it says this) he took money from Ephraim to build up the temple buildings. There was a national movement towards the Jewish God. Chilkiah finds a book in the temple while overseeing building it. He gives it to Josiah who reads the curses and is blown away. Josiah says to the people look what we found. Let’s swear to uphold these laws so God doesn’t do any more evil things to us. The people are scared too and really love Josiah’s new plan. They all live happily ever after until Josiah attacks Egypt, the Assyrian ally, and is killed. Later, the Babylonians, his and his great grandfather chizkiahus cool new friends come destroy the Bais hamikdash.

                • Avi

                  Like I said twice before, It says how straight out in 2 chronicles 34. Read it

            • Read a book, we’re not in kindergarten anymore.

              • Chaim Danzinger

                Welp, couldn’t think of a real response.

    • Shragi

      Same way a community of people – spread out over the whole world! – have a completely distorted view of history that’s less than 100 years old. It’s very simple, you ban books that tell the truth, you vilify and malign anyone who disagrees with you, you kick their kids out of your schools, you don’t make shidduchim with their kids and presto! You have a new history.

      • Chaim Danzinger

        Show me one record of dissent.

        PRO-TIP:You cant.

        • Chaim Danzinger

          Oh, and please do not tell me the Torah-followers murdered the dissnteors, BECAUSE TORAH FORBIDS PROSELYTIZING!

          • Chaim Danzinger

            Also, please explain why the Judeans who contrived the Torah (C”V) gave shevtei Ephraim and Mannashe a special status (Their forefather gets the bechorah, makes no sense).

            Where are the descendants of the dissenting Jews?

            • Seriously, Matityahu, read a book, or stop spewing ignorance all over here, it’s really getting old.

              • Matityahu bin Avraham

                Explain how Isaiah knew about the destruction of heliopolis centuries before it happened. Isaiah 19:18

                • Matityahu bin Avraham

                  Frumsatire debunked. Torah is word of God.

                  • Raccooncity2000

                    Frum apologists debunked. Torah is manmade.

                • Raccooncity2000

                  Even a broken clock tells time twice a day.

            • Raccooncity2000

              The reason why Ephraim and Menashe get special status is because those parts of the Bible were written by scribes from the Northern Kingdom. It’s not rocket science.

          • Raccooncity2000

            Torah doesn’t prohibit proselytizing, that prohibition was enacted by the rabbis at a much later date. The whole tribe of the Idumeans, for example, were converted to Judaism at the point of a sword (King Herod was descended from these ‘proselytes’).

  • Raccooncity2000

    I replied to Danziger’s comment, wherein he praised Rabbis who only accepted converts who believed that the world is less than 6,000 years old. I asked Danziger if he himself believes the world is less than 6,000 years old, and then mysteriously his original comment disappeared. What a weasel.