Scholar takes a dim view of haredi censors

Scholar takes a dim view of haredi censors

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Marc B. Shapiro
Marc B. Shapiro

Last week, after Israel’s new cabinet ministers posed for a photographer, the picture appeared in a popular news site and a newspaper serving the country’s haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community. There was, however, a notable alteration: The faces of the three women cabinet ministers were blurred out, apparently for the sake of “modesty.”

For West Orange Judaics scholar Marc Shapiro, this sort of censorship is of a piece with the way haredi publishers edit out “unsavory” passages from classic texts. Such suppression is the subject of his new book, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization). 

A member of Congregation Ohr Torah, Shapiro holds the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton. He has spent the last 20 years documenting the way classic Jewish texts have been edited when major thinkers’ credentials or particular passages fall out of favor with contemporary Jewish ideologies, particularly in the haredi world. 

His goal, Shapiro said, is “to document the phenomenon, which has never before been studied,” with the exception of one article he has seen. “There’s nothing on Jews censoring their own texts not because they are heretical — these are standard canonical texts — but because of changes in outlook. Certain texts that used to be acceptable have been changed.” 

The list of topics deemed controversial by censors includes Zionism, biblical interpretation, sexual matters, and attitudes toward women and non-Jews.

Just two weeks after its publication, Shapiro’s book is the number-one bestseller on Amazon in its category — a notable accomplishment for an academic book that includes (untranslated) rabbinic rulings, talmudic texts, and medieval commentaries.

“Censorship of a text is not done for theoretical reasons,” Shapiro said in a telephone conversation. “It is being censored, mostly by haredim, because it speaks to a vision of how things should be today. When an alternative perspective [in the text] challenges their view of exclusivity, they remove the passage.”

Among the victims of censorship outlined in the book is Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. The first chief rabbi of Israel, Kook was a leading sage and respected figure in the Torah world in his day. But because he accepted Zionism and was tolerant of secular Zionists — ideas that are anathema in much of the haredi world — an effort to remove him from the canon began about 20 years ago, according to Shapiro. 

“His ideas are not acceptable in certain right-wing communities,” said Shapiro.

In one example that Shapiro calls “comical,” the writings of a rabbi named Yitzhak Kosowsky were published posthumously by a haredi publisher. Kosowsky was a great admirer of Kook, and delivered a long eulogy upon Kook’s death. The eulogy is included, but the name of its subject was completely omitted. 

Similarly, Samson Raphael Hirsch, credited as the father of Modern Orthodoxy, has been discredited in the haredi world, because he disavowed the religious separatism that has since taken hold among haredim. Instead, Hirsch encouraged Torah im derech eretz, or living a life of Torah while engaged with Western philosophy and culture. Hirsch noted that no less a figure than the Vilna Gaon, the great 18th-century sage, considered it only a custom, not a commandment, that Jewish men must cover their heads at all times. 

“Today, however, this is exactly the sort of thing that some in the haredi world do not want their followers to know about, as it destroys the illusion of religious uniformity among Orthodox Jews in this matter,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro’s book also discusses images of the human body found in antique Jewish texts that are no longer considered appropriate. 

“When these books were written, people would walk down the streets in Italy and even in Poland and see these images everywhere with an artistic sensibility rather than involving sexuality. You could never sell Jewish books today with these images,” he said. “And it’s an impossible idea — that what people assume to be the way, the view of how Jews behave, might not have always been the case. What today is unimaginable yesterday was very imaginable.”

For Shapiro, the book is not only about censorship but a window into another way of approaching text, history, and truth. 

“We assume in liberal America that knowledge is good and should be universal. The paternalistic approach that we keep knowledge from some people like we do from children goes against this understanding,” he said. “But for a long time, there was a distinction between the elites who would have knowledge and the masses who would not. It’s a standard feature of Jewish philosophy that you write a certain way so that only the elites could understand. So censorship, cover-ups, and rewriting are nothing new.”

The haredi world-view, he said, is like that of the first-century historian Josephus, who described the mass suicide on Masada. For Josephus, history and literature were the same enterprise. “When the tour guide reads the story, and we hear the leader saying, ‘We will not be captured,’ no one is troubled that the whole monologue is made up by Josephus,” said Shapiro.

“I want people to recognize that while we do not accept the idea of an alternative past, it does have strong roots in Judaism.” He added, “The people with this old approach are in conflict with [the expectations of] today. It may have been a long time in the past, but for certain communities, the present is the past. They have not bought into modern tradition and they are following this [older] tradition still.”

Shapiro earned a BA at Brandeis University and his PhD at Harvard University. He received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt, a disciple of the 20th-century Orthodox icon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. While he writes about the conflict between Orthodoxy and the academic discipline of history, for him, “there are no conflicts. The people doing the censoring just think that certain people need to be ‘protected’ from certain truths.”

He also suspects that some in the haredi community are among his readers. 

“Even in the closed communities, where there are the elite and the masses, everyone considers themselves to be among the elite, and they want to know what the others are not supposed to know,” he said.

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