Recreating the past in one’s own image
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Recreating the past in one’s own image

New book takes issue with the history of Orthodoxy

Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

At a critical moment in George Orwell’s “1984,” Winston Smith comes across a photo demonstrating that three notorious traitors against the Party could not have been where they allegedly committed their crimes. As required by his job in the Ministry of Information, Smith destroys the photo, but his own faith in the Party is badly shaken.

In “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Changes Its History,” Dr. Marc Shapiro provides a series of examples (including many photos) of internal censorship, selective editing, and outright fabrication demonstrating that much of what most Orthodox Jews consider their history and tradition is, in fact, constructed specifically to serve their current religious and social needs. In other words, contemporary Orthodoxy claims fealty to the past because it has re-created that past in its own image.

The book is primarily divided by topic, and Shapiro moves from halachic texts, philosophical texts, and sexually related content to show how current morés and practices are routinely imposed on earlier traditions and accepted wisdom. For example, Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch called the pre-Yom Kippur kaparot ceremony a “foolish custom.” Those words were excised from later editions of the Shulchan Aruch, as kaparot became an almost universally accepted practice. Similarly, a popular and influential ultra-Orthodox biography of Rabbi Elijah Kremer, the Vilna Gaon, completely omits the decades-long campaign he led in opposition to the chasidic movement that defines much of his legacy. In the contemporary Orthodox world, Shapiro explains, the legitimacy of chasidism has been largely accepted by the non-chasidic community. The feud the Gaon led has been largely resolved — and the market for his biography now includes chasidim as well.changing immutable

Two chapters deal specifically with revisionism surrounding Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, controversial and genre-transcending personalities. Hirsch built his community in Frankfurt on the platform of Torah Im Derech Eretz, an integration of religious observance and participation in Western society and culture. As time went on, the ultra-Orthodox community rejected this position but still wanted to keep Hirsch in their pantheon. For one thing, his own community had become more ultra-Orthodox in its observance, and other parts of Hirsch’s philosophy, including austritt, religious separatism to avoid connections with Reform institutions and communities, and anti-Zionism, still resonated. As a result, some later printings of Hirsch’s writings simply omitted references to Torah Im Derech Eretz. Other editions include editor’s notes explaining (falsely, says Shapiro) that Hirsch only formulated Torah Im Derekh Eretz as a stopgap against the inroads of the 19th century German Reform movement, but never meant it as an ideal for communities that did not face the same threat. In this way, the contemporary ultra-Orthodox community, while categorically rejecting secular learning and culture, still claims Hirsch as one of their own.

Marc Shapiro picture
Dr. Marc Shapiro

In the case of Kook, Shapiro documents two layers of censorship. Though controversial in his lifetime, Kook enjoyed great respect from much of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, many of whom respected him greatly, corresponded with him, and even requested his approbation for their books. However, as Kook became more important to the Religious Zionist community in Israel following the Six Day War, and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, arose as a pre-eminent leader of the settler movement, the ultra-Orthodox community reacted by removing references to him from their literature. In one almost comical case, a eulogy of Kook delivered by a Rabbi Isaac Kossowsky was republished as “From a Eulogy for One of the Rabbis,” deleting any direct reference to Kook. Ironically, Kossowsky began by describing the great importance of eulogies and how those who deliver them must make their audiences aware of the special nature of the one being mourned.

At the same time, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, aware of his father’s growing importance, tried to suppress many of his father’s more radical writings to better match the sensibilities of the burgeoning Religious Zionist community he led. For example, several passages that Kook wrote embracing certain aspects of Spinozism were never published. In short, Shapiro provides an interesting perspective on how the legacy of a great leader is influenced by history as much as the reverse.

Like Shapiro’s previous efforts, “Changing The Immutable” is meticulously researched and footnoted — sometimes the extensive footnotes are an even livelier read than the actual text. The examples he cites cover a wide range of historical and geographical material, and are often illustrated by photos and reproductions that show precisely where and how the record was changed. However, he provides little context to connect the dots into a cohesive narrative or explain their historical development. After finishing each chapter, we have many instances of rewritten history around a particular topic, particularly from ultra-Orthodox communities and publishers, but we do not really have a grasp on an overall story, or context, within which to evaluate his findings. Notably, Shapiro devotes little, if any, attention to literature produced by modern Orthodox communities, which, prima facie, should have been a rich source of material as well.

In his introduction, Shapiro claims that “Orthodox history” and “Soviet history” have a great deal in common, and quotes a past editor of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne’eman on the similarity of his job to his peers at Pravda. However, as opposed to the Communist Party in the USSR, there is no single authority consciously setting an agenda for Orthodox Judaism. Shapiro notes that, in the Orthodox world, objective truth is a value that competes with many others, including the honor of past leaders and the religious needs of a work’s targeted audience. In fact, according to some rabbinic sources, a fabricated history that inspires religious devotion is “truer,” in a cosmic sense, than an accurate history that does not.

The actual production of that history, though, turns out to be more grassroots than top-down. In some ways, the ad-hoc emergence of Orthodoxy’s rewritten past is reflected in Shapiro’s haphazard presentation. It is clear something monumental has been happening, but not at all clear who started it, who is currently behind it, and what, if any, its ultimate aims are. Shapiro writes as an academic, so we do not get a sense of his unique perspective as a practicing Orthodox Jew and real-life Winston Smith. He does not tell us how much faith he has lost in his community, if any, or why. He also does not tell us how he thinks a typical Orthodox Jew should react to his findings, or how non-Orthodox Jews should relate to the Orthodox in light of them. These are tantalizing questions, but they remain implicit.

Ultimately, Shapiro paints a picture of a community whose current leadership is beholden to a pantheon of historical leaders who are themselves only reflections of contemporary practice. While he writes about Orthodox Judaism, similar books can certainly be written about political parties, social movements, and national institutions. In the age of the Internet, when so many more pictures escape the censor’s grasp, Shapiro challenges us to purposefully shape our future — not our past.

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