The picture of President Obama and his advisory team in the Situation Room during the raid on the Osama bin Laden compound is a contemporary icon of American political power. Every face is taut in apprehension or shock; it will certainly become a pivotal document of a turning point in American foreign and military policy. Only days after its release, there was a curious incident involving the picture in its publication in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspaper: Hilary Clinton, the then-incumbent Secretary of State, so vital in the mission and featured prominently in the final shot, was missing. So, another sense, this photograph was, for many people, the introduction to how a subset of haredi Jews alter history to fit their own view of the world. But the question arises: Was this an isolated incident, or something deeper?
Cue in Professor Marc B. Shapiro, a talented scholar based at the University of Scranton, whose academic interests cover a wide range of Jewish topics, from the mainstream to the esoteric. Professor Shapiro has previously written pioneering works on the life and scholarship of Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, on Professor Saul Lieberman, and The Limits of Orthodox Theology. Having studied with Rabbi Dr. Marc Shapiro at The Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, I can attest to the rigor and transparency of his scholarship. With his most recent work Changing the Immutable, he has once again rocked the Jewish community with his erudition and brilliant scholarship.
In this new tome, Shapiro explores with impeccable detail twentieth century attempts by some parts of the ultra-Orthodox world to re-shape history to fit their own religious ideologies. For example, there were some authorities who wanted to cut Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik out of pictures because he was too “modern.” Others wanted to censor all pictures of religious women who didn’t wear sheitels (wigs) or men with kippot (head coverings), or all women altogether as can be attested to the incident of Ms. Clinton. Still others removed any mention of sexual language, changed texts that appeared too theologically or halakhicly radical, or simply doctored texts to make them more in line with current persuasion. At points, leading figures in these communities distorted and censored previous rabbinic discussions that dealt with topics like the Enlightenment, Hasidism, Zionism, feminism, modernity and others. They deleted lines from texts that exposed the complexity of gadolim (Torah sages) and their struggles. And in rare cases, they flat out attempted to erase whole ideologies of Torah giants like Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook. Re-shaping narratives in line with one’s values is necessary, not to mention inevitable. Our concern is more with changing the wording of texts and altering verified facts to fit one’s agenda.
Some haredi scholars were aware and open about their process. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter—the Gur Rebbe— for example, wrote in his will that his followers should “Burn that which will not be good for me.”
Others believed they understood what their rebbe should share better than he himself did. Yeshoshua Mondshine explains:
The phenomenon that Hasidim omit things from the writings of their rabbis is not at all rare. They do not see in this any contradiction to the holiness of the words of the rebbe, as long as they are certain that their intentions and actions are proper and correspond to the true outlook of their rebbe, or when the omission is done out of the concern of damaging the rabbis honour. (‘Authenticity of Hasidic Letters,’ 89).
There is some Talmudic basis for censorship and distortion, a subset that Shapiro explicates in his closing chapters modeling the appropriate intellectual integrity we desire from others. The rabbis teach halakhah ve’ein morin ken (this is the halakhah, but we do not teach it). The Rabbis (Shabbat 153b) view this as a Divine mandate based upon the teaching that “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing (Proverbs 25:2). Further, at times halakhah allows one to alter the truth mipnei darkhei shalom (for the sake of peace) and some have even taught that we should alter religious truths and halakhah to establish piece “between us and our Father in Heaven.” Although there were many religious exceptions to the pursuit of truth, we can only presume that outside of these few selected areas, these sages were committed to the highest order to the Torah value of truth. The intentions in censorship were likely good: protect sages’ honor, promote modesty, enhance peace, to foster understanding, etc. These positive intentions are mitigating factors in this intentional deviation from the honest transmission of Torah and history.
To be sure, Kant’s categorical imperative is not compatible with the Jewish tradition: telling the truth is not absolute for the Torah. For example, saving a life trumps telling the truth. In the classical critique of Kant, if a Nazi came to one’s door, should not a person not tell the truth that Jews are in the basement?
But here the stakes were much lower and lines were crossed that should never have been. The authenticity of the Jewish education and transmission process relies solely upon the educators and publishers to convey accurate material. The haredi community is outstanding in its commitment to Torah learning, prayer, and piety and this is something we can all learn from. But, as moderns we have something crucial to share about the responsibility of Torah transmission in modern times.
Unfortunately, Shapiro doesn’t provide much moral guidance regarding the permissibility of such distortions. Rather, his readers are left wondering if there are any red lines at all or if all is permissible. Earlier rabbinic texts that demonstrate a value higher than truth do not necessarily validate haredi distortions of truth; Jewish tradition often treats these texts as problems themselves. So how do we in turn respond to the travesty of intellectual deception fully infiltrating not only our religious academies, and systems of outreach, but also Jewish history itself?
Here are a few different proposals to grapple with:
1. We must promote rigorous study with honest and critical analysis, making it accessible to all and moving away from unchecked centralized rabbinic authority. This move would necessarily subvert communal hierarchical structures that leave others, especially women, powerless and alienated. Everyone, who so desires, must be granted authentic access to the true law and true narrative. There is indeed a sacred responsibility for scholars to transmit a powerful transformative Torah that helps others grow, but in our day it must be with higher transparency.
2. Ultra-Orthodox works published in the twenty-first century must be read with greater skepticism and one must be prepared to verify all facts and translations in order to properly understand an issue. There are those who want their Torah to be censored by others they trust and that is fine. But for those of us trying to access the authentic Torah tradition, we must work harder in our critical scholarship.
3. We should begin to embrace pluralism more deeply as a reaction against the current trends toward unswerving absolutism. Embracing the complexity of Jewish history and tradition with full honesty and transparency leads us to understand the diversity of views that existed in the past and that exist today and lessens the need to carve out a false monolithic image of halakhah or Torah values. This moves us toward greater tolerance and epistemic humility.
4. We must raise the standards for intellectual integrity within our own communities by never altering facts to serve our arguments. We can learn to cherish our own values while never allowing them to blind us to the values of truth, transparency and intellectual diversity.
We need to work harder to cultivate trust in our fellow Jewish traveler. We can share the complexity of our tradition while trusting and empowering other Jews to create their own meaning and decisions.
Shapiro’s new book is a must read for all who want to understand how the current “slide to the right” is radically reforming Judaism to fit within the cacophonous landscape of contemporary values. Indeed, this type of haredi Orthodoxy is at times post-modern, suggesting that truth is what I declare it to be. By plumbing the depths of Jewish thought of yesteryear, Professor Shapiro has given readers a snapshot for understanding the Orthodox world of today, allowing them to grapple with a problem that is long overdue and urgently needs to be addressed.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”