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The Uncivil Servant: Manipulating the Immutable

Mitchell Abidor
November 19, 2016


by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Changing the Immutable, by Marc B. Shapiro. Litman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2015.

ANY SYSTEM that claims to represent eternal verities is eventually forced, either tacitly or openly, to confront the fact that nothing, in fact, is eternal; that the circumstances that made something applicable at one moment, that made an idea acceptable at another, are not fixed. The idolaters of these systems can claim that all is fixed, but as Galileo said to his Inquisitors: “E puor se muove” (And yet it moves) . . .

Leaders in totalitarian systems have an advantage when confronting this problem. Controlling everything that goes into the brains of their followers, they can ensure that only information that serves their and their system’s interests flows.

Marc B. Shapiro’s brilliant Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites its History deserves, until its final pages, to stand alongside the greatest studies of totalitarianism, from Arendt to Orwell to Serge to Zamyatin, as a specific case study of totalitarian methodology. Examining hundreds of books and documents, Shapiro gives a detailed account of the ways in which the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community of today, as well as Rabbinic Judaism in the past, falsifies books, documents, and even frontispieces in an effort to ensure that only safe ideas are disseminated among the faithful.

The haredi point of view on this matter is succinctly put by one of their own, Shimon Schwab: “What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity . . . Rather than write the history of our forebears, every generation has to put a veil over the human failings and glorify all the rest, which is great and beautiful. That means we have to do without a real history book. We can do without it. We do not need realism, we need inspiration from our forefathers in order to pass it on to posterity.” Truth and history are not things out there in the world: they are mutable, objects of manipulation in service of the greater good.

In order to pass along history and ideas as inspiration, in order to “put a veil over human failings,” falsification is the order of the day. Shapiro writes: “Not only censorship, but outright distortion is permissible, all in the name of a higher truth.”

This falsification and distortion touch all elements of Judaism. Doctoring photographs is an obvious method. Just as Trotsky vanished from Soviet photos, if those of a haredi rabbi show him conversing happily with two other rabbis, one of them a voice of religious Zionism, wnihch is anathema to the haredi community, the offender is simply cut out. The reputation of the haredi is now safe, and the memory of the encounter with the defender of an idea they find anathema is erased.

rebbe_no_yarmulkeHead covering, it will surprise some to know, is not an essential element in Judaism, or was not until it became so. Even the revered Vilna Gaon “believed that it was only a custom to cover one’s head.” Over the course of history, some Jews wore hats outdoors, removing them when indoor because to wear a hat inside was disrespectful; at other times yarmulkes were only worn in yeshivas during religious classes and not during secular time. This is no longer the case, so how to avoid this question being raised by believers when they see images of heroes of the Torah? Great rabbis from the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century were originally depicted bareheaded, but no longer are. Be they 18th-century Italian rabbis or even Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rabbi (whose Berlin student photo -- shown above right -- passport photo and naturalization papers all show him bareheaded), their images are revised in keeping with current practice. The past is now effaced and mirrors the present.

MODESTY RULES have become ever more strict, causing the images that adorned classic texts to become unkosher. Naked women on the title pages of ancient hagodes have their bodies simply blotted out; and in one case that Shapiro reproduces, bare-breasted women from 1594 become mermaids in 1989 and men in 2010!

Ideas and opinions are either changed or obliterated. When the Iraqi rabbi Joseph Hayim of Baghdad wrote a book in the vernacular -– Arabic in this case -- aimed at women readers, he discussed the matter of head covering, “a practice,” Shapiro tells us, “whose obligatory nature has been the subject of some dispute in recent years.” Hayim wrote that in Europe, Jewish women did not cover their hair. “He quotes the justification,” explains Shapiro, “offered by European Jews that since all women, Jewish and non-Jewish, go about with uncovered hair, this does not rouse sexual thoughts in men. He concludes: ‘These are their words which they answer for this practice, and we do not have a reply to push off this answer of theirs.’ ” However, since this is not the current party line, a translation into Hebrew of this work simply removed the opinion.

No religious figure, no matter how great, is immune from censorship and distortion. Rashi, Maimonides, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, all have seen their opinions or wording changed or vanish under the hand of self-appointed censors. Kook spoke kindly of Tolstoy, remarks which were removed from the work in which he did so. Unfortunately, Shapiro, despite all his brave exposing of chicanery, finds excuses for this. Shapiro says of Kook’s censors that, “They obviously believe that the public will not understand how he could have spoken this way about Tolstoy, and this will tarnish his reputation. While this does not make the censorship any more acceptable, it does show that not all censorship comes from a bad place . . . [T]his censorship is motivated by opposition to the figure being censored, but out of reverence for him, and a desire to ensure that this reverence is shared by as many as possible.” That Kook’s admiration for Tolstoy might just as well have led for respect by haredim for a non-Jew is excluded from the equation. And this is the ultimate flaw of Changing the Immutable: despite his clear disapproval of censorship, Shapiro is unable to rise above his milieu and call it what it is -- unacceptable.

The excuse he offers can be used for almost every case of censorship outlined in Changing the Immutable, or almost any kind of censorship. Censors always feel they are doing the right thing, protecting the innocent from dangerous ideas, or at least pay lip service to this idea. If King Solomon is guilty for having written the suggestive phrase “lying between my breasts” in his “Song of Songs,” change it in translation to “lying on my heart” and all is well. Solomon, (Solomon!) is saved from obloquy and the readers from a troubling image. One writer claims that some passages in the Bible are “not suitable for translation from the modern standpoint of nicety,” so they are left untranslated or “purposely rendered incorrectly.” Fine as well, since it saves the Bible from being viewed as salacious.

THE MAINTENANCE of secrecy about doctrine has a long history in Judaism, all of it permissible in accordance with the principle of “halakhah ve’ein morin ken,” meaning “This is the halakha but we do not teach it,” a phrase that appears several times in the Talmud. Shapiro explains that “What it means is that although something is technically permitted, the rabbis do not inform the masses of this because of a fear that using this heter (permission) could have negative ramifications.” It must be stressed that though this is a principle at the heart of haredi practice, it is historically a part of overall Jewish religious practice.

The ultimate failure of Changing the Immutable is brought out in its final chapter, “Is the Truth Really That Important?” Shapiro delivers a fascinating disquisition on the subject, presenting perfectly reasonable and commonsensical cases in which lying is permissible under Jewish law, as in the case of preserving peace (does this dress make me look fat?), and less reasonable ones, as in accepting false attribution of statements in order to give them greater weight (a technique a certain presidential candidate who shall not be named could accept). Shapiro presents the point of view of the haredi teacher Elijah Dressler that “Truth is a value that must carry some positive result, since truth is, by definition, a positive quality. Therefore ‘truth,’ as understood by the Sages, means that which leads to a good result . . . Truth is not dependent upon empirical observation and evidence but derives from religious considerations. Thus a historically accurate description that leads to a bad result is, from a religious perspective, ‘false.’ By the same token, that which leads people to God’s will, even if it is factually false, is nevertheless to be regarded as ‘truth.’”

Defending the indefensible, Shapiro quotes similar ideas of the lay philosopher Hastings Randall, proving (in his view) that this limited view of truth is not “merely haredi doublespeak.” Shapiro ends the book by again deferring to the good will of the censors, “who create falsehoods in the name of truth.” Shapiro can indeed show that “such an approach can be justified by quite few sources in rabbinic tradition.” An approach like this one, drawn from within the same closed system that perpetrates and perpetuates falsehood, can have validity only in the eyes of those already blinded by their beliefs.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.