Sunday, April 16, 2017

Thoughts on Marc Shapiro's "Changing the Immutable"


This Pesach afforded me an opportunity to make a dent in my pile of 'must-reads.' On the top of the pile was Marc Shapiro's widely hailed study on internal Orthodox censorship, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History. Reading it was an exhilarating, informative and enriching experience. Needless to say, he more than proves his point there is a long history of internal censorship with Post-Talmudic Judaism, a phenomenon which has literally exploded in the past century, and even more so in the past thirty years, particularly in Haredi circles. 

Shapiro, as I once noted, is a master historical sleuth and the erudition that is reflected in this volume is nothing less than stunning. He addresses hundreds of cases of self-censorship, spanning dozens and dozens of literary genres and disciplines. In every case, he displays truly impressive mastery of both the many editions of the works that he discusses, as well as the secondary literature that pertains thereto. As a result, the book acquires a secondary role as a valuable reference tool.

Since this is not a formal review, I will confine myself here to a few random thoughts and observations. 

1) As I already noted, Shapiro makes a convincing case for his argument that many important rabbinic works have been tampered with by editors and publishers, for a wide variety of reasons. Indeed, if there is a central (sobering) lesson to be derived from reading this volume, it is that one can never really be sure that one possesses the ipsissima verba of any Rishon, Aharon or Modern Rabbinic authority--- especially in cases where the writer touches on a subject that later readers find problematic. The problem is compounded by the fact, amply documented by the author, that often the censorship is so elegant as to leave the innocent reader with not a hint that the text before him has been tampered with.

2) As some reviewers have already noted, the book suffers from the absence of a rigorous conceptual framework by which to judge the various types of actions that the author describes. Not all of the types of censorship that he describes are of a piece, nor are they all self-evidently censorious. One example that I found particularly noteworthy was Shapiro's claim that withholding halakhic information from the masses (הלכה ואין מורין כן), constitutes outright censorship. 
    This is misleading. There is a fundamental difference between bowdlerizing texts and rewriting the historical record, on the one hand, and restricting professional information to those trained to handle it. Orthodox Jews believe that the future of one's soul depends upon the proper observance of Halakhah. Not every person is properly trained in the discipline, and irresponsible use of half-understood information can lead to very negative results. It is for that reason, that authorities opposed the publication of halakhic handbooks, such as the Shulhan Arukh (as Prof. Twersky noted some fifty years ago.) This is not censorship, though it is an expression of professional elitism (of an open ended elite, as noted by the Bavli in Sotah 22b).

3) On a similar note, I was bewildered by a long excursus dealing with the shift in practice regarding the determination of twilight and nightfall (בין השמשות וצאת הכוכבים). Shapiro, correctly, observes that the widespread acceptance of the Geonic approach that defines Twilight as commencing with astronomical sunset, creates a situation wherein the manner whereby a majority of Observant Jews observe Shabbat contradicts the opinion of most Rishonim. The result is that these same Jews are effectively violating Shabbat (according to these Rishonim) by virtue of their ending the day too early.
Frankly, I don't understand Shapiro's apparent outrage. There are multiple halakhic controversies where one side views the other's as constituting a heinous crime. (The controversy over חלב discussed by Eric Zimmer in Olam keMinhago Noheg, 250-262 comes to mind). In the absence of a Sanhedrin, such anomalies are part of the system. And, while it is true that a reversal of an overwhelming consensus is a dramatic development, it is certainly legitimate under the proper conditions. (See Rosh, Sanhedrin III:6; SA, Hoshen Mishpat Sec. 25 par. 1-2 with commentaries.) The Rosh asserts that a consensus can be overturned by a 'knock out' question or proof. It is not hard to argue that the GRA's excursus on OH sec. 261 par. 3 s.v. she-hu 3.)  I discussed parts of this issue in this article.

4) Shapiro's comment (7 n. 37) comparing Soviet Historical Revisionism and Israeli representations of the creation of the Palestinian Refugee Situation is gratuitous, misleading and inaccurat. It also misrepresents Benny Morris' own findings on the subject (despite the citation of the latter's book). Even the 'official' documentary on the founding of Israel, עמוד האש notes that some Arabs fled on their own and others were encouraged to leave (in most cases for strategic reasons).    

5) I share the author's dismay at the extremes to which euphemisms are employed in order to avoid any sexual connotations (183ff). However, in order to understand the phenomenon, it is necessary to place it in its linguistic context (something that the author fails to do). Hebrew is a very restrained, understated language. Maimonides famously took pride in the fact that Hebrew has no indigenous terms for the male or female sexual organ, and uses euphemisms for the sexual act as well. This avoidance of blatant self-expression, some might call it modesty, is not restricted to matters sexual. Hebrew speakers, for example, do not mention cancer. If someone, God forbid, succumbs to its ravages, he or she is invariably describes as having suffered 'a serious illness' (מחלה קשה) or 'an extended illness' (מחלה ממושכת). In fact, contemporary Hebrew is so understated that an egregious situation is described as a מצב קשה, or a מצב לא פשוט. The phenomenon noted by Shapiro is simply a significant expansion of a very common practice. 

6) While on the subject of sexual censorship, I think it important to note two questions that the author does not address. 1) What is the impact of the blatant sexualization of Western Culture and discourse in creating the response he outlines? 2) As a person who has spent over forty years studying Renaissance Italian Jewry, against the context of Medieval and Early Modern Ashkenazic Jewry, I would be interested in insights as to what set Italian Jewry apart from the rest of European Jews in that nude engravings did not bother them as frontispieces to sacred books. The obverse, to me, seems fairly logical.

7) One final point, which I found personally upsetting, was the citation of my recently departed friend and colleague, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Meir Raffeld, as 'Rafler.' Obviously, the author misread the ד at the end of his name as a ר. The error occurs three times in the book, and I would hope it will be corrected in future editions.

In any event, overall, I found the book illuminating, engaging, and infuriating. At the same time, alongside admiration at the author's erudition, it reinforces the lesson that a sefer should not be judged not only by its cover, but by its content.  

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