Book review: Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History

Most of my book reviews here (including this one) have been edited by the astute Ezra Brand. Where his editing ends and censorship begins is not often so clear. So what’s the difference between the two? Let’s start with how Google defines them:

  • Censor — examine (a book, movie, etc.) officially and suppress unacceptable parts of it
  • Edit — prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

One doesn’t have to be an etymologist to see that there is an overlap between the two terms. How can one tell the difference between censorship and editing? You often won’t know it when you see it.

In Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, ISBN 978-1904113607), author Marc Shapiro, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Scranton, has written an engaging book on the topic of censorship within the Orthodox world.

shapiro

After finishing the book, it occurred to me that while the content of the book was quite interesting, the title of the book bordered on histrionic.

Shapiro highlights innumerable instances of censorship. But the majority of these were micro matters of changing a sentence or two, removing a paragraph, removing a reference to a controversial topic, and the like. While he provides a few examples of where stories have been completely fabricated, the reality is that there are not myriad examples of wholesale rewriting of history by the Orthodox.

With that, Shapiro details how some segments of Judaism’s Orthodox society have taken it upon themselves to modify some aspects of the past by censoring books. It should be pointed out that while it is indeed clear that these groups commonly edit out those things that don’t fit their Weltanschauung — as Shapiro shows at length — this phenomenon is hardly unique to the Orthodox.

Just last week, the TV Land cable channel in the United States made the decision to stop airing the 1980s show “Dukes of Hazard” amid controversy over the Confederate flag, which is prominently displayed on the roof of the Duke Boys’ car, named the General Lee. Is that censorship? Or simply a reaction to the times?

Censorship is anathema to an academic like Shapiro, a scholar who has the capabilities to deal with sensitive and often complex topics. But for those writing for a much less sophisticated readership, it may be needed to limit what one writes, as they may lack the wherewithal to properly discern the complex ideas being discussed.

Knowing what not to put into writing can be just as important as to what is left in. At the most simplistic level, we know that reading Stephen King or James Joyce to a 5-year old is not the most judicious approach for bedtime. In matters of philosophy and faith, a reader may also need to be shielded from topics which they simply lack the intellectual wherewithal to properly digest.

The slippery slope is when and where to invoke the rules of censorship. For those wanting a definitive measure, there unfortunately simply isn’t any.

The book opens with the observation that there’s often a tension between the quest for historical truth and the desire of communities of faith to pass on their religious message.

The book is certainly an interesting read, even though Shapiro’s arguments are not always overwhelmingly convincing. He quotes the famous line from A Few Good Men that “You can’t handle the truth!” while admitting that there are times where the content is simply too much for the reader. Shapiro writes that Orthodox writers and publishers often worry about how certain texts will affect those who perhaps can’t handle them.

Shapiro writes that it hardly needs to be said that all historians have biases. He observes though that academic historians often have an unconscious bias, while those Orthodox who try to re-write history do it consciously.

Chapter 5 is about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and is one of the most interesting in the book. Shapiro writes that when it comes to Orthodox censoring of the past so as to align it with the present, the figure of Rabbi Kook stands out. It’s not that it was only Rabbi Kook’s adversaries who did much of the editing/censorship; rather it was his own son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Part of the reason he edited/censored his father’s work is that he felt some of his father’s writing were not appropriate for the generation. In addition, due to their controversial nature, any misinterpretation could be very harmful.

Shapiro acknowledges that censorship does have a place when he concludes chapter 5 with the observation that when Kook was censored, those who did it were actually doing him a favor by helping to preserve his reputation. While that fact does not make the censorship any more acceptable, Shapiro writes, it does show that not all censorship comes from a bad place. And with Kook, this censorship is motivated not 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.

The book concludes with chapter 8 on the topic of “is the truth really that important?” Shapiro does a superb job in collecting various sources on the topic. Immanuel Kant said that lying is always morally wrong. Judaism understands that there is an inherent tension between preserving the truth, which is a fundamental imperative, and the notion that there are times where it’s better to lie.

This is indeed a fascinating and well researched book. The title itself is somewhat broad, as it’s not that Orthodox Judaism has rewritten its history at the macro level. Rather, Shapiro has documented many cases where it has been modified at the micro level.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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