Does History Need to Be True?

August 3, 2015

Shapiro-Changing-220From the Orthodox Jewish perspective, history is a means to an end rather than a goal in itself. There is no similar concept to Torah for its own sake–history for its own sake. This translates into two different utilitarian attitudes. One sees history as a source of inspiration, a method of increasing devotion to religious principles. The other sees history as a series of lessons on human nature and divine providence. Both view history from a utilitarian lens, but the different perspectives yield radically different results that pit segments of Orthodox society against each other.

If history is a source of inspiration, it need not be accurate. History consists of stories, almost parables based on a true story. As long as the story works, it can be accepted as history; if it fails to inspire, it must be rejected. Historical truth is only as valuable as its positive message. This entails no intellectual dishonesty as long as there is no real claim to accuracy. History is meant to convey themes, as the punchline goes: “I don’t know if the stories about [any given rabbi] are true but they don’t tell such stories about you and me.”

On the other hand, if history is a series of case studies in religious personalities and communities, it must be preserved in its full glory. We may not be able to make sense of the complex events immediately but we must first determine what happened and then attempt to learn from it. If we distort the past, we cannot properly apply it to our times. Changing history will condemn us to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. This is the tradition I was taught.

Editing History

Professor Marc Shapiro, in his recent book Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2015; $37.95) reveals a wide variety of what he considers censorship in the Orthodox community and beyond. I am sure he would agree that some examples are merely editorial decisions. Every living author has an editor who polishes the manuscript. A deceased author deserves the same privilege, although the editor must observe the same restraint he would use with a live author.

Shapiro, as a historian, wants access to unedited manuscripts because they offer valuable historical insights. However, publishers must use sound editorial judgment to preserve the quality of their product. Failing to do so risks tarring the authors’ reputations by depriving them of the editorial services they would have received in their lifetime.

This only becomes censorship when the editor wields his red pen too strongly. Shapiro describes the debate surrounding Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook’s editing of his father’s writings. Shapiro clearly feels that the younger Kook took too much liberty with his father’s previously unpublished writings while others believe he was merely serving the role of faithful editor.

Changing History

Some publishers believe they can re-edit previously published books. A reasonable argument can be made that sensibilities change and the author would write differently for a contemporary audience. I believe that once a book is published, it is complete; only its author should be allowed to revise it and only if he clearly marks it as a new edition. We cannot un-ring a bell or un-publish a book.

Shapiro tells how publishers in the mid-20th century removed criticism of the Rambam from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s classic, Nineteen Letters. Those from the inspirational school of history see it as an important edit, given changing sensibilities since mid-19th century Germany. I see it as an attempt to erase a piece of history, to deprive Rav Hirsch of his opinion, even though I believe it mistaken. If we cut off a piece of Rav Hirsch’s personality, we lose sight of who he truly was.

In 1954, a publisher, reportedly on instructions from the Satmar Rebbe, published a commentary by Rav Moshe Sofer, omitting a passage implying that Shabbos ends 35 minutes after sunset. Those who insist that Shabbos ends later may not want such an authoritative, contrary source. Alternately, maybe they wanted to preserve contemporary respect for the lenient scholar. Regardless, the interests of learning from the past demands that we accurately know what past scholars truly believed.

Shapiro’s examples range from the benign to the outrageous. Because Shapiro wrote this book as a collection of examples and not a balanced presentation of the Orthodox community’s beliefs, as he states explicitly, he emphasizes the attitude that sees history as inspirational material. He spends almost no time on those within the Orthodox community who strongly object to this activity.

Frustrating Censors

Those who adopt the other view, that history should be studied as it happened, find great frustration in many of these acts of censorship. When publishers of Rav David Tzvi Hoffmann’s responsa whited out a letter in which the author discussed Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s policy that students in his school sit bareheaded during secular studies, they deprive us of an important example of balancing a traditional life with the pressures of living in a modern society. We don’t have to follow this precedent to learn from it, perhaps considering it the wrong balance. Thankfully, a new edition of this volume was published in 2010 with the responsum returned to its rightful place.

About a decade ago, I consulted with one of the more right-leaning senior YU roshei yeshiva about a possible scholarly project compiling commentaries on the Torah. When the issue arose of controversial statements by medieval biblical commentators, he told me in no uncertain terms, “We do not censor Rishonim (medieval commentators).” I believe he would say the same about Torah giants from any other period. Orthodox Judaism does not need its history to look like its present. We are blessed by variety, even if many opinions remain marginal. By censoring the past, we lose a part of our Torah heritage, even if we follow a different opinion.

A review of Artscroll biographies, which Shapiro does not do, reveals a surprising mix of attitudes to historical accuracy. On the one hand, the biography of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, a detailed and scholarly study, rewrites him as a contemporary Charedi. However, the biography of Rav Eliyahu Dessler includes pictures of rabbinic wives with uncovered hair, a historical fact that must surely frustrate contemporary Charedim. The Artscroll biography of the Vilna Gaon, a translation of Rav Betzalel Landau’s Hebrew work, contains a previously unpublished chapter detailing the heated controversy over Chasidism (Shapiro criticizes Landau on p. 51 but seems to have missed this addition to the English translation). And, while not published by Artscroll, Rav Dov Eliach’s 3-volume biography of the Vilna Gaon lays out the controversy in enormous detail.

Controversy does not increase the glory of God. However, wiping out the memory of controversy condemns us to repeat the mistakes of history. Thankfully, many in the Orthodox community object to the overzealous ideological editing that Shapiro documents in his book.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.