Editorial Judgment and Jewish Censorship

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censorshipby R. Gil Student

My column in this week’s issue of The Jewish Link of New Jersey

From 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.

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.

Continue reading here: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. “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”

    Can you elaborate on that? I read the book and got no such impression. But forget that, we have ho’daas ba’al din k’meah edim on this one. Here’s Reb Meilech himself on the matter:
    http://seforim.blogspot.com/2007/09/marc-shapiro-what-do-adon-olam-and-mean.html (Footnote 5)
    [5] “The one quality history book – and it is a really fine piece of work – published by Artscroll is Eliyahu Klugman’s biography of Hirsch.”

    Also Dr Shnayer Leiman
    Footnote 91 has pretty high praise for the book.

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