Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Agendas Versus Historical Truths

Professor Marc B. Shapiro
Truth is the best defense. This expression refers to the best way for an innocent defendant to present his case in court. It is also a prescription for mankind. Which of course includes Orthodox Jews, too. And yet sometimes ideals or agendas get in the way of the truth. Especially when it comes to the truth of history. And the more rigid the ideals, the more the truth of history can get distorted, usually by omitting inconvenient truths from publications.

The phenomenon of putting ideals ahead of the truth is not a new one. It was articulated by Rav Shimon Schwab; accepted and perpetuated by Rabbi Nosson Scherman, publisher of Mesorah Publications (ArtScroll). Here is what R’ Schwab said - as quoted by Ezra Glinter in a  Forward review of Professor Marc Shapiro's new book, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History :

Shimon Schwab, a prominent 20th-century German Jewish rabbi who argued that “a realistic historic picture” is good for “nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity.” Rather, he claimed, “every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful.” If that means doing without factually accurate knowledge, he continued, “We can do without.” 
Rabbi Scherman put it this way. His biographical books are designed to inspire. If a negative fact of history is included in the biography of a religious Jewish hero, it will uninspire. That fact trumps the truth.

To the extent that it has ever been tried, even by Charedi authors like Rav Nosson Kamenetsky, it has been rejected.  Even if I would agree with Rabbi Scherman (which I don’t) - what a specific Hashkafa deems negative might be seen as positive to those of us with a different Hashkafa. 

For example that Rav Aharon Kotler once read secular literature or wrote letters to his fiancé before they were married is deemed derogatory by the Hashkafa of the right. How dare we say that a pure and holy man like R’ Aharon Kotler read secular books… or even worse, wrote letters to his finance?! To the Charedi mindset these things are beneath the Kavod of a man they consider to have been the Gadol HaDor. So when someone like R’ Kamenetsky published those things in his book, Making of a Gadol, it was banned. Apparently the Kotler family felt it was disparaging to say that about their patriarchal figure.

R’ Kamenetsky argued that even if these were negative things about him, that he overcame them makes him a far more inspirational figure than if he was born Kodesh Merechem – holy from the womb. But to no avail. His book was banned because it told a truth that was unacceptable to his family. A family that are adherents of the current Charedi Hashkafa. 

Honoring the family’s wishes is one thing. But the net result is perpetuating the falsehood that a Gadol would never do things like that - when in fact he did. God forbid one of their adherents decide to pick up a classic novel and read it, or worse write a letter to his fiancé.

Professor Marc Shapiro has gone to great lengths to uncover and publish these truths which have been omitted by the right for purposes of furthering their agenda.  He has in fact written a few books demonstrating how agendas have caused lies of omission to be promoted as truth. Even in a book as sacred as R’ Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch: 
In discussing the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of kaparot , in which one’s sins are symbolically transferred to a chicken, Karo refers to the practice as a “foolish custom.” (Other authorities went further, calling it a pagan practice.) Although that comment appeared in the first 18 printings of the work, it disappeared in the 18th century and is still generally omitted — a decision based on the fact that kaparot is now a normative Jewish observance.  
Lying by omission was clearly intended to forward an agenda. One that strives to defend a practice now observed by many –mostly Chasidic Jews. One which was clearly labeled by the Shulchan Aruch as foolish at the minimum. 
“If Karo is not safe from censorship,” Shapiro writes, ”I daresay that no text is safe.” 
Rewriting history to serve an agenda is just plain wrong. Even if one’s motives for doing so are pure. One cannot learn from history if it is hidden from them. One can then only learn from the history deemed beneficial for the cause. 

I understand that family sensitivity needs to be honored. But that has to be weighed against the effects of omitting truths that - though unflattering - can teach something about the real values of a religious hero instead of the values projected onto them by the current Charedi Zeitgeist.

Professor Shapiro said, such omissions calls into question other aspects of religious beliefs and traditions that may not have been historically the case.

Agudah spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran
This is where I part company with him. On this particular point I agree with Rabbi Avi Shafran. Even though traditions and even beliefs have changed over the course of Jewish history, once the fundamental belief system as articulated by the Rambam has been established by the great rabbinic minds of the past, it is the height of Chutzpah to say they were wrong and we are entitled to go back to the time before those beliefs were set. Proving as does Professor Shapiro that the some of Rambam’s 13 principles were not always accepted and thereby implying that we don’t have to accept them today either is to contradict the wisdom of those great rabbinic minds of the past who set them into stone.

However, when contemporary decisions are made based clearly on agendas, that is another story. Bans of books about history and science that contradict the Charedi worldview do not have the same force as the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith. Modern day bans are agenda laden. The 13 principles of faith are not. They are the carefully constructed wisdom of some of the greatest theological minds in Jewish history and should be honored accordingly. Which is why I firmly believe that those 13 principles are a requirement of faith and those that do not believe in all of them, may in fact be heretics.

That said, I would note that the most respected Charedi leader alive today, R’ Aharon Leib Shteinman has shockingly quibbled with part of one of those 13 principles. The one which says that 'even though he (Moshiach) tarries, we must wait for him'. Rav Shteinman says we do not have to wait for him. This is not to say that he won’t be coming. We must believe that. But to actively wait for him has historically been ignored by even observant Jews with few exceptions – like the Chafetz Chaim. Makes you kind of wonder…