Wednesday 24 June 2015

053) Hey, Teacher Leave the Text Alone!

I was taught and I used to teach that Am Yisrael is a monolithic structure - albeit with diverse branches - yet each respectful of the other’s differences, while united with a singular mission. I believed that as long as I kept halacha I could keep my hashkafa, theological approach, and so could you - even if yours differed from mine. And I was taught that Torah-true Judaism had no need for ideological one-upmanship, or for pushing sectarian agendas, as we were all respectfully part of the different ‘tribes’ of Israel. I certainly never believed there could be textual tampering with traditional transcripts, in an attempt to sway one ideology over another.

I was wrong.

Sample of a 'revised'text
Historically, censorship of Jewish texts, was one of the great specialities of the old Catholic Church. Interestingly, even the church had enough respect to refer to those tasked with emending the objectionable texts, as ‘revisers’ instead of ‘censors’.[1] 

This does not mean that Jewish censorship of our own texts never occurred in the past. It certainly did. The Ramo for example, back in the 16th Century, held what were considered by some to be unconventional views[2], and these were removed from certain later publications.

In our times, however, we are witnessing what is probably the most unprecedented form of textual manipulation by factions of the Torah world itself, against other writings also within the Orthodox community. Usually (if not exclusively) it is directed from the more extreme right towards the moderate right and the centralists. And they often get away with it because religious people generally have more reverence for those on their right, than the right have for them. Surprisingly the extreme left is not the target of such tampering, as it is not perceived as a real and present danger, having long since been written off as a viable alternative for religious Jews.

The expunging and censoring of Torah texts has become widespread and in some circles quite acceptable. Yet, as Rabbi Jeremy Rosen a graduate of Mir Yeshiva,  writes; “The pressure in the ultra-Orthodox world is so great, the fear of being humiliated, marginalized, or even assaulted is so pervasive that few people have the guts to stand up to current convention.”[3]


The ArtScroll series is the indisputable flagship of modern day Torah publications. But, as Rabbi Rosen points out; “ is known for excluding anyone or any idea that does not conform to ultra-Orthodox norms.” Besides altering some of its translation to the Song of Songs[4], it has also, in a recent publication of its Chumash, removed part of the Rashbam’s commentary to Genesis.  

The award winning scholar and author, Professor Marc Shapiro[5], wrote to ArtScroll who responded that they “...have never deigned to tamper with their sacred texts”. He wrote back and said:
“Here we have an explanation from Rashbam that has been discussed and dealt with by some of the greatest Torah scholars for well over a century, yet ArtScroll the authority to simply delete passages from the commentary....Rashbam’s brother, Rabenu Tam, famously attacked those who deleted or emended passages in the Talmud based on their own understanding. Rabenu Tam realized that if everyone had the freedom to do with the text as he wished, it wouldn’t be long before the Talmud was irrevocably damaged. As such, anyone who has a suggestion about a mistake in the text is free to add it in the form of a note or in a commentary, but he is not permitted to alter the text itself. The only honest thing would have been for ArtScroll to have included the ‘objectionable’ passages and then explain why they feel these texts are not authentic.”[6]

Rabbi Rosen concludes that this is not just petty academic infighting, but is “ example of the serious battle for the integrity of the Torah”, and serves to “preserve intellectually honest Judaism for the Orthodox community.”


Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman was a leading halachic authority in Germany, about a hundred years ago. His Responsa entitled Melamed LeHo’il, although republished a number of times, was always offset from an original copy. This meant that any tampering with the text could be easily picked up.  In one publication, there was a rather suspicious blank space where it was quite evident that something was missing. 

The obviously censored section contained a memoir of how as a young man, Rabbi Hoffmann went to work at the school of Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch, and recalls how the students sat without head coverings during secular studies, and only donned them during their Torah classes. He used this, in answering a question put to him, as an illustration to permit a Jew to take an oath in a non-Jewish court, if the judge would not allow him to cover his head.
This piece of information, although historically true, was deemed too sensitive for readers, and was therefore simply and dishonestly omitted.[7]


Thanks to the information age, today we can find on the internet, almost any Torah sefer we may need. Take Otzar HaHochma for example. They have over 47 000 books available in their database. Then, for a cheaper rate, they offer what’s called the Bnei Torah edition, with about 2 000 less books. We must remember that these 2000 odd books that have been removed, are also seforim written by Torah scholars. They are not anti-Orthodox seforim. Although the database is being transparent, the message it sends out is that any traditionally Orthodox Torah view that is not in line with certain modes of contemporary right wing religious thinking, is not considered to be part of the Bnei Torah camp.  Furthermore, it wrongly implies that this type of exclusive thinking was always the only way of Torah thinking.

In the magnificent Hebrewbooks database, which is funded by donations, some Torah literature was uploaded only to be removed at a later stage, without any reasons being offered as to why those books are no longer there.


Irving Bunim[8] , an assistant to Rabbi Ahron Kotler, wrote a well known three-volumed commentary on Pirkei Avot.  I purchased my original copy of this work many years ago from a reputable Torah bookstore, after seeing it on the bookshelf of my teacher’s library.  The latest version, however, has some sections completely removed. Some of these contain references to Shakespeare. Not being particularly partial to Shakespeare myself, it is still disconcerting to see that texts that were once considered inoffensive, have now been tampered with, because suddenly they have become offensive.  This creates a new and unnecessary polarization and distortion of Torah thought.

Rabbi Kamenetzky's book

At the beginning of this century, Rabbi Nosson Kamenetzky published a well researched book that was fifteen years in the making, about the great rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, entitled ‘Making of a Gadol’.  Soon thereafter it was banned by some leading chareidi rabbis. The book contained accurate historical insights into the lives of some of our Torah giants, sometimes even showing their human sides. He also wrote, for example, that his father, Rabbi Ya’akov Kamenetzky, had a love for foreign languages, something considered too secular for such a great man.  Such ‘discrepancies’ caused Rav Elyashiv and nine other rabbis to ban this book. Interestingly, Rabbi Kamenetzky noted that of the ten rabbis, only one of them could read English. Then again in 2005, Rabbi Kamenetzky tried to re-publish an ‘improved’ edition which met with the same fate and was also banned. Rabbi Kamenetzky said that he originally wrote the book because he; “did not want their unique world to be lost to oblivion.”[9]


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik[10] expounded some of his views in his classic work Hamesh Derashot. This led Rabbi Eleazar Shach[11] , a leading ideologue of the Lithuanian chareidi world, to forbid reading his work, because it was ‘mamash divrei kefirah’, really words of heresy[12].


The ban.
In 1989, Rabbi Eleazar Shach and others, banned three works by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who besides his acclaim in the mainstream Torah world, was also hailed by Time magazine as a ‘once-in-a-millennium scholar’.

These books were said to be kefira, heresy, and not fit to be brought into a Jewish home. In one ruling, R. Steinsaltz himself is classified as a heretic[13].


By all accounts, Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, was an extraordinary individual, although some may have felt that he held radical views. He supported secular education, was positive towards both non-religious Jews as well as non-Jews, and he even encouraged sport.  Some of his views have been surprisingly and intentionally obscured by followers of his son, Rav Tvi Yehudah Kook.[14]  By comparing the original manuscripts with the printed version, it is apparent that much has been censored.[15] 

Sometimes the censorship is so dramatic that a completely different view is presented. This is even more outrageous than censorship, as it is clearly fraudulent.

A shocking example of unabashed manipulation occurs when Rav Kook writes about the significance of a beard. In the uncensored version, he says that the reasons for the mitzvot, should change with every new generation. Modern generations require modern reasons. The beard was originally a sign of freedom in the generation of the Exodus from Egypt, where Jewish slaves were not allowed to grow beards. But today, thousands of years later, modern man regards a clean shaven face as a sign of dignity. However, in the ‘new’ version, it says that it is good to have a beard because it connects us back to earlier times when beards had great significance. 

Whatever position one takes on the beard is immaterial, because the issue at hand is the authenticity of Rav Kook’s recorded writings. 

And in the uncensored version there is a small paragraph which says that the rabbis of the Talmud knew that a time would come when beards would no longer be the vogue, hence they found leniencies to use a scissors to cut a beard.  This information is omitted in the ‘new’ edition.

Here is another example of his thinking that has been censored: “There are people who think that a person can only have perfect faith in Moses’ true Torah so long as one also believes that other faiths are all false and foolish...But it is not true...This... sometimes strengthens Jewish faith in the hearts of fools, for they cannot understand the lofty value and the holiness of our Torah without thinking of other faiths as mistaken and completely useless.”
This teaching does not appear in the censored edition.

Regarding the distancing that is required between Jew and non-Jew, Rav Kook writes; “...the distancing, that is appropriate for every Jew... to distance himself from...the ways of other religions, should always be weighed in the same way as the chaste distancing from his fellow’s wife, which shouldn't come from...meanness, rather from the purity of the soul.” In other words, Jews should realize that non-Jewish religions are like ‘their (the non-Jew’s) wives’, and are important relationships that Jews should respect and not disturb or ridicule.[16]
This too does not appear in the censored edition. 
It should also be pointed out that many books that originally carried approbations from Rav Kook, have had them removed from subsequent publications. 

One such example is the Pardes Yosef commentary to the Torah, by Rabbi Yosef Pazanavski. He was certainly happy to have Rav Kook give his approbation as he prefaced it with a reference to Rav Kook as ‘the true Gaon.’ Since its publication in 1931, it has been re-published three times by photo-mechanical means. It is thus easy to see the blank spaces where Rav Kook’s approbations were removed.


Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, author of the famed Torah Temima commentary, also wrote Mekor Baruch, which contained insights into the life of the Netziv[17]. Part of this work was translated into English by Rabbi Moshe Dombey, and in 1988, ArtScroll printed his book, entitled ‘My Uncle the Netziv’, edited by Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz. It contained an approbation by Rabbi Nachman Bulman, and received wide acclaim in the Torah world.

The book was then used as part of a fund-raising programme by the Lakewood Cheder School. Soon afterwards, however, the school’s Executive Director wrote to all those who had received the book: “Upon consultation with Gedolei Torah, we recommend that the book not be read. It you wish, the Cheder will reimburse you for any donation you may have sent. Mesorah Publications joins us in sincerely apologizing for this error...”[18]

What was it that the anonymous ‘Gedolei Torah’ objected to, in the writing of the author of the Torah Temimah? Some say it may have been this sentence; “ uncle’s habit of reading the weekly newspaper even on Shabbat and discussing current events at the Shabbat table...” Or perhaps the mentioning that the Netziv had secular books in his library. Or possibly the recollection that his uncle once mentioned that had the Rambam studied with a community of scholars instead of by himself, then he would not have made some of the (alleged) errors in his Mishna Torah. Or (as actually mentioned in the letter) the objection to the suggestion that at some time the Netziv did permit secular studies in his Volozhin Yeshiva, to prevent the government from closing it down. The counter claim was that the Netziv would have rather closed the yeshiva, than introduce secular studies.

Whatever the truth was, the views and recollections of Rabbi Baruch Epstein were declared too radical for public consumption, and even the publishing house offered its apology.

A new Chumash?

The Skvere Hasidim have now published a censored Chumash for girls. It removes sections that deal with ‘immodesty’, such as the story Adam and Eve, Yehudah and Tamar, and Yosef and Potiphar’s wife. 

Some defend the emended edition, saying it is only a school ‘workbook’ for a girl’s school, but if you see the actual copy it really is presented as a Chumash.

I stress again that that we may all have different reactions to some of the censored content in the above examples. And so we should. But our emotional responses are absolutely irrelevant when it comes to the truthful portrayal of what an author wrote. We read their teachings because we are thirsty for their ideas. If we have our own ideas, we can write about them ourselves. What we dare not do is write our ideas into theirs, no matter which rabbis we follow. This is not only dishonest, it is criminal.

The sad irony is that it is usually those who purport to dedicate their days and nights to the study of the Torah, who seem to be the most afraid of it.

[1] See Censorship of Hebrew Books –
[2] He permitted business partnerships with non-Jews and the drinking of their wine because they were no longer considered to be like the pagans of old.
[3] See his article; Marc Shapiro and Confronting the Ultra-Orthodox, published in the Algemeiner Journal, March 15 2015.
[4] For example ‘bnot Yerushalayim’ (daughters of Jerusalem), becomes; ‘Nations destined to ascend to Jerusalem’.
[5] Marc Shapiro received his Ph.D from R. Soloveitchik’ s son-in-law Professor Isadore Twersky of Harvard. He is the author of Changing the Immutable.
[6] See note 3 above.
[7] I was delighted to read, as Rabbi Gill Student points out, that R. Hoffmann’s great-grandson (going by the same name, R. David Zvi), recently published a new edition with the original ‘offensive’ text back where it belongs, and makes a note to that effect in the table of contents.
[8] 1901-1980.
[9] When asked from whence does this blind obedience to rabbis in the Lithuanian world come from, R. Kamenetzky said; “You’d be surprised to hear that Hitler, may his name be erased, is responsible for this. Most of the Jews who survived the Holocaust were from Hasidic areas, and this was their approach. If there is a change in the upbringing of the Lithuanian Jews of today, it is this, that we teach them to be Hasidim of the Lithuanian Rabbis – that is my opinion. I, in any case was not raised this way. I was raised in the best Lithuanian fashion. Healthy scepticism, respect for wisdom....But that was my problem – I wrote from that perspective.”
[10] 1903-1993.
[11] 1898- 2001.
[12] See Michtavim uMa’amarim, Bnei Brak, 1990.
[13] Michtavim uMa’amarim, vol 4, p 65-67.
[14] See Lovers of Humanity, Rav Kook, Christianity,and the Ongoing Censorship of His Writings by Aryeh Sklar in Kol HaMevaser.
[15] See Profesor Marc Shapiro on SeforimBlog.
[16] See Kol HaMevaser above.
[17] R. Naftali Tvi Yehudah Berlin 1816-1893, head of Volozhin Yeshiva.
[18] See The Torah Umadah Journal, Dr. Jacob J Schacter; Haskalah, Secular Studies and the Close of the Yeshiva in Volozhin in 1892.

UPDATE 29 July 2015
See Emes Ve-Emunah by Rabbi Harry Maryles

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.”
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.” 



  1. All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read. - Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk

  2. Very nice point, Michael.
    I do agree that not all that is published should be read. But I would need guidance and consideration as to exactly which (Torah) publications I should not read. Perhaps whats good for Chassidim may not go down well with Misnagdim. Chareidim may not necessarily be enthralled by writings on Religious Zionism.
    The problem with censorship, is that the choice factor is irrevocably removed, not just for now but forever, and for everyone. "Should not be read" implies that it is still allowed to EXIST. The Kotzker's statement contains no injunction to EXPUNGE any Torah Teaching.