Sunday 5 January 2020



Should historical facts and truth matter to the Torah Jew?

Surprisingly to some, yet clearly to others, the answer is very often ‘no’.

In this article, we will look at how various segments of the Torah community have gone out of their way to deliberately prevent well-documented information about numerous Torah leaders from being published – even in instances where the leaders themselves were open and happy about sharing their views and practices with others.

I have drawn extensively from the work of Rabbi Professor Jacob J. Schacter[1] from Yeshiva University, who holds a PhD from Harvard University and ordination from Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.



Some years ago[2], in the Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox[3]) publication, Yated Ne’eman, there appeared a short biography of R. Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler which was authored by one of his most devoted students, R. Aryeh Carmell.

[Yated Ne’eman (a ‘firmly secured peg’ – Isaiah 22:23) is a Chareidi publication which was founded in 1985 by R. Elazar Shach and R. Yaakov Kanievsky. Its ideology is anti-Zionist (both secular and religious). The paper is well-known for not publishing pictures of even modestly dressed women. For example, on April 3, 2009, it published a manipulated picture of Israeli cabinet ministers. Two female cabinet ministers were digitally removed and replaced instead with two other male ministers. See Writing Women out of Judaism.]

This particular biographical feature discusses the influences the young ‘Elya Leizer’ Dessler was exposed to while growing up. His father R. Reuven Dov was a student of R. Simcha Zissel Ziv who, in turn, was a student of R. Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar (Ethics) Movement.

R. Yisrael Salanter wanted to establish Jewish learning institutions based on Torah and Mussar. His student R. Simcha Zissel, however, felt that the students needed something more than just ‘Torah and Mussar’ so he opened a yeshivah in Grobin where they studied Russian language, history, geography and other secular subjects in addition to Torah.

R. Reuven Dov studied in that yeshivah, and when he later taught his son who was to become the renowned R. Eliyahu Dessler, he introduced his child to amongst other secular literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian translation.

This fairly benign piece of biographical information (which the author had heard directly from R. Eliyahu Dessler himself while studying under him) soon erupted into an outrage by some of the readership.

In a letter to the editor, one reader expressed the sentiment that by including the information that R. Dessler had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the author was doing nothing to strengthen ‘emunah, Torah and yiras Shomayim’ (faith and fear of G-d); and that “special care should be taken to insure that such errors shall not be repeated in the future.”

Credit, though, must be given to Yated Ne’eman for not retracting the story.


Schacter points out that this seemingly innocent piece of information about Uncle Tom’s Cabin was actually omitted in another biography of R. Dessler, in the introduction to Sefer Michtav meEliyahu also authored by R. Aryeh Carmell. In that biography, however, he makes no mention of his teacher, R. Dessler, involving himself in any secular studies.

However, in R. Carmell’s English translation of sections of the same work (probably intended for a different audience) which he called Strive For Truth, he does mention that R. Dessler underwent secular studies.

In Strive For Truth, R. Carmell actually offers even more information about the secular influences on R. Dessler. He writes that R. Dessler’s brother-in-law, R. Daniel Moshovitz, who was the Rosh Yeshiva in Kelm between the two world wars, was very interested and familiar with the works of Immanuel Kant and he would quote sections of it by heart to his students. R. Carmell suggests that this was how R. Dessler himself was indirectly influenced by Kant - which is why his views on free will and determinism in Sefer Michtav meEliyahu are similar to those of Kant.[4]


Schacter mentions another author, Aharon Suraski in his Marbitzei Torah uMussar,[5] who also omitted any reference to R. Dessler’s secular study curriculum.

This selective writing of the history of revered Torah leaders is commonplace and has actually become a norm and standard:

VILNA GAON (1720-1797):

The Vilna Gaon was known to have had a positive view on secular studies. He told his student, R. Baruch of Shklov, to translate Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew. In the introduction to that translation, R. Baruch writes that he heard from his teacher that “for each measure of secular wisdom a person lacks, so will he lack a hundred measures of Torah, as Torah and secular knowledge are inextricably connected.

However, in a popular biography of the Vilna Gaon the assertion is made that R. Baruch was mistaken and that the Gaon would never have made such a statement.[6]

Schacter refutes this notion outright because this was not the only statement of the Gaon’s positive view on secular wisdom. There was no compelling reason for R. Baruch, a highly respected judge and member of the Polish rabbinic elite to have misrepresented his teacher’s position. Until now, for two hundred years no one had questioned the authenticity of his statement. 

Furthermore, this statement was made seven years before the Gaon passed away so there would have been plenty of time for the Gaon himself to have set the record straight if he felt it necessary.[7] And there is no evidence that any contemporaries of R. Baruch ever question the authenticity of his statement.[8]


The same thing happened to R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch who established the Torah Im Derech Eretz system where Torah study is to be accompanied by secular study as well. The opponents of this system, who believe in Torah study alone, maintained that R. Hirsch only intended this system for a short and specific period in history (hora’at she’a) and not as an ideology for the future.


R. Baruch Halevi Epstein, author of Torah Temima, wrote in his memoires[9] how Mrs Rayna Batya, granddaughter of R. Chain Volozhiner, studied Mishna and other works. In a 1988 English ‘translation’ of these memoirs, her studying the Mishna is conspicuously absent. This was intentionally omitted because women, in some circles, are discouraged from studying the Talmud. [See Women Studying Torah?]


The popular perception is that the Netziv closed down his famed Volozhiner Yeshiva rather than allow secular studies as part of the curriculum, as then demanded by the Russian authorities under influence from the Enlightenment Movement. Schacter, however, shows that “There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the Neziv allowed secular studies in Volozhin,” although he did so begrudgingly.[10]


R. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz was one of the primary founders of Orthodoxy in America in the early 20th-century. He was involved in the founding of, amongst other institutions, Torah Umesorah, Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, Telshe Yeshiva and he headed Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn.

In a biography of R. Mendlowitz, there is a section entitled ‘Against Going to College,’ where his strenuous opposition to attending college is meticulously laid out. The biography asserts that R. Mendlowitz felt that one attending college could never become a great Torah scholar and the heretical views prevalent at such institutions would be too much to overcome.

But, the biography continues, when it became apparent that some students were indeed attending college, it was decided to open a new institution which would offer controlled secular programs under careful scrutiny and oversight. R. Mendlowitz consulted with R. Aharon Kotler who rejected outright the notion of any secular studies whatsoever. Acting on his advice, apparently, R. Mendlowitz dropped the idea entirely.[11]

Schacter, however, shows that in fact, a very different story took place. According to the archives of the Board of Regents of New York State, which contain the original records of this new institution which was to be called the American Hebrew Theological University, it would ordain Orthodox rabbis and offer a high standard of secular studies. A prerequisite for admission into this school would be a B. A. degree.

The records show that R. Mendlowitz together with R. Yitzchak Hutner were original members of its Board of Trustees.

The abovementioned biography also omitted the fact that R. Mendlowitz gave a lecture in Mesivta Torah Vodaath on the teachings of (the ‘Zionist’) Rav Kook.

And, to add ‘insult to injury’, it further omitted the fact that R. Mendlowitz celebrated the founding of the State of Israel with the recitation of the blessing ‘Shechchiyanu.’[12]


Schacter does not bring this example, but R. Pinchas Hirschprung, from whom I was fortunate enough to get my ordination, wrote about how while running from the Nazis and after being completely fatigued, he had contemplated suicide. [See A Tribute to R. Pinchas Hirschprung.

His biography is recorded in a book about great rabbis but there is no mention whatsoever of this piece of critical information which could serve as a source of inspiration and hope for those at the depths of despair - and which he himself was even prepared to share in his own written memoirs.

Most people are unaware of that he too had a vast knowledge of secular wisdom, including Spinoza, Heine, Shakespeare, Kant and particularly Freud.


To go back to our first example of R. Dessler’s misrepresented biographies: Although, ironically in his adult life, R. Dessler took an absolutely negative view of combining Torah with any secular study, this does not change the fact that he had studied such literature himself. Yet we see that across the board, the issue of R. Dessler having studied secular literature as a child was a thorny issue for many of those who recorded and read his biographies.

Why is such information about reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and undergoing secular studies considered to be such a contemptuous issue which certain authors and publications feel the need to hide from their readers?

The answer, as Schacter sees it, is that:

“...historical ‘truth,’ per se, as an independent value in and of itself, has not fared well in Jewish tradition.
It has already repeatedly been noted that the entire enterprise of history as we understand it today was not valued by Hazal [our Sages of blessed memory][13].”


R. OZER GRODZENSKI (1863-1940):

R. Ozer Grodzenski writes (translation mine):

“The great Torah [scholars] from time immemorial never paid attention to delve into the history of the Jewish people...
And even those small numbers of great [scholars] who did busy themselves with history did so only occasionally and in passing.”[14]

R. YAAKOV EMDEN (1697-1776):

One notable exception to the rule was R. Yaakov Emden who did believe in the value of history and openly disagreed with the view of R. Ovadiah Bartinoro (1445-1515) - best known for his commentary on the Mishna - who considered the study of (gentile) history to be sefarim chitzonim or external books which deprived the reader of his share in the world to come.

But R. Emden wrote:

“[T]he scholar is obligated to know at least those [historical][15]works composed in Hebrew. It cannot be otherwise. It has significant implications for the explanation of biblical verses and rabbinic statements as well...”[16]


Schacter explains, however, that in the 19th-century, due to the anti-traditionalist agenda of some secular historians of the Enlightenment Movement, a new ‘traditionalist’ history began to emerge, in order to counter the secular alternative.

In the world of the 19th-century, almost every Jewish ideology including Zionism, Chasidism, Reform and Orthodoxy, had to show some historical authority as justification for its emergence.
Schacter writes:

“In fact, the greater the perceived danger posed by this new emphasis on [Enlightenment][17] history, the greater was the effort expended to present a version of the past more in keeping with traditionalist values. The result was that historical writing which hitherto enjoyed, at best, only a secondary status in traditional Jewish life was catapulted, for purely defensive purposes, into a position of some prominence and significance.”


Of course, the difficulty was in assessing which group told the most objective history. Schacter quotes his teacher Professor Isadore Twersky, who cited his teacher, Professor Harry Austryn Wolfson, who said that:

“Scholarship is not what you happen to know about a subject; scholarship is what there is to know about that subject.”

Schacter cites the British historian Edward H. Carr who wrote:

“The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use—these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.”[18]


While this indeed is true of the inevitably biased process of recounting history, Schacter is quick to point out that:

“Even if a story can be explained in multiple ways, each reflecting the particular bias and orientation of the storyteller, the facts of the story that can be known and are verifiable must be told as accurately, honestly and truthfully as possible...

Differing interpretations of various historical one thing...[but][19] to engage in conscious overt lying and distortion of reality is quite another.

Our concern, in this article, is with how the ultra-Orthodox community views its relationship to (not the interpretation, but rather to) the indisputable facts of the history they record.


Whether R. Dessler, for example, read Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not subject to the vagaries of interpretation because it is a fact! By intentionally withholding that information it becomes, no longer a matter of interpretation, but an act of intentional distortion instead.

This tactic of intentional distortion is not infrequent and has become part of the strategy of the ultra-Orthodox style of retelling history.


Some time ago, R. Aharon Feldman - Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore - criticised what he called the ‘Gedolim Books’ which are the biographies of the great Torah personalities of our times. He wrote:

“All gedolim are presented in a stereotyped fashion, their lives all following the same trajectory from child prodigy to precocious[20] adolescence to marrying a pious woman and, finally to Torah greatness...

They often overlook the fact that certainly these men must have surely had their moments of self-doubt, error and human frailty . . . . Great men are, of course, humans as well; on the contrary, they are great because they overcame their human shortcomings...”[21]

R. YITZCHAK HUTNER (1906-1980):

R. Yitzchak Hutner similarly wrote (translation mine):

“Everyone talks excitedly about and exemplifies the pure speech of the Chafetz Chaim. But who knows about all the battles, struggles, terrible hindrances, failures and regressions until the Chafetz Chaim found his victory over the evil inclination.”[22]


R. Aharon Lichtenstein wrote about how a listener at the funerals of two very different people, R. Aharon Kottler and R. Moshe Feinstein, would have walked away thinking that there was little difference between them:

“It is astounding that talmidei hakhamim who were habituated to noting the finest distinctions in a halakhic sugya could so utterly fail to delineate and define persons they had known and admired; and it seemed unlikely that this was simply because they were now overcome by grief.”[23]

Schacter points out that the problem is even greater because;

“Not only do they present a stereotypical portrait of their subjects and ignore descriptions of their struggles, they actually make statements that are not true.” 


In defending the deep state of the ultra-Orthodox style of recording history, R. Shimom Schwab (although, ironically, a product of the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach) remarkably wrote:

What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity.

We should tell ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people, their unshakable faith, their staunch defense of tradition, their life of truth, their impeccable honesty, their boundless charity and their great reverence for Torah and Torah sages.

What is gained by pointing out their inadequacies and their contradictions?

We want to be inspired by their example and learn from their experience...

Rather than write the history of our forebears, every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful.

That means we have to do without a real history book...

We do not need realism, we need inspiration from our forefathers in order to pass it onto posterity.”[24]


Dr. Haym Soloveitchik writes about how some within the ultra-Orthodox camp write their own history:

“These works wear the guise of history...

This historiography weaves features and values of the present with real and supposed events of the past...

[T]his ‘history’ filters untoward facts and glosses over the darker aspects of the past.
Indeed it often portrays event as they did not happen...

Yet we do not feel that we are lying, for when values are being inculcated, the facts of experience - empirical truth – appear, somehow, to cease to be ‘true.’[25]


Schacter characterises the seriousness of the issues at stake when we (re)write history in this manner:

What is at stake here are no less than the hotly contested and sharply debated issues which go to the heart of contemporary Orthodoxy, i.e., attitude to secular studies, Zionism, and women and Torah study.

In such circumstances, ignoring the truth, and certainly distorting it, is fraught with much more serious implications...

In a real sense, to consider this entire matter as relevant merely to ‘history’ is to trivialize it significantly.

For, indeed, distorting the words of a gadol [Torah leader][26] is not just distorting history, it is distorting Torah.


The Halachic process essentially allows for a spectrum of permitted possibilities under any given set of circumstances. This is because the legal language is so carefully structured that Halachic decisors are able to make use of every subtle nuance to determine an appropriate outcome.

No one would suggest that we limit our classical sources to narrow the material from which the skilled Halachic practitioner can draw on.

Why then are we so persistent to sever and restrict possible future outcomes when it concerns our living personifications of Halacha, the Torah scholars; and why do we choose to misrepresent in such a wholesale fashion the facts surrounding them until they fit with our personal and contemporary paradigm constructs?

This surely precludes the possibility of us ever being able to learn from them.

[1] Facing the Truths of History, by Jacob J. Schacter. [The Torah u-Madda Journal, vol. 8 (1998-1999): 200-276.]
[2] January 7th 1994.
[3] Schacter does not use the term ‘ultra-Orthodox’ but I have because although he refers to the ‘Orthodox’, it is clear that he is referencing the more conservative segment of that community.
[4] Strive for Truth 3 (Jerusalem and New York, 1989), 172-73.
[5] Marbizei Torah u-Mussar 3 (Tel Aviv, 1976), 52-55.
[6] Bezalel Landau, Ha-Gaon he-Hasid mi-Vilna (Jerusalem, 1978), 217, 225-26, n. 16.
[7] As to the assertion that R. Baruch of Shklov was an enthusiastic member of the Enlightenment, Schacter maintains that recent scholarship has shown that not to have been the case.
[8] On the other side of the scale, the Vilna Gaon’s harsh statement in his commentary on Yoreh De’ah, that he couldn’t understand why Rambam was so preoccupied with his ‘cursed philosophy’ (and hence didn’t believe in sorcery, demons, amulets etc.) was called into question by some of those within the Enlightenment. They maintained that such a statement was a forgery because the style does not match the rest of his writings which are usually more cursory. Schacter, however, shows that original writings in the Gaon’s own hand indicate them to be authentic. Thus both sides of the religious-political isle showed distrust towards each other.
[9] Sefer Mekor Baruch.
[10] Schacter writes: “To my surprise, my article has been cited in support of the very proposition it sought to disprove... See, for example, Jonathan Sacks, One People?: Tradition, Modernity, and Jewish Unity (Oxford, 1993), 61 and Shaul Shimon Deutsch,Lar- ger Than Life: The Life and Times of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson 2 (New York, 1997), 71 and p. 309, n. 2. Both write that the Neziv closed Volozhin rather than introduce secular studies into its curriculum and cite my article as supporting evidence for that assertion.”
[11] A. Suraski, Shluha de-Rahmana, pp. 173-74.
[12] Hillel Seidman, R. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (New York, 1976), 106.
[13] Parenthesis mine.
[14] See his approbation to R. Yehudah Halevi Lipschitz’s Sefer Dor Yesharim, which was a traditionalist response to Dor Dor veDorshav by Isaac Hirsch Weiss.
[15] Parenthesis mine.
[16] From R. Emden’s personal notes in the margins to his Talmud set. These were later printed as Chiddushin veHagahot.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] E.H.Carr, What is History? (New York, 1961), 26.
[19] Parenthesis mine.
[20] Precocious is defined as showing mental development or achievement much earlier than usual.
[21] A. Feldman, “Gedolim Books and the Biography of Reb Yaakov Kamenetzky,” The Jewish Observer 27:8 (November 1994): 32-33.
[22] Sefer Pachad Yitzchak: Iggerot uKetavim (New York, 1991), 217-19, #128.
[23] “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures, p. 288.
[24] R. S. Schwab, Selected Writings (Lakewood, 1988), 234.  
[25] H. Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28:4 (Summer 1994): 84-85.
[26] Parenthesis mine.

1 comment:

  1. שֶׁקֶר שָׂנֵאתִי, וַאֲתַעֵבָה; תּוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי. רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת; וּלְעוֹלָם, כָּל-מִשְׁפַּט צִדְקֶךָ. מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר.

    קָרוֹב אַתָּה יְהוָה; וְכָל-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ אֱמֶת. צִדְקָתְךָ צֶדֶק לְעוֹלָם; וְתוֹרָתְךָ אֱמֶת. עַל-כֵּן, כָּל-פִּקּוּדֵי כֹל יִשָּׁרְתִּי; כָּל-אֹרַח שֶׁקֶר שָׂנֵאתִי.

    I hate and abhor falsehood, I love your teaching. Truth is the essence of Your word, your just rules are eternal. I ponder Your precepts, therefore I hate every false way.

    You, O lord, are near, and all your commandments are true. Your righteousness is eternal, Your teaching is true. Truly, by all (Your) precepts I walk straight, I hate every false way.

    From Tehillim 119. Translation from "The Jewish Study Bible."