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March 15, 2015 2:51 am

Marc Shapiro and Confronting the Ultra-Orthodox

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Parshat Bo addresses fear. The Torah portion teaches the secret to both the root of fear and to its antidote. Photo: Wiki Commons.

If I say that Marc Shapiro is one of the most important and influential committed religious Jews alive today, you might think me guilty of hyperbole. I assure you I am not.

He has a Ph.D. from Harvard and directs the Weinberg Judaic Studies Institute at the University of Scranton, and he is the author of various books and articles on Jewish history, philosophy, and theology. His mastery of Jewish texts is encyclopedic. His writings often challenge conventional Orthodoxy. His Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy and The Limits of Orthodox Theology both won awards. He has been waging a battle against the egregious tendency in ultra-Orthodoxy to censor uncomfortable traditional texts and opinions and to exclude references to authors, regardless of how great they were in their day, when their opinions do not conform to current ultra-Orthodox nostra.

In days gone by, censorship was relatively easy. There were limited editions of major Jewish works of law and philosophy, often published generations apart. All religious authorities censored books and banned publications they did not approve of. Even in the U.K., State censorship continued into the 1960s. In Judaism, the famous Rav Moshe Isserles, the Remah, had an unconventional response on non-Jewish wine and cheese excluded from some editions of his work. Rav Yechezkel Landau’s collection of response, Nodah Biyehudah, had an introduction excoriating those who stole anything including copyrights from Jew and non-Jew alike. This was, on occasion, omitted by printers. But in those days of slow and erratic communication, such omissions were often overlooked. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, all different editions are readily accessible. So we can compare texts. It’s much more difficult to get away with it. But that still doesn’t stop people trying.

The pressure in the ultra-Orthodox world is so great, the fear of being humiliated, marginalized, or even assaulted is so pervasive, that very few people have the guts to stand up to current convention. Sometimes rabbinic livelihoods are at stake. Marc Shapiro is one of a small group of scholars who actually does this fearlessly. His writings pricking the bubbles of hypocrisy can be seen on the Seforim blog and elsewhere. They are one of the intellectual joys of Jewish life. But more than that, they stand as a beacon of honesty and fearlessness in a world where fanatics everywhere try to silence anyone who stands up to them.

Shapiro’s book The Limits of Orthodox Theology examines how the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” that Maimonides formulated were not accepted by everyone at the time, including some of the greatest rabbis of the generation. Nowadays even to question the wording of the Thirteen is enough to invite excommunication. But he shows, with thorough scholarship, how the formulation only much later acquired a sort of canonical sanctity.

He has traced how the magisterial Saul Lieberman, one of the greatest Talmudic minds of the previous century, was accepted as an expert by Eastern European great rabbis, but then was slowly written out of Orthodox publications that quoted him because he went to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which came to be associated with Conservative Judaism. He has discovered examples of the great first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, a most impressive scholar and mystic, being censored out of ultra-Orthodox sources because he committed the ultimate crime in their eyes of supporting followers of Zionism.

A previous and present target is ArtScroll, one of most impressive contributions that the ultra-Orthodox world has made to general Jewish education in our times. But it is known for excluding anyone or any idea that does not conform to ultra-Orthodox norms.

One of its most controversial acts was the way it presented the “Song of Songs” in translation. On the face of it, the book is a love song between two humans attributed to King Solomon. For thousands of years it has been regarded, by all traditionalists, as an allegory for the love of God for Israel and vice versa. If the original says “Song of Songs of Solomon” the Art Scroll says ” the Song dedicated to God Him to Whom peace belongs.” Or “Bnot Yerushalayim” in the original, Daughters of Jerusalem, is translated by Art Scroll in accordance with commentary but not literally as “Nations destined to ascend to Jerusalem.” We object to a Christian tendency to translate the prophets in ways that predicted Jesus. But this is just as bad. It dishonestly presents a text in a polemic light as if it were an accurate translation. Translations are meant to be about the accurate meaning of the words, not the ideas they try to convey. This is pure deception.

In a recent blog post, Shapiro has returned to attack ArtScroll for censoring opinions of Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam. In a recently issued Chumash with additional traditional commentators, Rashbam’s commentary to Genesis is included, but some of Rashbam’s controversial opinions are censored. When he excoriated them, their reply was:

“Let us make clear at the outset, ArtScroll has total and uncompromising respect for Chazal and the classic commentators. We do not censor them. Every one of their words is holy, and we have never deigned to tamper with their sacred texts.”

Shapiro, in turn, responed:

“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 feels that it knows better than all of them and thus has the authority to simply delete passages from the commentary. If that isn’t chutzpah, I don’t know what is.

Rashbam’s brother, Rabbenu Tam, famously attacked those who deleted or emended passages in the Talmud based on their own understanding. Rabbenu 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 that these texts are not authentic.”

Some of you may think that this is small stuff, petty academic infighting. It is not. It is an example of a serious battle for the integrity of Torah. In religious circles we often talk about “Restoring Torah to its Ancient Glory.” Ultra-Orthodoxy is bowdlerizing it. Marc Shapiro is restoring it. Long may he live and help preserve intellectually honest Judaism for the Orthodox community.

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  • David Z

    “Nowadays even to question the wording of the Thirteen is enough to invite excommunication.”

    If you want to talk about Marc Shapiro’s influence, it is that this sentence is no longer true. As early as 2005, a year after The Limits of Orthodox Theology came out, it was widespread in the Orthodox world that the Thirteen Principles weren’t the end all.

    “One of its most controversial acts was the way it presented the “Song of Songs” in translation.”

    This is actually one of its least controversial censorships because Artscroll clearly states what it is doing and tell you that it is not translating it. If you want a translation, Artscroll tells you, go elsewhere. This is absolutely not what Christians do with J. This whole paragraph rant is therefore unfair. And there are plenty of real examples that there is no reason for this subterfuge. However, they are all smaller and may not have the impact you wish. Marc himself thinks that the rashba”m is their worst sin. But even there they should have just said what they were doing—it’s not unjustifiable, but it should be explained. Marc does an amazing job with many other s’farim as well, of course, in the heart of the kharedi world) Artscroll is on the periphery and used to be mainly for baale t’shuva even as it now tries to expand its consumer base).

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Points taken.

  • One of the heirs of Slobadka is Ner Israel, Baltimore’s Yeshivah. Rav Yakov Ruderman, founder of Ner Israel, was a close talmid of the Alter of Slobadka and it’s reported that the Alter told Rav Ruderman to keep a distance from Saul Lieberman, another Slabodkanik. I trust the judgment of the Alter. Saul Lieberman was the great Talmid Chacham of the Conservative Movement. Look at how far the Conservatives have departed from Halachic Judaism.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      I don’t want to get involved in the personal issue of whether Lieberman made the right decisions or not. I am only concerned with the matter of erasing named references that were once printed and now have either been erased or attributed to anonymous sources. This I consider dishonest regardless of what the Conservative movement has become because once you start there and move on to doing the same to Rav Kook, Ain LaDavar Sof.

    • David Z

      Just because he was told to keep a distance doesn’t mean he was Conservative. Sheesh.

  • Jeremy Rosen

    At first your mailing brought me the joy of happy memories because many years ago I used to live on Rehov Hahabashim !

    But the rest of your mail was so sad. I just hope you can keep your spirits up and continue to teach the way you feel you want to. After all its that that makes teaching such a joy.
    Hodesh Tov

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Shalom Rabbi Jeremy,

    I am writing from an apartment I am renting on Rechov Rav Kook in the centre of Jerusalem. This article helps me better understand a very unpleasant encounter I recently had with an ultra-orthodox student at Berlitz. I taught this 32-year-old father of one daughter for only four sessions. The first two sessions were very warm and filled with appreciation, kindness, and excellent questions. The third session found me be placed in a compromising position due to commands being issued regarding what I was teaching and how I was teaching.

    It shocked me to be ordered to erase an explanation from the whiteboard because my student did not like my explanation and found it useless. I reminded him that I respected him and wanted to make the sessions educational and worthwhile. When I tried to teach the word “shirt,” I showed him my shirt and he showed me his teeshirt/ the lesson for me was that I did not have the right to teach about secular things and I should not try to place a preference for any garb other than the “acknowledged” preferred attire. I was not teaching any preference: I was teaching the word “shirt.”

    The fourth lesson began with an order and a lesson plan at the very outset: my student had become the teacher in four sessions. I was happy to hear him review the contents of the previous three lessons, yet when I suggested that we also review the actual summary outhouse lessons at the end of the third chapter, I was told that we had already reviewed. I guess that final exception to any inout Ihad to offer–incidentally as a professor of English with an M.Ed, was superfluous. For me, the behaviour was beyond the pale; I, accordingly, refused to teach him.

    I do not believe in generalising, stereotyping, ad hominem attacks, or ad populum assaults in the least. I simply felt bamboozled at the outset. Your essay has provided me with some better comprehension of a mindset in which insulated, opaque, self-gratuitous thinking should be questioned and put to the test in terms of sound critical thinking. When part of our people become the professed experts or even more accurately stated the so-called masters of the Book, and concomitantly, the people, Am Yisrael, itself, we should be concerned and endeavour to set the matter in more equitable terms.