Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

Changing the Immutable

How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History
Marc B. Shapiro

A consideration of how segments of Orthodox society rewrite the past by eliminating that which does not fit in with their contemporary world-view. This wide-ranging and original review of how this policy is applied in practice adds a new perspective to Jewish intellectual history and to the understanding of the contemporary Jewish world.

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Changing the Immutable focuses on how segments of Orthodox society have taken upon themselves to rewrite the past, by covering up and literally cutting out that which does not fit in with their contemporary world-view. For reasons ranging from theological considerations to internal religious politics to changing religious standards, such Jewish self-censorship abounds, and Marc Shapiro discusses examples from each category, In a number of cases the original text is shown alongside how it looked after it was censored, together with an explanation of what made the text problematic and how the issue was resolved.

The author considers how some Orthodox historiography sees truth as entirely instrumental. Drawing on the words of leading rabbis, particularly from the haredi world, he shows that what is important is not historical truth, but a 'truth' that leads to observance and faith in the sages. He concludes with a discussion of the concept of truth in the Jewish tradition, and when this truth can be altered.

Changing the Immutable also reflects on the paradox of a society that regards itself as traditional, but at the same time is uncomfortable with much of the inherited tradition and thus feels the need to create an idealized view of the past. It considers this practice in context, showing the precedents for this in Jewish history dating back to talmudic times.
Since the subjects of censorship have included such figures as Maimonides, Bahya ibn Pakuda, Rashi, Naphtali Herz Wessely, Moses Mendelssohn, the Hatam Sofer, Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, A. I. Kook, and J. B. Soloveitchik, as well as issues such as Zionism, biblical interpretation, and attitudes to women and gentiles, Changing the Immutable also serves as a study in Jewish intellectual history and how the ideas of one era do not always find favour with future generations.


About the author

Marc B. Shapiro holds the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Brandeis and Harvard universities, he is the author of Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966 (1999) and The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised (2004), both published by the Littman Library.


Note on Transliteration

1 Introduction
2 Jewish Thought
3 Halakhah
4 Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
5 Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
6 Sexual Matters and More
7 Other Censored Matters
8 When Can One Lie?