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Thursday, July 23, 2015 

Has Orthodox Judaism ever been rewritten and censored?

The Forward reviewed a book by Marc B. Shapiro about how Haredis, if anyone, seem to have rewritten the bible to suit their visions, another clue that their take on Judaism could be taught differently than what it used to be, and also says the problem's not limited to just them:
Orthodox Jews — especially Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews — like to think of their religious practice as the most authentic form of Judaism. “We traditionally observant Jews… seek to observe the Torah’s mandate, as it has been preserved by the traditional Jewish transmitters over the ages” wrote Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, in a 2012 article for the Forward. “Our differentness reflects only our fealty to the Judaism of the Ages,” he wrote in another piece last year. That was a public relations professional in the Forward; similar and stronger language is ubiquitous in Orthodox media.

In fact, historians and sociologists have long debunked the changelessness of Haredi life; differences in dress, lifestyle and ritual practice between contemporary and historical orthodoxies are well documented. Like other forms of fundamentalist religion, Haredi Judaism isn’t a strict continuation of the past, but a reaction against modernity. Its belief in its own authenticity is a theological self-conception, not a historical reality.
Yeah, I realized that part. The censorious MO they employ nowadays is just what counts as particularly anti-modern; a violation of the argument against gneivat daat (deceit). Now let's get to some of the parts about what's been censored in their visions, and what could've been:
Shapiro’s scholarship has been so important, in part because of Orthodoxy’s own success at covering up inconvenient aspects of its past. And in his latest book, Shapiro shows how far Orthodoxy has gone to make its textual legacy consistent with its present culture. Granted, the number of texts that have been overtly censored is relatively small in comparison with the overall corpus of rabbinic writing. But even a relatively small number turns out, on the whole, to be rather large. And what Shapiro demonstrates is that this kind of censorship is programmatic, intentional and has a history going back to the Bible itself.

Consider, for example, a change made to the Shulhan Arukh , Yosef Karo’s authoritative 16th-century code of Jewish law. 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. But should this change in practice justify distorting the historical text of the Shulhan Arukh? The goal, seemingly, is to give the false impression that one of the most important legal authorities in Jewish history had no problem with a now-commonplace ceremony. And “If Karo is not safe from censorship,” Shapiro writes, "I daresay that no text is safe."
I'm sure they're not. No matter what you think of a specific practice, that's no justification for obliterating it from the official texts. Just come up with a modern book about customs that argues why you think it's worth keeping around and isn't a pagan practice.
Such instances of censorship are not limited to obscure legal or theological matters, either. Recent years have seen bans, censorship, and suppression of books and other documents that have challenged an increasingly extreme status quo. Shapiro points to the now-notorious practice of Photoshopping women out of news photos, as well as to the censoring of historical pictures of prominent religious women who are not dressed according to present-day standards of “modesty.” “That perhaps these ‘chosheve’ [important] people had different views of tseniut [modesty] matters is not even considered,” he notes dryly.
As a modern day problem, that's something I'm already well aware of. It's total disrespect for history.
Shapiro pays particular attention to shifts in religious politics, and to the treatment of figures like Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Isaac Kook, who, though widely admired in their lifetimes, have fallen out of favor since their deaths. In the case of Kook, who is considered to be the ideological father of religious Zionism, hundreds of books have been censored in order to remove his approbations from the books’ front pages, despite the fact that the authors of those works desired to include them. “The fear of associating with Kook… is a reflection of the extremism that has taken root in Haredi Judaism,” Shapiro writes. As a result, he argues, Kook “has been the victim of more censorship and simple omission of facts for the sake of Haredi ideology than any other figure.”
I wouldn't be surprised if biblical Deborah isn't considered a worthy example to the extremists of today, because of the excellent example she sets as a prominent woman in ancient times who worked as a judge and political figure. All this censorship is disturbing and doesn't help Judaism - Orthodox or otherwise - one bit.

Update: here's more on Israel Hayom.

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