By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Hoffman - book cover

Marc Shapiro is a brilliant writer who became famous for his penetrating study of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg in his 1999 work, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy. That work, as well as his next book on alternative views in the Rishonim to the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles, were both finalists for the National Jewish Book Award. Shapiro was also the last person to earn his Ph.D. under Rav Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, Professor Isadore Twersky of Harvard.

His latest book, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History, which is about censorship in the Orthodox world, has precipitated a mixed reaction in this reviewer. On the one hand, Dr. Shapiro has uncovered remarkable tidbits of information that provide much deeper insight into many an author’s original intents, nuances, and meanings. He also makes some very strong points about how far the censorship has gone in our community as well as the irrational justification for it. Left unchecked, this tendency can and does redefine what is viewed as “truth” and can leave us questioning the credibility of many works. Clearly, our tendency toward over-censorship in many areas could use some reassessment.

On the other hand, there is information revealed that gave this author a veritable kick in the stomach–somewhat akin to the discovery that a well-respected rabbi is not what he appears to be, in the style of too many recent headlines. What do we make of a diary entry in an original manuscript of an autobiography of one of the gedoleihaAcharonim that states horrifying information regarding one of his contemporaries who heretofore had a sterling reputation? Do we disregard what is said? Or do we now regard the latter’s work in a new light? Perhaps we were better off not knowing, and since ignorance is bliss, I would have preferred the original censorship of that manuscript.

A third element that Shapiro has included in his work simply does not belong, as it does not add a whit to his underlying thesis that our censorship has gone too far. The fact that the Venice printings of many classical works included inappropriate pictures on the title page does not add to the author’s thesis that we are over-censoring. The artwork was from a time and place that did not adhere to the social mores of other Jewish societies, both before the Venice typesetters and after. Shapiro’s remark–that to his recollection no religious authority ever commented that it was inappropriate–is misplaced, because it is quite obvious that such art does not belong on the title page of a sefer. The subsequent artistic changes to the artwork are interesting; however, they do not support Shapiro’s general thesis.

I would have also liked to see Dr. Shapiro point out the censorship that had occurred in the reprinting of Irving Bunim’s commentary on Pirkei Avos. My original copy of Bunim’s Pirkei Avos commentary had numerous references to Shakespeare in it. The current version has the Shakespearian references completely excised. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the comments of someone who had yeshiva training and so much shimush of gedolei Yisrael also inform us of the insights of Torah as it relates to Shakespeare? No longer. The reader would have welcomed Shapiro’s cogent analysis of this.

Publishers take it upon themselves–even without asking family members–to censor and republish the way they see fit. We lose out by this, and on this point Shapiro makes an excellent argument.

The chapter on the censorship of Rav Kook’s haskamos from other works is informative and reflects a sad reality that we are redefining who our gedolim are and what they are about. We forget that Rav Kook was Rav Elyashiv’s mesader kiddushin and that both Rav Elyashiv and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach had the highest respect for him. There is an unhealthy polarization that Shapiro warns us about in this chapter–a lesson we should heed.

Yet at the same time, Shapiro’s book has an undertone of having an ax to grind with the right-wing Torah community. While it is true that much of the censorship is excessive, there is a plethora of material that simply should not have been included in the book because it does not back up his thesis.

There are times, of course, when censorship is just good editing or good business sense. Social mores do change over time and, like it or not, for the general reader, the censorship spares the reader from seeing a skewed work. As an example, Old English was once a living, vibrant, and spoken language. Reprinting a work in Old English can sometimes give the reader a warped view of the work precisely because the Old English no longer reflects the vibrant spoken language it once was. The change to modern idiom is thus not true censorship at all, but rather a form of upgrading. Shapiro’s inclusion of some of such material does not reflect this notion.

The chapter on censorship in halachic works should also have included a discussion of machshirei ochel nefesh and the explicit permission to teach it when its laws do not apply, imminently contrasted with the obligation to suppress information about machshirei ochel nefesh when it is actually relevant to the questioner. This whole concept would have more fully informed the reader about the issue of censorship. The various approaches and explanations of this halachic quirk would have been welcomed.

And perhaps I am just needling the author here, but it seems that Shapiro has done some of his own censorship too. In his analysis of various versions and translations of Elie Wiesel’s Night, Shapiro’s innocuous translation of Yiddish terms with a more pejorative connotation reflects some of the same supposed censorship that he is knocking.

In conclusion, this book, like Shapiro’s previous works, shows the author’s remarkable industry and analytic depth, but it has included material and information that, although of great interest, does not shed further light on the author’s thesis. It also failed to include other relevant material that would have deeply informed the discussion. Notwithstanding these two criticisms, it is this author’s view that the book will prove to be very popular.

The author can be reached at



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