Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History by Marc B. Shapiro
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In this long-awaiting book, Marc Shapiro offers hundreds of examples where students, family members or printers have chosen to rewrite the past ‘by covering up and literally cutting out that which does not fit their own world-view’. In ‘Changing the Immutable’ we read of a recent edition of the Mikraot gedolot (Rabbinic Bible) in which a novel interpretation by the Rashbam was simply censored out of the text, and we learn of an early example of political correctness with the removal of some laws pertaining to sinners from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Other examples feature additions to images such as photographs of bareheaded scholars that have been doctored to ensure that a kipah appears, whether or not it was worn at the time when the photograph was taken. Even Rashi is not safe from the editorial decisions of printers and translators, and Shapiro offers examples where well-known translations of Rashi’s commentary are left untranslated especially when they discuss sexual matters.
Though Shapiro offers countless examples of scholars whose writings have been subject to censorship after their death, it is clear that two of the most significant scholars in this category are Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and a chapter is assigned to each of these scholars in which he shows how their writings have been subjected to considerable reworking to the extent that, on occasion, the ‘corrected’ version conveys a message in direct opposition to the intention of the author. However, while each of the 285 pages of ‘Changing the Immutable’ offers fascinating examples from every area of Jewish scholarship, Shapiro does not simply showcase these examples for their own sake.
Instead, he frames this book with fascinating and deeply reflective introduction regarding the concept of history as presented within segments of Orthodox society, and he concludes with a hard-hitting discussion regarding the concept of truth in the Jewish tradition. There is much to process from ‘Changing the Immutable’ and some may find many of the examples deeply unsettling. But just like all his previous books, once you read ‘Changing the Immutable’, your approach to Jewish texts is likely to never be the same again.