There is an old rabbinic anecdote about a rabbi who was called on to deliver a eulogy for someone who had no redeeming social value whatsoever. The rabbi was hard pressed to think of anything positive to say about this person. So when he spoke he solemnly pronounced: “No matter how evil the deceased truly was, he was still a far better person than was his brother!”
Halacha allows for exaggeration in delivering a eulogy. But when this is liberally and untruthfully applied to Jewish history it becomes a dangerous threat to normative Jewish life. One of the great problems that plague religious Jewish life in our times is that a fantasy world – a completely inaccurate picture of European Jewish life before World War II – has been propagated and hallowed.
Because of this distorted picture of the past, a distorted view of present Jewish society has taken hold. And it is this distorted view that is responsible for much of the current dysfunction in religious Jewish societies the world over.
There have been attempts to somehow correct our hindsight but, in the main, they have failed because of the determined opposition of zealots who perpetuate inaccuracies and constantly create new fantasy stories to buttress their ideologically driven view of past Jewish life.
I am not in favor of exposing all the flaws of European Jewry and I am also willing to accommodate the many exaggerations about the truly positive aspects of that pre-World War II society. But without a balanced and somewhat accurate portrayal of what that society really looked like, it will be difficult for our society to move forward in a positive and constructive fashion.
There was a time when people believed pictures never lied and that one picture was worth a thousand words.That unfortunately is no longer true. Computers, airbrushing and other modern means of altering photographs have made pictures from the past suspect.
There is a famous photograph of the Chofetz Chaim sitting outside of his house talking to his eldest son, Rabbi Aharon Leib Poupko. In the original photograph the wife and daughter of the Chofetz Chaim are standing directly behind him. This picture has been reproduced in a new and completely hagiographic biography of the Chofetz Chaim – except that the women in the picture have disappeared completely from the scene.
This premeditated inaccuracy was mandated by the desire to make the past somehow resemble the imagined world of the guardians of current political correctness in our religious world. Once, many years ago in Monsey, my congregation’s sisterhood sponsored the sale and distribution of a generic vegetarian cookbook of exotic recipes. The cookbook contained an illustration of a young boy who was bareheaded. The ladies spent the entire night covering the boy’s head with a magic marker yarmulke.
I am also reminded of pictures of famous Eastern European rabbis who were forced to take passport or other official photos in a bareheaded pose. Those photos were later retouched (not very artfully at that) to make them conform to present accepted piety. This probably falls between acceptable exaggeration and unacceptable inaccuracy but it is indicative of the spirit of our times.
The inaccuracies and fantasy portrayals of the Jewish past are but one of the many symptoms of what I feel to be the major underlying malaise in much of religious Jewish society. That underlying problem is the insecurity of religious Jewish society in facing the new Jewish world that now exists.
This world is one of modernity gone rampant, of communication that is instant and all-inclusive, of a Jewish state with all of the social, political, theological and religious challenges that such a state entails, and of a completely different economic and professional work environment than existed a century ago.
Frightened by these immense challenges, unaccustomed to being a distinct minority in the Jewish world itself, and having been forced on the defensive by the attacks of the secularists, the traditional Jewish world has been loath to engage these problems. It prefers to repaint and revisit the past instead of facing the present. It is frightened and regressive instead of being confident and optimistic.
This is truly ironic, for today’s Jewish society and its demographics have once again proven, seemingly against all odds, the resilience of Torah and tradition in all sections and climes of the Jewish world. As such our education should be geared toward self-pride and optimism, reality and how to cope in our current world. There should be less emphasis on denigrating others and fearing their ideas and less trepidation of technological advancements.
About the Author: Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997. His latest book is “Patterns of Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.
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