Think Piece

Censoring Early Modern Hebrew Texts: A Review of The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book at the University of Pennsylvania

by Yitzchak Schwartz

Each year, The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania brings together enthusiasts of the Hebrew book to study topics in Hebrew book history with leading scholars in the field. Housed at the Katz Center for Jewish Studies in downtown Philadelphia, the workshop is a rare event that brings scholars, professionals and laymen together for in-depth learning and conversation. Participants generally include academics, graduate students, book collectors and museum, library and auction house professionals. Topics range across various disciplines but the workshops are generally grounded in careful material study of books. Recent past topics have included the implications of processes of printing (misprints, for example) on Jewish law and late medieval Hebrew manuscript illumination.

A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama's commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: "Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688."
A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama’s commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: “Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688.”

This year’s workshop, held May 8-9, was led by Dr. Piet van Boxel and focused on the censorship of Jewish books during the early modern period. Professor van Boxel is Distinguished Professor at the Oxford University Oriental Institute and is the former Curator of Hebraica and Judaica Collections at the Oxford University Libraries. In 2009, he curated the landmark exhibition of the Bodleian Library’s Hebrew manuscripts Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures, which examined medieval Hebrew manuscripts as a site of cooperation and cultural exchange among  Jews and Christians. The exhibition brought together some of the highlights from the Bodleian’s collection of medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, which is the largest in the world, and a version of it traveled to the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2012-2013.

Over the two days of the workshop, Dr. van Boxel traced the history of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern Papal State. It has long been known that Jewish texts were censored during the early modern period, but the Church policy that informed this censorship and the realities of its implementation remain murky. Dr. van Boxel’s presentations aimed to elucidate both the theory and practice of early modern censorship of Jewish texts through research that draws on the history of the Catholic Church’s policies and examination of censored books housed in libraries around the world.

He began by discussing the infamous burning of the Talmud in Rome, which occurred during the Council of Trent in 1553. The 1553 burning was not the first time the Church had burned the Talmud: In 1244, after a disputation in Paris in which four Rabbis were forced to defend the Talmud against accusations that it contained blasphemous statements, twenty-four carriage loads of Talmudic manuscripts were burned. However, it represented a shift in Church policy: Prior to the Counter-Reformation, Jewish texts had for the most part been protected by the Papal decree. In particular, the bull Sicut Judaeis, issued by Pope Callixtus II (1065-1124) in 1120, states that suasion, not violence, is the only proper means to evangelize to Jews to and that it is forbidden to take their property as a means of encouraging conversion. The burning of the Talmud contradicted this Papal decree but was made possible, Van Boxel argues, because Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), the head of the Roman Inquisition, argued that the blasphemous teachings of the Talmud would lead Christians into the arms of Luther. Carafa used his power to compel local rulers and Bishops to collect copies of the Talmud and punish individuals who did not forfeit their copies. The books were collected and taken to Rome, where they were publicly burned.

Shortly after he burned the Talmud, Carafa planned to order the burning of other Jewish texts that contained blasphemous statements. However Pope Julius III (1487-1555) intervened and ordered that henceforth such texts merely be expurgated, that their blasphemous sections be blacked out by Church-appointed censors. Julius III’s decree made official Church policy harsher than it had been before the Council of Trent but van Boxel argues that the implementation of his decree was highly inconsistent and varied by location and by censor. At times censors, who were paid per book by Jewish communities, would expurgate a few lines at the beginning and end of a book and leave the rest. At other times they went far beyond protocol and blacked out words that had any association with blasphemous Jewish teachings.

Moreover, the professionalization of censorship necessitated the preservation of heretical portions of texts: Both the Church and Jewish communities created indices for expurgation, which excerpted heretical portions of Jewish and Christian texts to be expurgated. These were intended only for the eyes of censors but in the wrong hands they are veritable encyclopedias of heresy. The inconsistency of censorship also aided text’s survival in that many publishers, knowing that only some copies of a given edition of a book would be censored, continued to print texts in full. Other Christian and Jewish publishers collected all offending portions of texts they were printing on separate pages meant to be appended to the censored books, allowing their owners to dispose of these in the event of a censor visiting them and keep them otherwise.

One of the arguments Professor van Boxel made that I found most interesting was that because of the inconsistency of censorship very little if anything was lost to posterity because of it. Many uncensored copies of books survive today and it is hard to say if expurgation ever led to the complete disappearance of the original version of a text. I personally have often been taken by the romance of the notion that there might be countless early modern texts that vanished because of censorship, but that sentiment illustrates precisely what was so informative about the workshop: Equipped with a careful understanding of the process of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern period that penetrates the myths surrounding the subject, scholars can begin to consider this widespread phenomenon’s actual social and intellectual-historical implications.

Think Piece

Apes, Jews, and Others: a reading of Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” and Bernard Malamud’s “God’s Grace”


by guest contributor Yaelle Frohlich

On the surface, Franz Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy” (1917) and Bernard Malamud‘s last finished novel, God’s Grace (1982), appear quite different, but they each boast a striking similar feature: Both contain verbal apes who serve to drive home a point about the Jewish condition. Various readers —of Kafka’s piece, in particular—have described the device as a “grotesque” metaphor for otherness, depicting a world that is, in the words of literary scholar Matthew Powell, “eerily reminiscent of our own, yet not our own” (130). In other words, these riveting works achieve a literary version of the uncanny valley effect.

In “A Report to an Academy,” an ape named Red Peter describes his experience breaking into the human cultural scene. He recounts his capture on the “Gold Coast” and captivity among coarse sailors, during which he desperately seeks “a way out” of his impossible circumstances—a cage “too low for [him] to stand up in but too narrow for [him] to sit,” where he ends up “with knees bent and trembling all the time”(247). He successfully carries out an ingenious plan to imitate his human captors (the main requirements: boozing and spitting), and eventually wins enough human acceptance to land an entertainment career on Hamburg’s “variety stage” and acquire the education and “cultural level of an average European” (254).

Interpretation of Red Peter in a recent adaption of “Report to the Academy” by Montreal’s Infinitheatre

The story never mentions Judaism or Jews by name. However, it was originally published in Martin Buber’s monthly German-language journal Der Jude, and is widely—and compellingly—interpreted as a critique of Jewish attempts to assimilate into non-Jewish, Western European society, as well as of that society’s prejudicial treatment of its minorities. Matthew Powell connects Kafka’s animal stories to his autobiography—both to Kafka’s failed relationship with a non-Jewish woman, whom he felt would never be able to understand him, as well as to his father Hermann’s lack of social acceptance among non-Jewish peers even in the aftermath of legal emancipation (137-138).

Metaphors for the Jewish experience are visible on every page of “A Report to an Academy”—from Red Peter’s alienation from his previous identity as an ape (plus the distance his associates maintain from him “to keep the image”; 245) to his internalization of anti-Semitic/ anti-ape stereotypes about crudity and materialism. Notably, he remarks that “only an ape could have thought of” the “utterly inappropriate” name Red Peter, which refers to the red scar leftover from his captors’ bullet. Katja Garloff interprets this wound as castration, but I think it is possible to read a circumcision motif into Red Peter’s “predilection” to pull down his pants to show people the wound, claiming proudly that “you would find nothing but a well-groomed fur and the scar made (246-247). Red Peter also states that “apes think with their bellies,” despite the fact that it is his sailor-mentor who teaches him that one should rub one’s belly with a grin after over-consuming schnapps (252).

But the most strikingly Jewish passages of the story describe Red Peter’s excruciating decision to excise his identity as an ape, in order to survive his brutal ordeal. Red Peter’s path is precarious, and his sailor-mentor—like European monarchs toward the Jews, sometimes even like God himself—is alternatingly cruel and benevolent; “sometimes indeed he would hold his burning pipe against my fur, until it began to smolder in some place I could not easily reach, but then he would himself extinguish it with his own kind, enormous hand” (252).

For Red Peter, self-effacement provides the “way out; right or left, or in any direction” that he seeks, despite finding “no attraction…in imitating humans,” and despite having no expectations of true “freedom”(249-253). He proclaims: “I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrances of my youth. In fact, to give up being stubborn was the supreme commandment I laid upon myself; free ape as I was, I submitted myself to that yoke” (245). The language here, which alludes to the twin yokes of Heaven and Exile so poignant in traditional Jewish texts, recalls the painful choice facing Western European Jews: Which yoke was more burdensome to bear, that of tradition or integration?

In Malamud’s God’s Grace, the roles of man, ape, and Jew are reversed. Furthermore, unlike in Kafka’s story, the prominent role of Judaism is explicit. God’s Grace takes place in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. A nuclear war has destroyed the earth and all its inhabitants—apart from Calvin Cohn, a rabbinical student turned paleologist, who survives the war in a submarine, but, according to God, only due to a “marginal error” (5). Cohn discovers a surviving chimp child, Buz, and the two are marooned on an island, where they find more living chimps, along with a lone gorilla, George.

Cohn, as the sole human, finds himself in an unusual position of power. Like Red Peter’s sailor-mentor, he tries to remake the chimps, and this new world, in his own image—but with seemingly more refinement and goodwill. He humanizes the chimp community by giving them speech, and tries to provide them with a foundational Jewish education, ranging from traditional biblical exegesis to Kierkegaard and Freud.

Despite some authoritarian moves (like marrying the one female chimp on the island), Cohn’s intentions are good. But even the last Jew on Earth can’t catch a break; Buz has inherited his former trainer’s anti-Jewish prejudices, and Cohn becomes the chimps’ despised other—more for his Jewishness than for his being a Homo sapien. (For instance, the ape named Esau threatens to “break every Jewbone in [his] head,” while Cohn, like a fiddler on a roof, implores him to “try to reason together”(201).) At the novel’s close, Buz leads the chimps in an Oedipal rebellion against Cohn; after being Adam, Noah and Abraham, Cohn finds himself playing the role of Isaac in an animalistic, reverse Binding of Isaac orchestrated by his adopted ape son.

Ironically, despite the violent ending of God’s Grace, the novel closes more optimistically than “A Report to an Academy,” in which Red Peter enjoys a safe but lonely existence with a half-trained female chimp companion whose haunting presence (and implicit reminder of his ape identity) he can only half-stand. As D. Mesher notes , Malamud himself drew attention to his novel’s final, hopeful scene, in which “George the gorilla, wearing a mud-stained white yarmulke he had one day found in the woods, chant[s], “Sh’ma, Yisroel, the Lord our God is one,”” and recites “a long Kaddish for Calvin Cohn” (223).

I’ve found no definitive proof that Malamud read “A Report to an Academy,” but Kafka and Malamud’s stories explore flip sides of the modern Jewish experience. Kafka asks: What is the place of the Jew in society? While Malamud asks: What is the place of the Jewish idea in the world? The artists provide similar answers, but through very different mediums. Kafka paints a dark picture that suggests that only disfigurement, not liberating transformation, can result from identity denial. But Malamud’s message is a positive one: that the teachings of Judaism might shine forever—even in the absence of humanity, or of Jews, and in the silence—or indifference—of God.

Yaelle Frohlich is a PhD candidate in History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University. Her work focuses on diaspora Jewish perceptions of the Holy Land during the mid-nineteenth century. During the 2016-7 academic year, she will serve as a Public Humanities Fellow through the New York Council for the Humanities.