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Interview with R’ Nathan Kamenetsky

Responses to all the questions I could come up with for the author of Making of a Godol, in no particular order, after the jump. This is his first public interview since the ban.

Do you have a list prepared — or would you be able to prepare one easily — of those improvements to the book that are meant to keep the new edition from seeing the same ban that the original did?
I do not have a prepared list of those improvements that were specifically directed toward the criticism on my original edition (and I have not the time now to prepare such a list). If you’ve seen my Improved edition, you know that there is an appendix which lists all the pages which have been improved, and the nature of each improvement. If you want to search out the specific improvements you are interested in, you should check the pages which were improved through elaboration (EL): those are likely to have been made in order to explain myself better - and thus not be seen as degrading gedolim, which was not only never my intention, but not understand from my words by anyone who knew what he reading, either.
You adequately explain why you feel that history and biography should be presented in an unvarnished fashion. However, I don’t recall reading your reason for devoting yourself so significantly to history and biography in the first place. Why are these subjects important?
I did not dedicate my time to writing my book because I wanted to “save the world,” but because the Jewish world has undergone such radical changes in the Twentieth Century, I felt that I, who, because of my family background, knows better than most people what the disappeared Torah world was like, should perpetuate this knowledge for future generations. (As a journalist, you may call this my reaction to the Holocaust.) Frankly, I did not know that my work would ever be described as “significant,” as you have done in your question.
You mention the varying reactions of those who live in that world of Orthodoxy that holds itself subject to the ban, but don’t seem to address that group that doesn’t hold itself subject to the ban, a significant quantity of which seem to have become an ad hoc fan club for you and your work. These are mainly the Modern Orthodox university professors. How do you feel about their response, and their high level of interest in your work? Do you feel that their response may, in any sense, have affected the response to the book in the world that did feel bound by the ban?
The reason why I am interested only in the effects of the ban in the haredi world is that I am, for better or for worse, part of that society. I am gratified that people in the Modern Orthodox world have become my fans: I appreciate greatly the opinions of all observant Jews. To illustrate this, I’ll share with you the beginning of my response to the Hama’ayan review by Professor Mordechai Breuer, Professor of Jewish History in Bar Ilan University, (which I mentioned in the earlier e-mail) which starts with the following words (in translation from Hebrew): “I am gratified that Professor Mordechai Breuer wrote a review of my book “MOAG.” I am humbled that my book, the first fruits of my labor, aroused the interest of a great man and famous historian as he is. The very fact that he read my book has already given me much satisfaction… I am especially grateful to Professor Breuer for taking the trouble of analyzing the contents of the book, and describing its strong points together with its weak, its lights together with its shadows, and bringing his evaluation before the wide public.” In a footnote I added here: “Since the issuance of the ban on my book, I am particularly sensitive to reactions to it.” I do not think that the approval of the professors affected the response to the book in my society: firstly, the ban came before the response (and possibly the ban was the horse, and the response the cart, not vice versa as you assume in your question); secondly, the haredi world is so insulated from academia that it is unaware of how the professors consider my book.
I don’t recall seeing any explanation for your authoring “Making of a Godol” in English in the first place. Why did you do this? Do you feel the response to it may have differed had you chosen another language?
In the 1920s there was a campaign in the Zionist circles to promote speaking Hebrew, with the slogan, “Yehudi, dabber Ivrit (Jew, speak Hebrew).” About this Bialik said, “Ivrit darf mann reden, aber Yiddish redt sich (One ought to speak Hebrew, but Yiddish flows)” - the Yiddish “redt sich” in untranslatable into English, so the flavor of the saw is lost. Insofar as your question: English is what flows from my pen, not Hebrew - though I master the Hebrew language (as anyone can see from the long Hebrew response in Hama’ayan, mentioned before). Had I written the book in Hebrew, I believe that the rabbanim in Israel would not have listened to how my book was described to them by several “yinglakh” and the ban would not have been issued. But when people suggest that I now translate the book into Hebrew to prove that it does not degrade the rabbanim of earlier times, I do not agree. There is so much prejudice in the air against the original MOAG, that putting it out in Hebrew now would be futile. Only by having “improved” it can I hope that it will be accepted in my society.
Why haven’t you released “Anatomy of a Ban”?
Simple. I have enough trouble already.
How much money did you spend and fail to regain, if any, by virtue of the ban on the first edition?
I had no loss on my first edition because by the time the tumult started all the 1,000 copies of the first printing were sold out. (The exorbitant prices for my book which you may have seen on the internet - up to $2,000 a set - were set by stores or individuals who had bought the book prior to the issuance of the ban and were seeking big profits.) The book saw the light on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5763, and the tumult began six weeks later. When, to my surprise, I saw that people liked the book and it was selling fast, I called my printer and asked him to print another 1,000 copies fast. But as soon as I heard - I was in the United States when the fray started - that there was trouble, I called him again, and after asking if he started the job already and being told that he had disobeyed me and not started the reprinting process, I stayed his hand. Thus, I suffered no loss. If not for the ban, I could have made lots of money from the second and subsequent editions.
How many copies comprise the Improved Edition? Would you tell me what considerations have led you to develop a selling price of $110 for it?
The Improved Edition consists of 1,000 copies. My original edition sold for only $40 a set because someone donated money to make the book accessible to everyone: I acknowledged this on page xlii of both my books. The price being charged for the Improved Edition, for which I received no donation, is affected by market considerations. Of course, this will limit the number of readers, but this does not bother me. Look up the end of page xxxiii and top of the following page where I discuss this point. I wrote an article for the Yated Ne’eman newspaper on Erev Pesah 1995 - that’s seven-and-a-half years before “Making of a Godol” was first published - in which I contrasted the Hebrew book about my father (”Reb Yaakov”) which I had published at that time with a planned book I had started working on then, the book which turned out to be MOAG. Here is how I described the planned book in print then: “That book, whenever it will see the light with G-d’s help, is not destined for the general public but for people who are more interested in historical matter about the greats of the generations.” (Incidentally, in the byline in the Yated I was named “Hagaon Rabbi Noson Kamenetsky”: I am sure that never again will that newspaper print articles of mine and honor me with such a title.) Because I did not expect a wide readership, I left many things to the understanding of the intelligent “people intersted in historical matter,” and when my book fell into the hands of unsophisticated people, it was misread. Because my book was difficult to read and written for a small number of readers, I had wanted to print only 500 copies. Only when the printer explained that another 500 will be of negligible cost I told him to print a full thousand instead. I was taken by surprise when it sold 1,000 copies in six weeks. Both because I saw that many more people than students of history liked my book, and especially because the ban arouse much interest in the book, I do expect the Improved Edition to have readers of all types. Perhaps the prohibitive cost will weed out fro the book’s readership people who are interested in reading it only to find fault with me again.
I was told that Tuvia’s is your exclusive seller, and that you are only selling the book in the United States; is this true, and if it’s not would you please correct my impression? If it is true, would you please tell me why you’ve made this specific arrangement?
The distributor I had for the original edition got cold feet after the ban, and I had to find an honest and reliable bookseller. One that I was acquainted with was Tuvia, a fine son of someone I knew well and admired. Assuming that non-English-reading Rabbi Elyashiv will be less likely to involve himself with my book if it will be sold by me only abroad, I told the sage that I will not be selling it in Israel. When I said this, however, I noticed (by his body language), that this made no impression on him: his opinion is sought in American situations as in Israeli. But since I said what I said, I must abide by it.
In your initial correspondences regarding the ban, you seem to imply that you agree with the ban/retraction in the situation of R’ Jonathan Sacks in 2003. Is my understanding here correct? If not, please clarify.
No, it is not. I do not know which “correspondence regarding the ban” you refer to: can you please send me a copy of that correspondence? Let me just say that I have not read Rabbi Sacks’s book and I doubt if the people involved in the ban understood the book - I would not have had this radical thought if I hadn’t experienced such a thing first-hand with my book. I have written a book about the ban, which I showed my audience when I spoke in Borough Park on Motzoei Shabbat, March 12th of this year, on “The Making of a Ban”. (I think that lecture is available both on the internet and on a cassette.) I also mention this book by its title, “Anatomy of a Ban,” in my Improved Edition in the section called “Forward: Improved Edition” on pages xliv-xlvi. There I write that this book is “presently unavailable to the public, which will, hopefully someday (probably not in my lifetime) be a companion book to the Making of a Godol editions.” I have given this book to some people who I know will keep its contents confidential, one of whom is a brother of Rabbi Sacks, who had been my student many years ago. He criticized the following sentences therein: … let me point out the difference between the process of how Rabbi Elyashiv banned another English-language book, that of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of… Britain… and how he banned mine. The reason for banning that book, “The Dignity of Difference” was, of course, altogether different than the reason for banning mine: Its problem was heresy, not alleged denigration of gedolim.” Mr. Alan Sacks, an attorney in Tel Aviv, claimed that the usage of the word “alleged” in regard to the “fault” of my book and the omission of that word in regard to “The Dignity of Difference” indicates that I agreed with the accusation of his brother’s book’s banners. I wonder how you reached the same conclusion as did Mr. Sacks. Anyway, I am now working on an Expanded Anatomy - the original Anatomy, completed in June of 2003, was subtitled “The Story of the Ban on the Book Making of a Godol,” and the expanded version will be subtitled “The Story of the Ban on the Book Making of a Godol and of Its Republication” (because I will also be describing what I had to go through since June of 2003 until now - and until I’m sure all will be quiet!). In the Expanded Anatomy I have change the text of the second sentence regarding the Chief Rabbi’s book to read: “The reason for banning that book, “The Dignity of Difference” was, of course, altogether different than the reason for banning mine: Its problem was alleged heresy, not denigration of gedolim.” I hope that in this way I will have done teshuvah.
I’m not aware of any response you’ve made to the situation of R’ Nosson Slifkin. Would you be willing to respond to it? If so, please share your thoughts with me.
In regard to Rabbi Slifkin, let me just point out that the true present “gedol hador” of American Jewry, my brother R’ Shmuel of Philadelphia, gave Rabbi Slifkin a haskamah - and he doesn’t get scared off by zealots: he never retracted his approval as others did. I mentioned Rabbi Slifkin in my Borough Park lecture just to point out that when one of the instigators of the ban wrote “As someone who knows English, I was approached by a person for whom the honor of Torah is dear and shown that the [Slifkin] book says that the world is millions of years old: earth to his mouth! Etc.,” insinuating thereby that Slifkin was lowering the honor of Torah. He must have failed to realize that Slifkin wrote his books precisely because “the honor of Torah is dear” to him, and he felt that the conflict between teachings of science and Torah must be intelligently addressed. Thus Rabbi Slifkin was raising the honor of Torah, not lowering it. I compared it to what was written about my book - that it denigrates gedolim, while in fact, to the contrary, it raises the stature of gedolim by describing them as they actually were, great human beings, not mythical creatures. I have had scores of telephone calls and e-mails from around the world telling me how the stature of great Torah scholars was raised by my book, and how inspired they became to enhance their Torah study and commitment through my book.
You seem to suggest that the initial letter’s decrying of the promotion of secular learning is, while not relevant to the book that you’ve written, a matter of legitimate concern, such that a book that *did* promote secular learning should legitimately be banned. Am I correct in my reading? If so, how do you reconcile that position with that you document of your father and, as well, with the seeming apparentness that you, yourself, are educated in secular knowledge and utilize that knowledge in your work (though please correct me if I’m wrong in seeing this)?
You are incorrect in your reading: I was severely criticized for writing (p. 511) that Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz held in 1924 that yeshivoth may include secular studies in their curriculum in order to maintain their Lithuanian army draft-exempt status because “unlike the earlier era of Volozhin, nowadays secular studies would not harm the yeshivoth”; when I described this criticism in my Anatomy book, I wrote: “This is, of course, an embarrassment to Rabbi Levovitz (even if everyone knows that there were great Torah leaders in Western Europe who favored Torah im derekh eretz).” In other words, I made clear that to hold that secular studies are permissible is not a crime - it just happened that Rabbi Levovitz did not hold that way. Incidentally, in the Improved Edition I added six words in describing Rabbi Levovitz’s stance, to wit, “unlike the earlier era of Volozhin, nowadays - aside from the bittul Torah involved - secular studies would not harm the yeshivoth”. I also added a footnote which sends the reader to two new footnotes elsewhere in the book which show what the Chafetz-Chaim and the Hazon-Ish held regarding secular studies in the later period. Personally, I am not worthy of promoting one outlook (”hashqaphah”) or another and I don’t presume to me; I am merely a quasi-historian-observer who can say “This is what Rabbi So-and-so held.” When I say that my father read secular literature on his own when he was a child, I am not even saying that he held it was fine - though when I say that my father told people that asked him about this, that “monitered outside reading” is healthy for children (MOAG p. 265), we know exactly what his opinion was. Regarding my own background in secular studies, you can see on the back flap of the cover that I am “autodidactic in secular knowledge.” You can also read the beginning of the review of MOAG in the Jewish Action magazine (Summer 2003) by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkopf as follows: “Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky has proven that formal education is a detriment to attaining knowledge. If I am correct, Reb Noson, as he is affectionately known, is not a high school graduate. With the four university degrees that I possess, I had to keep Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary nearby as I pored over his two-volume book, etc.”
Is this your first public interview on the matter? If not, please let me know what I’ve missed.
I would call yours “the first public interview” with the author, although there have been reviews of the book in several publications, including The Forward, Ha’aretz, Ma’ariv, The New York Times, Jewish Action (of the OU) and Hama’ayan.
Why didn’t you seek out approbations for the book in the first place?
I wasn’t expressing opinions, just facts. So why are approbations necessary?
Has your new edition been prepared with the insight of others to ensure that it won’t be banned?
Everything that I heard complaints about, I improved and ran through several people of caliber.
How can you be sure it won’t suffer the same fate as the previous edition?
I am not sure, just hopeful.
What response has the new edition generated thus far?
None yet. The fracas regarding the original book did not begin till six weeks after the book appeared. I think we’ll have to wait that long before we know the answer to your question.
When do you plan to publish your second and third volumes?
I have gathered a lot of material for the next volumes, but it is still disorganized. It will take a bit of time until the next volume will be written. I will need some breathing space before I launch work on them. This time I plan to show my product to mavens to make sure it will be accepted in my circles, too. As the Yiddish saying goes: When you get scalded from hot food, you blow when you’re served even cold.

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