Why do people sanitise history?

It doesn’t diminish in the slightest that the Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע had a brother who became secular. What does one have to do with the other? I was accustomed to Artscroll being the kings of whitewashing history.

This last Shabbos, I had 20 minutes before Mincha. My wife wasn’t well and a kindred soul had passed her some magazines to read. The magazines seemed to be oriented towards the N’Shei Chabad. I saw one article was about R’ Yisroel Aryeh Leib Schneersohn. Everyone knows that he, for reasons best known by himself and probably his illustrious brother, became secular. Yet, when I finished reading the article, there wasn’t a single word mentioned about that, let alone all the other facts that are known.

To be sure, I am not in the business of speaking ill of the dead, and what R’ Yisroel Aryeh Leib decided to do or not do was his own business, and none of mine. But why, oh why, do people need to be brainwashed through the method of simply omitting fundamental facts. Sure, his father Reb Levik said that he had inherited the brain of the Tzemach Tzedek. By all means, mention such things, as well as his obviously great intellect, but where was the directive that the Rebbe told his Chassidim to “leave him alone” and not to try and be Mekarev him, so to speak? Why should a child of Chabad, male or female, not read the truth? Will it cause them to go off the derech?

When you tell half-truths, you create more problems than you solve?

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

51 thoughts on “Why do people sanitise history?”

    1. Yes, but that article which I’m happy to scan and upload paints a partial pristine picture. I don’t understand the brainwashing. If these things happen in a holy Rebbishe family, perhaps, just perhaps, it will be easier for others who may find themselves confronting an imperfect outcome. Everyone has something in the closet. We get sick when we don’t realise it.


  1. The reason not to mention the unpleasant facts is simple: kevod beis harav. It was painful to the rebbe, and therefore it’s painful to the chassidim, so they don’t like to talk about it. If you had an embarrassment in your family, would you want it dragged out on every possible occasion? Therefore those who know about it don’t often talk about it, unless it’s necessary. The problem is that because it’s not often talked about, some people don’t know about it, and imagine that he was a great tzadik. OK, is that so terrible? It’s not as if the truth has somehow been blotted out of existence, and soon nobody will know. The truth is out there, and anyone who looks for it will find it, and if someone comes across these facts and has trouble believing them they can ask an older chossid discreetly and get confirmation. And if someone remains ignorant of this piece of history, so what? Is it the end of the world? How will it detract from their shleimus?


      1. There’s no reason not to talk about him at all. But the people making these spreads need to be quietly apprised of the facts, so that they stick to areas where there are positive things to be said, and steer away from areas where anything said will inevitably bring to mind the negatives. It takes tact and skill to do it, but if the person who has taken it on himself to write this doesn’t know the facts then he doesn’t know what areas to avoid.

        See the talk page of that chabadpedia article.


        1. This article which I should perhaps PDF and upload basically painted him as a saint from inception to burial. It was unnecessary … they should just let him be. There is enough greatness in Lubavitch to talk about without resorting to these Walt Disney feel good articles. Scholars know the issues; but that’s another forum. It only gives ammunition to serious researchers like Prof David Assaf


          1. The problem is undoubtedly that whoever made that spread had never been told the facts. That’s why they need to be quietly taken aside and informed — and whoever is supervising their work needs to be told that he needs to keep a closer eye on what his subordinates are doing.


  2. PS: If there was a long-ago divorce in your family, would you feel the need to mention it every time the person in question came up in conversation? “Uncle Meilech? He had another wife before this one, you know.”


  3. Reb Isaac, you neglected to mention that the Rebbe Menachem Mendel had another younger brother Dov Ber who was certifiably deranged and spent time in a Russian mental asylum. I guess that epsisode was sanitized too?


    1. 1. What’s your source that he was deranged? We know he was ill, not what the illness was.
      2. Spending time in a Russian mental asylum means nothing, of course. Harbei gedolim vetovim did so! For instance, it was recently (15-20 yrs ago) discovered that R Mordechai Dubin HYD died not in the War, but several years later, in a Soviet mental asylum.


        1. Assaf’s book talks about the Rebbe’s youngest brother R Berel?! I doubt it.

          What’s Marc Spicer’s source that he was deranged? Shimmy Deutsch is not a source.


  4. Not to mention Moshe Schneersohn the son of the Tzemach Tzedek who converted to christianity and went over to the Russian orthodox church only to spend his final days at a St. Petersburg mental asylum. That the son of the founder of Lubavitch was baptised is a factual reality!


    1. I think you mean the son of the Alter Rebbe and there is evidence that he wasn’t 100% either on the mental front. Professor Assaf has a chapter on it. Again, my point ISN’T that they need to talk about such people, but if they decide to do so in a four page glossy that they do so fulsomely, albeit diplomatically.


    2. No, it is not a factual reality, it’s a lie invented by the maskilim. We have the true story from a reliable source – the frierdiker Rebbe. He did not convert; they tried to force him but he escaped and went to live somewhere where he wouldn’t be recognised.


        1. I don’t need to read Assaf, who can only speculate, when I have a far more reliable source, who had access to the actual facts. Unless you’re willing to call the FR a liar, you have to accept what he reports as the truth, and therefore reject Assaf’s speculation.


          1. Excuse me please if I interrupt your train of thought. Assaf is meticulously sourced with footnotes. If anything he is over fair in his statements. You may think its a tenet that you have to believe a Rebbe’s version; that’s your right, but you simply cannot do so unless you have answers to the textual discrepancies that he has listed copiously. He may have an agenda; most do. That doesn’t preclude us from looking dispassionately at what is presented.

            Do you trust Rabbi Mondsheins research on Chabad Hagiogripha?


            1. Historical research is all very well, but when any research reaches results known to be false, we take that as proof that something must have gone wrong, some piece of evidence was misinterpreted or was unreliable, a sign was reversed, etc. We know the facts from the previous LR. He had access to data that Assaf did not, i.e. the family’s oral history. If Assaf’s research reaches conclusions that contradict this history then that proves he went wrong somewhere. The number of footnotes is irrelevant; all it means is that there are many sources relied on, any one of which may be unreliable. As I understand it, he relies heavily on documents found in the government archives, which he takes as if they were torah misinai.


            2. With all due respect, prof Assaf finds contradictions between the frierdiker rebbes own writing but you are seeming reluctant to read what his research reveals.

              Presumably you’d also not read Rav Mondsheins research on various other topics close to the bone?


            3. Get one thing straight: anyone who calls the FR a liar is by definition possul le’eidus. None of such a person’s “research” can be believed, because he would not be above inventing data. One would have, at a minimum, to check every one of his footnotes, and examine it critically.


            4. He doesn’t call him that as I recall. Rather, he notes stiros.
              Have some intellectual integrity and read the chapter including footnoted sources, then come back with a rejoinder


            5. If he notes stiros without calling him a liar, then stiros can be resolved. If the reporter is honest and has unique access to the true story of what actually happened, even if he misremembers some details the story has to be believed. One may question whether a date or a name is feasible, and might have been misremembered or mistranscribed or misunderstood, but one cannot reject the whole story and invent a completely different one without calling the reporter a liar. And that makes one posul le’edus.

              And really, what evidence could Assaf have uncovered that would be enough to overturn the FR’s account and call it a lie? What could make what he has found more reliable than the FR’s word?


            6. Milhouse, I have a high regard for your intellect but I’m puzzled why you continue to speculate because you seemingly refuse to read the chapter!

              Funnily, I had a Meshulach at my house a year ago, very sincere. He pulled out the book from my library and started reading and asked if he could borrow it while he was in Melbourne. A few days later I got a call from him apologising for the fact that he had burned the book! I told him I wasn’t offended because I sensed that HE felt he had to do it. The Rov whose house he was staying at rang and apologised.

              I bought another copy. He was a Chabad Shaliach, a quiet one. Next time I not go into my office!


            7. Isaac, I haven’t read it because I don’t have the book, but would you feel the need to read a chapter by some alleged “scientist” whose conclusion was that heavier-than-air flight cannot exist, or that phrenology works?! Or by a “mathematician” proving that pi is exactly 3.17? How about one by a “historian” that “proves” the camps your grandfather saw never existed? If your father told you a story, passed down from your great-great-grandfather, about a pogrom in a certain village on a certain date, with the names of your uncles and aunts who were killed there, and some historian, none of whose family were there, purported to “prove” that the pogrom never happened, or the village never existed, or he found death certificates saying that the alleged victims died of typhus or committed suicide, would you feel the need to read his “research” before declaring confidently that he was wrong?

              That the Frierdicker Rebbe’s was an honest person, and a careful and faithful recorder of the history passed down to him, is axiomatic. It cannot be questioned. Therefore any research that results in an irreconcilable contradiction to his history, in some significant manner that can’t be explained by the ordinary gradual degradation that all oral history suffers in the course of transmission, must be either flawed or fraudulent. It would still be interesting to read it in order to try to spot the flaw, but this would probably require checking all those copious footnotes, which I would not have the facilities to do, And I’m sure some of them can’t be checked, no matter how good ones facilities — e.g. anything sourced to a private conversation with someone who is no longer available for reinterview. So if I had the book I’d read it, but not having it I feel no need to run out and get it before rejecting its major conclusion. It may even be correct in some details, but the ultimate conclusion can’t be correct, and therefore isn’t.


            8. Sure. But I wouldn’t be able to check all the footnotes, so there’s no chance of it convincing me. On the other hand, maybe there are flaws that are obvious without such research; unsupported leaps of logic rather than bad data.


            9. From what’s available, yes. And I could ask people like R Berel Levin for help. But his sources are surely not in the FR’s writings, because he’s coming to “disprove” the FR’s story. His “proofs” will be things like the alleged baptismal certificate. People like Assaf have an unshakeable emunah in government archives, as if anything found in them must be genuine. If they found a certificate, it can’t have been planted there, it must be genuine. If an official document says something it’s kodesh kodoshim, mamash mipi hagevurah. Whereas if someone with actual knowledge of what happened says something, it’s suspect.


      1. Let me say this respectfully. Prof Assaf has some evidence which questions the reliability of some of the frierdiker rebbes recall directly from contradictions in the Rebbes own writing.

        PS How do you reconcile the frierdiker rebbes view of the golem of prague and the article from Prof Shneyer Zalman Lehman which is very very convincing and well researched?


        1. I don’t know what the FR saw in the attic. He saw something there, which frightened him. Was it the Maharal’s golem, which existed after all? Maybe. Layman gives no evidence that he didn’t make one, he merely points out that there is no evidence that he did. Or maybe it was the remains of some other golem, made by someone else (Layman doesn’t deny that golems have been made, just that the Maharal made one). Or it could have been something entirely different, but equally frightening.


          1. Actually Leyman shows that the whole story was a plagiarised Booba Mayseh by a discredited charlatan.

            I have no idea what the FR saw there, but there is ZERO credible evidence of a Golem!


            1. What are you talking about? Layman shows no such thing. How can “the whole story” be plagiarised? From whom? By definition for something to be plagiarised it must have existed before! You sound like the Economist claiming that Israel’s Arab citizens, i.e. the ones who didn’t flee in 1948, are clamouring to return to the lands from which they fled!

              All Layman shows is that there is no evidence of the Maharal making a golem, and that the story of his making one seems to have been unknown until the early 19th century, even among Prague rabbonim with an interest in the topic of golems. He does not deny that the Maharal *could* have made one, or that someone else in Prague might have made one at some other time.


            2. Nope. He traces it to some fairy tale and this was copied by a proven plagiariser.

              Don’t say ‘all’ he showed …

              His research was excellent (as always)


            3. All he shows is that as of the late 18th century nobody seems to have been telling this story, and over the course of the 19th century it appears. The first written record of such a legend is in a goyishe source, and then some years later it slowly begins to appear in Jewish sources.

              His most powerful piece of evidence is that the Korban Nesan’el’s son, a resident of Prague and a talmid of the Noda Biyhuda, wrote a monograph about golems, and doesn’t mention the Maharal among those who made them; surely if he had heard it, even as an unconfirmed legend, he would have mentioned it. And yet a few decades later the Sho’el Umeishiv is familiar with the story, so it must have come into the popular consciousness some time in those few decades.

              None of which says that the Maharal didn’t secretly make a golem, or that someone else didn’t make one and hide its remains up there in the attic, or that someone didn’t hide something else there that would be frightening, and might be mistaken for a golem’s remains.

              Did the Maharal make a golem? I have no basis for thinking that he did, so my default assumption is that he didn’t. The presence of something frightening in the attic, or even of verified golem remains, would not change that assessment. And yet it remains a possibility. As Jews we believe that golems are possible, and that various people have from time to time made them, and surely the Maharal had the knowledge and could have made one; all we lack is any evidence that he did. We also have no evidence that he ever made chicken soup, and yet we wouldn’t deny the possibility. But if someone were to show us a bowl of dessicated soup, and claim that the Maharal had made it, we would not be convinced. But we wouldn’t deny that the soup exists, and that someone made it.


            4. You are being clever by half. The Golem was a huge story. It clearly couldn’t have happened and been a state secret? The evidence from Layman points clearly in another direction.

              I’m not here to evaluate or comment on WHAT the FR may have felt/seen. Did he say it was the Maharal’s Golem?


            5. Who says it was a huge story? Why couldn’t he have made a golem and kept it secret? What is it about a golem’s existence that requires everyone to know about it?

              To the best of my knowledge the FR did not say what he saw. There is a letter from the Rebbe that the FR did see the remains of the Maharal’s golem, but he may have misunderstood or assumed what he didn’t hear explicitly. It would be a reasonable assumption, after all, but it might still be an incorrect one.

              Take the recent brouhaha about the Rebbe Rashab’s treatment by Freud. For years we’ve known 1) the Rashab suffered from depression, 2) he was treated by Freud, and 3) Freud was a famous psychologist, who treated depression. It therefore seemed natural to conclude that Freud treated the Rashab for his depression, and so almost everybody concluded, until Berel Levin published his letters from that period, and it became clear that he consulted Freud in his capacity as a neurologist, for a neurological condition, and his treatment was purely physical.


            6. Maybe you live in a different world, but the Golem of Prague was a story that EVERYONE seemed to know. My Booba knew it and I’m sure her Boiba did. Was it a quiet thing in the town of Lubavitch back then?


            7. The fact that your booba and the FR’s booba heard a story about it is irrelevant. We know that they’re having heard the story doesn’t prove it’s true, but it certainly doesn’t prove it’s not true. The only question is whether the fact that the Noda Biyhuda seems not to have heard the story proves it isn’t true, and I don’t see why it should. Nor does Layman make any such claim.

              Your assertion is that it would be impossible for the Maharal to have made a golem without anyone knowing it. Please support that assertion. It seems illogical to me.


            8. No, my comment is that the confluence of

              A) everyone seemingly knowing about it
              B) it was recorded by a proven fraudster plagiariser
              C) the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself says that the Golem was MEFURSAM

              and B) suggests that it was an invention of someone’s mind (not the Maharal)

              The Noda BYeyehuda was very careful with Nistaros, and for this reason it is known he had issues with lots of the Zohar too


            9. Isaac, your repeated references to a “proven fraudster plagiariser” show that you are confused about this whole matter. You can only be referring to the novelist Rosenberg, who has nothing at all to do with it. The story was well known long before he wrote his novel (which is no more a fraud than anything Marcus Lehmann wrote).

              Nor do I understand why you bring up the Noda Biyhuda’s issues with nistaros. It’s a very simple matter of history: did he know of such a story about the Maharal or didn’t he? Layman shows that it’s unlikely that he knew of such a story, which means that in the late 18th century it was unknown. (Unless you’re arguing against your own case, and suggesting that the NbY had heard it and deliberately suppressed it because he didn’t like such stories; but I find that unlikely.)

              Layman’s case comes down to one point: the Maharal surely could have made a golem, but the only reason we have for believing that he did is the existence of this legend. Since the legend seems to have become well-known some time between the days of the NbY and those of the Shoel Umeishiv, the mere fact of its existence can’t tell us anything at all. So we’re left with no more reason to believe that he made a golem than that he made chicken soup. But nor do we have any less reason to think that he made a golem than that he made chicken soup. We simply have no information on the matter. You are the one who is adding that he couldn’t have made one in secret. Layman doesn’t say that.

              Now suppose that the FR had said that his family, the Maharal’s family, had a kaboloh ish mipi ish that he did make one after all. That would be new information, that Layman did not take into account, and would completely overturn his findings. He would have to accept that if such a family history existed then there was reason to believe it happened. One could even explain the sudden appearance of the legend over a few decades in the early 19th century, by supposing some family member told it in the right ears, and it spread. The only flaw in this scenario is that (AFAIK) the FR did not say such a thing. If he didn’t say it then there probably was nothing in the family history about it, and his source for believing it was the same as everyone else’s — the unreliable legend. Which still doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just that the FR’s belief that it happened isn’t a useful datum.

              Now we come to the FR’s excursion to the attic. He said he saw something there, and that hsi father told him it took great effort to protect him from the foolish thing that he had done. Now in conjunction with the golem legend, it seems obvious what this is about. It’s possible that it seemed obvious to the Rebbe too, and he didn’t inquire further. But since the legend was less than a century old at the time, this tells us nothing. Maybe the Maharal really did make a golem, and that was it. Or maybe someone else made one. Or maybe what he saw was completely unrelated to golems of any kind.


            10. I don’t get you. I read the article, and I think I also heard him speak to the article. It’s very clear that there is ZERO evidence of a Golem unless one concludes that it was a hidden secret of the Maharal. You are suggesting that this hidden secret, Rosenberg’s copying of fairy tales, and the fact that many Doros “knew” of this story, and that there is a statue of the Golem apparently, is just an unfortunate confluence of factors is really far fetched. I will give you this: I do admire your fidelity to the FR and Chabad in general. I’m not saying and haven’t said the FR is a “liar” but I repeat, the evidence that has been unearthed (if you pardon the pun) suggests this was a massively fraudulent fairy tale. As I have said, I saw the letter from the last Rebbe about the Golem and the FR, and I can’t see how one could read any other phenomenon being implied by what the FR saw/felt/ whatever. You are quite correct in your summation of what Prof Leyman wrote. He is an academic par excellence and there could never be a way he could write “the Maharal didn’t make a Golem”. Who could say that unless the Maharal was here to tell them. The legend, however, was and remains ubiquitous. Prof Leyman did us a great service researching it and showing how much sheker surrounded the legend.


            11. It’s very clear that there is ZERO evidence of a Golem unless one concludes that it was a hidden secret of the Maharal.

              I agree 100%. There is no evidence that the Maharal made a golem. There is also no evidence that he did not. It could indeed have been a secret.

              Rosenberg is irrelevant. I don’t understand why you are bringing him up. He had nothing to do with inventing the story; it was well known by the time he wrote his novel. Rosenberg was no different from Marcus Lehmann, who also wrote historical novels, loosely based on legends. The conceit that he had “discovered a manuscript” was a very common one in the fiction of the time, and is far from unknown in today’s fiction either. The reader understands that it’s a literary convention.

              Nor is the statue relevant, since it postdates the legend. The only question is where the legend came from, and the answer is that we don’t know. Layman doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Someone could have made it up, or transposed it from another person, or someone who did know a secret could have revealed it. Or it could even be a coincidence that a legend about a golem arose about someone who just so happened to have made one. That would be strange, but in the course of history strange things do occasionally happen — it would be exceedingly strange if they never did! My point is that it doesn’t matter; we don’t have to know how the legend arose in order to keep an open mind to the possibility, and it is only that, that the Maharal did indeed make a golem. The only grounds for rejecting the possibility is if you don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to make a golem, and that is apikorsus. I don’t suspect you or Layman of that.

              I don’t know what you mean by “so much sheker”. It’s a legend, like many others. Did the Maharam Merutenberg refuse to be ransomed? Many believe so, and surely this number was significantly boosted by Lehmann’s novel, but did it happen? In that case I’m given to understand there is actually evidence against it, which is not hte case with the Maharal’s golem. But I wouldn’t speak of “so much sheker” being around it. Or take the well-known legend of “Rabbi Amnon” and unesaneh tokef. In that case we know where it comes from: the Or Zarua found it in a manuscript. Who wrote that manuscript? He didn’t know, and neither do we. But we have good reasons to doubt that the author was writing from personal knowledge of the events. Note that the Or Zarua doesn’t claim to know whether the story is true; if he had, I think we would have to take his word for it over the other evidence, but he didn’t, so we’re free to conclude it’s very unlikely to be true.

              The Rebbe’s letter certainly shows that he understood the FR to have seen the remains of the Maharal’s golem. And perhaps that is true. You can’t dismiss the possibility. But I put it to you that that’s not the only possibility. The Rebbe may not have been reporting verbatim what the FR told him, but rather to have put together a few things and come to a very logical but mistaken conclusion. He may have assumed, because it made sense, that the FR meant to say he’d seen the Maharal’s golem, but that may not have been what the FR actually said. Certainly from what the FR himself published it’s not at all clear what he saw. It’s also possible that the FR himself made this mistaken conclusion about the identity of what he had seen. After all, how could he know? He could see what it looked like, but how could he know its history? If he went where he expected to see the Maharal’s golem’s remains, and he saw something strange and frightening (to someone with spiritual senses), he may have jumped to the conclusion that it was what he expected it to be, without that conclusion being correct.

              None of which is relevant to his reliability as a transmitter of the oral and written historical tradition to which he was heir. He was a meticulous recorder of what he heard, noting the pedigree of each story, and insisting on the importance of doing so for the sake of accuracy. So when he records a story that happened in his own family, where the actual witnesses to the events as they happened were in a position to tell what they had seen, and that story would naturally have come to him, how can you dismiss it? How can you call it false without calling him (or those who had told it to him) a liar? All because some professor says so?! When you do so it smacks of מכחיש מגידיה


  5. There is at least one Chabad family here who named their son after this brother of the rebbe (who BTW, was not just ‘secular’. He was (at times?) a ‘lehachisnik’. Eg, would smoke cigarettes on Shabbos outside the Chabad shul in TA.)

    Had they known the truth about this person, maybe they have given a fifferent name..


    1. Look, I know he was more than secular, and I guess you can always say that they were named after those who he was named after.

      Mind you, it’s all better than people who call their children Nimrod

      How someone can do that is beyond me


    2. The Rebbe spoke about the significance of his name. It can be assumed that the Rebbe has nachas when people give this name. And it may be a tikun for the neshomo.


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