Monday, December 27, 2010

Modesty and Piety: Improving on the Past

Modesty and Piety: Improving on the Past
by: Michael K. Silber
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The well known “coat of arms” of the priestly Rapaport family first appeared as a colophon at the end of Avraham Menachem Rapa of Porto’s Mincha Belulah (Verona, 1594), fol. 207b, readily at (here). Instead of a motto, a banner proclaimed the author’s name above and below the shield which featured a pair of hands raised in priestly benediction in the upper half, while below was depicted a crow (Rabe in German) on a branch, a reference to the author’s family name. The shield is flanked by two heraldic supporters, and this is what interests us here.

The supporters feature two female torsos rampant facing away from the shield. They are nude from the waist up.

It was by no means rare to encounter nude women in Hebrew books between the sixteenth and the early eighteenth centuries, even prominently displayed on the covers (Adam accompanied at times by a buxom Eve is a ready example). But no doubt such nudity proves unsettling to the Orthodox public nowadays.
Benjamin Shlomo Hamburger’s recently published magisterial three volume history, Ha-Yeshiva ha-Rama bi-Fiorda (Bnei Brak, 5770) is a rich, learned study by one who has dedicated many scholarly books to the heritage of German Jewry. The volumes are noteworthy also for their rich illustrations, but one in particular catches the eye.

A chapter dedicated to Baruch Kahana Rapaport who served for many years as rabbi of Fürth (1711-1746), reproduces, as many a study on the Rapaports, the “coat of arms” from Mincha Belulah (volume 1, page 390).  

But the supporters here have been modestly transgendered and piously rendered with beards! 

Several studies by Jacob J. Schacter and others have noted the tendency to “verbessern” the past in Orthodox historiography. This then is a modest (but not very pious) contribution to the topic from the perspective of visual evidence of the past.

Dan Rabinowitz
the Seforim blog

It is indeed import to note as Dr. Michael K. Silber has, that we have yet another example of doctoring history to conform with today's anachronistic views.  But, we should note that this is not the first time the Rapoport coat of arms has undergone a change.  Before turning to this early example, we need to a make a few points.

As Dr. Silber notes, this coat of arms appears at the end of the first edition of Mincha Belulah, Verona, 1594. Rapoport created this herald and the herald contains allusions to his name - Rapoport.  Hida, R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, no Reform rabbi, includes an entry on Rapoport in Hida's Shem HaGedolim (Machret Seforim, Mem, sub. Mincha Belula).  Importantly, although the herald appears at the back of Mincha Belulah, Hida calls attention to this herald. Hida notes that "Rapoport" is spelled differently on the herald than on the title page.  But, no where does Hida question the inclusion of the bare-breasted women on this rabbinic herald. Moreover, Hida doesn't alert that reader that if one looks up the herald there are these "offensive" images.  Hida's silence is remarkable but only if one ignores the prevalence of such imagery in Hebrew books.  That is, Mincha Belula is not the only work to include such imagery.  For example, as we have previously discussed, other works include similar imagery (see herehere, here, here, for examples of nudes, and here for examples of mythological images).

We also note that this was not the first time the herald from the Mincha Belulah has been modified. In the 1989 Beni Brak reprint of Mincha Belulah, the images are also altered.  While they haven't been turned into men, the women are more modestly clothed.  The image below is taken from this edition.


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