The celebrated French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy had some explaining to do this week when it emerged that a philosopher he'd respectfully cited was a figment of somebody else's imagination.
Jewish history boasts its own roster of hoaxes and fabrications. Most famously, the Zohar, purportedly the teaching of talmudic mystics, was largely written in the 13th century. Another product of the Middle Ages was a pseudo-talmudic text imposing extraordinary stringencies on menstruating women. In both cases, the authors clearly believed they were enunciating things that the ancients must have themselves believed. The authors of the Golem legend similarly believed that if Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, known as the Maharal, hadn't actually animated a clay figure in the late 16th century, he certainly could have.
Later times offer their own numerous examples. In 1793, Rabbi Saul Berlin published a supposed manuscript collection of responsa (legal rulings) by the great 13th-14th century halakhist Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel. The work was soon exposed as a forgery. Oddly, it is still cited at times as a normative source, either by those who have not caught up with its history or by those who have, but remain impressed by Berlin's erudition.
The most infamous modern rabbinic forger was Solomon Judah Friedlander, who in 1907 produced the text of a long-lost and long-sought tractate of the Jerusalem Talmud. Not until internal inconsistencies and Friedlander's own personal deceptions came to light were the work and its author relegated to the shadows. And then there was Abraham Firkovich (1786–1874): champion of the Karaites, collector and steward of vast numbers of priceless manuscripts, forger of documents and tombstones.
These men were scholars in their own right. Why did they do it? Hunger for celebrity? Ideological zeal? We will never really know. Yet as a contemporary historian of scholarly forgery observes, forgers keep us on our toes, reminding us just how very modern is our insistence on literal accuracy and the distanced gaze of historical perspective.
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