(This trick is similar to what Christian missionaries do, too.)
For example, I remember one Conservative rabbi who seemed like a nice & honest guy, practiced Judaism like many Modern Orthodox Jews and even insisted that the people he “converted” be shomer Shabbat, shomer kashrut, and even shomer taharat hamishpacha (VERY unusual outside of the Orthodox rabbinate).
I was newly married and well-entrenched in the frum community and had learned a lot when I encountered him at customer service where I once worked. He spoke with me during the computer lags, then suddenly, he mentioned “secret changes” in the Torah that the Sages had committed “because they were uncomfortable” with the Torah’s original language.
I was flummoxed. What on earth was he talking about?
“Like what?” I asked.
“Oh, lots of things,” he answered knowingly. (No specifics? Bad sign.)
I frowned. “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” I said.
“Well,” he answered. “They like to keep it a big secret.” He paused. "It's like a conspiracy."
“Then how do you know about it?”
He laughed. “Oh, I managed to figure it out. I learned about it where I went to school.” He added, "Actually, everyone knows about it except the Orthodox Jews."
"Wait," I said, knowing that Orthodox Jews were almost the only group that actually studied Torah and everything connected to it in the original Hebrew or Aramaic. Orthodox Jews tend to be vastly more knowledgeable of everything in Judaism than their non-Orthodox counterparts. "That makes no sense. How could you keep something like this a secret from all the talmidei chachamim and Gedolei Hador?"
He pondered this. "Well, sure, they know about it," he said. "But they keep it a secret from their followers."
"But that's impossible," I insisted. "The followers themselves are very learned."
He frowned. It only occurred to me later than he was projecting. Because the general Conservative movement consists of so many innocently ignorant Jews who don't even have the basic skills to make it through a siddur in Hebrew, let alone an actual book of the Torah, it was perfectly plausible to him that a rabbi could so easily dupe his followers. After all, Conservative rabbis have been doing just that for decades.
As he sat there, probably trying to make up some reply, I realized something else:
If he could learn about this "secret conspiracy of Sages" at his non-Jewish college or "rabbinical" seminary, it didn't sound like a very big secret. It must be something I could recognize. I kept scanning my mind to figure out what he was talking about. Having grown up in the Conservative movement, I was pretty familiar with their distortions. But what big conspiracy of “secret changes” could he possibly mean? And for such emotional and petty reasons—the Sages were “uncomfortable”? That made no sense, seeing as the Sages ultimately discuss every “uncomfortable” thing under the Sun.
“What were the changes?” I asked again.
“Oh, I don’t remember exactly.” He thought for a moment, then said, “Hemorrhoids. They didn’t like the word ‘hemorrhoids.’ So they changed it to something else.”
This was getting more and more bizarre.
“I’ve never heard of ‘secret changes’ or a big conspiracy among the Sages. I mean, how could they hide it? Everything’s written down.”
“Well, see? You'd never heard of it. So they managed pretty well.”
“Yeah, but…I mean, I went to a baal teshuvah seminary and we asked all sorts of questions and confronted all sorts of issues. And they explained so much to us. But they never mentioned anything like this—no ‘secret changes,’ no Chazal conspiracy, nothing.”
He smirked. “Well, of course they didn’t tell you! They wouldn’t want you to know.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I said. “They talked about everything else. And if there was some conspiracy that all the non-Orthodox rabbis are well-aware of, then they would assume that we’d eventually discover it, and they’d want to address it now.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “They’re banking on the fact that no one will ever tell you.”
Then he left. But I remained rattled. He seemed so sure of his belief. Could he really be lying? Later, I asked my Israeli husband who been learning in good chareidi yeshivah for 10 years before we married about this big conspiracy of “secret changes” to the Torah.
He had no idea what I was talking about, opined that the Conservative rabbi was just a mushchat who was trying to take advantage of me, and advised me against talking to Conservative rabbis or any kind of men at work, even if that seems rude and they get offended.
Then I called a friend, who was also baffled until she said, “Oh…wait a minute. Did he mean tikkun soferim*?”
The truth dawned on me. “Omigosh,” I said. “I think you’re right! That’s it! You mean like kativ and keri**?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Also, I remember that they did do something with the word ‘hemorrhoids’. So there you go.”
“Gol-lee,” I said. “I’m so embarrassed. That’s so basic! We learned about that ages ago! EVERYBODY knows about tikkun soferim!”
“Right,” she said.
After thanking her, I went to my husband and told him the solution to the mystery—“Tikkun soferim!”—and he frowned, saying, “But that’s no secret. You said it was something secretive. Everybody knows about tikkun soferim.” Then he grumbled something unflattering about Conservative and Reform rabbis.
Anyway, I went around feeling frustrated with myself for getting duped so easily. By this point, I knew how the Conservative distortions went, but because they use a grain of truth as their jumping-off point, you need to wade through their twisty paths to get to the exact fork of falsification.
I also felt angry and embarrassed because also felt like it was a chillul Hashem on my part because I’d inadvertently confirmed his belief that the frum world was tricky and deceptive, and that this Conservative rabbi left with the impression that he knew something—and a very basic, well-known something—that I, an educated frum woman seemed totally ignorant of.
What a low-down dirty trick!
But this is what these people do.
What threw me off (and what threw my husband off) were the words “secret” and “conspiracy,” plus his knowing tone of voice and his conviction. It led me to mentally search for something not well-known, but that was the part that was an outright lie. Furthermore, it showed great ignorance of Torah learning and the Orthodox community in general. (And this is despite the fact that the guy was situated right next to one of the biggest Orthodox communities in the world. Talk about cutting yourself off from the world around you and living in your own bubble.)
To this day, I have no idea if the guy was being purposely manipulative and dishonest or whether he was such an ignoramus, both socially and religiously, that he generally believed that tikkun sofrim is a “big secret” and a hidden “conspiracy.”
And this guy was the rabbi of a big congregation in a major American city.
Talk about the blind leading the blind.
I really, really hope that these people all do complete teshuvah.
*Note: Tikkun soferim is a term often translated as “scribal emendations.” There are something like 18 of these throughout the entire 304,901 words of Tanach (in other words, not exactly "lots").
**Important: Please see both of Yaak's comments for clarification of Tikkun Soferim and keri/ketiv. They actually aren't the same, as was wrongly implied in the post.