The Nuanced Attitudes of the Rabbis Towards the Study of Jewish History, Intro
In this introduction, the noted Rabbi and Maskil points out that the study of Jewish history is not merely to derive enjoyment from the reading of a ‘good story’ or to satiate one’s curiosity, but rather they are essential to every student and Rabbi. He points out how many have faltered in their studies by placing Talmudic personalities in the wrong era, confusing one tanna or ammora for another etc. In addition, the lessons to be learned from such study are many and important “How God punishes those who treated us wickedly and rewarded those who treated us kindly” increase faith in God and their importance cannot be emphasized enough. He continues in this vein for some time.
Perhaps, he did this to assuage a ‘traditional’ Jewish fear of such literature. Some claim that the Jews never labored much to write down their own history (this is undoubtedly true for the Karaite sect, whose own leaders admit that they never granted much effort to the recording of their own history, resulting in modern Historians attempting to reconstruct a movement whose origins are mired in obscurity, see Rise of the Karaite Sect by Dr. Zvi Cahn, Chapter 1).
That the Jews did not bother to record their own history is a curious claim for the ‘People of the Book’. Some may even call this claim a ridiculous one for several reasons: an inordinate amount of space in Scripture is devoted to the happenings of the Jews- down to minute details about names and numbers of the members of various clans. These facts are recorded and often repeated in painstaking detail (and I am not even referring to the books that are mentioned in the Bible itself but were lost, as well as apocrypha, psuedipigrapha etc).
Some claim that this is partially true-especially from the closure of the ‘Scriptual era’ until the rise of the Graeco-Roman one, i.e. it was only under the influence of the Greeks (who arguably invented this discipline) that the Jews finally ‘got into the act’ as well. It was thanks to the Greeks that we now have the historical recordings of the Hellenized Jew, Josephus. If this is indeed true, it took many years of Graeco-Roman influence for a personage like Josephus to arise among the Jews and do to his people what Herodotus to his own.
As in many things, there seems to be something in both sides of the argument.
Yes, it is curious that in the several centuries since the events described in scriptures took place, nobody bothered to record Jewish history. Yet that too is only partially true as Jesus ben Sirach, (whose own book seems to be a matter of contention and debate in the Babylonian Talmud, see here) for instance, devotes the last chapter of his popular book to listing all the Jewish greats who lived up until his own time.
His successors: the Hasmoneans received painstaking documentation. In the several Books of Maccabees (certainly the first two), the first of which was written by a contemporary in Biblical Hebrew- according to many scholars (one would assume an individual without an overly fond attitude towards the Hellenists and the culture that they imported into Judea…)
When we fast-forward to to the Andalusian (Spanish) Golden Age, we may detect a lack of enthusiasm towards this discipline on the part of Maimonides (some might even say hostility, though curiously the latter mandates the daily study of Tanakh, basing himself on what seems to be merely proper advice in BT Kiddushin 30a from R. Joshua B Hanania) (3).
This attitude may further be evidenced in the Sephardic reaction (particularly of R. Joseph Karo and the Safed Kabbalistic circles) to the work of Azariah De Rossi, especially his historical work Maor Einyai’im which was outright banned (though the reasoning given was that it accorded dishonor to the Rabbis of the Talmud, by challenging the latter’s system of chronology ).
During the European Enlightenment, this dichotomy between what I will call the ‘historists’ and the ‘a-historists’ or ‘anti-historists’ take on new and different (arguably more urgent) forms. The Maskilim of Eastern Europe strongly encouraged the study of Jewish history. The study of Tanakh (Scriptures) had already been almost abandoned among Ashkenazic Jews, in favor of intensive Talmudic study (See author of Peri Megadim and the Ashkenazi sage known as the Hakham Sevi who lament this state-of -affairs and praise Sephardim for studying Tanakh and Dikduk [Hebrew Grammar], disciplines that were largely abandoned among most Ashkenazi circles at that point) (4).
The Wissenschaft des Judentums and Haskalah‘s renewed stress on the aforementioned studies produced reactionary violent response which went as far as to outright forbid the study of even Tanakh. (although the’ abandonment’ of Tanakh may have already come about as a much earlier reaction to Sadduccees, who believed in its authority alone). (5)
It seems that Ashkenazic writers of Jewish history, such as the author of Seder Hadorot, David Gans, et-al (this seems less evident in the writings of De Rossi and Joseph Hakohen of Genoa for instance) were walking a tightrope between maintaining fealty to Rabbinic tradition and basing themselves heavily on ‘outside’ and ‘foreign’ material. This was risky business as the latter material often stood in conflict with the Rabbinic one (a classic example would be the aforementioned De Rossi’s issue with Rabbinic calculations and the resultant scandal and ban).
This is clearly evident in the writings of Rabbi Yehiel Heilprin, author of Seder Hadorot, especially in his own introduction, where he takes great pains to point out how important the study of Jewish history is in order to understand Talmud (the who’s who of Talmudic figures) and essentially be a better Jew.
In Heilprin’s and his contemporary’s worldview, the study of Jewish history is a very important means towards a noble end. This same attitude is even more evident (for obvious reasons, see here) in later works of this genre, such as the writings of Rabbi Isaac Rabinowich in his six-volume Dorot Harishonim. It continues to this day (see for instance the introductions to Seder Hadorot Hakatzar by R. Shelomo Benizri; Atlas Ets Hayyim, authored by the recently deceased Refael Heilprin (a direct descendant of R. Yehiel and Rabbi Shelomo Rottenberg in his multi-volume Toldos Am Olam).
The Hirschian ‘Neo-Orthodox’ stance on the subject is (arguably) best articulated in an articled penned by the late Rabbi Shimon Schwab where the latter states unequivocally that “History must be truthful otherwise it does not deserve its name…. What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity” see here for excerpts.
In Jewish Germany, the study of Jewish history (as part of wissenschaft) was a matter of identity and religion. Heinrich Graetz devoted the better part of his career to researching and then recording the Judische Geschichte.
His treatment may be judged by today’s (relatively) objective standards to have been something less than objective. Much of his writings are his own often less-than-charitable musings and therefore an editorialized, jaundiced take on Jewish history.
The latter also had a history with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a history the latter would probably have preferred be forgotten. Graetz himself shows a thinly veiled contempt for the venerable Rabbi-his former teacher, and his Talmudic studies (“who busies himself with the miniutate of the laws of an oxe who gored a cow”), though he did retain a fondness for the man himself. (6)
To be continued.
1. On this very eclectic family, see also here.
2. To read his edition online, go here
3. It is interesting to note the crucial word that makes all the difference when this is cited in Maimonides’ Code.
Spot the one crucial difference in choice of word:
וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו: שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה; ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר, וידין במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן
מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה–ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא תלמוד.
משנה תורה להרמב”ם*
הלכות תלמוד תורה א’ יג
אמר רב ספרא משום ר’ יהושע בן חנניא: מאי דכתיב (דברים ו, ז) “ושננתם לבניך”? אל תקרי “ושננתם” אלא “ושלשתם” – לעולם ישלש אדם שנותיו: שליש במקרא שליש במשנה שליש בתלמוד. מי יודע כמה חיי? לא צריכא אלא ליומי
קידושין ל’ א
(4). In contemporary Religious Zionist circles, the study of Tanakh is often strongly stressed, see here. There are yearly conferences on Tanakh at the Flagship Institution of Religious Zionism, Yeshivat Har Etzion.
(5). for instance:
תנו רבנן, רבו שאמרו רבו שלמדו חכמה, ולא רבו שלמדו מקרא ומשנה, דברי רבי מאיר, רבי יהודה אומר, כל שרוב חכמתו הימנו… תנו רבנן העוסקים במקרא מדה ואינה מדה, במשנה מדה ונוטלין עליה שכר, גמרא אין לך מדה גדולה מזה… אמרו אחיכם אלו בעלי מקרא, שנאיכם אלו בעלי משנה… (בבא מציעא לג א
See also Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 79b, where this appears in slightly different version in the name of R. Shimon bar Yohai. See also JT Horayot 19a
Although in a different place in the Jerusalem Talmud, it appears that EY Jews did stress the study of Tanakh very strongly:
לא כן אמר רבי פנחס בשם רבי הושעיה ארבע מאות וששים בתי כנסיות היו בירושלים, וכל אחת ואחת היה לה בית ספר ובית תלמוד, בית ספר למקרא ובית תלמוד למשנה… (כתובות סז ב)
see more here
(6) Another disciple of Hirsch who later went on to write extensively on Jewish (specifically Sephardic) history was Rabbi Meyer Kayserling.