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Attitudes of the Rabbis Towards the Study of Jewish History, Part I

June 13, 2013

See Intro to this series here

Rabbi Avraham Korman in his introduction to his פענוח אגדות describes the role of historiography (among other disciplines) in the study of Torah (p. 29):

(Translation mine):

Hazal (our sages of blessed memory) did not hesitate to turn to experts on any given subject in order to better understand the nature and workings of various fields. Be it (directly) Torah-related or not, for instance, medicine, architecture (King Solomon procured the help of the gentile King of Tyre in order to construct the Temple) and also the historian.

In a footnote there (24) Korman quotes several Talmudic passages:

אי טעי היי תנא…לשיילא לספרא

‘ויחד עם זאת אי טעי ספרא נשיילא לתנא (עבודה זרה ט’ א

Korman explains:

  כלומר אם יש לתנא ספקות בנושא היסטורי עליו לפנות להיסטוריון אך גם להיסטוריון להיעזר בתנא בכל הקשור בנושאים שהוא בקי בו יותר ממנו כגון הלכה וכדומה

Is the Study of Jewish History a Mitzvah?

Joanna Weinberg in her essay on Rabbi Azariah De Rossi (also known as ‘min Haadaumim’) The Beautiful Soul: Azariah De Rossi’s Search for Truth writes:

….One of the main purposes of de Rossi’s work is to put the historical record right . The tools used to achieve this purpose are precise historical information or correct reading of ancient works, be it in the form of establishing authenticity through textual criticism or through interpretation that takes into account the specific hermeneutic mode in which a text was created….In 5 passages in Light of the Eyes, de Rossi speaks of the nefesh yafah or bel animo or bei (or elevati) spirit. In Hebrew the expression has little significance. There is a neoplatonic ring to the “beautiful soul”….it is an expression typical of Plotinus, Augustine, and Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino and Leone Ebreo whose works de Rossi knew well..It may be that De Rossi was thinking of Augustine’s use of the term on the latter’s commentary on the verse in Psalm 30: “Lord by your favor you have made me firm as a high mountain. When you hid your face I was terrified”. Augustine writes: “This proves that every soul is only beautiful by virtue of its partaking of the light of God”…..Something of this, however vague and unspecific, is conveyed by De Rossi’s “beautiful soul”-the nefesh yafah belongs to the category of higher beings. It is invoked at crucial moments in the discussion. One example of his use of this phrase occurs at the end of chapter 12, in which he has been discussing various mishnaic and talmudic accounts that attribute the massacre of the Jewish population of Alexandria variously to Tarquin, Alexander of Macedon, Hadrian and even to Trajan-the real culprit. Amassing a large array of historians, de Rossi demonstrates that not only the Rabbis had a somewhat muddled view of this period of history but even interpreters of a later age, such as the Tosafists and Don Isaac Abravanel. He then states: “Now the greater part of this chapter has been devoted to inconsequential investigations which one could dismiss by saying ‘what happened, happened’ or on the grounds that it has no bearing on any law or precept. Nevertheless, the beautiful soul yearns to know the truth of every matter and the way of man in the world even when such issues are not directly relevant to it”

Such a statement, says Weinberg, despite its concern with historical-not philosophical truth would have met with Maimonides’ approval. Here we are given side by side 2 images of the historian that are constantly met throughout the book: oscillation between self-deprecation and assertion of the absolute value of scholarship. Ultimately the attention is on the beautiful soul, whose sole aim is the acquisition of truth.

In another passage, the beautiful soul rejects uncorrected texts. In Chapter 19, De Rossi, in good Renaissance fashion, examines various Rabbinic texts that in his view had become corrupt over the centuries. Included in the study is the text of Jossipon, the 10th century adaptations of Josephus Flavius, which was used by many Medieval writers to guide them through badly charted years of the 2nd Temple Period. de Rossi is suspicious of the work….he is suspicious of the work…demonstrates that it is flawed, full of anachronisms. In sum: it is not a basic text, but the beautiful soul still desires to know the truth of every matter.

…One of the chapters, that, on Rabbinic orders, he had to censure regards the Rabbinic use of the hyperbole….he demonstrates the literary use of numbers in Rabbinic texts …the use of exaggeration to communicate the message in the most effective way possible…numbers and figures matter and for correct accounting the most accurate reading in authentic texts must be obtained…In his desire to put on record the true account of events, he must necessarily expose the Rabbis’ lack of expertise in the field of history. here again, he dismisses his inquiries with the Talmudic dictum mai dehava hava “what happened, happened”–in other words his exploration into Jewish ancient history have no practical bearing on the life of the Jew, and are actually of supreme irrelevance. He writes: ” The fact is that from the very outset, I can imagine, you dear reader saying to yourself, that this investigation is a type of Halakha suitable for messianic times or of an even lesser significance . For what relevance does it hold for us? After all what happened, happened thousands of years ago or seven times again. But you could answer your own objection once you take into consideration the following points: First, the truth itself which is the quest of thousands of sages, in investigations more obscure than this one, is in fact like a seal of the true God, the characteristic of the beautiful soul and the good to which all aspire”

2 other advantages are then described: the interpretation of Scripture, for which reward is always forthcoming derosh vekabel sechar דרוש וקבל שכר  (literally, study and collect your reward) and the eradication of current Messianic speculation about the imminent year 1575-if the true date cannot be known because all  computations are, to a certain extent arbitrary–all calculation of the end of days can only be speculative.

But these 2 justifications of his scholarship are subordinated to one overriding goal: the truth.

To be continued

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