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Attitudes of the Rabbis Toward the Study of Jewish History

Firstly I’d like to apologize to my readers for being on a rather long hiatus from my writings. Our new joyful addition to the family, and other obligations, have precluded me from being able to continue this series.

It has so far been a very enlightening undertaking trying to explore rabbinic attitudes toward the study of Jewish history, but I can say with certainty that I have succeeded in barely scratching the surface of this topic.

A picture emerges of an inharmonious stance on the part of “the rabbis.” There are some (perhaps simplistic) distinctions and categories that I’ve compiled. There seem to be several different camps: 1. Rabbis enthusiastically opposed to its study, chiefly because it takes one away from Torah. 2. Rabbis enthusiastically promoting its study because it grants one a greater appreciation for Hashem, his deeds, and his Torah 3. Rabbis who seem to feel that it should only be done by people unversed in Torah or when a Torah scholar finds himself unable to learn 4. Rabbis who had different definitions of what constitutes history, and based on that permitted/encouraged, forbid/discouraged its study 5. Contradictory (at least seemingly so) stances by the same person—the subject of which I will explore in my conclusion.

Before I get to that, I’d be remiss if I omitted various additional pro-Jewish history stances that I am sure would be of interest (my thanks to Eliezer Abrahamson and Yosef Hoizman for pointing some of these out to me).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to the the verse in Deut 32:7, “Remember the days of yore” (with which I began this essay) explains that the Torah is telling us to study history and to do it “with the ears of Isaiah”; in other words, with an eye toward looking for Hashem’s guidance of historical events. Similarly, his descendant and ideological successor, Rabbi Isaac Breuer, remarked, “History, when it is understood and taught properly, seems to be the most important element in any educational system, the most important means of connecting the individual to the general, the only path to understanding the present” (Darki, Jerusalem, 1988. From the same school see also “Rabbi Shimon Schwab, Selected Writings” [Lakewood, New Jersey, 1988]).

Perhaps the warmest endorsement of the study of Jewish history is offered by the Sephardic Rabbi Chaim David Halevi (who served as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in the ‘70s and ‘80s) in his reponsa Aseh Lecha Rav (4:6); he writes that there is indeed a mitzvah to study history, both as fulfillment of the verse above as well as the verse in Jeremiah 6:15. This, to my knowledge, seems to me the starkest view, explicitly casting the verse in Deut. as an enjoinment to study Jewish history qua Jewish history.

The Chazon Ish (Emunah U’Bitachon 1:8) also writes: “Words of history and world events are highly educational in showing the way to the wise, and upon the happenings of the past should build the foundations of his wisdom.”

Now to a stance that seems contradictory”

In 1896, Rabbi Chaim Berlin, the famous son of the illustrious Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (known as the Netziv), wrote a letter to one of his students where he mentions, among other things, that he has not at all been fazed by the “zealotry” displayed by some people, owing to the fact that nobody had yet penned a biography of his illustrious father (the Netziv).

Rabbi Berlin continues (I paraphrase), this new newfangled “trend” of writing biographies never interested his father. “For instance, my father possessed a great awe and reverence for the famed Rabbi Akiva Eiger, yet when a biography of the latter was published, he refused to lay eyes upon it, saying that it is not important to know these historical details but rather to study his words. He also mentioned in the name of the Gaon of Vilna that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) expends most of his efforts to cause Torah scholars to waste their time with things other than Torah. The evil one has come up with this ingenious way (writing biographies of Torah scholars) in order to achieve this objective.”

The letter, an excerpt of which I reproduce below (courtesy of hebrewbooks), is included in the 1953 edition of Meromei Sadeh, the first published volume of the Netziv’s novella on the Talmud.

This would all be fine and good had it not seemed that Rabbi Chaim Berlin was himself a Jewish history aficionado. He wrote a hearty approbation to some works of pure Jewish history, such as Masa Krim (a Jewish history of the Crimean Peninsula) by the bibliophile and eccentric historian Ephraim Deinard (it is possible that in the case of Deinard’s book, he felt it was of great importance since Deinard was obsessed with proving that Crimean Rabbinic Jews had been on the peninsula for millennia and were not—as some claimed—descended of Khazars and or Karaites).

What’s more, the Netziv himself received and interacted with quite a few scholarly journals that aside from Halacha also discussed history and other subjects (see an excellent treatment of this subject by Eliezer Brodt “The Netziv, Reading Newspapers on Shabbos in General & Censorship” on the Seforim blog).

Perhaps, as with many other things, we must conclude with “teiku” (a Talmudic dictum that is an acronym for “Elijah will answer all questions and difficulties [when he arrives]).”

By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger

Joel S. Davidi Weisberger is the founder of the Jewish History Channel and an independent researcher. His forthcoming books deal with the history and historiography of the Medieval Karaite movement and the story of the Sephardic Diaspora in Central and Eastern Europe. He resides in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, with his wife Michal and their son Yeshayah Meir Mevorakh. He would love to hear from you at [email protected].

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