Torah Eye on News: History

What happened to the study of Jewish history? Why is that study crucial?

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Rabbi Berel Wein,

Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein

Jewish history is a very neglected subject.  It has been relegated mainly to cramming for bagrut exams and to the rarified and often societally irrelevant strata of higher academia. In the religious school systems, the yeshivot and women’s seminaries, it also never receives its due. Not only that, but oftentimes history is embellished, bent and tweaked, if not given over to outright falsification in order to make it fit current trends and political correctness.

False history is more dangerous than no history at all.

The secular Zionist movement taught a very negative history regarding the story of the Jewish people in exile. It denigrated all of the great achievements of the Jews over two millennia of dispersion and thereby intended to create a new Jew that would in effect sever all ties to its exilic past. This action brought about a reaction within traditional Jewry, that now attempted to glorify its exilic achievements, to invest great humans with superhuman powers and to create a history of stories, legends and anecdotes which were meant to be inspirational but were rarely factual.  

The secular Jew thus was thus rendered ignorant of the richness of the mainly religious and Torah-oriented past of his people while the religious Jew was deprived of knowledge of the past troubles, vicissitudes and conflicts that have always marked Jewish life;  he was presented with a hagiographic, fantastic and rosily distorted view of the past that has weakened its ability to deal with the real and pressing problems that currently face the entire Jewish people  and especially religious Jewish society.

Part of the rootlessness of many modern Jews who cannot attach themselves positively to any Jewish cause, the state of Israel or marrying Jewish is complete ignorance of the Jewish past. People who have no recollection of the past and who have therefore no memory, suffer from identity amnesia. They become very frustrated with themselves because they seem to have materialized from nowhere. Many times this leads to various forms of self-hatred and to Jews who are prone to anti-Jewish thought and behavior.

Shlomo Carlebach once said that when he performed on college campuses and asked a student who he or she was, if the student would answer “I am Catholic,.” Carlebach said that then he knew that that person was Catholic. If another student told him that he or she was Lutheran, then he knew that that student was Lutheran. But if a student told him that he or she was a human being, then Carlebach knew that that person was Jewish.

Jews who know nothing about their familial and national past are truly mere human beings because their connection to being Jewish no longer exists within them. Robbed of their past, they suffer a very dangerous and counterproductive present. History is not only facts and books, dates and biographies. It is also identity, inspiration and guidance. It grants humans the resilience to overcome disappointments and tragedies.

HIstory prevents us from being constantly blindsided by current events, once we gain the realization and knowledge that all of this has somehow occurred before. And that is an important weapon in our struggle for personal and national survival and success.

Heinrich Graetz, the foremost Jewish historian of the nineteenth century, was a fierce foe of rabbinic Judaism because of personal experiences and other forces . His work on Jewish history was magisterial and pioneering and to a great extent all later historians of the Jewish world were influenced by it. Nevertheless, his terribly negative attitude towards rabbis and Jewish observances poisoned the well of the study of Jewish history.

The scholars of the Haskala/Enlightenment continued in his footsteps and thus the subject of Jewish history itself became almost taboo in religious education and circles. Religious Jewish historians such as Zev Yaavetz and Meir Balaban attempted to repair the damage, but their works, magnificent as they are, never gained wide popular acceptance.

For instance, there is no way to understand our current conflicts without knowledge of the past of the Moslem-Jewish struggle. The State of Israel does not rest upon the Holocaust, President Obama notwithstanding. The Moslem denial of Jewish existence, let alone Jewish rights within the Land of Israel is the root problem of the struggle. Arafat rewrote history and the world, including large sections of the Jewish world, let him do it.

For this grievous error of not dealing with true history, all of us are paying a heavy price currently.

It was not for naught that the Torah challenged us to remember the days of yore and to study the events of past generations. This G-dly advice is to be taken seriously in our schools, homes and society.

Shabat shalom.

Berel Wein .