Thursday, September 24, 2009

Whitewashing History

In this week's issue of Newsweek, editor Jon Meacham points out that it is untrue to say that President Obama is facing unprecedented hostility (link). Hostility to a President during times of great difficulty and change is the rule and not the exception. We need to remember the truth about history because otherwise we will end up incorrectly evaluating current events: "[T]he airbrushing of what has come before leaves us ill equipped to judge the significance of the passing scene."

This made me think about the importance of historical truth in Jewish history as well. We often hear romanticizing about Jewish life in Europe, or even about the way Jews related to Torah scholars as recently as 30 years ago. People now seem to believe that when R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Yaakov Kamenetsky were alive, these Torah scholars were treated with universal respect and admiration. When we ignore the disrespect shown to them and the irreligiosity experienced in Europe, we end up mistakenly evaluating the present.

Click here for moreI'm recently hearing more and more about infidelity in the Orthodox community, with claims that it is at an unprecedented level (which is then blamed on the internet). Personally, I'm not sure whether there is a greater incidence of it today or simply a greater awareness of it, or just a convenient forgetfulness. Surely there has always been infidelity among any community of significant size, human nature being frail as it is. We do ourselves a disservice when we think that our parents' generation never had such problems. Now it may be that the problem is worse today. Perhaps the internet and other forms of electronic communication aggravate the problem. But I think it behooves those with access to communal information (such as rabbis who counsel couples and arrange divorces) to think about whether it is worse now or we are simply misrepresenting the past.

On the other hand, there is value to retaining a mythology of the past. If we think that previous generations were exemplary then we will try to live up to their high standards. This vision of them serves as goals for propriety and as guards against impropriety. If, however, we say that people have sinned before and will continue to sin in the future, then we leave open for ourselves an easy way out of the struggle to control human nature (see this Semak: link).

So what's the answer? Do we whitewash history or not? I lean towards not, because I see truth as a value unto itself, but I can see both sides of the coin.

[You can see the discussion about this in R. Nosson Kamenetsky's introduction to The Making of a Godol here: link (PDF)]

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