Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Modern Orthodox View of History

I. What is History?

If you look at history dispassionately, building up the facts from evidence into a coherent story, you are missing the point. Yes, history as a discipline has to be practiced without bias and following strict methodologies. But you also have to take a step back and look at the larger picture, interpreting the facts and stories into larger trends and themes. I look at history through the lens of a religious Jew and see it through that perspective.

Ken Spiro, in his Crash Course in Jewish History: From Abraham to Modern Israel, does this magnificently. In his massive survey of Jewish history, he both informs and interprets. He tells the story and the meta-story; he shows the hand of God in the acts of man. This is something that is missing in most of the history that I read, even that written by Orthodox Jews and rabbis.

II. Broad History

How do you write a history of everything Jewish? It is, by definition, a survey. The author has to pick out the important issues and quickly summarize the main points and lessons. Spiro made many interesting choices in this book, some with which I agree, some disagree, and at least one I am conflicted. Spiro builds up to the modern State of Israel, as the highlight of history that I agree it is. In doing so, he wisely spends a lot of space on the Holocaust and the struggle to settle and maintain the land of Israel. He incorporates developments in the wider society as important to understanding Jewish developments, spending, for example, an entire chapter on the Protestant Reformation.

Someone in my (old) synagogue once showed me a two-volume Jewish history and my first instinct was to look in the index for Charlemagne. When it was missing, I assumed that the discussion of the Middle Ages was lacking. Spiro has one mention of Charlemagne (p. 244), but not in the context of the Carolingian Renaissance. He does, however, discuss the general Renaissance (p. 273ff.).

III. What is a Historical Survey?

Another thing I look for in the index is mention of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Spiro, to his credit, cites him exactly as many times as he mentions R. Aharon Kotler. However, it is only one time (p. 336). This is because Spiro almost entirely ignores the US after World War 2, focusing instead on Israel. On the one hand, it is hard to ignore the most important Jewish community in the world at the time. On the other, it is an ideological minefield which Spiro avoids with good reason. Furthermore, if his goal is to build up to the State of Israel, the US Jewish community is a passing phenomenon. So I'm conflicted about this decision.

All of this shows, in my opinion, a fairly thoughtful construction of this survey, even if you can argue with some of the decisions. Additionally, the book contains over 500 endnotes. It is sufficiently, but not copiously, documented, as is appropriate for a survey. Having no endnotes speaks down to the readers, perhaps allowing for gross inaccuracies, while having too many endnotes is tiresome. Spiro cites texts ranging from primary historical sources to important works of history.

However, there is something here to which I object. Allow me to offer my theory of a survey. Primary sources are historical documents. Secondary sources are scholarly analyses of these documents that piece the history together. A survey is a tertiary source. A survey can quote primary sources but must generally quote secondary sources to avoid excessive detail. When a survey quotes another survey, that turns the book into a quaternary source. Readers deserve better than that. Granted, occasionally a tertiary source has such a delightful turn of phrase that it must be quoted. However, a survey necessarily simplifies and a survey citing another survey is simplification squared. In my opinion, Spiro quotes R. Berel Wein's surveys of history too often and in doing so cheats his readers. He would have been better advised to quote primary or secondary sources.

IV. Interpretations

Additionally, and this is where I have to get picky, I find a number of his historical interpretations to be overly superficial and cliched. Note that I write this not as a historian but as someone who has read quite a few primary, secondary and tertiary sources. For example, in discussing the Misnagdic opposition to Chasidism (p. 296), he fails to mention the grave concern for serious halakhic violations. This is evident in the primary sources (see Mordechai Willenski, Chassidim U-Misnagdim) and in the secondary sources (see Elijah Schochet, The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna). And in his discussion of Chasidism, he fails to mention the vast diversity within that movement, including the internal opposition to antinomian elements of its leadership. His conclusion that Chasidism had positive effects on Judaism, without mentioning any potential negative effects, and that opposition kept it going too far off the Torah path (p. 297) seems to me to be cliched and lacking insight. He could have done better.

A few pages earlier, he writes that "because [R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto's] mystical inclinations aroused fears of more false messianism, he was driven out of Italy" (p. 292). In my understanding, it wasn't just his mystical inclinations but his semi-messianic activity.

His discussion of the Enlightenment, Reform and Conservative (pp. 298-311, 333-334) does not discuss the scientific study of Judaism. This is missing essentially the main pillar of their ideologies. It might be more convenient to dismiss Reform and Conservative that way but it is inaccurate history. Additionally, the discussion of Mendelssohn and the attribution to him of the idea that "if the law of God seems irrational, then man must follow reason" (p. 307) does not follow from anything I know about the man.

I've focused on modern history, even though the book starts all the way back in the beginning. I did this because the ancient history is based entirely on traditional Jewish scholarship. I don't think there is anything in Spiro's account that could not have been written by an eighteenth century Polish rabbi. While on the one hand that is playing it safe religiously, it means that it is entirely uninformed by modern historical scholarship. I had started comparing these sections to Dr. Lawrence Schiffman's From Text to Tradition: A History of Judaism in Second Temple and Rabbinic Times, but the books are so different that there are few points of comparison. Schiffman operates within the world of scholarship, arguing for an interpretation generally in consonance with traditional Judaism. Spiro operates within that Jewish tradition and outside of the world of historical scholarship.

Let me just make two points about the very beginning of the book. In discussing Creation, Spiro writes, "Once Adam was completed, God took off his watch, so to speak, handed it to Adam, and said, 'Now we switch to Earth time.'" (p. 11) It seems to me that this is a veiled reference to the idea that God created the universe in billions of years and the description of six "days" is from a Divine perspective that in human terms means much longer. But to avoid the condemnation piled on R. Natan Slifkin, the author refrained from explicitly stating it. Probably a wise decision.

V. Writing History

In an Author's Note (pp. xxii-xxiii), Spiro discusses the discrepancy between traditional Jewish dating and conventional historical dating, i.e. the missing 164 years (on this, see Mitchell First, Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology). If I understand him correctly, he says that Judaism has a single chronology while historians have multiple views. Therefore, we accept the single approach as more authoritative and accurate. The truth is that the Jewish chronology is also a matter of debate (see this post: link). Even regarding the halakhic issue of which year is a Sabbatical, there is a debate and the Rambam does not trust his own calculations (see this essay: link). Be that as it may, Spiro was well within reason to choose to use a traditional Jewish system of dating in this type of survey.

In a Modern Orthodox survey of this nature, an expert historian would write a history that summarizes and simplifies based on a deep understanding of the events and issues. It would avoid cliche and superficiality yet embrace an Orthodox Jewish interpretation of history. It would defer to tradition but within a framework of modern historical methods. Ken Spiro's Crash Course in Jewish History: From Abraham to Modern Israel accomplishes much of this and is a good book that I like. However, it is not a great book that I love because, it seems to me, it is missing some of the depth I expect from a serious work of history.

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