Menachem Mendel

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Attacking Cecil Roth

Although known to many for his popular history book, A History of the Jews, the late historian Cecil Roth is known in the scholarly world for many publications, among them numerous articles on Hebrew book publishing, his Jews in the Renaissance, The History of the Jews of Italy, Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi and his editing of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. In 1964 Roth and his wife Irene departed England for Israel where they had planned on settling. Irene, in her book Cecil Roth: Historian Without Tears, relates how,

Some time prior to our leaving England, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, of New York City, invited Cecil to become visiting professor of history at Bar-Ilan University of which he was the chancellor. Cecil accepted Rabbi Lookstein’s invitation, which he understood would entail two trips each week from Jerusalem to the Bar-Ilan campus in Ramat Gan. Little did we know that this aspect of our new beginnings in Israel, too, would not be a happy memory. (Cecil Roth, pp. 207-8)

The unhappy memory that Irene alluded to was a smear campaign conducted against Cecil Roth a Rabbi Bromberg.

One Rabbi Bromberg, disseminated a circular quoting a passage from the first chapter of Cecil’s Short History of the Jewish People to prove that Professor Roth was a heretic and therefore had no right to teach Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, which had been created as an institution of higher learning guided by the spirit of traditional religious Judaism. (ibid.)

In his book A Short History of the Jewish People, Roth wrote

It is said by some critics that not a shred of evidence for the historicity of Moses exists. That may be so, if we are to regard potsherds as more significant and more reliable than the memory of a people, or written records of immemorial antiquity. But the influence which the great law-giver had on the Hebrew mind, traceable from a very early period, is so profound that it can hardly fail to depend ultimately upon a personality which made an indelible impression on contemporaries. Even if no account of Moses were extant, it would be necessary to assume the activity of a person such as he is said to have been, in order to explain the existence of the Hebrew people, with its distinctive literature, its laws, its ethics, and its religious code.
(A Short History of the Jewish People, pp. 6-7 [=The Jewish People, p. 7]

Apparently Rabbi Bromberg translated into Hebrew just what has been italicized, thus not bringing the rest of the paragraph. The “Roth Affair” received much press coverage and Bar-Ilan University was flooded with letters, both pro and con. Many offered strong support for Roth, including Rabbi Lookstein and the university. In late November of that year, Roth suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for a number of weeks. His wife Irene describes how he was so depressed about how things were going that he even suggested to redirect their belongs to Italy where he thought it might be better to settle down. Upon his recovery, Roth decided that his ill health would not allow him to teach at Bar-Ilan. Irene describes how possibly the only ill-feelings that he held were against those within the Mizrahi movement who failed to defend both himself and Bar-Ilan University. He eventually taught for some time at Stern College, dying in Jerusalem in 1970, one week before the first volumes of the Encyclopaedia Judaica were published.

Source: For a description of the whole affair see Irene Roth, Cecil Roth: Historian Without Tears, pp. 207-210.

One Response to “Attacking Cecil Roth”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    Awesome post!!!! I enjoyed very much!!!

    Menachem Mendel, you wrote: “[Cecil Roth] eventually taught for some time at Stern College, dying in Jerusalem in 1970, one week before the first volumes of the Encyclopaedia Judaica were published.”

    In the recently published “Opportunities That Pass: An Historical Miscellany” (Vallentine Mitchell), editor/nephew Joseph Roth writes in the introduction “Cecil Roth: A Vignette,” that his uncle

    “had an encyclopedic knowledge and his list of publications runs to over 700, among which is probably his greatest legacy – the monumental Encyclopedia Judaica which he edited. Sadly, he never actually sat the final production, for the first volume came off the press on the day following his death. [p. xvii]”
    Menachem Butler | Homepage | 11.28.06 – 12:19 am | #

    I concur with Menachem’s exclamation points.
    Does the book mention R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s role in the Roth Affair? Or Nechama Liebowitz’s reaction?
    Fred | 11.28.06 – 2:43 am | #

    The only people that Irene Roth mentions by name are Rabbi Lookstein, Abba Eban and Moshe Sharett. She also mentions that Rabbi Lookstein made a radio broadcast during which he expressed support for Roth.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 11.28.06 – 7:16 am | #

    Irene Roth writes that Cecil Roth first learned about the accusations from the October 23, 1964 issue of Panim el Panim, a now-defunct religiously oriented magazine. She also writes that Cecil Roth was quoted regarding the accusation in the November 20, 1964 issue. JTS either doesn’t have the issues from 1964 or they just aren’t on the shelf in the right place.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 11.28.06 – 8:03 am | #

    Terrific post. I wonder if such ideological witch-hunts happened earlier in similar institution such as the Berlin Seminary and the like or are they a later issues?
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 11.28.06 – 10:04 am | #

    Very interesting. Amazing what a well placed period can do, huh?

    I think it should be noted that the R. Bromberg probably interpreted the entire paragraph to be tantamount to a denial of Moshe.
    S. | Homepage | 11.28.06 – 11:07 am | #

    As an aside, I just want to say that I totally recommend Irene Roth’s book to anyone in love with Jewish history. It’s strangely titled, “Historian Without Tears” which led me to believe that it would be about the life of an austere cold-minded acadmic but it was actually the exact opposite. It brought Cecil Roth to life and described exactly the sort of man that I would have loved him to be. Truly a most excellent and fascinating book. In fact, one of the very few books that I’ve actually ever read cover to cover. (A sentence that says a lot if you know anything about my reading habits but which could easilly be misread as to point to illiteracy on my part and thus a mistrust of my endorsement. Trust the endorsement. I truly loved the book and grew to love the man and learnt quite a bit about some important details of modern history as seen through the lenses and experiences of the Roths.)

    mnuez
    mnuez | Homepage | 11.28.06 – 12:46 pm | #

    Boy, it looks like BIU has come a long way.
    andy | 11.28.06 – 1:23 pm | #

    My grandfather showed me pictures this weekend of when he and Cecil Roth went excavating in caves in Rome, in 1945. Fascinating pictures!!!!!
    Menachem Butler | Homepage | 11.30.06 – 1:33 am | #

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