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Louis Ginzberg’s Historiography

This past Shabbat I happened to read through Louis Ginzberg’s chapter “The Rabbinical Student” in his book Students, Scholars and Saints and some of his opinions about Jewish history were just too interesting to keep to myself. His Lithuanian biases were not even subtle. First he has this to say about Jewish history,

“In view of the fact that Jewish history in its essence is the history of a literature and of a culture, it is natural that in many lands itse beginnings should coincide with the rise in those places of the study of the Talmud. Jews lived for more than ten centuries in Europe and North Africa, and aside from regularly reccuring persecutions, we hear nothing about their fate and fortunes during the whole of this long period.” (60)

Ginzberg doesn’t say that because of a dearth of sources it is difficult to right history about certain periods, rather he says that there really wasn’t any history to be written about! He goes on to say that,

“For the fact remains unchallenged that the establishment of Talmud schools toward the end of the tenth century in Spain, France, and Northern Africa introduces a new era in the history of the Jews of these countries.” (60-61)

I think that this is a reasonable statement, but then he says,

“What we are told about them up to the end of the tenth century concerns the fate of the Jews living there; after the foundation of the Talmud schools, there begins a history of Judaism and of Jewish culture.” (61)

As for the Sefardim and their learning and scholars:

“Modern historians are lavish of praise for the well-ordered studies of the Sefardim, and equally lavish of censure for the topsy-turvy methods in vogue among the Ashkenazim, which embarked a ten-year-old lad on the ‘sea of the Talmud’ and kept him there until he became a master navigator. In view of this attitude, is it not rather startling to find that since the time of Rabbi Joseph Caro (d. 1575) the Sefardim cannot show a single name in the realm of the Talmud comparable with the distinguished scholars of Poland?…For the Sefardim learning was a matter of sentiment, for the Polish Jew it was an intellectual occupation.” (64)

The last gem of his historiography that we will bring is his contrast between the consequences of the Sefardic and Askenazic modes of education. According to Ginzberg, for Ashkenazim there only were Jewish sources for religious education, in contrast to the Sefardim who had “other than Jewish sources for gratification”. (66) The result was,

“At the end of about five centuries of parallel development, the two tendencies culminated in the sixteenth century, the one of the Kabbalah of the Orientals, the other in the Pilpul of the Jews of Poland. The process was this: When the Sefardim were expelled from the Pyrenean Peninsula and came to countries in which culture and science were at a low ebb, their intellect had no support; they had to fall back upon their Jewish feeling, and so they lost themselves in mysticism. In Poland, again, where the Jews likewise came in contact with a low stage of cultural development, the same attitude asserted itself in them which in the twelfth century had brought forth the school of the Tosafists in France. The Pilpul, so far from being the result of a process of deterioration, is in reality nothing but the inevitable issue of the intellectual movement inaugurated by the Soferim.” (66-67)

His last comment is similar to Urbach’s assertion that the Tosafot were in a sense the continuation of the Gemarah.

One Response to “Louis Ginzberg’s Historiography”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    It’s always entertaining to read great scholars writing on subjects about which they know little (or not enough); e.g. Einstein and Freud.
    andy | 05.25.06 – 7:28 pm | #

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