Wissenschaft and Judaism
Over at On the Main Line there is an interesting post and discussion on the critical/academic study of Judaism, or as it is sometimes referred to, Wissenschaft. I just wanted to add a few comments to the discussion. The first is that those first pioneers of Wissenschaft, be it Zunz, Geiger, Jost, Graetz, etc. , were all different from one another in numerous ways. Were they totally objective in their writings, of course not. Objectivity is unattainable and some of them came closer to it than others. Yet I want to make a few comments about a quote brought in the above mentionned post. Berel Wein is quoted as saying,
“The great historian of the Jewish past, Heinrich Graetz, got most of his facts right in his monumental work, History of the Jews. But his obvious bias against traditional Judaism and his almost obsessive hatred of the rabbis of Israel spawned a school of Jewish history that did great damage to the Jewish people. They may have known what color shirt Rashi wore, but they ignored what Rashi really stood for and his immortal contribution to Jewish survival and destiny.”
In that same article Wein also says,
“The type of history I am referring to is not necessarily one of dates, places, and names. It is precisely this type of narrow focus that makes history courses boring, unattractive, and uninspiring. In fact, the concentration on facts instead of the sweep and lessons of history gives rise to the revisionist historians who later pick apart the facts and turn the lesson and purpose of history on its head.”
It is ironic that Wein mentions Graetz whose history was most definitely an attempt at “the sweep and lessons of history”. Graetz’s interpretation of Jewish history may have not been to Wein’s liking, but he definitely tried to paint “the big picture”. According to Graetz it was mostly one of persecution, hence his approach was later described by Salo Baron as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history”. For more on Graetz stay tuned.
But did Graetz “[spawn] a school of Jewish history that did great damage to the Jewish people”? Graetz definitely has a strong bias, but can he be blamed for “great damage to the Jewish people”? As also noted in the post at On the Main Line, many of the practitioners of Wissenschaft were religious Jews, Chajes and Hoffman come first to mind, including Graetz. Were there anti-religous scholars, many associated with the haskalah, who attacked religious Judaism or used Wissenschaft as a weapon in the fight between the Reform and Orthodox? There surely were, as there were also many Jews whose love of Torah brought them to try and study their religion and literature with all of the tools becoming available to modern critical study.
Lastly to the comment,
“They may have known what color shirt Rashi wore, but they ignored what Rashi really stood for and his immortal contribution to Jewish survival and destiny.”
I looked over Zunz’s writing on Rashi and he wasn’t interested at all in what color shirt Rashi wore. He was interested in who were his teachers, his students, what sources he used in his commentary and what commentaries were written by others on Rashi’s commentary. While Wein’s words were probably hyperbole, they seem to me to be both representative of a certain approach to critical scholarship which ignores the multi-faceted and very different types of scholarship which have been written over the past two centuries, and also assumes that it is them who can provide “the real goods”.
Writing critical scholarship is difficult, has its pitfalls, most definitely does not have exclusive rights to Jewish literature, and is not for everyone, but intellectual integrity should never be sacrificed in order to give people “feel good” history and polemics.