Menachem Mendel

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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.

One Response to “Wissenschaft and Judaism”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    Of course you are correct about Zunz and Rashi. But, unfortunatly this debate has been characterzied by ad hominem attacks rather than substance. There is one new book which challenges this. In a publication of a 14th century manuscript on Kabbalah, there is an appendix where the editor takes to task numerous current “scholars.” He takes issue with all of acedemia but also provides some rather substantive criticisms of these scholars including demolishing a recent work on kabbalah. This last criticism is particualarly brutal and convicing. While there are some problems with the critique, it is somewhat refreshing to see a substantive rather than the same old “what color shirt Rashi wore” silliness.
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 04.28.06 – 9:39 am | #

    Which book are you referring to? I always welcome serious criticisms of just about any scholarly work.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 04.28.06 – 2:09 pm | #

    Does Wein point out that Graetz is no less critical of Reform Judaism?
    andy | 04.28.06 – 2:48 pm | #

    At least in the article linked he doesn’t point that out and I admit that I haven’t read much else of Wein’s writing. He has done an important job of transmitting some sense of Jewish history to people who probably wouldn’t get it otherwise, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of attacking those who essentially made his whole enterprise possible. And of all people to also attack, Zunz, who devoted a large part of his scholarship to various aspects of the synagogue and ritual.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 04.28.06 – 3:05 pm | #

    I have an amusing book by a Rabbi Emanuel Schreiber published in the 1890’s called “Reformed Judaism and its Pioneers” where he makes Graetz into even more of a villian than the Chasam Sofer and the other “unenlightened” rabbis of the time.
    andy | 04.28.06 – 3:28 pm | #

    It is called Peschai Sha’arim (I think) and it is in the second part. One needs to ignore all the rehtoric to get to the goods, but worthwhile. (The rhetoric is really over the top, he always uses a shem reshaim irakav,and assur lasok b’kevorato when referring to the various scholars). Perhaps, after Shabbat I will post about it.
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 04.28.06 – 4:33 pm | #

    I agree with Menachem Mendel that R. Wein most certainly was being hyperbolic, repeating a variation of an oft-used expression in the yeshiva world about Wissenschaft (which I believe may have originated in the tobacco quote attributed to R. Yaakov Ettlinger about Leopold Zunz).

    That said, R. Wein almost certainly has read Graetz himself, and has to know that other people have too and would know that his portrayal of Wissenschaft scholars as being basically ignorant of an uninterested in true Jewish learning is untrue and can rather easily be checked.

    That said also, R. Wein is basically “one of the good guys” insofar as he does promote history rather than amnesia among Orthodox Jews and publically opposes censorship too, condeming it as a proven mistaken method of dealing with ideas one does not like.
    S. | Homepage | 04.28.06 – 4:34 pm | #

    Excellent post. Wein likes to boast about how he’s not a professional historian, so this simply bears him out. (I wonder how he’d feel about his doctor bragging that he was self-taught.) In addition, if anyone can be accused of distorting facts, censorship and dilettantish polemicism, it’s Wein.

    Anyway, there are certainly ideological biases among the wissenschaftliche lehrers, just as there are among contemporary scholars. At the same time, the Haredi world is extremely threatened by academia, hence the adoption of scholarly aparatus in the editions of sacred texts they produce. For example, the Mossad HaRav Ritva and everything produced by Machon Yerushalayim (including the Shulhan Arukh) are loaded with footnotes. Compare these with Reb Isser Zalman’s Ramban and you see the sea change.
    Jeffrey R. Woolf | Homepage | 05.03.06 – 1:52 am | #

    >hence the adoption of scholarly aparatus in the editions of sacred texts they produce

    Jeffrey, do you think that was a conscious decision, at least for the reason you gave?
    S. | Homepage | 05.03.06 – 2:53 pm | #

    As for the “scholarly apparatus,” employed by the “hareidim” in their publications, I believe that is more the result of innovations in technology and printing being applied to Torah, and the increase in academic analysis of Jewish texts at Universities like Bar Illan, than it is fear of modern acadamia. Several hareidi rabbonim have presented their ideas on how to reconcile science and Torah (and sound suspiciously like Rav Kook when they do so – without admitting it, of course). What’s more, suggesting Mossad Rav Kook is “Hareidi” is stretching the point beyond the reasonable boundaries. They are firmly entrenched in the kippa sruga crowd – being a product of the dati leumi movement and yeshivot. Better examples would be Kehot of Chabad, who have made extensive use of footnotes and cross references in their publications, especially the Tanya and Torah Or/Likuti Torah.
    Gavriel Yehoshuah | 08.06.06 – 5:33 am | #

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