Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why a rabbi teaches Jewish History

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I spent Shabbos in the beautiful and warm community of Hamilton, Ontario. It was Italian Shabbat, with a lunch featuring Italian foods, so I tailored my shiurim for Italian topics: The Badge, the Ghetto and the Printing Press: Jewish Life in Medieval Italy, Rabbeinu Meshulam ben Klonymus, Tosafot Rid and Rav Ovadia Sforno: The Torah of Middle Ages Italy, and Esav = Edom = Rome: Jews and the Catholic Church [we looked at Yosi ben Yosi's אהללה אלקי, as a theological polemic].

The trend of those topics toward Jewish History led several people to ask whether I was a History major in college, or, in the words of one, “Isn’t history an unusual topic for a kollel man?” The answer to the former is that I was an English major at first, and I concluded as a Computer Science major. The answer to the latter is Yes. And the answer to the unspoken question of, “Is this really within the Torah sphere of shiurim?” is, in my opinion, Maybe.

Certainly, learning חכמי אשכנז הראשונים or מסורת הפיוט or בעלי התוספות or Cecil Roth doesn’t impress the way that learning תקפו כהן does. And I wouldn’t consider Jewish History an appropriate topic for seder time. But at the same time, I think knowing history adds authenticity to any Torah study which relates to human beings – teshuvos (responsa), minhagim, tefillah (prayer) and more.

That’s how I first got into learning and teaching history – it was a matter of authenticity. During my rabbinic internship in Englewood, New Jersey (under the great Rabbi Shmuel Goldin) I taught a series on Science and Halachah, and I found that I was interested in getting the science right and teaching it as part of the shiur’s Torah. This made me more confident in my knowledge of the broader topic, and I think it also helped listeners feel more confident (correctly or incorrectly!) that I knew what I was talking about.

That practice of filling in the broader background carried over into other classes. For example, when I taught about halachic practices and minhagim of certain locations I also learned about the Jewish communities of those locations. When I taught classes about particular halachic themes – Jewish dress, for example – I also learned the relevant background.

As a second motivation, in my shul rabbinate I found that history was מושך את הלב, it drew people’s hearts. See Rashi to Shemot 13:5 - We are supposed to help people learn by starting with topics that draw their hearts. History does that; unlike during my student career, in which history was deemed dull, as an adult I found that people wanted to know the background of Jewish communities and their leaders. Not as gossip, but as fascinating information.

Certain people wouldn’t necessarily turn out for a class on the different approaches of biblical commentators, but they would absolutely come out to classes on the lives of those commentators, which would then lead to study about their styles as well. Many people would not necessarily come out for a series on The Laws of Shabbos, but they would turn out in real numbers for shiurim on Shabbat in 13th Century France, for example, and learn the relevant halachic debates along the way. So although I needed to spend considerable hours learning the history accurately and completely, the payoff was that it brought people in.

So I learn and teach History because I consider it a crucial part of authentically understanding and explaining Torah, and because it attracts people to shiurim.

There are lots of other, minor reasons, but those are the big two. And there’s one popular motivation I don’t share: I don’t believe that learning the lessons of history will keep us from repeating the errors of the past. Those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them, but so are the rest of us. It’s just human nature.


  1. "I don’t believe that learning the lessons of history will keep us from repeating the errors of the past. Those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them, but so are the rest of us. It’s just human nature."

    There is one major difference between those who did something for the first time and those who repeat that same action, despite having learned about the consequences of that action. The first group could claim ignorance. They could claim that they knew of nothing that would help them out of their difficulties. The second group, those who have studied history, can make no such claim. They can't blame anyone else when there is a bad result to an action because they had knowledge beforehand that the bad result was coming.

    Human nature or not, when we have knowledge that something bad is going to happen if we do X or if others do X, if we do nothing to avert what is coming, we can't take the moral high ground and we surely can't whine "but they did it to us!" Let's follow a different precept: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

  2. yes but then one might conclude that poskim existed within a historical dimension and that perhaps their psak should be analyzed from that dimension as well (careful-your response may inform on whether you can be considered a kollel man or an academic.)

    Joel Rich

  3. Only tangentially relevant, but it's one of my favourite quotes:

    "Like most of those who study history, he [Napoleon III] learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones." - A. J. P. Taylor

  4. ProfK-
    So are you saying, perhaps, מוטב שיהיו שוגגין ואל יהו מזידין - Better to let people sin accidentally, than teach them history and make their sins that much more egregious?

    Not to worry, no response here...

    Thanks, I like that one.

  5. "Better to let people sin accidentally, than teach them history and make their sins that much more egregious?"

    Nope, quite the opposite. Make it mandatory to teach that history, make it well known that acting in X way despite the knowledge that a sin is going to be commited can no longer be chalked up to "human nature," a nebulous way of excusing what should not/need not be excused.

    Yes, to err is human. But to keep commiting the same error, time after time, even after one knows what is causing the error and what can be done to keep the error from occurring again? Rationalization, not rational thinking nor rational behavior.

    One of the rules in treating those with addictions is to bring the addicts to the understanding that there is nothing inevitable about their addictive behavior once they know what the cause is. You keep away from places/people/situations that will bring your addiction to the forefront. The addict is brought to the realization that his/her addictive behavior requires a change internally and that all cannot be blamed on those "out there." "The devil made me do it" only works once; after that, forewarned should be forearmed. If it isn't, look in the mirror and find the culprit.

    Repeat offenders are that way because they've rationalized that they can't help themselves--it's their human nature to do what they are doing. And they are helped along when the rest of society concurs and chalks up the bad behavior, the egregious acts as "only human."

  6. Binu sh'not dor v'dor
    Sheal avicha vayagedcha?

    Seems to me that history is a natural occupation for any student of Torah. I'm a bit surprised you see it as a 'maybe' for a kollel man. I would think it is a slam-dunk 'yes'.

    How can one learn Navi properly with no notion of context? How can one learn halacha properly without any notion of the realities used as paradigms? Or the realities that may have lain behind a particular decree or debate?

    How do we appreciate Hashem as the Hand behind history, if we don't know history?

  7. ProfK-
    I see that in terms of individual behavior, certainly. But in terms of communal behavior - do you really believe that the community is educable?

    R' Mordechai-
    1. As I understand שאל אביך ויגדך, it's about observing the hand of Gd as it meted out punishments to the wicked.
    2. Navi - Agreed, but the type of history I am discussing is post-Tanach.
    3. Halachah - As Joel said, in this pursuit lie great challenges...
    4. Seeing the Hand of Gd - That requires a far greater mind than mine. For example: It is contended that the publishing wars of 16th century Venice led to the Church's burning and banning of Shas and Rambam in Italy, with the result that the Beit Yosef became their premiere halachic work. I would never dare call that the Hand of Gd, though; this is for far greater minds than mine.

  8. But in terms of communal behavior - do you really believe that the community is educable?

    What choice do I have but to believe that? If I don't believe that a community can learn, can change, can moderate behavior, then what am I left with? I am one, but I am a part of a whole. If that whole has a canker, one that might grow and kill it, then how will I survive? It is enlightened self interest to work towards "saving" the group I am a part of, even if the job seems impossible or at best highly difficult.

    Is it not the job of those who can perhaps see clearer, who have studied the history and know what the end will be, to try and save the others who don't see, who can't see, who won't see? When it comes time to give the final cheshbon ha'nefesh will I be excused for saying the job was too hard, human nature was too difficult, I didn't even try? To try and to fail is one thing. Not to try at all?

  9. Hi ProfK,
    Sorry, I'm guilty of being glib. Happens when I'm tired, but I need to be more careful about it.
    I'll say to you and to R' Mordechai both: In theory, I can see the study of History serving the ends you describe. In practice, though, that's not what happens in sort of history shiurim I'm describing. That would require far more serious, in-depth analysis than is ever devoted by laypeople to a topic.

  10. As a semicha student who went into history, this post is very relevant to me, as it is an issue I have thought about. Why not look at history (or any "secular" subject, for that matter) the way rishonim such as R. Sa'adia Gaon and Rambam, and achronim such as R. Hirsch and R. Uziel, looked at it? All wisdom ultimately comes from G-d, and is therefore "Torah" in the sense of Divine teaching, even if it as distinct from Torah mi-Sinai. (I am aware that Rambam, unlike R. Hirsch and R. Uziel, did not value history, but this may have to do with the hagiographic, pro-Muslim way in which contemporary history texts were written). Your post is a good way to begin the discussion as to why history should be considered chochmah. This is not to say that history can now replace "Tokfo Kohen" (or Sefer Melachim or Vayikra, for that matter) but it can and should have its place in any serious curriculum. Early achronim already mention history as a way of seeing hashgacah peratis.
    I would add a few more thoughts: you had mentioned that you are discussing post-nach history. But the fact that Tanach itself includes historical information within it (lists of chronology, histories of the Jewish nation) and even mentions historical works should also inform us about the importance of at least learning our own history. In addition, the fact that rishonim attempt to understand "peshat" (in the sense of R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffman's understanding peshat as original meaning)should tell us that understanding the terms that rabbonim from different generations use necessarily and naturally involves the use of history. (I saw this implied in your post but wanted to flesh it out more fully.)
    Re: learning from history, while I actually do think that learning from the mistakes of the past is legitimate and necessary (though not nearly enough of a reason to require people to study it regularly), I do agree that the way the statement was phrased is problematic for another reason. While you can find similarities between different historical situations, no situation is exactly alike, and therefore it is not as simple as saying, "this policy didn't work in country X 50 years ago, and therefore it won't work in country Y today.)

  11. Hi Joseph,
    Wow, there's a lot here. A couple of thoughts:

    1. Chachmah - Are you sure that 'chachmah' includes the re-telling of history?

    2. I'm not sure the Tanach analogy works. Per Ibn Ezra and Ramban, history elements in Tanach are included to teach specific practical and moral lessons. The objective study of history seeks to do neither.

  12. I would say that history is indeed chochmah, and that the characterization as simply "re-telling events" is incorrect. History involves establishing narratives of cause and effect, which is important for understanding how societies develop and, yes, learning from these experiences in order to deal with the future. It sometimes involves discussions of the human mission as it develops over time and how to achieve that mission. (Incidentally, R. Uziel supported the study of history for this last reason as well as a way of seeing hashgahat HaShem.) When Tanach discerns a pattern of misfortunes as having arisen from sin, it is engaging in a historical narrative that instills chochmah. What you are describing is chronology. I refer you to, and
    As to your second point, while it is true that chronologies, al pi derash, are meant to instill moral lessons, I would argue that al pi peshat they often serve the more "mundane" function of instilling a sense of identity: where do we come from, and look at the models we need to emulate? And, in any case, my definition of "history" includes these types of lessons: for instance, the list of the descendants of Esav, according to Rashi, hints at the immorality that we should be avoiding.