Sunday, October 16, 2011

On studying History: Rav Hirsch and the Netziv

I used the following two sources in a recent class on History and Memory.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, early 19th century Germany, The Relevance of Secular Studies, Collected Writings 7:97 (From an essay available on-line at

Here, then, we have a people that emerged from the course of world history, that was placed into the midst of the nations to advance the goals of world history, and that was endowed with historical vision. Should not the sons of such a people understand that historical studies of the development of nations are truly not superfluous, but that they are, in fact, virtually indispensable? Will the sons of the Jewish people even begin to understand that ancient vision defining the missions of the three basic national prototypes of mankind if they know nothing about the influence of the Yaphetic-Hellenic spirit on the civilization of other nations, an influence that endures to this day?

And then here is Rabbi Chaim Berlin, late 19th century Russia, writing in the foreword to his father the Netziv's Meromei Sadeh regarding his father's approach to biography (not the same as history, perhaps, but I think close enough for our purposes):

באזני שמעתי מפיו הקדוש, בעת שהגיע לעיניו תולדות רע״א ז״ל... שנדפס בברלין בשנת תרכ״ב, לא רצה להביט עליו אף במעוף קל, ואמר שכל זה בכלל האמור בירושלמי אין עושין נפשות לצדיקים שדבריהם הן זכרונם, ומה מני יהלוך לדעת יום הולדתו או יום פטירתו, או תואר פרצוף תמונתו אם כה היה או כה, והעיקר לשום עין ולב על דברי תורתו
With my own ears I heard from his holy mouth, when the biography of Rabbi Akiva Eiger was brought before his eyes, published for the first time in Berlin in 1862: He did not want to look at it for so much as an instant, saying, "All of this is within the Jerusalem Talmud's statement, 'We do not construct monuments for the righteous; their words are their memorial.' What will come of my knowing the day of his birth or death, or whether his face looked thus or thus? The essence is to put our eye and heart to the words of his teachings."

I think Rav Hirsch (source 1) views the study of world history as important to the fulfillment of the Jew's mission as Jew. But what do you make of the Netziv's view (source 2) - Is it a rejection of the study of history, or is it simply a different derech in studying history? And is it depersonalizing, or more personalizing?


  1. Yes, words have meaning standing all on their own. But for full and accurate knowledge of what those words mean we need context, and context is history. And yes, biography is history when deciphering what someone said.

    As to whether or not biography is important, doesn't the Chumash settle that question? It is filled with biography. We learn not only what the avos and imahos said but about their family life, about where they went, whom they met and who their descendants were going down for generations. We learn about what types of gifts they gave, what they ate and what their family life was like. We learn about their hardships and their personal triumphs and yes, we also learn about what actions they took that were in error and needed to be retaken.

    That said, I humbly offer that it is difficult to interpret the Netziv's words because a biographical or historical context is missing to help us know what he truly meant. His words are before us, but what did he really want us to understand those words to be?

  2. As someone who did his BA in history, I am obviously biased towards studying it. That said, I suspect contemporary academic history is rather more hostile to the idea of Divine Providence in history than Rav Hirsch (I tried to resolve this when at university by telling myself that the final understanding of history and G-d’s role in it would have to wait until the Messianic era; for now all we can do is try to understand the world we live in and prepare ourselves for the Messianic era by familiarizing ourselves with what we can know of history).

    ProfK: I would agree that “biography is history when deciphering what someone said” but there is a whole school of thought that biography and history are irrelevant to halakha, because when gedolim pasken, they do so through da’at Torah and halakhic reasoning that stand apart from their private lives and historical eras and are not influenced by them. I do not accept this myself, but someone holding this view would see no reason to study biography.

    As for Chumash, the biography there is not straightforward. We often only find certain incidents in the lives of these people. The midrash fills in gaps, but from Chumash itself we know nothing about Avraham’s early life, for example. I am not sure this really qualifies as biography in the modern sense of the term, as we have anecdotes rather than a complete life story.

  3. IMHO the Netziv is simply saying that halacha exists outside of history.
    Joel Rich

  4. ProfK-
    All interesting points, although I think there is room to disagree. For example: That Gd engages in biography does not mean that this is the equivalent of 'normal' biography; witness the midrashic analyses of apparently mundane biographic details recorded in the Torah.

    To take ProfK's side re: chumash - It's true that much is omitted, but the chumash does take the time to record ages, for example. (And to take the other side, see my comment to ProfK above...)

    Why do you limit it to discussing Halachah? We also have aggada and iyun from Rav Akiva Eiger!