Thursday, July 15, 2010

Must History Destroy Tradition: Idel’s Response to Yerushalmi

The late Prof. Yosef Yerushalmi, in his classic book Zakhor, challenged the notion that history was something intrinsic to Judaism. He argued that, while history was important for the Bible, post-biblical Judaism consciously downplayed history to the extent that from Josephus, in the first century, up until the early modern period there is almost no Jewish historical writing. The sixteenth century saw a swath of Jewish histories in the wake of 1492, but it was post-emancipation Jewry that truly embraced historical study. Yerushalmi saw this as ironic since it was precisely such Jews who were in the process of assimilating. As such, Jewish history becomes the product not of Judaism, but of the abandonment of Judaism. I would add that at a basic level, history challenges traditional Judaism not just because it might contradiction traditional Jewish claims like the Exodus from Egypt, but because its methods are a direct rejection of traditional Jewish notions of remembrance.

I find Moshe Idel's response worth sharing:

I cannot dispute his [Yerushalmi's] own feeling that the career of a Jewish historian may represent an existential rupture, perhaps a tragic one, with traditional Judaism. … The stark opposition [though] between history and belief presupposes some form of religiosity that alone is conceived of as authentic and attributes to the corrosive acts of history an antireligious effect. By contrast, I would resort to a vision of a complex and multifaceted tradition in order to resolve what may be conceived of as a state of fall or of despair. (Idel, "Yosef H. Yerushalmi's Zakhor" JQR 97.4(2007) pg. 495)

On the reverse side, Orthodox Judaism, particularly Haredim, often create either or scenarios where one either accepts their understanding of Jewish tradition as THE Judaism or one is outside of the Jewish tradition. So I put the challenge to my readers of all faiths, how does the study of history, particularly the embracing of the historical method play itself out in your religious beliefs? If we were to bring in historians to construct a religion according to their tastes and sensibilities what sort of distinctive features might figure prominently?


Garnel Ironheart said...

Actually this one isn't so hard.
History from a Jewish religious perspective is a study of past events for their moral significance. An event that is world-shattering but contains no moral lesson is minor, one that is quite important morally but historically minor is important.
Hence a police effort by Bablyonian-area kings to subdue some client states in eastern Israel (the story of Chedorlaomer et al vs Avraham) plays a large role in Jewish moral history. Similarly, the exodus from Egypt, from an outsider's perpective, isn't that big a deal. A slave nation makes a break for it and migrates to Canaan. But for us it's everything and the central historical occurance of our national narrative.
Historians and Jews look for different things in history. The former look for events, sequences, causes, etc. while the latter look for moral meanings, hence different emphases and recollections.

Izgad said...

The problem is that when one becomes a historian, one is required to reject the process of looking at the past in search of moral meanings and embrace a process of value neutral physical causes and consequences. (This is distinct from any metaphysical questions as to the existence or nature of divine providence, which are, by definition, outside of the historical method.)

Garnel Ironheart said...

But my point is that there is no conflict. Look, this is the same thing as the science vs Torah debate which, in reality, is not a debate because there is no true conflict.
Academic history is one thing, Torah-based history is another. Consider this: I hand you a scientific paper. You could look at it in terms of grammer and style like an English or history essay and critique it based on those standards. But is it an important paper scientifically? Such an analysis won't tell you that. It might be brilliantly written but if the protocol used is worthless then the paper is worthless. And vice versa.
Look at history from an academic point vs religious point of view is the same thing. It's when religious historians start to speak in academic terms - because battle X is important in the Torah it is important in academic world history - or vice versa, that problems occur.

Izgad said...

The analogy to the science and religion debate is useful. With science, there is the obvious clash which is a non issue, but then there is a subtler clash which really is. For example, science can tell us about the “what” in the world; it cannot, by definition tell us anything about “why.” For that we need philosophy and religion. This creates very nice non-overlapping magisterium. The problem when you start looking at the issue in terms of the scientific method and its implications as to how a supporter of must, by definition, approach the world. Being a supporter of the scientific method means that you are committed to finding physical causes for things that happen in this world. If someone is sick you need to instinctively immediately start thinking as to what physical things might have caused this and start offering physical solutions specifically at the expense of any supernatural causes and solutions. This does not mean that there are no supernatural causes in play, just that they are at best secondary issues. Thinking science therefore has very real theological implications and any religion that is serious about accepting scientific reasoning is going to have to actively work it into their theology. For example with Isaac Newton, a major part of his religion was that God created a world that run on natural law and that the main way that one related to God was through these natural laws. This is not a religion of going to rebbes and asking them for brachas.

Being an academic historian does not just mean that you have different but equal ways of uncovering past events from orthodox religion; it means that, in terms of this physical world, you believe that the academic method is superior to the extent that the religious method to the extent that the religious method is not history at all. For example the historical method means that you believe in the superiority of written documents over oral traditions to the extent that oral traditions become essentially worthless. Give me written documents or go home.