Sunday, July 30, 2017

History as Autobiography: The Example of Louis H. Feldman


Previously, when discussing the historical method, I argued that a historian, like any academic scholar, needs to be able to distinguish between scholarship and polemic. Scholars are allowed to have ideological beliefs but they are not allowed to use their scholarship to buttress their ideology. Once a clear connection appears between an individual's scholarship and their ideology to the point that the ideology becomes the inevitable conclusion of the scholarship that scholarship becomes tainted and opponents are allowed to point blank ignore it. This raises a serious challenge in that it is simply not possible for a scholar to spend years of their lives on an arcane topic that few other people are ever going to understand unless they feel an intense personal connection to the material that is likely to border on the ideological. How can one delve into material that has real ideological implications without becoming tainted? If all history is autobiography, how do we avoid dismissing it as such?

In my own personal life, the example of the late Prof. Louis H. Feldman is useful. Feldman's claim to fame lay in being, perhaps, the leading Josephus scholar of his generation. It does not take a psychologist to posit why Feldman devoted so many of his ninety years on this Earth to Josephus. To begin with, growing into adulthood as an Orthodox Jew in 1940s America could not have been an easy task for anyone living outside of New York, in Hartford CT as Feldman did. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him to have pursued a doctorate in Classics at Harvard. What sort of nice Jewish boy studies Greek and Latin? This basic challenge did not go away as he spent his teaching career at Yeshiva University lecturing to classes of one or two students. In retrospect, one can say in Feldman's defense that he was like the 1970s rock band the Velvet Underground. They may have only sold thirty-thousand copies but everyone who bought one went out and started their own rock band. If Feldman only had a few dozen students, each of them went out and became a Jewish leader. Consider that his close students included people like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Prof. Shaye J. D. Cohen, and David Berger.

At an intellectual level, Feldman's academic work was implicitly an apology for him being a religious Jew, who loved Hellenism. He crafted an ideological genealogy for himself and, by extension, for Modern Orthodox Judaism. If there was a running theme in Feldman's work it was Jews, such as Philo and Josephus, making their case to the wider Greco-Roman world that Judaism deserved a place in that culture. This covers everything from Feldman's big narrative work, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, to his close analysis of how Philo and Josephus used the Bible for Jewish apologetics. Jews arguing, two thousand years ago,  for their legitimacy became Feldman's defense, in the twentieth century, of his own legitimacy as their heir. For Modern Orthodox Jews, there are serious implications for Feldman's work. In essence, Feldman can be read as a playbook for how Jews can thrive in a larger world that appears hostile to it. I can easily imagine assigning selections from Feldman in a class on Modern Orthodox ideology.

With all of that being said, this is the same Feldman that devoted an entire class to subjecting Josephus' autobiography to a line by line reading to make the point to us that you cannot trust what Josephus says about himself; there are just too many times that he contradicts himself. As Feldman told us: "I would not buy a used chariot from the man." If we are to say that Feldman had an ideological agenda, we must admit that Feldman was willing to fire a torpedo at this same agenda when textual analysis demanded it.

This leads me to my second point. For all that I have just written about the very real ideological implications of Feldman's work, I wish to make it clear how absent all of that was from his books and his classes. He did not preach to us about the virtues of Modern Orthodoxy. He argued from the fact that opponents of the Jews like Manetho did not point blank deny the Exodus story that Egyptian sources for the event must have existed as late as classical times. That being said, he never tried a "Josephus proves that Torah is true." If it happened that Feldman was a positive influence on his students in their Judaism, it was because his very persona testified that a living intellectually serious Judaism was possible and not just for rabbis. In this, his kindness and integrity mattered even more than his prodigious intellect.

Above everything else, a Feldman class was about reading texts and he, more than any other professor, taught me how to think critically like a historian and not just to be an encyclopedia of historical information. As a classical historian, Feldman had an advantage in this. It is hard to study ancient history avoid questions of historical epistemology. He forced us to confront the fact that major claims about the period were dependent on a few lines of text. He would often respond to questions that he wished he could answer it but that there simply was no evidence to go on. This prepared us for the task of reading texts and building a narrative from the ground up.

Every Hannukah, Feldman would give a public lecture on classical history as his "eulogy for the Greeks." Feldman had the sense of humor and the intellectual integrity to acknowledge a tension in his beliefs. Whether I always agreed with Feldman or not (and he very often disagreed with himself), Feldman was a model academic scholar. He humbly taught in his chalk covered jacket and sneakers and churned out books and articles on obscure issues of interest to almost no one. It turned out, in retrospect, that Feldman produced something of importance beyond the narrow scope of his field. His greatest accomplishment though was that, for generations of students, he was a living embodiment of what it meant to think like a historian.            

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