2000–01 Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh

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Despite the imperative in Deuteronomy 32:7—“Remember the days of old”—the study of history, even Jewish history, was not part of the curriculum in traditional religious schools in the “Old World,” nor is it a part of the curriculum in more traditional institutions today. In addition to being a waste of time (bittul Torah), the study of history was undesirable because historical fact was often perceived to conflict with religious tradition.1 Indeed, this dismissive and even contemptuous approach to history was embraced by traditional Jews throughout the Middle Ages.2 In his commentary on Sanhedrin 10:1, Maimonides emphatically rejected the study of “secular” history as worthless:

[These books] contain no wisdom and have no usefulness; they merely waste one’s time with vain things. Examples are those books found among the Arabs, such as books of chronicles, and legends of kings, and genealogies of the Arabs, and books of songs, and similar books which contain no wisdom and have no material usefulness but are only a waste of time.3

In the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides issued a disclaimer before presenting the shalshelet ha-kabbalah, the chain of tradition which linked the generations of Talmudic sages and accounted for the different schools of thought represented in the development of halakhah:

And I saw it fit to present ten chapters before I begin the commentary, although they are of no real purpose to our present concern; nonetheless, it is worthwhile for one who desires thoroughness in his study of the Mishnah to be familiar with them.

The RaMBaM’s statement implies that even history which has direct bearing on our religious lives is of minimal value to Talmud Torah.

The spread of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries elicited a new historical consciousness and positive attitude toward the study of history that eventually infiltrated Orthodox circles as well.4 In today’s Modern Orthodox yeshiva day schools, Jewish history is taught for a variety of reasons, among them the strengthening of religious commitment and/or of positive Jewish identity among students, the acquisition of perspective with which to view contemporary events, and the shaping of attitudes towards other segments of the greater Jewish community. The end goals of the Jewish history curricula used in these schools seem to coincide with precisely that which traditionalists feared that the study of history would undermine.5 But even in these yeshiva day schools, the commitment to teaching Jewish history is based on its perceived supplementary value, and Jewish history is treated as a separate academic endeavor, designed to enrich students’ Jewish consciousness but not necessarily to be integrated with the studies that form the core of their religious education, such as Talmud and Bible.6

One model of an integrated curriculum, which has been developed primarily in the academic world, seeks to employ Talmudic and subsequent halakhic texts as historical source material, mining the legal codes for detail that will open doors to the religious, political, and communal worlds of ancient, medieval, and early modern Judaism. While fascinating and rich with scholarly potential, the main beneficiary of this approach is the historian.7 The type of integrated approach that interests the Torah scholar originates from the opposing perspective: his goal is to utilize history to illuminate the field of halakhah. The Torah scholar seeks to employ historical knowledge and methodological tools in the decoding of halakhic texts: ultimately, history contributes to the halakhic discourse itself.

The benefits of such an approach to the Talmud Torah endeavor are certainly open to challenge: What facets of Torah can historical tools uncover that the tools of classical lamdanut cannot? What are the ramifications of introducing methods of research (along with their underlying assumptions) that are “foreign” to the world of Torah? An integrated approach to Torah study that seeks to synthesize academic, historical scholarship with classical, yeshivah-style Torah learning is not synonymous with the approach that we call “Torah U-Madda.” The Torah U-Madda approach recognizes the complimentary value of “secular” knowledge to the Talmud Torah endeavor; but it does not validate the application of “secular” tools and methodologies to Torah study. As Shalom Carmy has pointed out, “justifying certain aspects of the academic enterprise is not the same as providing a model for the interweaving of modern scholarship in the fabric of Talmud Torah.”8

Traditional Talmud Torah does not address the realm of pesak halakhah, but it is nonetheless considered the highest form of religious expression. This project explores the expansion of Talmud Torah boundaries and the religious dimensions of such an expansion. Accordingly, both objections to and endorsements of an integrated approach to Torah study will be examined on the basis of three criteria: (1) its consequences for emunah and yirat shamayim (2) its impact on halakhic worldview and potentially on halakhic observance, and (3) its implications for Talmud Torah as a religious endeavor.

The increasing number of Torah publications that have devoted articles to exploring the possibility, or impossibility, of integrating traditional Torah study and historical-critical scholarship9 as well as recent conferences and yemei iyyun that addressed the issue10 attest to the urgency associated with this dilemma in the Modern Orthodox yeshivah world. The literature that has been produced focuses primarily on defining the inherent differences between academic Talmud study and the traditional “yeshivah” approach to Torah learning and on the basis of the distinctions posited, questions whether synthesis is possible, and, if so, desirable.

The feasibility of synthesis between academic, historical scholarship and traditional Torah study was at the forefront of the debate among leaders of the German Jewish community during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the wake of the Haskalah and the Wissenschaft des Judenthums (“Science of Judaism”) movement which gave rise to Reform Judaism. Their monographs are helpful in highlighting the religious benefits as well as dangers of integrating history into the study of halakhic texts in particular. Utilizing the proposals and critiques of the German Orthodox intellectuals—among them Zekhariah Frankel, Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, and Azriel Hildesheimer—we can identify considerations that should be taken into account when weighing the value of an integrated approach to limmudei kodesh for a variety of student populations. The questions that they were debating are very similar to our own, and therefore, the arguments advanced by these nineteenth century scholars, both in favor of and in opposition to an historical approach to traditional sources, will be of value in framing our current analysis.

Before delving into the central questions that this paper sets out to address, it is worth pausing to define an “academic” or “historical” approach to Talmud and halakhic texts and the way in which it differs from traditional Torah study. In reviewing the scholarly contributions of Professor Shaul Lieberman, E. S. Rosenthal proposed that historical textual scholarship is characterized by its spheres of investigation:

On three things does all philological-historical exegesis rest: on the textual version (nusah); on the language (lashon); and on the literary and historical context as one. These are the foundations, which, only after they have been established, can [one] hope to move beyond—on this basis and in this order, specifically—toward the meaning, the sense, the logos of the creation.11
In the context of this paper, an “historical approach” refers not only to using academic historical tools, such as manuscript variants and literary constructs, but also to approaching the texts with questions of an historical nature: Who was the author of this text? When and where was this text composed? Are historical elements discernable in its content or structure? Has the text been preserved in its original form or is possible to distinguish layers of editing? To what extent did the context shape the way in which the material is presented? The understanding that underlies an historical approach is that the halakhic corpus is the product of the intersection between law and reality, rather than a collection of legal theories composed in a vacuum. An historical approach does not only prompt the scholar to scan the text for evidence of historical influences but also equips the scholar with sensitivities that may hold the key to understanding the text—in this case, the halakhic document—on its own terms.

The derekh limmud presented in the course of this paper is an integrated approach to Torah learning which utilizes academic, historical tools and methodologies as well as traditional klei limmud, and thus attempts to synthesize historical, academic scholarship with classical Torah study.

Historical Models

The notion of attempting to synthesize historical research with traditional Torah study has its roots in the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement which arose among young, German Jewish intellectuals during the 1810s and 1820s. The development of a “Science of Judaism” was motivated both by the desire to improve the image of the Jew in the eyes of the Western world (in the hope that this would justify and further the Emancipation) as well as by the desire to repair the Jew’s self-image which had increasingly come under attack by modern culture. In effect, the new scholarship also served to fuel the religious reforms promoted by this intellectual elite who, in accordance with their Wissenschaft goals, sought to Westernize and modernize their religious practices. Among the primary objectives of the Wissenschaft scholars in their focus on historiography was, in fact, justification of the religious reforms they sought to implement.12 Thus, Abraham Geiger’s studies on ancient halakhah, Jewish sects, language of the Mishnah, and medieval biblical exegesis all explored the theme of Judaism’s internal evolutions. On occasion, Geiger even lapsed into contemporary polemics in the context of his historical scholarship.13

In order to counter the Reformers, who were guided by the spirit of Wissenschaft, the defenders of tradition—both those in Zekhariah Frankel’s “Historical School” and those in the Orthodox camp—were forced to address the challenge that scientific, historical study presented to traditional Judaism. Opponents of the Reform Movement rallied around three major figures: Zekhariah Frankel, who inspired the “Positive Historical” school, commonly considered the precursor of the American Conservative Movement; Samson Raphael Hirsch who represented the “Neo-Orthodox,” celebrated for promoting the doctrine of “torah im derekh erets”; and Azriel Hildesheimer, spokesman for the “modern” Orthodox, whose hallmark was the espousal of Orthodox academic scholarship. Each of the factions viewed themselves as centrist: Frankel and his followers saw themselves as the traditional, yet dynamic bridge between the irreverent Reformers and the unyielding Orthodox; Hirsch and his supporters considered themselves the God-fearing, yet modernity-conscious “new” Orthodox who reconciled conventional religion with modern sensitivities; Hildesheimer and the faculty of the Rabbinerseminar he founded in Berlin perceived themselves to be the faithful, yet scientifically conscious link between time-honored faith and contemporary understanding of truth.

The responses which have direct bearing on the current debate over synthesis in the Modern Orthodox world are, not surprisingly, those formulated by Hirsch and Hildesheimer: Frankel’s thought has been rejected by the Modern Orthodox due to its retrospective association with Conservative Judaism. However, for purposes of contrast, it is worthwhile examining all three approaches to the possibility of intellectual synthesis and their implementation in the educational institutions founded by these leaders. The following analysis will examine each school’s attitude toward a synthesized derekh limmud on the basis of its religious implications in the spheres of (1) emunah, (2) halakhic observance, and (3) Talmud Torah as an independent religious endeavor.

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