Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ancient and Medieval Jewish History: essays by Salo Wittmayer Baron (Leon Feldman editor)

This collection of essays in honor of Prof. Baron's 75th birthday show the professor's virtuosity in understanding that Jewish history is not the 'lachrymose' record that Graetz and others claim.  Baron points out acutely that being the 'serfs of the royal chamber' actually safeguarded and protected the Jews from an overbearing and far reaching Church.  Baron discusses the the tug of war between Church and monarchies over the possession of the Jewish people.  He shows the actual protection given to the Jewish people in spite of the aggressive Churchmen's charges.

Baron gave a strong description of Saadya Gaon as a profound leader who really understood how to utilize his position of power to fight the heretical sect, the Karaites.  Some of the essays were, however, curious to me.  The one entitled "The Economic views of Maimonides" was very erudite in going through statements of the Rambam's Mishna Torah.  Nowhere, however, does the professor make clear that the Mishna Torah is only a restatement of Torah shebaal Peh, the oral Torah and rabbinic law.  Dr. Baron seems to imply the Rambam's novel interpretations were his independent views detached from the Oral Torah.  This criticism was already leveled at Baron by a contemporary, Solomon Zeitlin in a review of the original publication.  After reading Baron's essay, I thought Zeitlin's critique resonated on its own merits.

The essay on Rashi and the community of Troyes was also curious. Most of the essay was trying to establish the accurate demography of the Jewish community because the historical issue at hand was the lack of data on the town.  For historians, Troyes was too young and immature to have produced such a profound Jewish community with such a formidable figure as Shlomo Ben Yitzchak. Its history seems just to appear out of nowhere!; as if when Rashi comes back from studying in the Rhineland, Troyes becomes a great city of Jewish learning.  The lack of data baffles historians even today [Robert Chazan of NYU also brings out this point of wonder of about Rashi and his community]  Nowhere in the article, however, does one get a sense of how important or profound Rashi was to rabbinic interpretation.  He seems to be an important commentator, yet one never understands that Rashi becomes the middle man, the address for rabbinic understanding who far surpasses anyone else in Jewish history.  The novice and the scholar together must begin with Rashi to understand the Jewish rendering of scriptures and rabbinic texts.

Baron brings out profound irony when discussing the Reformation, Luther's and Calvin's religious revolutions.  That in spite of both Luther's and Calvin's vitriolic hatred of the Jews, their positions that demand the existence of differences of opinion within the Church require toleration and as a consequence of their arguments of acceptance and toleration of Christian sects, ultimately the Jewish people benefit in the growing pains of toleration.

These essays are worthwhile reading because one gets a sense of what animates a professional Jewish historian, one who has been called the greatest of the twentieth century.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties by Shaye J.D Cohen

This contribution of Jewish history fits into the classic critical methods that ignore the possiblity that ancient traditions (called Torah SheBaal Peh) could actually exist.  If one is interested in critical methodology that is evaluating all extant materials, comparing contrasting and interpreting then one should read this book.  It covers questions of conversion to Judaism, the prohibition of intermarriage and origins of matrilineal descent.  If one is, however, a believer in 'Emunas Chachamin' and believes in the integrity of the Oral Torah, then this study will frustrate and annoy because the author uses terms like 'rabbinize' that somehow the rabbis changed history formulating normative Judaism.

Much of the book is consistent with the critical historian's view (which was set down many years ago - first quarter of the 20th century- see George Foote Moore's Judaism) that our Judaism, the practices and observances of today were formulated during the major rabbinic periods from 200 bce through the talmudic era of the 5th century.  So what the author 'proves' from extant literature that the concept of conversion from another nation did not occur until the 2nd century bce.  In other words, Ruth the Moabite was not really a convert but rather by virtue of marrying Boaz (which is a complete negation of Torah SheBaal peh) accepted into the nation of Israel. Or the author opines that the Bible is patrilineal and not matrilineal - it was the rabbis that changed this Biblical tradition to follow the mother.  Or there really was never a wide ranging prohibition to intermarriage (Ezra not withstanding) but rather the rabbis widened the prohibition creating a notion of 'us vs. them'

Professor Cohen acknowleges that he does not know the motivations for the rabbis to 'rabbinize' (a fascinating indescript term used when the rabbis adopt, or change something according to the critical historian's thesis) and he never gives the possibility that the rabbis had a standing ancient tradition in their hands. The reason he can not entertain such a thought is because there is no corroborating outside evidence to support such a view or tradition.  In other words, for the critical historian the lack of evidence is evidence. In other words, Torah SheBaal Peh is a concept that is 'ahistorical' or anti historical for the critical historian. Any tradition that does not have 'evidence' from the outside is not considered historically worthy.  The arrogance of the critical historian comes out in a footnote that cites J.D. Bleich, a very well known accomplished Torah Scholar, labeling his work as "its naive fundamentalism and antihistorical pietism render its conclusions useless for the historian."  The true view of the critical historian is that to be a believer in Torah SheBaal peh one need be naive or antihistorical.

From a critical point of view, the author is a fine scholar, very thorough. I have said in another place that sometimes the rules of the critical scholar can blind or restrict his viewpoint precluding that the simple piety of the rabbis can be a viable view.  There is not a shred of evidence that the rabbis somehow manufacture changes consciously.  The rabbis' point of view that they were holding on to ancient traditions, as the author concludes his book, requires hermeneutics and exegesis, not historical research.

One of the basic differences between Orthodox yeshivos and the Conserivative seminaries is the stress on critical history.  The major figures of yeshivos are halakhic adjudicators fluent in the Torah SheBaal Peh with negligent emphisis on history, whereas the Conservative institutions are fundamentally historians fluent in history but not fluent in Torah Shebaal peh or halakhic adjudication.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Salo Baron: Architect of Jewish History by Robert Liberles

When enrolled at the university, I had a visiting professor of Jewish history, Abraham Halkin, who required the reading of certain volumes of Salo Baron's Social and Religious History of the Jews. I developed somewhat of close relationship with the teacher to the extent that he would ask me questions from time to time like, "what did you think of the text that I assigned?"  I responded frankly, "Although the material is quite substantial, I found the style difficult to understand."  He exhibited surprise, saying that he had helped the author with the style to make the language more accessible since English was not Baron's first language. This was the first time I was introduced to Salo Baron's scholarship.  Dr. Halkin was my introduction to the old school professor who was fluent in all the romance and Semitic languages along with German, Russian, and Yiddish. During a course of Spanish Jewish history, I witnessed an exchange that took place basically in Arabic when the professor was challenged by two students who were conversant in the Koran. They expected to fluster the teacher with their command of Islam's holy text, however, the professor retorted and rejoined their challenges until the students in frustration removed themselves from the class seeing that they could not dislodge the professor from his seat of authority.  I imagined that Baron must have been similar to Halkin: both born in Eastern Europe, both fluent in many languages and both settled in the American Academy as American professors.

Although Liberles does not mention Halkin as one of Baron's colleagues, nevertheless, there is indeed a sense that Baron had problems with English.  There is a brutal exchange with his publisher that paints Baron in a petty, unreasonable light.  Liberles' study, however, of Baron and his scholarship is a crushing critical study of the emergence of "anti-Lachrymose" Jewish history.  It is the story of Baron's emphatic effort to down play the tragedies of Jewish history and see the unfolding of Jewish history through external economic, social and religious contexts.  

[I am reminded of an exchange with another teacher of Jewish history at a conference when the teacher expressed envy that I could teach Jewish History without "burning out"!  I asked what do you mean and she explained that for her, Jewish History is just one tragedy after another!  Its too much to bear! she said.  I responded by saying how can a study of the personalities of Jewish history burn one out? Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam, Ramban etc. are all extraordinary inspiring people! One need not dwell on tragedies to see the profundity of Jewish History!]

One learns of Baron's tumultuous invitation to Columbia University as the first chair in Jewish History placed in the History department.  There is irony in the fact the president of the university is very receptive to establishing a Jewish chair on the one hand but is instrumental in creating a Jewish quota system to limit the number of Jewish students to the university.

The bulk of Baron's scholarship is produced before WWII.  One learns that his innate optimism colors his attitude toward Nazism and woefully misreads the brutality of the Nazis.  Being a great historian does not mean one is a good prophet.  

One reads about the the biting criticism from contemporary historians that Baron often made sweeping generalizations without proper foundations from sources.  The most devastating critique comes from Solomon Zeitlin claiming that Baron cited from secondary sources (Jewish Encyclopedia) when original sources were available casting doubt on Baron's competency!  Zeitlin also stings Baron saying that to claim Maimonides held certain economic views in an Islamic environment when those views are universally held by the rabbis of the Mishnah, is to grossly mislead his reader.  

Yitzchak Baer of Hebrew University formidably disagrees with Baron on elements that moved the Jewish community. Baron favors external forces whereas, Baer stresses internal Jewish elements.  Baron downplays anti-Semitism as the primary mover in the great migration of Eastern European Jewry to the west.  He claims the economic stress, depressions of the communities were more fundamental.  Most historians find this claim incredulous in its suppression of the great Anti-Semitism of the Tzar.

He is the last of the singular historians in the class of Gaetz and Dubnow. I have always enjoyed Baron's history because of his respect toward the tradition and his view that the future of Judaism is more dependent on the religious community than its secular manifestation.[Ironically he himself never went to synagogue nor led a religious lifestyle except conducting a Passover Seder.] He is instrumental in the plethora of Jewish Studies departments all over America and as such is considered the progenitor of the scholarship that has made himself outdated!