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! 

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