JEWISH HISTORY SYMPOSIUM WITH: ADAM FERZIGER, PETER GEFFEN, YITZ GREENBERG, MARC SHAPIRO, & BEREL WEIN
For this issue of the journal, we asked five thinkers, scholars, and doers who are familiar with the Jewish day school world from the inside to reflect on core questions facing those who teach and design the place of Jewish History in the classroom. We were fascinated by both the overlap and the remarkable diversity of ideas expressed. Their responses are presented here in alphabetical order of their last names: Professor Adam Ferziger, Peter Geffen, Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenberg, Professor Marc Shapiro, Rabbi Berel Wein.
What is the teaching of Jewish history in Jewish schools supposed to accomplish? Is it an objective investigation of the past, to provide context for understanding contemporary Jewry, to engender a sense of collective memory and identity formation, or something else?
We teach a range of Jewish disciplines. There are kids who love Bible, or language, or Talmud, or Jewish law. And then there are those who love history, maybe because it has a very human and folklorist element, or because it is stories and personalities. It has an audience; it’s an important entry point for some people.
The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously said, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” As a historian, I don’t subscribe to this. Every historical situation is sui generis. Nonetheless, there are aspects which are similar and the process that we gain from historical study yields two very important things—to learn to compare Jews from different eras, from different geographic places, and after you see the similarities, to recognize the distinctions, the differences. There are some narratives which try to portray everything as monolithic, the same: all gedolim (great Torah luminaries) are the same, all Jewish societies are the same, Sephardim and Ashkenazim are the same, Mizrahim and Europeans are the same. I understand the motivation to create some sort of solidarity and uniformity, but it is simply untrue and extraordinarily counterproductive. It leads us to be judgmental of people who don’t fit these artificial models. Jewish history testifies that there are multiple portals to Judaism, amazing avenues for creativity, and many different forms of Jewish expression. History can be a tremendous vehicle for appreciating difference within the framing of Judaism that does not necessarily come through as powerfully when you do other forms of Jewish learning.
Jewish history is also important because it helps you understand today in perspective. For example, the idea that less than a century after the Holocaust, the prime Minister of the State of Israel would be mediating between the President of Russia and a Jewish President of the Ukraine is mind-boggling when you’ve learned modern Jewish history.
I would add that Jewish history offers a profound tool as young people seek to articulate their personal Jewish identities. It gives individuals a sense of roots, both on family and broader collective levels. I teach an undergraduate course for foreign students in which we engage historical issues rigorously, but after we analyze them within their original context, we consider their comparative values for understanding contemporary Jewish issues. We study, for example, the different responses of Iberian/Sephardic and Franco-German/Ashkenazi to forced conversion—it’s a powerful way to think about core notions of integration vs. enclavism, sacrifice, commitment, survival, quality of life, even immortality. Shabbetai Zevi is another really good vehicle for examining multiple themes. I do not see contemporary history instruction as an attempt to cover an agreed upon body of knowledge, I leave it to my student’s curiosity or personal need to learn more subjects. My role, as I understand it, is to facilitate their exposure to rich events and personalities through a critical analytic lens that can draw out the profundity of what lies within them.
Before I can address the specifics of your question I need to point out that only a tiny percentage of Jewish kids go to Jewish high schools where (even there) they learn only a little about ritual, holidays, and some Hebrew—and where there is almost no time for the “teaching” of history. What gets taught to little kids about Jewish history is not serious and often without much meaning or depth. You might call it Jewish “fairy tales.” Let’s also acknowledge that there are very few teachers in the system today who know much about Jewish history—and this must change if we are to address your question seriously. People who teach Torah text need to also know history, and people who teach history need to know Torah. But there is no concerted effort to create for the teacher a sense of the magnitude of the Jewish historical experience. The lack of Jewish historical education for our teachers strongly suggests that as a community we don’t really care about what happens in the classroom. In general studies all teachers need to be trained and certified in their field, but we in Jewish education are not insisting on that at all. We have become complacent—as if the intellectual integrity and the educational opportunity lost are of no consequence.
I think it’s a mistake to talk about Jewish “history”, because history, to many, means names and dates and places. The term that I think we should use is Jewish “civilization” because civilization refers to the extraordinary and rich experience of the Jewish people over thousands of years—art, music, architecture, geography, costume, food—the role and experience of the Jew within their host cultures across much of the globe for thousands of years.
Here is the beauty and uniqueness of Jewish civilization: We lived in over 50 countries of the world where we wore every costume, built in every architecture, designed in every art form, prayed in every musical mode, and we don’t even have our own cuisine—only a kosher version of what our neighbors ate. Even philosophically, Maimonides, the Rambam, was a Hellenist, an Aristotelian. We are the people of the world—but we don’t know anything about our own experience across that world. To me this is quite bizarre. It’s a great tragedy that people don’t know our actual story. And it is painfully ironic that in our era when it is easier than ever to discover and recover our historical experience with the power of technology we continue to “teach” a simplistic and often negative rendering of our millennia of international experience. It’s inadequate to just know what Jews do, like put on tefillin or eat kosher food, and not know who the Jews who did those things were.
A properly designed educational experience within the realm of what I am calling Jewish civilization would powerfully contribute to a sense of identity. Textual literacy and/or knowledge about ritual observance and/or activities of tikkun olam in and of themselves cannot build identity, as is evident within the American Jewish universe (and probably within Israeli society as well). Identity is the product of rich immersive experiences.
The other thing that needs to be added, in my opinion, is that a deep understanding of Jewish history serves an important theological purpose. It functions as a way in which to understand the brit, the covenant between humanity later focused and particularized in the brit with Abraham and at Sinai. The covenant is a partnership to repair the world to be a paradise (=Messianic age). The events confirm the brit (Exodus/Purim, etc.) or challenge it (Hurban, Holocaust). Typically, these challenges were not overcome until there was a reshaped vision and new understanding of the role of God and of the human partner. After the Destruction of the Second Temple, Hazal won out with their interpretation that God had invited humans to take greater responsibility in history and even to become full partners in Revelation through the Torah Shebe`al Peh (the Oral Law). Further events in Jewish History, down to our time, show how the partnership matured and changed, and guide us as to what that means in terms of the increased responsibility that we, the human partners, have in achieving the covenantal goals.
If you push me to choose between these three aspects of the meaning of and role of history, I would say that they are all critically important. Even if there isn’t enough time in the school’s program to do justice to the study of history, all three aspects need to be balanced into the inadequate time.
If you look at our holidays or the Torah’s descriptions or Tanakh or Talmud, they often refer to things that happened in the past. Without knowing our past, we don’t know where we are in the present, and we certainly can’t understand where we’re going in the future. So Jewish history has its own independent validity quite apart from identity formation or anything like that. We want intelligent, well-educated, Jewish citizens—and that won’t happen without them knowing their history.
Knowing history gives a better sense of basic Torah issues. But just as not everyone needs to study Talmud at the same level, and that for some people there are other Jewish topics to be learned, not everyone wants to study Jewish history so intensively. I think that as a baseline level, you can cover what is necessary in two years in high school, maybe even one year if you have a really good curriculum. Everyone should get at least one year, and I think that in one year you can get from the destruction of the Second Temple until the present day, recognizing certain limitations—like you can’t really cover the Holocaust or the rise of the State of Israel. You could cover the main trends, the main thinkers, and the main events. They don’t need to go into details of Rambam’s philosophy, but they need to know who he is. They need to know about Jewish life in medieval Europe, the pogroms, the ghettos, the Sephardic world. Two years would be better, and it wouldn’t be like a university course with readings etc., but even in one year you could do a good concrete foundation.
It’s not the teaching of facts or dates or even personalities. You need a passion here: to be proud, to be a Jew, to know what it is to be a Jew, to understand what it is to be a Jew. It’s not just observance and halakha. There’s an overarching picture here, and I think that Jewish history is the main tool in which this can be accomplished, over and above all other areas of Jewish knowledge. I mean, if you really know the story of the Jewish people it’s almost impossible not to be a Jew; it’s almost impossible not to be a good Jew. The main problem in the Jewish world today is ignorance, not secularism. It’s just that nobody knows what it is to be Jewish.
For Ashkenazi Jewry, the era of Rashi and the Ba`alei haTosafot (Tosafists) is enormously important. To understand how they lived and survived in a medieval Christian hostile society and what they produced. For Sephardic Jewry it would be the Spanish golden age, which is completely different. And then to understand that they are all one people. There is a common story which began at Sinai and includes everything we went through: the destructions of the two Temples; the recognition of the fact that we’re in exile. If we produce people like Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam on the one hand and the Rambam and the Rashba on the other, then we’re going to survive because they will guarantee the continuity of the Jewish people.
How do you navigate situations where the objective historical investigation does not support, or even clashes with the traditional narratives that shape our collective memory?
The same is true with all of Jewish history, not just today’s hot-button issues. We have a magnificent and fascinating story: our lives in over 50 countries of the world integrated and infused with so much of the native local culture(s). To devolve our story down to one pogrom after another leading to the Holocaust is neither honest to the historical record nor inspiring to the future. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel posed and answered the following question: “What lends meaning to history? The promise of the future.” Instead of tainting history, and ourselves, with propaganda or fantasy or both, we need to be comprehensive and truthful. Presenting the facts with honesty is the most powerful and beautiful gift we can give the next generation. That’s how one builds a genuine sense of loyalty, of fidelity. And if Jewish identity is going to be assured by Jewish education (which is certainly one of, if not its major goal), it is going to come from the developing the sense of fidelity which comes as a result of grappling with often discomforting truth. The teaching of Jewish history must be honest, including the full and positive portrayal of so much of the Jewish experience that is currently overlooked.
Take, for example, the case of Bible criticism. The academic field right now challenges our dominant model of canon and revelation, yet we continue to uphold the basic truth of Torah min hashamayim, i.e., that we are in touch with a Higher Eternal Power. The discussion is about how the details got recorded, and our understanding about that is in flux. Various Orthodox scholars have tried different ways of incorporating critical insights—such as Mordecai Breuer on different voices incorporated into Torah. This is a task for Orthodox scholars in the coming generation. The compelling nature of Torah is not lost by admitting that our interpretive model does not have all the answers at this moment. Many more lose their faith when they are given false assurances or are shielded from alternative views and then discover that the critical approach is too powerful to simply be dismissed or covered up.
The same holds true for not whitewashing our historical Torah. What would be so terrible for students to discover that some of the people they hold up as heroes had this flaw or that failure? Do our heroes need to be superheroes for us to respect and value them? And if there was a little dirt on their image, does that make them less important or does it make them more real? The Torah’s unvarnished account of our ancestors teaches us to appreciate them despite their humanity, or maybe because of it. And the same is true for other spheres of Jewish learning.
Some people were afraid of change/modern ideals eroding Torah as they confronted modernity, and I think we suffered because they responded by “freezing” the tradition in place. One of the students of R. Yisrael Salanter, R. Eliyahu Kretinga, opposed any change even if it was an improvement. He argued forcefully against critical learning and incorporating history, even though he knew that it would add greatly to our understanding. He argued that the threat against Judaism was so severe that it rendered traditional Judaism into the status of a gosses, someone on their deathbed. The halakha is that when there is a gosses, you are not permitted to do anything to them, even if might be beneficial, because the slightest movement could kill them. He understood that modernity could be beneficial, but was so afraid that it could kill Judaism that he suggested that our policy be that there absolutely no changes. Approaches like that have been very harmful—especially in our time when academia and/or the internet will expose our students to all the alternatives.
I’m an American civil war buff. I’ve read countless books, seen the documentaries, visited the battlefields. My feelings towards the United States of America are based on the American civil war, on the fact that 600,000 fell, and on both sides they were falling for a cause. That made America special to me. The very history of the Jewish people is they struggled for a cause. Everything we do is based on achieving that cause. So Jewish history should make people feel that they’re special. If a person feels that he or she is special, then the person has self-confidence and self-identity and can stand up to the buffeting of life. Learning Jewish history gives us immunity to the challenges we face every day.
The problem is when we think that we are just human beings, that everybody is equal. The basis of Judaism is that we’re not equal; we are a mamlekhet kohanim and a goy kadosh, a nation of priests and a holy people. That’s not popular today—that’s considered racist.
How do you instill that feeling that Jews are special? Jewish history can do that. Not all histories are equal.
Anyone who tells you that he’s an objective historian is not telling the truth. Everyone has prejudice. He has the right to his prejudice, I’m entitled to mine.
Should Jewish history be taught separate from, integrated with, or parallel to general history? What do we gain when teaching Jewish History separate from the general history of the eras being explored? What do we lose?
Some would say that there is a danger of banalizing the Jewish example, that it could lead to a comparative religion approach that undermines the beauty and uniqueness of “our”” heritage. So to speak, “they have theirs and we have ours, and there’s nothing special or unique in our story.” To my mind, a lot depends on how we teach complex subjects. Good teachers develop tools to navigate between understanding our history in a context and inspiring kids to a core commitment to their people, which is what day schools want to do.
The reason, I think, that I see such importance in teaching Jewish history in the context of general history is because all people are created in the image of God; we are a part of humanity. We share the basic elements of the human condition. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein utilized the study of Christian humanist literature to gain insights into the human condition that was meaningful for him as a Jew. The recognition that through the study of history we are part of God’s human creation is a critical one. Comparative history is a supremely important tool in seeking to cultivate that value. Hyperparticularism, focusing exclusively on one’s own story, can be very dangerous.
How does Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a rabbi, become a prime minister in an Arab caliphate? Isn’t that important to know? What was the nature of the society in Babylonia that allowed for the creation of the academies of Sura and Pumpedita that still speak to us thousands of years after they existed? In medieval Europe, what is that tension that turned some Jews into Christians? How does a person grow up in a religious home, love their parents, and convert to another religion? What was the dynamic and is that different today?
Peoplehood is a broad and deep concept—it links us to our roots. Without a knowledgeable link to the past it’s like a family saying: “Grandpa was a really interesting guy, but he’s dead. Gone.” That’s not what we do in a healthy family; it’s not the way we live. Heschel addressed this question in the following way (and not as a historian, but as a Rabbi, as a spiritual teacher):
The riches of a soul are stored up in its memory. This is the test of character—not whether a man follows the daily fashion, but whether the past is alive in his present. When we want to understand ourselves, to find out what is most precious in our lives, we search our memory. Memory is the soul’s witness…
Memory is a source of faith. To have faith is to remember. Jewish faith is a recollection of that which happened to Israel in the past. The events in which the spirit of God became a reality stand before our eyes painted in colors that never fade. Much of what the Bible demands can be comprised in one word: Remember.
Jews have not preserved the ancient monuments; they have retained the ancient moments.
Certainly the memory that Heschel speaks of is not of one tragedy after the other.
The Dalai Lama met with my KIVUNIM students in India in 2019. He explained to them that from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective the only important thing is the self…BUT, a self serving the whole. Then he spoke to them as Jews and conveyed what he understood they were capable of based upon his understanding of what they had historically and collectively been through. What he expected of them as a result of their history.
Jewish history in isolation undermines what we call world consciousness, which I believe is an important force in the development of a strong and positive contemporary Jewish identity. World consciousness is made up of the Jewish historical and cultural experience, but not in isolation. Rather within the places Jews lived and the cultures they absorbed. That interaction was mostly positive, otherwise you and I would not be here today having this conversation. Please don’t conclude that I ignore our people’s trauma after the Second World War, I do not. But we’ve got to grow out of that limitation to re-inform ourselves of the richness and expansiveness of who we are. Knowing the depth and richness of the Jewish historical experience links us to others. That linkage, crossing almost all international borders allows the young Jew to cross barriers that separate people and build bridges so vitally necessary for the greatest gifts of all: justice and peace. There can be no greater task for the modern educator.
Take, for example, the ghetto mentality which came to dominate medieval Jewish thinking. Of course, it was connected to the reality that there was a lot of Jewish suffering, and that the notion of “the goyim are out to get us” was very real. You can’t understand that if you don’t understand what was happening around the Jews of their time. And to be truthful, it could be that the attitude of Jewish superiority and Gentile inferiority actually saved them. But that assumption needed to change once Jews encountered acceptance and democracy in modernity. These views, unrevised, damaged our credibility with the Jewish emergence from the ghetto.
Jewish history and world history are intertwined. I would say the same for Jewish history and other Jewish learning. How can we really understand what is happening in Tanakh or the Talmud without understanding the contexts in which they happened and were written? I know that there are those who disagree, who think that the sacred subjects are sacred and who say things like, “the color of Abaye’s pajamas is not relevant for understanding the Gemara.” But that’s not what learning Jewish history is about. Historical record shows that Jews learned from and integrated ideas/values from the cultures around them. Also that the Torah and Torah Shebe’al Peh spoke in the language of their time and location. Take, for example, Pirkei Avot. It’s one of the most beloved and frequently quoted Jewish texts. Did you know that at the time that it was written there were similar texts being written, and there’s a lot of overlap between those texts and ours, so there’s a good chance that they impacted on and learned from each other.
Jewish history is part of the general history. The Torah already taught us this. Ze sefer toldot adam, this is the history of humanity (Genesis 5:1). If there would not have been a Nimrod pushing people into the furnace, there would never have been an Avraham to challenge him. If there would not have been a Doctor’s Plot under Stalin, a million Russian Jews would never have left.
Jewish schools have limited instructional time. What priority should Jewish History have in the curriculum? Should Jewish history be classified as Torah study?
In my opinion, if there is no alternative to find time for history, we should reduce some of the time spent on Gemara and halakha. If we spent more time exploring history and less time on some of the other things we are doing, that would be a very valuable change. Not that learning Gemara is not important. But unless it leads to an understanding of our mission in this world, unless it yields a worldview and a coherent values system, then it loses much of its impact. Perhaps our curricular time would be best spent pursuing those subjects which bring people to a world view as well as a more persuasive understanding of their relationship with the rest of the world and with God.
Unfortunately, the standard contemporary definition of talmud Torah is pretty narrow. How many dapim (pages) of Gemara have you covered? How many mishnayot did you memorize? I don’t mean, God forbid, to say that those aren’t important, but that’s not the ball game. Those may be tactics, but they are not the strategy. If you look at Jewish history over the ages, only a tiny percentage of the Jewish people studied Gemara in the last 1500 years, and yet the Jewish people survived and produced great Talmudic scholars and the Torah was alive.
The blunt truth is that four hours a day of Gemara is not for everybody. The task is to find the people that it is for—they should develop into the geonim (great scholars) and the poskim (halakhic decisors) that we need. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky told me to be careful not to impose the education appropriate for the elite few upon the masses. Unfortunately, our schools throw everyone into the same boat. Well, not everybody fits. The education our students receive has to train not just the top scholars, but the people who are going to be everyday good Jews.
I was eleven years old when my grandfather enrolled me in the local yeshiva. The rebbe started every morning with a prayer: “We are fortunate that we were given the Torah to learn, that we get up early to recite Shema.” At the time I thought that he was a crazy, but now I understand that he was trying to convey that we were not learning “a subject”—our learning was a special mitzva. Our rebbe understood that and produced a great generation of Jewish doers.
If Jewish history is taught as supposedly objective knowledge, then it is certainly not talmud Torah. But if it teaches Jewish identity, Jewish values, Jewish uniqueness, God’s role in our lives, then maybe some of the more traditional learning, which is less appropriate for the masses, should make room for the foundations of Judaism that all of our students need.
Saying a brakha, that’s a very good question.
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