Jewish Identity Informed by Historical Consciousness: A Contemporary Orthodox Perspective

In a recently published essay, Rabbi Dr. Carmi Horowitz presents a reverent intellectual-biographical sketch of his formidable teacher, the late Professor Isadore Twersky. In the course of describing the legacy of the complicated man who was simultaneously heir to the Talner Hassidic dynasty, a premier student and son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and longtime Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University,[1] Horowitz offers the following telling anecdote:

Once, during my first or second year at Harvard, I asked [Prof. Twersky] at the urging of one of my friends, “Does not the study of Jewish history border on bittul Torah (i.e., a failure to maximize all of one’s time in the study of Torah)?” He answered me immediately, “Whatever we are doing here in the seminar room is a fulfillment of talmud Torah (the study of Torah).”

No doubt, Horowitz puts it mildly in qualifying that Prof. Twersky’s graduate seminars were “not exactly classic exercises in talmud Torah.” Nevertheless, he reflects boldly,

There was a seamless connection in [Prof. Twersky’s] eyes between his scholarly endeavors and the religious obligation to study Torah.[2]

Whatever this or any reader may happen to feel about the general compatibility of Torah commitment and secular studies, the notion that such a powerful continuum might exist between the academic study of Jewish history and talmud Torah is striking and not at all obvious; indeed, Horowitz himself spends much of the remainder of his piece examining how, in his view, such a remarkable synergy was achieved through the life, work, and legacy of his eminent teacher. For those who do espouse an integrative religious philosophy which encourages the halakhic Jew to engage fruitfully with the best offerings of general culture, Prof. Twersky’s intriguing example challenges the reader to explore and possibly rethink the way twenty-first century Orthodox Jews relate to the study of history in general and their own national history in particular.

On one level, one might ask what religious value the study of history – specifically, Jewish history – has on the collective theoretical plane. In this respect, one might consider questions like what value Hazal placed upon the study and/or consciousness of history, how contemporary Jewish thinkers have weighed in upon the issue, and whether patterns of difference and/or consensus among them may be identified. On another level, one might explore this same inquiry on a personal plane, from the vantage point of praxis rather than theory. In this vein, one might investigate questions like whether and how the study of Jewish history has potential for positive religious value to the contemporary religious individual on the one hand, and/or engenders risk for negative religious value to the contemporary religious individual on the other. Although extensive exploration of this matter is wont to lead to a rich multiplicity of perspectives, a truly adequate survey of those perspectives is beyond both this writer’s expertise and the scope of this essay.[3] Instead, this piece shall attempt the more modest goal of constructing an informed case on behalf of the relevance and value of academic historical study from a contemporary Orthodox perspective in light of these guiding questions.

Turning first to the matter at hand as it relates to the theoretical, collective plane, does Judaism as a faith place any particular value upon historical consciousness? In an expansive essay dedicated to the purpose of exploring the relationship of Torah and Western culture in general, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein comments upon what he understands to be the significance of historical inquiry to the Jewish worldview on a broad scale and to the thinking, Torah-observant Jewish individual on a local scale. Of the former, he writes:

If science probes one facet of immanent revelation, history describes another. Its sphere, however, is not God’s exclusively but the interaction of the human and the divine. From the perspective of faith, historical study consists of the exploration and analysis of the events and records of the drama of conjunction and confrontation between providential direction and creaturely freedom. The nature and proportions of that interaction constitutes a major crux of religious philosophy.[4]

For R. Lichtenstein, the celebrated Maimonidean teaching that love and fear of God may be achieved through contemplation of the wisdom inherent in nature[5] finds a worthy analogue in the realm of the humanities in the form of the study and appreciation of history.[6] The very notion of Divine immanence dictates that the myriad doings of humankind and the events of world history are (in some measure) themselves a live, ongoing forum for interaction between God and His creations. From the theoretical standpoint of faith itself, these events rightly demand pause and attention as a sort of blueprint to the Divine hand, and perhaps even a showcase for historical teleology: “Remember thee the days of old, contemplate the years of each generation,” they exhort; “ask thy father and he shall tell thee, thy elders and they shall say over to thee,” they whisper.[7] As R. Lichtenstein puts it:

[H]istory at once challenges us to seek an insight into the modus operandi of Providence and provides tools and materials requisite for the quest. To be sure, modern man is far less predisposed than his predecessors to read the past theologically… Nevertheless, to the committed Jew, the spiritual significance of viewing God’s historical handiwork remains paramount.[8]

Without a doubt, various Jewish thinkers of the past century-and-a-half have debated as to how appropriate it is to actively read Divine agenda into the events of history. One specific example of such a debate is the discussion among rabbinic leadership figures of the past seventy-five years concerning the eschatological significance of the Holocaust and subsequent rise of the State of Israel: While R. Soloveitchik was famously prompted to change his political alliance from Agudat Yisrael to Mizrahi in the 1940s and notably highlighted “six knocks” of God upon the door of Israel in its recent history,[9] [10] Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler famously rejected out of hand the very possibility of passing post-facto historical judgement upon the reticent leadership decisions of gedolei Yisrael in pre-WWII Europe.[11] And while such prominent figures as Rabbis Shlomo Goren, Isaac Herzog, and Zvi Yehudah Kook conspicuously attributed proto-messianic import to the modern Israeli state, many others – men as disparate as Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the late Grand Rabbi of Satmar Hassidism, and Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor emeritus of Yeshiva University – were (to varying degrees) notably less definitive in pronouncing the State of Israel to be “the beginning of the flowering of our Redemption.” More recently still, Rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein zt’’l and Yehudah Amital zt”l expressed reservations as to the categorical attribution of definitive eschatological significance to the modern Israeli State: the former in stressing the need for reorientation toward the more soberly pragmatic “tragic dimension of trust [in God]” in the modern Israeli context,[12] and the latter in going so far as to suggest that “it may be that all those who spoke about the beginning of the flowering of our redemption were mistaken.”[13] [14]

That it might be appropriate for individuals in any setting to actively “read into” the teleology of historical or even contemporary events is a very controversial issue. Setting aside the question of individual behavior, though, the notion that Judaism as a belief system puts emphasis upon the concepts of inherent design and progressive trajectory innate to the course of human history would appear to be far more straightforwardly acceptable. One need hardly look any further than feature halakhic imperatives to find conspicuous expression of this emphasis: Mizvot like remembering the exodus from Egypt - both through the daily and nightly recitation of keri’at shema and the heavily experiential rituals of the Passover holiday – embody the importance of reinforcing awareness of foundational events in the Jewish cultural past; customs, liturgy, and ritual commemorate seminal events in Jewish national history, such as the destruction of the Jewish temples and subsequent national exile which have defined Jewish history since the close of the biblical period[15]; and even some of the most basic articles of Jewish dogma, such as the belief that God created the universe and the age-old messianic hope expressed through the words of the Prophets, demand sensitivity to the telos of history in constituting the intellectual underpinning of Jewish axiology. Still, even given all this evidence, it is crucial to point out that there may be a very significant difference between the conception of historical consciousness expressed through Jewish tradition and the conception of historical awareness and study advanced by the contemporary academy. Indeed, while the academic conception of history may be characterized as linear, Jewish tradition’s conception of human history might best be described as cyclical: for while the academic study of history is characterized by regard for meticulous facticity, critical examination and chronological accuracy, Jewish tradition appears to prioritize experiential symbolism – what the late Prof. Yosef Chaim Yerushalmi famously dubbed “collective cultural memory”[16] – over and above sheer historical precision.

On a theoretical level, of course, this seems all well and good: Judaism as a faith tradition reserves every right to emphasize or even prioritize certain values above others, nonconformance with certain contemporary academic sympathies and sensibilities notwithstanding. Indeed, from a sociological standpoint, the notion of prioritizing cultural memory may not be so controversial or even particular to Jewish tradition at all. “[C]ollective memory, a set of transmitted values and experiences relevant to a broad group as opposed to a specific individual, is a central component in the construction of social and cultural identity,” writes Jacob J. Schacter; “the process of ‘how societies remember’ is fundamental to defining what societies are.” [17] There are, moreover, different ways to state this issue: from the vantage point of axiology, for example, it has been plausibly suggested that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s quasi-scientific, a priori conception of the halakhic system – especially as advanced in his celebrated essay Halakhic Man – conforms quite well with the premeditated ahistoricity implied by the prioritization of cultural memory over historical facticity.[18] That halakhic life is about the experience of the individual in active concert with national heritage, rather than despite it or even because of it, is a claim to which most Orthodox Jews will proudly assent.

Nevertheless, there is a point past which Judaism’s prioritization of memory over history becomes ethically troubling or even threateningly contradictory—as when the devaluation of historical fact verges on the disingenuous and pernicious. In a recent essay dedicated partially to this topic, David Shatz writes compellingly of the dangers associated with this folly:

Cases of deliberate misattribution of views for the sake of bolstering a halakhic position are, to be sure, only a subset, though a large one, of the total number of falsifications in Haredi historiography. Nevertheless, the basic point about the cost of systemic falsification can be extended, for if a community moves from misattribution of views to other sorts of historical misrepresentations, there is a danger of it turning into a culture of suspicion, in which nothing of significant import that anyone relates should be trusted.[19]

Going perhaps further than Shatz, R. Aharon Lichtenstein offers justification on behalf of the positive religious potential of historical study specifically as circumscribed by the hallmarks of academic rigor. Insofar as the Torah’s mandate to contemplate Jewish history is motivated by a faith that “it is in the context of God’s unique relation to His chosen people that the workings of Divine Providence are most fully manifested and can be most readily perceived,” it is nothing short of imperative that the study of that history be pursued with genuine regard for and sensitivity to historical accuracy—a goal which simply “cannot be attained by hagiography or moralizing alone.” [20]

If Judaism’s regard for historical consciousness on the plane of theory is a matter of debate, Judaism’s regard for historical study on the plane of personal practice is only more so. In the same piece quoted previously, Shatz highlights an intriguing delay in the mainstream acceptance of the Orthodox Jewish scholar of history as a “Torah U-Madda ideal,” even as the models of the Orthodox Jewish mathematician, scientist, and philosopher were commonly celebrated in Modern Orthodox communities of the twentieth century.[21] Shatz points to three putative factors in an attempt to explain this sociological phenomenon, and the very first among these is that “applications of historical method had led to biblical criticism and shaken the foundations of traditional belief.” He explains:

Historians [of the nineteenth century] sought to dispel the aura surrounding the talmudic sages by presenting them as influenced by their social standing and context… [I]ndeed, failure to include academic Jewish studies in descriptions of [Yeshiva University]’s educational mission was in part due to the discipline’s potential to undermine traditional beliefs. In the words of Yosef Yerushalmi in his celebrated book Zakhor, speaking generally of critical research into Judaism: “History becomes what it has never been before - the faith of fallen Jews.”[22]

What emerges from Shatz’s assessment is an honest recognition that there are risks from the standpoint of religious reverence and fidelity concomitant to association with the academy. Interest in and openness to broader exploration of historical fact is one thing; the assimilation of values, assumptions and predispositions irreverent of traditional Jewish faith and weltanschauung is quite another. Nor, indeed, can one naively presume that the beliefs and attitudes characteristic of the academy today diverge so significantly from those of the academy of yesteryear on this matter as to effectively mitigate these risks to the point of obsolescence.

Recognizing these dangers full well, R. Lichtenstein too develops a qualified approach to this matter. Concerning involvement in secular branches of study in general, he writes pointedly and frankly of the associated risks:

[One major] concern is religious, especially as regards the sensitive area of faith and dogma: “‘After your own heart’ – this refers to infidelity.” This, too, is multifaceted, relating in part to faith in its universal aspect, and in part to specific dogmatic elements… History often purports to present findings which contravene Scripture or tradition; or, alternatively, it may distort the tensile balance between the eternal and temporal aspects of Torah by overemphasizing the contextual cultural matrix within which it flourished.

The first danger which R. Lichtenstein highlights is a very serious one. While for many people, it may not be so difficult to affirm religious conviction in the face of everyday practice or even occasional interpersonal confrontation, the delicacy inherent in (a) constantly discerning what is and isn’t acceptable to an Orthodox Jewish faith-based mindset during the course of rigorous academic engagement – as well as (b) operating with a confusing of duality in standards of credence and acceptability – can pose an enormously difficult challenge to manage. In continuing further, though, R. Lichtenstein notes a second concern of no less import:

Beyond confrontation, moreover, lurk subtler dangers – some, the flip side of palpably positive elements. Comparison with other civilizations is a case in point. On the one hand, it heightens and sharpens our awareness of the genuine character of Torah, [while] on the other hand, the very act of comparison often jades a sense of uniqueness…

While somewhat less popularly discussed, the jadedness of religious conscience of which R. Lichtenstein writes is a very serious concern which undoubtedly requires address – and redress – in the contemporary milieu. Attitude toward comparative religious scholarship can be a profoundly difficult thing to balance with particularized religious faith on a consistent, individualized basis – and yet, if compatibility between dedicated religious conviction and serious academic scholarship is indeed possible, just such a balance must be consciously struck. If not, the religious individual runs a substantial personal risk, as mere “[intellectual] diffusion per se may undermine the centrality of one’s primary [religious] base.”[23]

Risks notwithstanding, it is by no means the purpose of this essay to discourage individuals from engagement with academic historical scholarship; indeed, quite the contrary is the case. Apart from extolling the positive religious value of historical study and consciousness, one might easily point to what R. Lichtenstein would call ‘the cost of ignoring ḥokhmah’ to both the collective and the individual. It is, however, the intention of this writer to temper an unrestrainedly enthusiastic embrace of ḥokhmah by insisting upon the importance of conscious awareness of the real dangers associated with individual engagement in academic historical study. Over the past half-century, the broader Modern Orthodox community has produced increasing numbers of great and well-regarded men and women who specialize in the discipline of academic history, and God-willing it will continue to do so in the years to come. This is, surely, a wonderful thing. But let not a passion and regard for the conspicuous cultural value, which rightly ought to be attributed to historical inquiry lead to a blindness to the religious pitfalls with which it presents the contemporary Orthodox Jewish individual. Knowledge is undoubtedly a powerful thing – and cognizance of the risks related to academic study stands to empower us as stronger and more complete religious individuals even as we seriously and wholeheartedly engage it.


[1] Horowitz, Carmi. “Professor Yitzhak Twersky—The Talner Rebbe z”l: A Brief Biography.” The Torah U-Madda Journal 8 (1998): 43-58.

[2] Soloveichik, Meir Y., Stuart W. Halpern, and Shlomo Zuckier. “Halakha and History, Intellectualism and Spirituality.” Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity. (2015): 249-280.

[3]  For more information on this worthwhile topic, see J. J. Schacter’s “Facing the Truths of History,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 8 (1998), 200-276; David Shatz’s “Nothing but the Truth? Modern Orthodoxy and the Polemical uses of History,” Jewish Thought and Jewish Belief (2012), 141-176; and Amos Funkenstein’s “Perceptions of Jewish History,” Los Angeles 1993, 16-18.

[4] Lichtenstein, Aharon. “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict.” Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration: 217-292.

[5] “And what is the path to loving and fearing [God]? When a person contemplates [God’s] great and wondrous actions and creations, and intuits from them [God’s] boundless wisdom, immediately he shall love and praise and venerate and long a mighty longing to know God… And when he contemplates these things immediately shall he recoil and fear and know that he is a small and weak being, standing with tiny, weak intelligence before He of perfect wisdom… And it is thus for this reason that I shall explain certain great principles from the work of the Master of the Universe: such that they should be an opening to the understanding one to love God, as the Sages said concerning love, that through [appreciation of nature] you shall come to recognize God…” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2:2).

[6] Maimonides’ own attitude toward the inherent religious value of history and historical study is less clear and subject to some debate. See for example Shubert Spero’s “Maimonides and the Sense of History,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 24:2 (1989), 128-137.

[7] Deuteronomy 32:7

[8] Lichtenstein, Aharon. “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict.” Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration: 217-292.

[9] Angel, Marc. Exploring the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1997.

[10] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. “Kol Dodi Dofek: It is the Voice of My Beloved that Knocketh.” Fate and Destiny: From Holocaust to The State of Israel (1992).

[11]Dessler, Eliyahu E. Strive for Truth! (translation of Mikhtav me-Eliyahu), transl. Aryeh Carmell, 6 vols, Jerusalem (1985-1999), vol. I, p. 217.

[12] Ziegler, Reuven, and Aharon Lichtenstein. By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God. KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2003.

[13] Mayah, Mosheh, and Yehudah Amiṭal. A World Built, Destroyed, And Rebuilt: Rabbi Yehudah Amital’s Confrontation with the Memory of the Holocaust. Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2004.

[14] Wein, Avraham. “Of Sensitivity and Humility: An Exposition of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s Approach to the Suffering of Others.” Kol Hamevaser, November 6, 2015. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://www.kolhamevaser. com/2015/11/of-sensitivity-and-humility-an-exposition-of-rabbi-aharon-lichtensteins-approach-to-the-suffering-of-others/.

[15] An especially excellent example of this may be found in the kinnot recited on Tish’ah be-Av, which recall a myriad of historical Jewish tragedies in an attempt to sensitize readers to the connectedness of Jewish experience.

[16] Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. University of Washington Press, 2012.

[17] Schacter, Jacob J. “Remembering the Temple: Commemoration and Catastrophe in Ashkenazi Culture,” The Temple of Jerusalem: From Moses to the Messiah, ed. S. Fine, Leiden and Boston (2011), 276.

[18] See David Shatz’s “Nothing but the Truth? Modern Orthodoxy and the Polemical uses of History,” Jewish Thought and Jewish Belief (2012), 141-176.

[19] Ibid. 172.

[20] Lichtenstein, Aharon. “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict.” Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration: 217-292.

[21] Despite this, of course, there have been many notable (Neo-)Orthodox Jewish proponents of involvement in academic historical study in the modern era. As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, for example, scholars like Rabbis Azriel Hildesheimer and David Zvi Hoffman gained fame as proponents of appropriating the tools and methodology of the Wissenschaft des Judentums in the service of complementing – rather than battering – traditionalist Jewish faith.

[22] Ibid. 144. See also previous footnote.

[23] Lichtenstein, Aharon. “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict.” Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration: 217-292.