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Why History?
By Rabbi Berel Wein

History, especially Jewish history, is not the most popular of subjects in the curriculum of Jewish schools the world over, including Israel. History courses can be boring, and boring is the most odious of criticisms that can be leveled at a teacher or a course subject.

However, students without knowledge and a sense of history are doomed to be poor citizens and shortsighted in their political and national assessments and decisions. That is why I am disturbed by the lack of knowledge of the history of our people which is, unfortunately, prevalent in all sections of our society.

We are already paying a heavy price for this absence of historic perspective in the Jewish world.

The type of history I am referring to is not necessarily one of dates, places, and names. It is precisely this type of narrow focus that makes history courses boring, unattractive, and uninspiring. In fact, the concentration on facts instead of the sweep and lessons of history gives rise to the revisionist historians who later pick apart the facts and turn the lesson and purpose of history on its head.

Teaching history is dangerous because it can be used to advance current politically correct agendas at the expense of the true historical lesson.

We are witnesses to this process in our time when the lessons of history have been willfully falsified in order to justify current ideas and goals.

Thus the whole history of the Jewish people in the Exile was denigrated, ignored, and distorted in order to justify the new ideas of the Enlightenment and nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The great historian of the Jewish past, Heinrich Graetz, got most of his facts right in his monumental work, History of the Jews. But his obvious bias against traditional Judaism and his almost obsessive hatred of the rabbis of Israel spawned a school of Jewish history that did great damage to the Jewish people. They may have known what color shirt Rashi wore, but they ignored what Rashi really stood for and his immortal contribution to Jewish survival and destiny.

THE FAILURE of secular Jewish historians to appreciate the central role of Torah study and ritual observance in the preservation of the Jewish people is tragic. The denial of the past in order to fit the present is truly dangerous for our future.

I am further troubled by the lack of knowledge of Jewish history among the scholars and students of the yeshiva world. One would think that Jewish history could serve as one of the strongest possible tools in helping to reach out to all sorts of Jews, for we do, after all, share a common history.

If no one is aware of that common history, if the sweep of Jewish life over the centuries remains essentially hidden from our view, then there is precious little that can unite us outside of the constant danger of annihilation by our enemies.

The inability to relate to history, to place things, people, and events in a time-frame perspective, creates an insularity and naivete that is extremely counterproductive to the cause of Torah and Jewish observance. If we are unaware of our past, of who we truly are, of our historic rights to our land and our lives as Jews, then the false accusations of our enemies that we are conquerors and interlopers will eventually ring true in our own ears.

And that would be truly sad.

Not knowing history allows us to sanctify tactics, behavior patterns and public policies that have unfortunately been proven ineffective in our time.

Jewish history teaches us that there is always a creative spirit within Judaism that allows us to renew ourselves within the parameters of Halacha. In the 18th century it was Hassidism that revitalized Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In the 19th century it was the creation of the prototype of modern yeshivot and the Mussar movement which saved traditional methods of Jewish learning and personal behavior from becoming obsolete.

Jewish history teaches us that every new idea and practical innovation in Jewish life always had its opponents. But it also teaches us that new ideas which emanate from holy and selfless sources always arise to refresh Israel and make the Jewish people eternally young.

As the old ideals and visions of 19th- and 20th-century Jewish life now slowly evaporate and a feeling of inner emptiness grips the hearts of Jews in all of the camps within Israel, a new sense of purpose and vitality is needed to preserve and to inspire us.

I cannot imagine any other source of such a rebirth except through a realization and knowledge of our noble and holy past.

The Torah itself teaches us that by remembering the days of the past, by analyzing the story of the generations of Israel, we will arrive at proper answers to our current problems and preserve ourselves and mankind for the better tomorrow that will surely come.


 

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