Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Truth about Great Historical Figures

A few years ago I started reflecting on whether the study of history can ever be legitimately studied. I am a big fan of the study of history, especially when it impacts the Jewish people. I devour biographies of great figures in Jewish history whether they were Gedolim, apostates, or just average people who were victims of circumstance.

Halacha requires us to at times to omit negative information from Gedolim and does not require us do so in the bios of Reshaim. In fact it probably requires us to editorialize about just how bad the Reshaim were. The problem is that it is left to the writer to make subjective judgments about who is good and who is bad and which information is bad or good.

The Sridei Eish, (Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1885-1966) letters that were published a few years ago by Professor Marc Shapiro and seem to reflect very negatively on him are a case in point. Should they have been published? Did they indeed paint a negative picture of him? Did the Sridei Eish want letters that he wrote and therefore obviously believed, to be published? These letters paint a picture of a Gadol that we might not otherwise have. If he meant what he said and took the time to write down the words then perhaps he did want people to ultimately know his feelings. Or was this a one time polemic written in private correspondence which reflected a moment in his life that did not really reflect the essence of the man. Furthermore, are there other letters that would contradict, or explain better what he meant?

Another example, as I have mentioned several times in the past, the book, “My Uncle the Netziv” is a classic case how the best of intentions about what is appropriate information is highly subjective. An Artscroll “approved” author/translator wrote a very positive portrait about the Netziv only to be condemned by his peers for publishing what they considered negativities about him. The book was “pulled from the shelves”. And of course there is the famous (or should I say infamous) book by Rabbu Nosson Kaminetsky, “The Making of a Gadol”, that was banned for these very sorts of reasons.

History is a very important educational tool. One can and should learn a lot about how to conduct oneself through the biography of great individuals. But when history is sanitized to fit someone’s agenda, no matter how noble, it takes away the true lesson and replaces it with someone else’s vision of what the lesson should be. In the case of “My Uncle the Netziv”, and in the case of “The Making of a Gadol” everything published was done with great love and admiration by the author for his subjects. If there was any behavior that the subject of those books would not have been proud of, it did not appear in the books. But, those books were banned because of a personal view of what is appropriate to write about great historical figures and what is not. This, in spite of the fact that the subjects of these books had no problems with their own behavior. Obviously. None of the Gedolim acted in ways that were against wht they belived to be appropriate behavior. But that didn’t stop people from banning them and the subsequent removal from the shelves.

To me this is clearly wrong. One cannot learn how to conduct himself from historical sources if those sources are censored in the agendized fashion mentioned above.

What about mentioning the behavior of certain role models that they are not proud of. Let us say that a certain Rosh Hayeshiva committed adultery with a married woman. The story has been successfully suppressed from public knowledge. He is an admired figure in Charedei circles. Should one who has absolute knowledge about the affair tell the story? Should history not record those events? Should the laws of Lashon Hara (LH) dictate what can be written historically? And when is it LH? How do we define it? If someone was a Noef and then did Teshuva, should we in fact tell the story and show the level of public Teshuva that a Gadol is capable of and that Teshuva should be sought by anyone for any Aveira? Or, should we not bring it up. Why tarnish his name at all in the eyes of his admirers? Is the precption of a Gadol as pristine in all his life’s endeavors better than an unsanitized truth?

I take note of the many stories in the Gemarah about certain of Chazal who were tempted by Aveirah or who actually did Aveiros. The Gemarah does not shy away from the truth. Why did the Gemarah have to tell us about the Cherem that R. Elazar was put in after the Maaseh with Tanur Achnai. Surely we did not need to know that a Tanna was put in Cherem. But a lesson was to be learned about the severity of going against the Rov (majority opinion) and “Lo Bashomayim He” even if one had a Bas Kol (heavenly dictate) on his side.

We can see from the Gemarah that historical lessons are important and the Gemarah seems to indicate that negative stories can be told about even Gedolim if one can learn something positive.

The question arises, when do we know what to include? If one has an Agenda as an adherent of Agudah or as an adherent of TuM, and one believes strongly in it’s ultimate Emes, as opposed to other opposing philosophies, should one seek to emphasize his point of view through selective editing of his material? The Charedi point of view would say emphatically, YES. But perhaps a Centrist with an agenda might do so as well.

This makes history almost impossible to know. Halachic restriction combined with competing philosophies about which Hashkafa to emphasize will make knowledge of history almost impossible. Striving for objectivity simply does not always work.

This is why I like to read bios written by authors with opposing viewpoints, and try to glean those elements in common that the books do not dispute, as truth, or as near truth as is humanly possible. Having an agenda of my own I probably read with my own bias and take from my readings what suits my own agenda. I do not do this on purpose but no doubt I do so at an unconscious level.

So, history is important. As someone famous once said, if one does not learn from history, he is doomed to repeat it.

But how do we really know what the truth of history is? I guess we cvan't really ever know with complete certainty. But we should strive to do the best we can because we either learn from it or are doomed to repeat it.