Jewish History Blog

Why Jewish History?

Henry Ford, the founder of modern manufacturing processes, was a great hater and a classic anti-Semite. He posed himself as champion of the “plain people,” he described history as “bunk.” In an interview he gave to The Chicago Tribune in 1916 he stated, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present. The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”

I feel that Ford’s attitude towards history was a contributing factor to his virulent anti-Semitism. Judaism and the Jewish people are founded on history and tradition. Moses bade us to remember the days of the past and to study and understand the happenings of generations gone by. Ignorance of the past creates the boors and ignoramuses of the present. A nation that has no recollection of its past, no heroes to treasure, and that feels that history is “bunk” is doomed to eventual failure as a society.

Perhaps even worse for a people than having no history is having a falsified version of it. The rewriting of history to conform to current political correctness and/or ideological purity is a widespread occurrence amongst scholars. One need only look at the textbooks of the Palestinian schools to realize the clear and present danger of falsifying history to meet current political goals. History as “bunk” is foolish enough. But history as lies is absolutely dangerous.

History in the Jewish world was not viewed as a science or a discipline until the 19th century. There had been historical works written throughout Jewish life, but they were almost ancillary to the main purpose of those works, which was to transmit the traditions of Torah. They were not history books in the modern sense of scholarship, but were recordings of oral traditions passed down through the ages. Through intensive Torah study and strict observance of customs, coupled with the sanctity of oral traditions of the past, Jews had an acute idea of their past and of the historical events that shaped their existence. However, in the 19th century, Heinrich Graetz, a former student of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, left Jewish observance, became “enlightened,” and wrote a magisterial multi-volume of Jewish history in a scientific fashion. Graetz’s work became the basis for all subsequent Jewish historiography. Graetz was meticulous in his research and facts. However, his overwhelming antipathy towards Orthodox Judaism, especially the Hasidic movement, colored much of his work. Thus, an otherwise accurate work of history became a polemic that gave a false picture of Jewish life, much more dangerous than “bunk.”

As a reaction to Graetz and his followers, the religious Jewish world began to construct its own works of history. These tended to be biographical in format and hagiographic in content. History was again reshaped to fit current mores. The books tended to be a collection of stories that allowed for no unpleasant details or human deviations from exemplary pious behavior. Great disputes within the religious Jewish world were ignored or whitewashed. The “enlightened” ones, meanwhile, continued to rewrite Jewish history to fit their conceptions of correct modern liberal democratic values.

Even the history of secular Zionism has been rewritten in a fashion that removes all of the former Zionist heroes from their lofty pedestals. Thus, today children in the Israeli school system have two totally different and usually opposite versions of the past. It is difficult to see how unity of national purpose can be fostered under such conditions.

History is not “bunk.” It should also not be inaccurate, misleading, and overly selective in viewpoint and presentation.

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Posted in:
Jewish Thought, Modern Jewish History
Rabbi Berel Wein

4 Responses to “Why Jewish History?”

  1. Sara says:

    This post is awesome! Thanks.

  2. Dawn says:

    Thank you, it is nice to know that there are other people who are aware of the deconstructionist and revisionist trends to re-write history. Much of it is not scholarly but barely concealed opinion or unfounded speculation. The end result is only confusion and disunity between generations. I liken it to anarchy, but that is just my opinion.

  3. Michael Makovi says:

    Rabbi Wein,

    Given that the Greeks viewed history as cyclical, whereas Jews viewed history as having a beginning and an end, it is understandable why it was the Jews who produced the Tanakh, which is essentially a history book (and an antisemitic one at that!).

    But why did the Jews stop producing history? Between the time of Josephus and the Spanish Expulsion, we find almost no history books. Why do you think this is? This is something I’ve been trying to figure out, and I haven’t arrived at a satisfactory answer. Thank you.

    Now, then, two criticisms of your post:

    (1) You speak derisively of “modern liberal democratic values”. I might respectfully request that you please rescind the inclusion of “democratic” in that litany. If you read the history of democracy, you’ll find that democracy as we know it has little to do with either Greece (where majoritarian tyranny devoid of civil rights was the norm) or with Enlightenment France (where a decidedly negative view of religion and the Bible was found, and a equalitarian, nearly socialistic philosophy was popular). Rather, democracy as we know it comes from Britain and Holland, especially due to the Calvinists. It all began with Huldrych Zwingli and and Heinrich Bullinger telling John Knox that a good G-d-believing Torah-observant Protestant would of course disobey a G-dless idolatrous Torah-hating Catholic. The idea was that the rule-of-law and morality and the constitution ( = the Torah) comes before whatever any mere mortal might say. Authority was transferred from humans (whether the pope or the king) to G-d (and the constitution He wrote). John Locke complicated things when he added religious tolerance to the mix, whereas previous Calvinists like Samuel Rutherford had little use for such ideas. But even Locke was quite religious by our standards, as were the American revolutionaries; the king of England referred to the American Revolution as the “Presbyterian Rebellion”. What we see is that democracy was created by the Calvinists as a theocratic alternative to secular absolutist monarchy. Whatever the leftists today like to rewrite history to say, the fact is that the original liberals (or libertarians) were also theocrats. Democracy was always G-d-centered; just read the Declaration of Independence, with its references to “nature’s G-d and the G-d of nature”, “endowed by their Creator”, and Divine Providence (in the last paragraph). In fact, it was John Wycliffe, the 14th-century proto-Protestant translator of the Bible, who wrote that “The Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (By the way: Israeli leftists who criticize IDF insubordinate soldiers as being un-democratic, these leftists haven’t the faintest clue what they’re talking about. IDF soldiers who refuse to expel settlers are the most democratic people in Israel.)

    (2) You refer to Graetz as leaving observance. Now, Graetz might have adopted some questionable beliefs, and perhaps he even became lax in certain practices (I don’t know), but I think it’s saying too much to say that he dropped observance. He was closer to early Conservative Judaism, or perhaps Conservadox Judaism, than he was to Reform. I don’t know if he kept bishul aqum or not, for example, but I’m sure he ate only shekhted meat, etc.

    But other than that, nice post. Thank you!

    If you reply to any of what I’ve written, could you please alert me at Thanks!

    Michael Makovi

  4. Berel Wein says:

    My criticism is not of true democracy. It is of the tendency to brand all opposition to its agenda and central governmental control over everything as being undemocratic.

    As to Graetz, in the context of the 1860’s, he could not have been considered observant. Too bad he didn’t live a century later!