Yesterday, March 21, 2007, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter gave a speech entitled ‘History, Truth and Religious Commitment’ on behalf of the Honors Program.
Hi, I’m Will Lee, Director of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program uptown. It is nice to see women as a dominant force on the Wilf Campus [much of the audience was female.] I am going to give you an impressive introduction and couple stories. Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter is the University Professor of Jewish History at YU. He attended Brooklyn Collge and then Harvard University, where he earned his phD and graduated phi beta kappa and summa cum laude. He received the Award of Excellence in Jewish Studies, served as the adjunct assistant professor at Stern College, holds the Near Eastern Languages Fellowship from Harvard, coauthored a book that won an award, published more than fifty articles in Hebrew/ English, various books about Judaism, and is working on the Hebrew edition of the biography on Rabbi Jacob Emden.
I also want to tell you a few stories: I remember Rabbi Schacter as the director of the Torah u’Madda project; Rabbi Dr. Lamm thought that it was extremely important to concentrate upon this- it was his guiding vision. Rabbi Schacter guided it extremely effectively; there were lectures on Torah u’Madda, journals, etc.
A story- I remember Rabbi Schacter when he first arrived at the University, so I talked to him about teaching in the Honors Program and really enjoyed those discussions. Rabbi Shachter was the head of Maimonides Institute in Boston, and he wanted to learn the ins and outs and complexities of the institution [Yeshiva University]. He took this in, and his good humor/ great humility, he taught very successful, great Honors courses and mentors Honors Theses. He is a central part of that effort.
Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter:
Thank you to Dr. Lee for the introduction and to him and Dr. Wachtell for the invitation. I remember the stories that Dr. Lee mentioned, and there’s much more, and he gave a truly thoughtful introduction.
It really is a great honor to be asked to speak to Honors students. I have firsthand experience with the Honors program, mentoring an Honors Thesis at the moment; the author, Yosef Lindell, is here, and I just want to acknowledge that. I am honored to speak in person to an audience of students I consider to be engaged, thoughtful, serious- this poses an extraordinary challenge, as this is not the kind of talk I have ever given before. I have given many kinds of talks before, and some I have given many times, but tonight is not a class, a shiur, an academic lecture, a sermon, a devar Torah, or a form of self-reflection. I have done all of these many times, but tonight’s talk is really none of them. I have been struggling to come up with something meaningful because this talk is supposed to include all of the above. What I am and who I am in my field- I am in the field of Jewish History, and in this talk I want to combine the personal and the scholarly, the subjective and the objective.
I will begin with a series of juxtapositions- does everyone here have a copy of the sheet? [He handed out a source packet at the beginning of the lecture.] I want to frame two things in the context of one another, objects or states of being or intellectual disciplines.
This is a Yehudah Amichai poem. Amichai was a very prominent contemporary Israeli poet, wrote hundreds to thousands of poems, has been translated into English; this excerpt is from a poem entitled “Tourists.”
- Once I sat on the stairs at the gate of David’s Tower and put two heavy baskets next to me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide and I served as their orientation point. “You see the man with the baskets? A bit to the right of his head, there’s an arch from the Roman period. A bit to the right of his head.” But he moves, he moves!! I said to myself: redemption will come only when they are told: You see over there the arch from the Roman period? Never mind: but next to it, a bit to the left and lower, sits a man who bought fruit and vegetables for his home. (Yehuda Amichai, A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994, page 333)
Amichai in the poem juxtaposes the frozen arch with the fluidity of man to the detriment of the arch. There is an implicit critique of the arch in favor of what man represents. Man matters; he is engaged in life, he lives, breathes, eats and thinks. The arch doesn’t really matter- it is old, a fossil, frozen and irrelevant.
I reject the implicit critique of the arch, which is connected to the past in this excerpt, in favor of the man, who is connected to the present, as I believe that both the arch and the person are important.
The arch stands for something. We must incorporate the values of the arch into living, the existence of the human being at the present.
So this juxtaposes the place and the person.
The place is a city, a square, a plaza, a cemetery- physical spot- the person is a historical personality, the object of scholarly analysis, the person being me, ourselves. We engage with places and people, and this is the stuff of Jewish History.
I wish to juxtapose something else as well.
Contemporary culture places a premium on the importance of human relationships. We develop ourselves as human beings through our relationships with others. The field of psychoanalysis focuses on the stuff of the personal/ private/ individual.
Most of the time the analyst is absent/ not proactive part of the conversation.
Psychoanalysis classically focuses on one’s wholesomeness or healthiness through regarding the relationships one forms with the others.
Anthony Storr wrote a very important book called Solitude: A Return to the Self in which he argues that we need to return to the individual as an individual, in a state of solitude.
From page 35, he quotes the diaries of Admiral Byrd who went to the Antarctic in 1934; now, there’s not a big chaburah in the Antarctic.
- [paraphrased] Aside from the meteorological ___ and our work, no important purpose, not that kind of work, nothing but man’s desire to experience this, to taste peace and solitude and find out how good they really are.
Abraham had a powerful encounter with God by himself- or alongside one other person, Isaac, at akedas Yitzchak. Moses by the burning bush- our tradition is fraught with places where this takes place when one is alone.
At the same time, we live in the community/ tzibur/ marry/ get together/ form a minyan- so we juxtapose the individual with the larger group.
I was introduced to Torah u’Maddah in the 1980s- Dr. Lamm felt that it was important for the University to have a more proactive engagement with Torah u’Maddah. Really interesting experiences- we had over a thousand students attending public lectures at the Lamport Auditorium, twenty Torah u’Maddah fellows, one of the books that I edited came out of that- Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?
Now I sense some cynicism, sense that this subject is passé, not cool to talk about Torah u’Madda and I would recommend that the effort should be refocused. I want to go back to Torah u’Madda because I believe in Torah u’Madda.
I have two more texts here- both from R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, who used to teach English Literature at Stern and is now the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Har Etzion.
The first excerpt is from Gesher, a journal at YU. The article was published under the title “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View,” but that was not really the title and R’ Lichtenstein was upset that the word “synthesis” was used. He did not use that word in his title, and there is a whole discussion about the proper way of understanding Torah u’Madda and whether it is a synthesis at all.
Here are excerpts from the article quoted:
- Nor should we be deterred by the illusion that we can find all we need within our own tradition. […] if, in many areas, much of that best is of foreign origin, we shall expand our horizons rather than exclude it. […] Who can fail to be inspired by the ethical idealism of Plato, the passionate fervor of Augustine, or the visionary grandeur of Milton? Who can remain unenlightened by the lucidity of Aristotle, the profundity of Shakespeare, or the incisiveness of Newman? There is chochma bagoyim, and we ignore it at our loss. […] To deny that many fields have been better cultivated by non-Jewish rather than Jewish writers, is to be stubbornly—and unnecessarily—chauvinistic. There is nothing in our medieval poetry to rival Dante and nothing in our modern literature to compare with Kant, and we would do well to admit it. [Rabbi Schacter intersperses: This is a very strong statement.] We have our own genius, and we have bent it to the noblest of pursuits, the development of the Torah. But we cannot be expected to do everything. (Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View,” Gesher I (1963): 10-11)
- If I may cite a personal example, I recall vividly when my father zz”l was suddenly blinded at the age of eighty-one, I felt, on the one hand, that I could better appreciate and commiserate with his suffering because the cadences of the great relevant Miltonic passages still reverberated in my mind. I recalled the searing power of Samsons’ opening speech:
O dark, dark, dark , amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
Without all hope of day!
O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
Let there be light, and light was over all:
Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?
The Sun to me is dark
And silent as the Moon,
When she deserts the night,
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
I suppose some will regard these ruminations as a symptom of spiritual weakness. Why hadn’t I thought of our own spiritual giants who had suffered a similar fate—of patriarchal avot ha-‘olam, blind Yizhak and dim-sighted Yaakov? Or, among amoraim, why hadn’t Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet come to mind? The answer is that of course they had. […] The point is, however, that the respective recollections were not mutually exclusive but, rather, reciprocally resonant. (Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Jacob J. Schacter, ed, Judaism, Encounter with other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? Page 253)
Rav- R’ Ovadiah Bartenura, includes someone who reads divrei hayamim shel malachei avodah zarah, so history books. Avodah zarah in this context, I think, refers to secular history on a whole rather than idol-worship.
There is an attitude of “Who cares? There is no wisdom to it, etc.”
R’ Jacob Emden writes on this, and takes issue with this and says there IS a value to the study of history and someone engaged in Torah should have an understanding of history, even secular history. There is an obligation to know history. You have to know at least Jewish history. In order to understand Chazal, halakha, etc, you need to understand history.
R’ Jacob Emden (in the 18th century) takes issue with this negative attitude. Dean Schnall, the dean of the Azrieli Graduate School, asked me to prepare a study/ course on why Jewish History is important. Why is Jewish History fundamentally important? I am considering doing it.
R’ Emden writes about the kind of books one can read on the Sabbath and again speaks significantly about the importance of studying history.
- the rabbinic scholar should not be devoid of (any) knowledge of history and the changing times. (He must possess this information) in order to know how to provide his questioner with an answer and not be considered a fool and simpleton in worldly matters.
History is a source of pleasure; it is geshmack, I love it, love the work that I do; it is sheer pleasure emotionally and mentally.
I was born into a prominent Modern Orthodox family. My father was the first student to get semikha from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik when he became the rosh yeshiva at YU, and my father also had a great personal relationship with him. Rabbi Soloveitchik was actually mesader kiddushin at my wedding, although I did not go to YU, as you’ll see.
I ended up in Torah-only institutions; I went to the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, then to Mir in Yerushalayim, and didn’t want to go to YU. I went to Yeshiva Torah v’Da’as and then I went to Brooklyn College and became slowly reanchored. I was going there two nights a week and was mesmerized by the grandeur of the world around me- ventured out of the study hall and was overwhelmed by the extraordinary greatness/ grandeur of the world, and I had the unbelievable good fortune to fall into the classroom of Dr. David Berger.
It is an interesting fact that the trajectories of life hinge on an encounter with an individual. My life was changed/ altered/ enhanced immeasurably- even if you’re NOT interested in Jewish History, you should study with Dr. Berger! This is 1968, that I was his student, and until this day, I feel unbelievable gratitude towards him. I saw in him the possibility to bring two worlds together- it was the first time I heard of Nachmanides or R’ Falk as communal leaders, or of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch of writing more than his commentary on the Chumash. I went to Harvard, studied with Dr. Isadore Twersky, the older son-in-law of R. Soloveitchik. I, took a seminar in the Ramban, then on the Rashba- I go to Harvard, got a fellowship, then this whole seminar on Ramban/ Rashba- steeped in Torah study. For me, Torah study is central and as my identity it is central- that is my identity. What better way to appreciate the greatness/ rigor than to study the history of Christendom from Christians- I didn’t want to know what the Jews had to say about Christianity; I wanted to know what the Christians had to say about Christianity! Or to study from the Muslims about Islam- I don’t want to study what the Jews said, but what they say!
I took Polish history from a Ukrainian nationalist. He taught five sessions on Chmelnitzky. Do you know who Chmelnitzky was? He was the pre-Hitler “Hitler.” The professor’s name was Frank Sysin; he’s a distinguished professor at Harvard. I was the only person with a yarmulke in the class. So he teaches fives sessions on Chmelnitzky and finally, at the last session, when we’re about ready to move on, he looks at me and says “and he’s also responsible for the killing of many Jews.” So he threw me a bone- threw a bone to the yarmulke.
So this is the real world- we have to study Jewish History also from the perspective of not-Jewish History. To be able to be an ehrliche yid, use intellectual creative energies in tandem with religion commitments- it doesn’t get better than this. I don’t compromise one iota with regard to my religious commitment. We don’t revise/ close our eyes; we are honest, engaged in the enterprise of Judaism without compromise.
Now, back to our three juxtapositions.
1. People and Places
2. Individuals and Groups
3. Torah and Maddah
Let us discuss the first one, People and Places.
[He refers to the packet] I Xeroxed postcards/ pictures of three different cities in Europe. I love to travel and take groups of American Jews to Europe in the summer and teach them Jewish history. This summer it’s going to be Kiev/ Moscow/ St. Petersburg- in Kiev there’s a huge statue of Chmelnitzky. So we’re going to read the chronicles of what happened during the Chmelnitzky massacres while standing underneath the statues- two completely different, opposing views of the man.
The Roman Forum- the cradle of western civilization. But you have to appreciate what you’re looking at; otherwise it’s merely stones. So you stand at the base of the stones and you’re listening to your audioset because otherwise you don’t know what you’re looking at, and all you hear about is the incredible, powerful march, oh, and the Romans come to Judea, destroy some Jews, and destroy the Temple. But from our perspective, this was the most devastating event. Tisha B’av commemorates this, even more than that. We are seared by the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.
Now, there is a custom of the Jews never to go under the Arch of Titus because the Popes used to force the Jews to pay their respects by bowing under that arch. When we were there, we couldn’t go under the arch anyway, because of the scaffolding, but even so…There’s also a famous menorah there.
Anyway, let’s start in Madrid. Now, Madrid does not have a significant Jewish history- Toledo was important in Spain from/ in medieval times, to the north, Barcelona and Gerona, to the South, Cordova and Granada. Madrid was not so important- now there’s a little archway and you walk into the Plaza Major. This is grand/ magnificent/ stunning. Then you realize that as a Jew you are standing in the spot where a very prominent auto da fe took place. So I pull out Cecil Roth’s historical book, and I read to my assembled Jews about the auto da fe that took place there, where
- no less than fity-one persons (most of them Judaizers) were “relaxed” [this means killed] either in person or in effigy; while sixty-seven penitents were reconciled. It is said that one strikingly beautiful girl of about seventeen called out, as she passed the royal stand: “Noble Queen, cannot your royal presence save me from this? I sucked in my religion with my mother’s milk; must I now die for it?” In spite of this, the king himself set light to the brand which kindled the quemadoro. (Cecil Roth, History of the Marranos, page 136)
Venice does have a magnificent Jewish history- walking in Venice, you see from different neighborhoods these little yellow signs in Hebrew reading ”kuf kuf Venetzia”- I’m like, in heaven when I see that. Venice is magnificent—I love water. So now let’s focus on what Venice is for the world versus what Venice is for us. I want to talk about the Piazza San Marco.
So I urge you to go to the top/ upper platform to enjoy the arial view. There is a huge square; it is gorgeous. I was there in the evening; there was this colonnaded building, ten thousand pigeons hanging out there with you. There are string quartets- music from both sides played by women in elegant black dresses and men in black-tie; you can stand there, though if you want to sit, you have to pay. If you’re particularly romantic, you’ll buy a Coke. This expands your world- and then you realize in the 1550s, during the Counter-Reformation, the Talmud was burnt in Venice in St Marco Square. The Talmud gets burnt- the Pope goes on a Crusade to burn the Talmud.
Wow, it’s gorgeous- and then you remember, right here is where the Talmud was burnt- you see it through different eyes. You see this gorgeous plaza through your Western eyes and appreciate it, and then you see it through your Jewish eyes and it takes on a whole different meaning.
Also, the Chida traveled and wrote a travelogue- in 1776, he shows up in Venice and describes what he saw; he went to the Plaza San Marco and so we are standing where the Chida stood; he talks about a library, statues of four horses in bronze and we can still see them. We went at six-seven o’ clock at night; it was utterly romantic, unbelievable- the height of elegance together with medieval architecture, and I take out the Chida and read it and tell them what happened during the counter-Reformation.
Paris is magnificent.
I have a visceral negative feeling toward France in recent years, but I also feel torn because I want to strengthen the local Jewish community.
Paris is on the river Senne- and there is the Notre Dame, and it is unbelievable. On the opposite side is City Hall- Paris City Hall. It is gorgeous, huge- you can see the Eiffel Tower- it’s beautiful. There’s a plaza in front of City Hall in Paris. And that is where the Talmud was burnt in 1242. So you look at this Plaza- this gorgeous place- and realize that that is where the Talmud was burnt.
In 1240, there was anti-Jewish activity. Take Jews, go to the Hotel de Ville, we’re eating lunch, playing violin, there are minstrels, it can’t get more beautiful than that, and then I take out a kinah by R’ Meir of Rothenberg about this- having exposure/ understanding of Jewish history opens us up to the experience of Jews.
So now we are back to Amichai and people as the objects of historical research [juxtaposition number two]. Our tradition as a mesorah consists of Torah she’bikhsav and ba’al peh- our tradition is what it is because of them. So we want to understand these people/ their world/ understand what influenced their world.
Fifteen years of my life I spent on R’ Emden- time in graduate school to get my PhD- it took me six years to write the dissertation. I am in his skin and in his head- was really interested to get as close to him as possible.
An example of that is this man called Gary Kamiya, who liked/ was enthralled by Nietzche. He wants to touch, viscerally and physically connect to Nietzche, so he goes to Nietzche’s house and feels close to Nietzche. He writes:
- We go to literary shrines to touch things. We run our fingers along the writing table, we furtively step over the red velvet rope and finger the water jug by the edge of the bed.
So for R’ Jacob Emden- I went to his cemetery/ his grave and wanted to “touch it”- I stood next to his grave, an amazing experience; I asked forgiveness by the grave in case I write something that’s not respectful, but I did not come as close to him as I did in Columbia University.
R’ Jacob Emden tells a story- one night he was learning and he fell asleep. He had a shtender, and there is a hole there, a receptacle for a candle. He falls asleep with the candle it in and the candle starts to burn the shtender, his paper, ashes fly onto the Tur that he’s reading, burn a hole through the Tur until the berakhos you make when miracles happen. So he wakes up, puts out the fire.
The Tur of R’ Jacob Emden ended up in the Rare Book Room of the Butler Library at Columbia. So I run there and asked the curator to bring me the Tur, and guess what, there’s a hole in the Tur, burnt through till siman R”IK (Reish Yud Ches) – that was the aha moment; I felt it- bringing together the juxtaposition of the person/ place, individual/ communal.
Scholarly research is work, no cutting corners, go to the archive/ library/ by yourself/ developing yourself/ goal is to be a teacher, not to keep this information to yourself. It is good to be an inspirer/ educator/ juxtapose the depth of the individual-personal, trying to get other people engaged as well- juxtaposition of the Western cultural tradition- what are we afraid of? God created an unbelievably magnificent world- deepens us, makes us better human beings- better to be Torah u’Madda and academically engaged- it doesn’t get better than that.
I owe a tremendous debt to Professor David Berger- he opened me up to that. My blessing to you is that you too have your eyes opened and live lives that are immeasurably enhanced by that experience.
Question: I have a friend, and when I asked him why he doesn’t take Jewish History courses, he told me that they’re depressing. Could you talk about that juxtaposition, how do you come away with natural synthesis?
Answer: [First explains that synthesis is not the word to use, then] Reality is that the Jewish historical experience from the perspective of joy and happiness has left a lot to be desired- there are all kinds of reasons, living under Christendom (where we were guilty of deicide until 1964), or Islam, where we were guilty of falsification of the scripture/ rejection of the Prophet. As Jews, it seems to me that it behooves us to understand the process of Jewish historical experience. If it is depressing, so be it. In touch with historical experience- Also note the tremendous capacity on part of Jews to create/ inspire in the culture- regenerate, to affirm life. Salo Baron of Columbia University talked about the lachrymose conception of Jewish history; that all of it has to do with suffering and tears, and that can’t be because if it were true, we wouldn’t be here today, so clearly there is something else as well.
1. Face up to your world as a Jew- understand what that means, where we’re coming from, what are my roots? We don’t shy away from things that don’t make us feel good. If that’s the truth, we face up to it.
2. It’s not all that- a lot of social/ economic/ political history that is inspiring- how much we managed to accomplish even though dealt a negative deck of cards.
How can you NOT do something because it’s depressing?
[boy interjects something]
What I aspire to is a lack of schizophrenia [when it comes to seeing a place/ idea/ person through Western eyes and through Jewish eyes.] The worldly piece informs my Jewish piece- my engagement with Jewish History fills my life with meaning and endless fascination.
Question: I’m wondering about l’khatkila the treatment of Torah u’Madda. I’m very into literature- I learn the abstract concept of bitachon from Jewish sources, but I experience it through literature…
Answer: Or not…perhaps turn to R’ Dessler. Anyway, the idea is to handle something from a new angle.
[girl continues] But what about the people who were closer to Har Sinai; they didn’t need Torah u’Madda?
Rabbi Schacter: So you’re asking about yerida ha’doros and Torah u’Maddah. So I’ll give you the bibliography.
There is a chapter in a book by Chancellor Dr. Norman Lamm- The Degeneration of the Generations- how do you juxtapose that with the notion of progress in Western culture? Are we not missing something in our tradition if fundamental tenet of Western culture is progress?
[at the girl’s unhappy expression]
This is too complicated for me to just blow off an answer for you; you should read the book.
Also, see R’ Lichtenstein’s article in my book - central role of English literature- engage in it, grapple with it. There’s a Yiddish expression; if you go on the straight path, you meet people. So it pays to access the wisdom so read it and deal with it.
Question: How do you personally deal with the tension between halakha and history? If you found out that a minhag developed in a certain way, would you change it/ your practice of it based on how it was developed?
Answer: Never in a million years would I change it- I follow mesorah- bound to observe particular behavior- historic insight is fascinating but it will not affect my practice. I try not to let anything affect my practice. My core identity is as a talmid of the Mesorah. All kinds of issues- context of historical pursuits, but this does not affect my practice.
Question: How do you allow the historical seeking to impact you/ how do you filter?
Answer: Very rare that I come across a historical piece of knowledge that has led me to change my practice. There is something I recently discovered- this idea of 4 matzos at the Seder- it’s because there was a safek; they’re not sure if the other three will break. It’s fascinating, so I asked Professor Sperber what happened to the minhag? He said he didn’t even think of that question before. But so what? Because of this I’ll put 4 matzos on the seder table? No! I will do as my father did, put three matzos on the table. That is where my historical minhag comes from- so I find out that the minhag is based on something from outside of the religion- well, I don’t encounter that in my work a lot. There is a lot of history without having to go there!