Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren't true. We call it - "history."
A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
~"Wonderful" from the musical Wicked
This part has to do with the creation of our history, an idealized revisionist version of Jewish history. As R' Haym explains:
- So alongside of the new genre of secondary works in Halakhah, there has appeared, in the past generation, a second genre, equally unfamiliar to their fathers, that of "history," written accounts of bygone events and biographies of great Torah scholars of the recent past, images of a nation's heritage that once would have been imparted by the vibrant voices of home and street, but now must be conveyed, like so much else in the "new world," by means of book and formal instruction.62
These works wear the guise of history, replete with names and dates and footnotes, but their purpose is that of memory, namely, to sustain and nurture, to inform in such a way as to ease the task of coping. As rupture is unsettling, especially to the traditional, these writings celebrate identity rather than difference. Postulating a national essence which is seen as immutable, this historiography weaves features and values of the present with real and supposed events of the past. It is also hagiographic, as sacred history often is. Doubly so now, as it must also provide the new text culture with its heroes and its educators with their exemplars of conduct.
Didactic and ideological, this "history" filters untoward facts and glosses over the darker aspects of the past. Indeed, it often portrays events as they did not happen.63 So does memory; memory, however, transmutes unconsciously, whereas the writing of history is a conscious act.
So alongside of its chiaroscuro portrait of the past the unremitting struggle between the sons of Light and Darkness common to all sacred history, comes the distinctive haredi depiction of the society of yesteryear, the world of their fathers, as a model of text-based religiosity, of which their own is only a faithful extension.
The past is cast in the mold of the present, and the current text-society emerges not as a product of the twin ruptures of migration and acculturation, but as simply an ongoing reflection of the unchanging essence of Jewish history.
This passage illuminates a lot of things that I have heretofore found troubling. The completely illogical adoration and hero-worship reserved for all sages and Rabbis makes sense in light of it. Various Artscroll biographies of gedolim which clearly rewrite the past in an attempt to force it to become luminous, beautiful and romantic make sense as well.
For why is history rewritten, and when? Precisely given the events that R' Haym claims sparked this rewriting, a catastrophe of such magnitude that there was nothing left and people had to start anew. Under such circumstances, people are in the unique position of being able to create a history as they so wish, because the vast majority of those who could oppose them are dead. But why and when is history rewritten? That's always interesting to study. In his account, R' Haym puts it down to the "rupture," the catastrophe, the Holocaust.
Tangentially connected, I had an excellent history teacher. He was excellent for more reasons than I can list within the time constraints of a tangent. Suffice it to say that he opened our eyes to quite a lot of ideas we had formerly not considered; we had simply not realized we could consider such ideas. I remember it shocked me to discover that Abraham Lincoln was in fact not an abolitionist. But the Civil War! He freed the slaves! My history teacher explained the difference between the real and the mythological. After Abraham Lincoln's assassination, he was turned into an awe-inspiring mythological figure of grand proportions; America still remembers him as "the man who freed the slaves." If you look at the actual texts, however (my teacher was a stickler for primary texts) and the events, you will find that Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Far from it! His first and primary concern was to hold the Union together; he was forced into a position where this meant reluctantly granting freedom to slaves as well. His much-lauded Emancipation Proclamation had no real effect for slaves at the time; these were mere words that did not translate into any firm support.
Enough about Abraham Lincoln. You don't need a history teacher of my teacher's caliber to tell you that it is plausible to state that events create opportunities and opportunities create the kind of men or people who would profit based on them. The most obvious example is Hitler. Most see World War II as an extension of the horrible treaty created at World War I, where we smashed Germany and forced them to pay money they didn't have which meant ravaging their country further. Morale is low; nationalism is low. (Obviously, this is overly-simplistic for the sake of an example.) Along comes Hitler. Who is Hitler? A man who would have been ignored at any other juncture in history. A nobody. But the opportunity was ripe for a master orator, for someone who could instill and imbue the people with a sense of nationalism, who could bind them together in a common sense of purpose by allowing them all to agree on the one thing they hated. Hitler is alleged to have said, "If Jews didn't exist, we'd have to create them." It doesn't matter whether or not he said it; the actual concept is true.
I find it fascinating that the same ideas that worked in my AP US or Euro classes apply in Jewish History. Of course- why wouldn't they? It's simply that I don't think about my own past or my own people's past in that way. Now that R' Haym expresses it, I look on in wonder. Of course! That explains so much! Now I can understand a culture that has created its heroes based on a past that never existed, who has foregone the authority that is "broadly distributed among father and mother, elders and teachers" for the authority that belongs only to the Rabbi, the sage, the interpreter of texts. And what's more, I can understand how they have rewritten history so as to award these Rabbis and sages this power even in the past, even during times where tradition was prominent and more important than the law.
At the same time that I find this fascinating, I am disturbed by R' Haym's defense of these revisionists. He explains:
- But this intentional disregard of fact in ideological history is no different from what takes place generally in moral education, as most such instruction seems to entail a misrepresentation of a harsh reality. We teach a child, for example, that crime does not pay. Were this in fact so, theodicy would be no problem. Yet we do not feel that we are lying, for when values are being inculcated, the facts of experience-empirical truth appears, somehow, to cease to be "true."
For if a value is to win widespread acceptance, to evoke an answering echo of assent in the minds of many, it must be experienced by them not simply as a higher calling, but as a demand that emerges from the nature of things.64 When we state that honesty is 'good,' what we are also saying is that, ultimately, this is what is best for man, what we call, at times, "true felicity," to distinguish it from mere "happiness." We believe that were we to know all there is to know of the inner life of a Mafia don and that of an honest cobbler, we would see that honesty is, indeed, the best policy. The moral life makes claim to be the wise life, and, the moral call, to most, is a summons to realism, to live one's life in accord with the deeper reality.65 A statement of value is, in this way, a statement of fact, a pronouncement about the true nature of things.
When we say that crime doesn't pay, we are not lying; we are teaching the child the underlying reality that we believe in or intuit, rather than the distorted one of our fragmentary experience. Just as moral instruction imparts the lessons of a reality deeper than the one actually perceived, so too must sacred history reflect, to the believer, the underlying realities of the past, rather than the distortions arising from the contingencies of experience coupled with the haphazardness of documentation.
The problem with all these examples, for me, is that perhaps you might use them on a child, which is indeed the subject of R' Haym's thought, but would you use them on an adult? Suppose you tell your child that "crime doesn't pay." When they grow up and see that there are corrupt men who live in mansions, not committing a crime becomes a different sort of choice. It isn't that crime doesn't pay. It's that crime does pay (at least in material possessions, if you can pull it off and refrain from being caught) but I choose not to do it. Why do I choose not to do it? Perhaps because my morality does not allow me to act that way in good conscience. But in the end, as in all things, it comes down to the fact that one follows the laws of the Torah, sensible or not, and this is what dictates choice.
R' Haym posits that using revisionist histories to support a way of life nowadays is an attempt on the part of the authors to uncover the "deeper reality" which is why they do not feel that they are lying. This is a kindness on his part because it allows for those who compose these histories to feel as though they are doing the right thing; this judgement allows R' Haym to look at people in a kind way. The problem with this approach has to do with where one draws the line. If treated too simply, it appears that people may lie if they are trying to accomplish an end goal that they see as good; "the ends justify the means." Do we really want to allow for such a belief within our society? I would find the allowance of this belief troubling.
This is exactly what the Wizard does in the musical Wicked. He justifies his actions and his lies by explaining that they are all generously meant for the people. The people in Oz "needed someone to believe in" and that's what the Wizard gave them. Elphaba calls him on it and damningly states, "So you lied to them." The Wizard's response? "There are precious few at ease/ With moral ambiguities/ So we act as though they don't exist."
What if we don't want to be lied to?
What if we don't care that these lies are for a higher purpose, that they'll allow us to see the "deeper reality" behind the fragmented view of the world?
What if we don't want to be eased into this acceptance of heroes and educators and exemplars of conduct by being told that in the past, this is how it always was?
Well, I suppose in that case, we have recourse to Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's article. But is that enough?
I don't like being lied to. I don't care what the purpose is. You and I both know, of course, that we are lied to all the time. Politicians lie to us, the newspaper lies to us, the media lies to us, we lie to ourselves. "Everybody lies," as Dr. House says. So we may dismiss the lies as well-nigh impossible to be rid of, that is true. That all having been said and understood, I still don't like to be lied to.
Is it moral behavior on the part of our leaders to create a history woven of lies in an attempt to force us to submit our will to authorities who in the past had no such authority? Is it moral to lie in order to achieve a certain result, to lie in order to unveil a "hidden truth" that one is afraid the masses would not grasp if one gave over the true version of Jewish history, unflattering as it may potentially be? Is any of that moral? Who gave you the right? Do the ends justify the means? Does creating a society that you can control by ceding all power to Rabbis and sages justify lying to that society in order to control them?
R' Haym grants a kind of validity to this concept. I wouldn't say he supports it so much as understands it and therefore has the ability to explain it.
Personally, I hate the idea.
It may simply be because I am young, naive and an idealist that I hate it so much. It may also be my emotional response to hearing gedolim equated to gods so many times, to having been taught (and knowing it was wrong) that Da'as Torah is some kind of direct telephone line between a Rabbi and God, to having been told by believers that Rabbis have some kind of insight and ruach hakodesh that I don't possess and therefore have the ability and the right to make life decisions for me even if they don't know me from Adam. It may be the fact that I do not like the idea of others being in control of my life or of a society's life, that I am modern and rational and far prefer the idea that each man has a reasonable grasp on judgment so that he does not need to be mislead in order to be good.
It may be all these things and I freely admit that to you.
I still hate it.
I see no validity in an ideological history of our people; I understand that it fills a need and was created in order to allow for nationalism and a form of identity to take root amongst our people. Surely now, however, when that need has been filled, we need perpetrate the fraud no longer? Indeed, within Modern Orthodox segments of society we do not. The Making of a Godol was banned because it revealed that this deception was just that, a deception. It told the truth about sages of yore, revealed them as being people with all the complex and complicated emotions that people possess, with knowledge, both secular and Judaic. I am sure that many of you have a copy proudly displayed in your library; I only hope that you troubled to read that copy or at least to use it as a reference rather than buying it simply to show that you rebel.
I would like to think that we in the Modern Orthodox community do not like lies.
I would like to think that we can create a strong society based on truth, even if that may be a disappointing or unrewarding truth.
I believe that we have already begun.