In The Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Volume V, R' Samson Raphael Hirsch addresses the Origin of the Oral Law, beginning, in Part One, to write "A Critical Examination of Dr. H. Graetz's History of the Jews From the Destruction of the Jewish State Until the Conclusion of the Talmud." It is necessary to read the entire work, but what I shall reproduce below is R' Hirsch's "Introduction," (pages 3-6) which will clearly demonstrate the point when it comes to attempting to sketch the personalities of the Talmudic scholars.
I once had a young friend who was a deaf-mute. He was a rather popular artist in one of the German provincial capitals. All his portraits looked very much alike, yet they were not truly alike. He had a habit- we called it a peculiarity- of painting all his pictures in colossal dimensions. All his paintings were much larger than life and therefore had a strange, spectral look. One could readily surmise that the subject had sat for the portrait, but one could not state with certainty that this was indeed the one. Recognition was not the result of a visual impression, but of reflection. The portrait hinted at the identity of the subject, but it was clear that the artist had not painted his subject in terms of objective reality. He had only captured the subjective impression made upon him by the personality of his subject.
When it comes to a human subject, the artist's eye is not his only medium of perception; the portraitist is influenced also by his emotions. Any contemplation of a human subject entails the conception of an intellectual personality. The subjective image of a subject, which is largely influenced by personal likes and dislikes, will unconsciously guide the brush in the artist's hand. Such an image may often be entirely inaccurate. In addition, it may be further influenced by accidental poses of the subject, or even by the subject's- or the artist's- momentary state of health or ill health.
This should explain the many portraits which, though they cannot be dismissed out of hand as "bad," show features so unlike the subject and are so much at variance with his true character, that those better acquainted with him- especially his closest friends and relations- will categorically reject the portrait. The artist has captured in his work a trait that is transient or accidental (and colored by the artist's own subjective impressions) as if it were a permanent aspect of his subject's personality. In fact, the portrait flagrantly contradicts the character of the person they know. Regarding our deaf-mute friend, it might be worthwhile to make a psychological study to establish whether deaf-mute artists see their human subjects in a light so basically different from normal portraitists that there must always be something unusual about any portrait painted by a deaf-mute.
Now imagine an artist whose natural angle of vision causes him to see his subjects not larger, but smaller than life. Imagine further that, over many years, this artist created portraits for which his subjects never sat. He based his work on some isolated trait in his subjects that may have come to his attention by accident and that, in addition, may have been distorted by the artist's hasty judgment or misinterpretation. This artist then brings his creative imagination into play, using this one traits as a basis for interpreting the personality of the subject as a whole. He portrays his subjects as he saw them once, in unguarded odds, positions or activities: the one in a playful mood, the other in a pensive state; the one laughing, the other weeping; the one angry, the other joking. Some of his subjects are made to appear indignant, arrogant or impudent, while others look depressed, anxious, humble or embarrassed. But in thus portraying a person, the artists has seized upon only one note in that person's whole range of emotions, a note which, in fact, may have been played only once in the person's lifetime, but which the artist has perpetuated as the keynote, the dominant character.
Now let us imagine that, years later, this artist presents to use these sketches as true-to-life portraits, committing the error of explaining the transient moods in which he painted his subjects as typical of their character. "Look," he says, "this one was always laughing; that one had an evil temper; this one was forever playing games; that one was always deep in thought." Even worse, he passes off these products of his imagination not only as authentic character sketches of his subjects but as prototypes of all their contemporaries; thus, "during this period, people were laughing all the time; during this other period, they tended to be depressed; this era was one of arrogance; that era was an age of anxiety and timidity."
Now let us say that, in reply to our look of disbelief, the artist cites ancient chronicles in support of his presentation: "During that year the cherries were sour; as a result, everyone alive at the time had a sour look on his face," or, "During this year the future looked bright; as a result, everyone was in an unusually friendly mood." Say, further, that this artists clings to his fancies as if they were absolute truth, so much so that wherever he needs a historical reference to authenticate his portrait he feels free to invent a reference to suit the portrait. Consider all these caprices of artistic fancy, and you have the History of the Jews by Dr. H. Graetz.
These lines were written to a friend who waned to hear my opinions of this History soon after its publication. They reflect the impression which the book made upon me after I read it through only once, without subjecting the author's views and descriptions to detailed tests in the light of of the data and the sources he cites int heir support. Even a superficial glance at this so-called "History of the Jews" should be sufficient for anyone with even a slight knowledge of the literature cited by the author as his source material to see that this work presents more fiction than fact.
Since then, I have examined this work in detail and checked it against the cited sources. Leaving aside the religious philosophy for which it is intended as an ideological basis and which its conclusions are meant to support, I have found it to be, even from a purely scientific point of view, a product of the most outrageous, irresponsible superficiality. I therefore consider it my sacred duty to present the results of my investigation to the public.
Let honest men of all factions judge the extent to which Graetz's History of the Jews has adhered to the elements of veracity and thoroughness that are the basic criteria for any scholarly endeavor. If these essentials are disregarded, the consequences are particularly pernicious, for we are not dealing merely with an examination of some long-buried antiquities. Graetz's study is intended to explain to the contemporary reader certain historic forces that are still at work today. These forces form the organic basis for all development of our nation's religious life through the ages, down to our own time.
As the author of this History has understood correctly, the true core of Jewish history is the history of Jewish literature. This core relates to the political history of Jewish sufferings only as the kernel relates to a bitter, outer shell. It is with this kernel that we are dealing here primarily, and so we will leave aside our author's observations on the political aspects of the Jewish past which are contained in this history text.
The volume of Graetz's history that is now before us deals with the Talmudic era. It contains character sketches of all the outstanding bearers of the Talmudic tradition. Through our author's characterization of these individuals, the history of Jewish Law is presented from a pragmatic viewpoint. He does not examine the teachings and teaching methods disseminated and handed down by these personalities in objective terms, i.e., against the background of the Law which they received and which they were to pass on to future generations. Rather, he interprets them subjectively, in terms of what he perceives to be the temperament, the psychological makeup, the hierarchic positions and the political aims of these teachers (who, however, the author concedes, were in no way motivated by selfish consideration).
He sees these personalities not as the bearers of the tradition but as its creators. To him, Talmudic Law, which through all the centuries of our exile has upheld the Jews and shaped every aspect of Jewish life, is merely the product of the temperamental and psychological characteristics of these eminent figures. We will leave it to our author's scholarly conscience to judge such a view of tradition, which is not a tradition that harks back to Mount Sinai.
The fact remains that, like any other work of this type, this history text, too, must stand up before the critical forum of scholarship. It must be able to demonstrate the accuracy and acceptability of the factual data on which it bases its characterizations of the personalities and the issues it discusses- in this case, the teachers and their teachings.
Let us, therefore, examine the portrait gallery of great Talmudic personalities that Graetz has set up for us, and let us see whether the portraits offered to us are historically accurate.