Toward a Halakhic Philosophy of History
I. Is History Permitted?
The study of history is an important and often enjoyable way to learn about humanity and leadership but it is also morally dubious. Most people enjoy discovering important details about famous people and events from the past, complex stories from different times and places that inform their understanding of the present and future. But because learning about the past involves discovering and repeating negative stories about people, we must ask whether Judaism permits it. Are we allowed to publicly dig around someone’s closet simply because he has died?
In the foreword to his controversy-sparking book Making of a Godol (pp. xxiv-xxvii), R. Nathan Kamenetsky discusses a disagreement between two scholarly brothers over the value of history. Both agree that history is an instrument; its study is not a goal in itself but a means to an end. According to R. Shimon Schwab (Selected Writings, pp. 233-234), history serve to inspire: “We do not need realism; we need inspiration from our forefathers.” His brother, R. Mordechai Schwab, saw history as educational. According to the former history must be inspirational while according to the latter it must be instructional. R. Kamenetsky explains at length why he prefers the instructional model.
This instructional value of history leads to a difficult religious dilemma. If halakhah forbids history, we run the risk of submitting to Santayana’s truism about those who fail to remember the mistakes of history. Does Judaism demand that we run a society without looking in the rearview mirror?
III. Two Types of Speech
In an article in last year’s issue of Beis Yitzchak, Yeshiva University’s Torah journal, Zev Eleff wrote about the intersection of history and halakhah (link – PDF). I’d like to expand his first section to address this question more fully, even if only tentatively.
The Mordekhai (Bava Kama 106) quotes an ancient ban on falsely libeling the deceased, codified in Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 606:4). Eleff quotes the father of the aforementioned R. Nathan Kamenetsky, R. Ya’akov (Emes Le-Ya’akov al Ha-Torah, vayeishev p. 194), who states that this ban only forbids false libel. One may tell true negative stories about people from the past.
The key distinction here is between lashon ha-ra, true stories that reflect poorly on their protagonists, and hotza’as shem ra, false negative stories. While you may not say either about the living, you are only forbidden, according to R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky, to say false negative stories about the deceased. Honest history, with all the warts and pimples, is an approved subject. However, this does not constitue carte blanch permission for historical study, as we will see shortly.
III. The Strict Position
Others disagree with R. Kamenetsky’s lenient view. R. Binyamin Yehoshua Zilber (Az Nidberu 14:68) quotes the following from the Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 420:38): “One who speaks negatively about the deceased must fast, repent and pay a fine as a court decides.” R. Zilber deduces from there that one may not say anything bad about the dead, whether lashon ha-ra or hotza’as shem ra. The ancient ban was an enactment to reinforce an already existing prohibition, a not uncommon occurrence.
Interestingly, R. Nathan Kamenetsky seems to agree with R. Zilber. In the foreword mentioned above (p. xxvi), as part of a discussion of his philosophy of history, he writes, “It goes without saying that R’ Mordkhai Schwab did not approve of revealing faults in any man without constructive purpose; and neither do I.” Apparently, the younger R. Kamenetsky does not approve of lashon ha-ra about the deceased without a constructive purpose.
IV. Permitted Gossip
What, then, of history? If lashon ha-ra is a limitation on the study of history, then the exceptions to the prohibition reflect the permitted types of history. Chafetz Chaim (2:10:2), the classic halakhic work on forbidden speech, allows for lashon ha-ra when the following conditions are fulfilled:
- You repeat the information for a legitimate, constructive purpose (to’eles)
- You carefully investigate and become certain about the facts or include appropriate disclaimers (link)
- You do not exaggerate
- You have no other way of resolving the need
- You first try satisfying the need by approaching the subject
- You have no ulterior motives
- The subject is not overly penalized by your repeating the story
When it comes to history, all of the conditions are fulfilled or inapplicable except the first two. What to’eles can you have to study and teach negative historical information? How certain can you be about most of history? The indisputable fact rarely appears. The bulk of the historical enterprise consists of interpretation of evidence, deduction and speculation.
V. The Uses of History
I tentatively suggest that the study of history is sometimes so valuable as to permit lashon ha-ra (assuming the other conditions apply). Understanding yesterday’s politics is crucial to succeeding in today’s politics. Understanding the nature of human interaction offers critical insight into maneuvering in current and future environments. If knowledge of history helps us avoid past mistakes, then it is valuable and necessary.
The implications of this questionable thesis to the study of history are two-fold. First, study must revolve around useful topics. Gossip that is trivial and forbidden about living people does not become valuable once the people die. Scholarship of gossip is not inherently permissible unless it offers valuable insight.
Second, speculation must be clearly labeled as such, if not entirely avoided. Anything other than clear fact must be preceded by proper disclaimers. Because so much of history rests on interpretation, this rule requires use of a language of intellectual humility. You must clearly acknowledge the limits of your historical assumptions and deductions.
This latter point applies equally to the lenient view. Because this view only approves of true negative stories, a story would presumably be forbidden whenever there is any reasonable doubt of its accuracy. This applies, I believe, to the bulk of history. The only saving grace would be appropriate caveats that acknowledge the speculative nature of the assertions.
I freely admit to a lack of certainty about the above analysis. I welcome other suggestions.
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