Is History Mutar?

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In today’s culture we sense an inherent value to the study of history that past generations rejected. Indeed, justification of such study is difficult given the authoritative admonitions to avoid it. Yet, we find a number of religious history books written throughout the ages. Is history valuable to the religious personality or a waste of time?

The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 307:16) forbids reading books about wars because they are a waste of time. While one could limit that ruling to a specific genre of war stories, it has typically been understood as referring to general history. Similarly, R. Ovadiah Bartenura, in his commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1), quotes the Rambam that chronicles of gentile kings are forbidden because they are bereft of wisdom and wastes of time.

However, leading scholars throughout the ages — including the Rambam — have published histories of Judaism and sometimes of gentile society as well. They have offered, either explicitly or implicitly, a number of justifications for the study of history (most of this can be found in Shmuel Feiner, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness, ch. 1):

  1. Understanding the Torah better by recognizing the personal and historical context of leading authorities
  2. Strengthening faith in: God, the giving of the Torah, reward and punishment, providence over the Jewish people, messianic redemption
  3. To teach the ways of the righteous, which are to be emulated, and the ways of the wicked, which are to be avoided
  4. To provide ammunition for defending Judaism against Christian or anti-Orthodox criticisms

Early Maskilim offered additional arguments that may resonate with us today:

  1. Allows Jews to speak intelligently with gentiles
  2. Develops the qualities of curiosity and critical thinking
  3. Enables better understanding of human interaction in the political, economic and military spheres
  4. Enhances personal moral development

Of course, when Maskilim spoke about history they meant critical history, evaluating evidence on its merit rather than accepting legends as fact. Setting aside the issue of what credibility to give which sources, the value of history as a pursuit remains a question that the early Maskilim felt they needed to answer. History is not self-evidently valuable as a goal in itself. The history of nonsense is, quite arguably, nonsense. A person’s natural curiosity does not constitute justification of a course of study.

However, the arguments above are, I think, quite convincing that the study of history is religiously valuable. The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 307:9) rules that one may read newspapers because knowing what goes on in the world today is valuable for business and other pursuits. History, however, is useless so it is forbidden. If an authority would argue as above, that history has religious value, then he would presumably permit its study.

We see that on Tisha Be-Av, studying the history of Jewish exiles is allowed because of its religious value. In an article in the first issue of the Torah U-Madda Journal, R. Zevulun Charlop argues that the study of American history, specifically the founding fathers, uncovers not only God’s role in history but the true meaning of a passage in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (link). And in a later issue, R. Jacob J. Schacter quotes the views of recent authorities such as R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski who encourage the study of Jewish history as a way to undermine anti-Orthodox polemics (link, p. 205ff.).

Of the above sources, only R. Charlop explicitly permits the study of gentile history for religious purposes. However, I suspect that many others would allow it for those who find it religiously beneficial. I would appreciate any additional sources that readers can provide.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

108 comments

  1. “R. Zevulun Charlop argues that the study of American history, specifically the founding fathers, uncovers not only God’s role in history ”
    R Charlop taught American History at YC before he became an administrator at RIETS.

  2. Forgive my ignorance, but who are the contemporary Modern Orthodox thinkers or leaders who think (critical) history is assur?

  3. Forgive my ignorance, but who are the contemporary Modern Orthodox thinkers or leaders who think (critical) history is assur?

  4. Slightly off topic: The Terumas Hadeshen permits discussing “malochim v’milchamos” (politics?) on shabbos as a form of oneg.

  5. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that to truly understand the strictures in the sources (and the permissions) you’d need a bit of history.

  6. I fail to see the need for a question here. I value sifting through history. To learn how all the puzzles fit together. I have family members that don’t. It’s a matter of taste and preference to what each enjoy learning. Why the need to ask whether it’s “forbidden” or “muttar?”

    Pardon me while i go read about the battle of trafalgar. Why? Because I enjoy it.

  7. A better question, is the study of halachic sources without the slightest clue to their historical circumstances and the orientation of their authors mutar?

    BTW, you forgot reason 5: because there is value in pursuing truth.

    Another point, any source that that discuses history before the advent of modern history is not discussing history as we know it today, but rather something that is better characterized as chronicles than history books – they are collections of facts and legends and not an analysis of the forces of history and the influences that drive events and developments. The study of history is the modern world is essential to the modern understanding and interpretation of texts.

    Further, the modern mind can not completely think unhistorically – we are raised in an historically-minded world. The only question is whether our historical consciousness will be critical or noncritical – the price of noncritical historiography being the sort of Orwellian agenda driven lies that is chareidi historiography/hagiography.

    One last point, posts such as this are a bizayon to the Torah world. They paint it as an obstructionist fanatical reactionary society that is afraid of open thought and investigation – a society unworthy of the respect of the seekers of truth of the world. It could be that this is the direction that people in Gil’s circles want to move orthodoxy, however, I think such an approach is short sided and will cause a serious “brain drain” from orthodox society.

  8. Shachar Ha'amim

    There’s actually a pasuk that can be taken as an imperitive to learn history, and all history. From Parashat Ha’azinu:

    זכור ימות עולם, בינו שנות דור ודור

    Certainly most rishonim and thinkers view this posuk as a positive command to study history
    frankly the title of the post should have been “Is (Jewish) History Assur”? and then analyzed the minority POV quoted

  9. Why does everything have to be phrased in religious terms? Why can’t history be just as valuable as any other empirical science, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the standards of scientific rigor? If you are going to make any sort of rational decision, you need some set of empirical facts upon which to base that decision. Why isn’t that enough?

  10. Nice post, but I think the question of “critical history” needs to be examined further. Especially in light of the significant changes in historiographic methods since the haskalah.

  11. I was just reading a story, in where one of the characters was explaining why Pilpul was Bitul Torah. I think the havaminah regarding this post needs to be explored further.

  12. R. Shoshan,

    “Especially in light of the significant changes in historiographic methods since the haskalah.”

    Could you elaborate?

  13. Aside from a few major issues which have already been discussed here, historical study for me has been enormously beneficial for me religiously. Learning how people lived, developed religious poems and customs, and did so in the most difficult of circumstances is incredibly inspiring for me.

    Davka the REAL stories of gedolei Torah of the past are a great source of encouragement for me in my wn religious growth. The same goes for the evolution of the Jewish communities throughout history, maintaining and developing their heritage throughout time.

    As for non-Jewish history, it hasn’t been RELIGIOUSLY beneficial, but it is enormously edifying for me. You can learn a lot from learning history. Try it.

  14. r’ gil – “History is not self-evidently valuable as a goal in itself. The history of nonsense is, quite arguably, nonsense. A person’s natural curiosity does not constitute justification of a course of study.”

    why not? your statements are not truisms. nonsense is nonsense but the history of nonsense….
    by your logic and quotes many things that one(rabbis?) considers a waste of time would be assur. let the amcha lead and the rabbis will justify afterwards (see commerce dealings between jews and gentiles as an example).

  15. “The history of nonsense is, quite arguably, nonsense.”

    Much if not virtually all of history is the history of nonsense. You can’t even begin to study the history of the twentieth century, for example, without studying the nonsense (Communism, Fascism, etc.) that lay at its root. Doesn’t make it any less valuable.

  16. IH: Forgive my ignorance, but who are the contemporary Modern Orthodox thinkers or leaders who think (critical) history is assur?

    Who are the MO thinkers who have written about it?

    Holy Hyrax: I value sifting through history. To learn how all the puzzles fit together.

    Do you mean that you enjoy the intellectual exercise or that you grow from it? The former isn’t convincing because not everything you enjoy is allowed. The latter is more convincing and is really the subject of the post.

    Chardal: A better question, is the study of halachic sources without the slightest clue to their historical circumstances and the orientation of their authors mutar?

    Are leading questions falsely implying superior knowledge and methodology mutar?

    BTW, you forgot reason 5: because there is value in pursuing truth.

    Actually I made the specific point that this was NOT included, not even by the Maskilim. And I can see why. Is there value in pursuing EVERY truth? Is it religiously beneficial to learn everything possible about the competition to achieve the high score on Donkey Kong (real documentary, BTW). That’s why R. Yaakov Emden did not value gentile history. He did not see it as relevant.

    Another point, any source that that discuses history before the advent of modern history is not discussing history as we know it today, but rather something that is better characterized as chronicles than history books – they are collections of facts and legends and not an analysis of the forces of history and the influences that drive events and developments.

    Your getting close to making a good point here. Why is the latter better than the other? Why is analyzing historical forces more religiously beneficial than studying collections of facts and legends?

    Further, the modern mind can not completely think unhistorically – we are raised in an historically-minded world. The only question is whether our historical consciousness will be critical or noncritical…

    Agreed, and mentioned in the post.

    One last point, posts such as this are a bizayon to the Torah world.

    I see your denigration of the past and your failure to see contemporary Judaism as its continuation as a bizayon to the Torah world. It could be that this is the direction in which you want to move Orthodoxy but I see it as short-sighted and detrimental. If you reject the past, you have no rudder to guide your path.

  17. Shachar HaAmim: Yes! I was looking for some source to point that out but did not find any. Are you aware of one?

    Certainly most rishonim and thinkers view this posuk as a positive command to study history

    Name three

    frankly the title of the post should have been “Is (Jewish) History Assur”? and then analyzed the minority POV quoted

    You think it’s bad policy to start with the Shulchan Arukh?

    Jon_Brooklyn: Why does everything have to be phrased in religious terms?

    Because the Shulchan Arukh said it’s assur!

    Why can’t history be just as valuable as any other empirical science…

    Because empirical science is gaining an understanding of God’s creation. History is learning about what people do. Among the reasons in this post is that history is ALSO about understanding God’s actions as they relate to history.

    Moshe Shoshan: I think the question of “critical history” needs to be examined further. Especially in light of the significant changes in historiographic methods since the haskalah

    Why should it make a difference?

    Aiwac: historical study for me has been enormously beneficial for me religiously

    For me, as well.

  18. ruvie: why not? your statements are not truisms.

    All I was doing was restating what follows from the sources. And the reference to Prof. Lieberman’s quip was intentional and probably what he really believed.

    let the amcha lead and the rabbis will justify afterwards

    That doesn’t always work so well. See the intermarriage rate and Reform/Conservative rabbinic response.

  19. I don’t have it to hand, but doesn’t Rav Lichtenstein have something to say about this in his essay on the value of secular studies in JJ Schachter’s book, ‘Judaism’s Encounter with other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?’.

  20. I don’t have it handy either but I don’t recall his discussing history. Anyone have it available?

  21. Surprised nobody yet has registered discomfort with the assumption that any “waste of time” is inherently assur.

  22. Shalom Rosenfeld

    Rabbi Yehuda Shmulevitz told me that the “history” referred to by Rambam and others was strictly the trumped-up legends of kings and their glories, written by the victors (to which the Rambam writes, “who cares?”). The modern, critical, deeper, and more complex study that history is today is much more valuable, for the various reasons mentioned above.

    It’s not that the halacha changed; it’s what we mean when we say “studying history.” (First aid classes used to say to put meat tenderizer on a snakebite, now they don’t. Not because it was bad medicine, but because the ingredients in meat tenderizer have changed!)

    Rabbi Frand has a shiur on secular studies where he says he’s mostly reflecting R’ Weinberg’s views, and he says history is valuable.

  23. r’ gil: ” the reference to Prof. Lieberman’s quip was intentional and probably what he really believed.”

    the original quote i believe is: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is a very important science. In certain respects it is more revealing than the history of sciences based on reason,”

    on the maskilim’s reasons to study history you should include issac euchel’s “on the benefits provided by history(1784) found in feiner’s book p.24:studying history is also gaining parts of total human knowledge and through rational inquiry arrive at “real truth”. also (missing from your list), universal historical context would enable a better understanding scriptures, mishnah, and talmud.

  24. r'[ gil: “the reference to Prof. Lieberman’s quip was intentional and probably what he really believed.”
    as i quote above your statement seems contra to prof. lieberman’s really believed.

    i don’t see why shalom rosenfeld’s comment is not self evident to the orthodoxy in today’s understanding of the study history – the old category no longer exists. is it really surprising that no major posek has written the definitive teshuva allowing it? or is it just accepted or falls into the rubric as any other secular knowledge?

  25. I have a theory that the Shulchan Aruch’s ban on “Wars” might be a stab at Josephus and his “Wars of the Jews”.

    ….just a theory.

    Ari Enkin

  26. So, all this beating around the bush is really Gil asking for the record of the halachic process behind our not following Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 307:16)???

  27. Apropos, the “old category” of history is still very much alive — even in mainstream books — see, e.g. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/oct/27/alexander-how-great/.

    My favorite quip from this article is: “It is, of course, a general rule that historians accuse each other of making anachronistic value judgments only when they do not share the judgment concerned.”

  28. Shlomo,

    No-one’s bothered by it. We just ignore it. We all live in the real world, not an idealized one.

  29. R’ Enkin — Is there any evidence that The Mechaber would have read Josephus?

    Wikipedia reports: “For many years, the works of Josephus were printed only in an imperfect Latin translation from the original Greek. It was only in 1544 that a version of the standard Greek text was made available, edited by the Dutch humanist Arnoldus Arlenius.”

  30. Well caught, aiwac. Thanks for the reminder.

  31. On several occasions I have heard R. Hershel Schachter say that studying history — even gentile history — is a mitzvah, based on “Zechor yemot olam, binu shenot dor vador.” I’ll bet it’s in one of his Haazinu parsha shiurim on YUTorah, though that’s not where I heard him say it.

  32. “One last point, posts such as this are a bizayon to the Torah world.”

    I (amost) agree. The chasm between the traditional rabbis who wrote and absorbed every last bit of history they could, according to their ability and the availability, and a post like this, is wide indeed. All the more so because the entire post is not even genuine – Gil knows that history is “muttar,” indeed, he cites Shmuel Feiner in the post.

  33. My read is the Gil is uncomfortable posing the question directly, hence all the verbiage.

    The direct question is: where is the record of the halachic process behind our not following Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 307:16)?

  34. Gil

    >That’s why R. Yaakov Emden did not value gentile history. He did not see it as relevant.

    He could have been wrong.

    In any case, I don’t get the “not relevant, not valuable” as “not muttar.” R. Yaakov Emden was also against blogging, believe me. He came from a very different world than we do, and we would do well to recognize that.

    >Because the Shulchan Arukh said it’s assur!

    He did not say “history is assur.” He said a specific genre of books is (or ought to be assur). This is where knowing some actual history comes into play. What sort of books was he referring to? Was it analogous to what we call history? To all of or some of it? And what was his source or authority for saying that those books are assur?

    > And the reference to Prof. Lieberman’s quip was intentional and probably what he really believed.

    I disagree. The man memorized dozens of volumes of writings of the Church Fathers. And, let’s be realistic, he also must have thought that at least some rabbinic material is nonsense. Do you really think he thought that he himself was engaged in nonsense?

  35. Shalom Rosenfeld and DES: Thanks for the references.

    ruvie: I’ll have to double check Feiner later tonight. It’s possible I accidentally overlooked that point.

    ruvie: i don’t see why shalom rosenfeld’s comment is not self evident to the orthodoxy in today’s understanding of the study history

    I don’t know what “self evident” means. I prefer not to pasken for myself or interpret major texts in ways that they have not been previously understood.

    IH: What beating around the bush? I think the post is pretty clear. I am arguing that there is religious value in studying history and therefore it should be permissible, and asking for sources that say similarly. You may feel comfortable ignoring halakhos on the books but I prefer textual grounding to practices.

    S: All the more so because the entire post is not even genuine

    What isn’t genuine about the post? The title?

    He could have been wrong

    Usually poskim disagree with someone who is wrong. Have you seen anyone disagree with this point of R. Emden’s?

    In any case, I don’t get the “not relevant, not valuable” as “not muttar.” R. Yaakov Emden was also against blogging, believe me. He came from a very different world than we do, and we would do well to recognize that.

    I don’t get the comparison. What is significant about the difference between the worlds that would affect this specific issue?

    He said a specific genre of books is (or ought to be assur). This is where knowing some actual history comes into play. What sort of books was he referring to? Was it analogous to what we call history? To all of or some of it? And what was his source or authority for saying that those books are assur?

    I see a lot of questions but no answers (although if you reread this post you’ll see that I am aware of the questions).

    I disagree. The man memorized dozens of volumes of writings of the Church Fathers.

    Why did he do it? Because it helped him study Torah.

  36. Gil — your last sentence directed to me was gratuitous and inappropriate. I have twice captured your question directly in an effort to help.

  37. “What isn’t genuine about the post? The title?”

    In my opinion it is not a valid question; no rabbis ever forbade history, and indeed, most of them valued history, even if only by implication. Please tell me the rabbis who did not cite the historical works?

    “Usually poskim disagree with someone who is wrong. Have you seen anyone disagree with this point of R. Emden’s?”

    This is like taste or smell; other halachists can value it or not, but that’s a personal thing. Furthermore, most halachists spend most of their time studying what they do value, so you can’t draw too many conclusions about permissibility simply because they would rather curl up with a nice sefer shu”t rather than Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which really, most of them – until recently – anyway could not read if they had wanted to, because they did not possess the linguistic skills.

    “I don’t get the comparison. What is significant about the difference between the worlds that would affect this specific issue?”

    He was tortured about his great thirst for chochma, and his feeling that it wasn’t so kosher. Are you? Are “we”? Did you do any soul-searching before you allowed your children to be taught the English alphabet? R. Yaakov Emden learned the European alphabet in secret. He came from a very different world with a very different attitude toward chochma.

    “I see a lot of questions but no answers (although if you reread this post you’ll see that I am aware of the questions).”

    So let’s talk about the answers. But it certainly is insufficient to say “R. Yoseph Karo said history is assur.” He most certainly did not.

    “Why did he do it? Because it helped him study Torah.”

    What history can’t help you study Torah? Even the chronicles of the idolaters can help you understand Torah. You didn’t respond to my part about his likely real attitude toward some rabbinic material. I don’t think it’s sufficient to say “It was their science,” as he himself said. It may have been the science of Sassanian Persia, but it was still nonsense.

  38. Gil – I understand the importance of looking for sources as justification, but, let’s be honest, the contemporary historical mindset, which has provided us with so many insights into Torah bifrat and all aspects of yishuv ha’olam bichlal, did not really exist a few hundred years ago, which is why it is almost pointless to look for ideological (not textual – this is how halacha works) justifications for the current degree of value we attach to such study.

    We should value history for the same reasons Harvard has a history department – historical studies enrich both the individual who engages in them and civilization overall; imagine trying to build a society that had no understanding of history. To the extents that one believes that yishuv ha’olam is the responsibility of Jews too (and this is shanuy b’machlokes), then one should see value in the study of history.

    Even outside of this, historical studies help us to understand Torah itself – when trying to fully understand the positions taken by great authorities on many issues that transcend particular texts, a degree of historical perspective is often invaluable.

  39. The problem is that if Gil can’t find textual support for the halachic process being applied to his reading of SA OC 307:16, it is a slippery slope to “feel comfortable ignoring halakhos on the books”.

    So, either he is reading something into the SA that others do not; or, his frustration is understandable within the context of his worldview.

  40. “they are collections of facts and legends and not an analysis of the forces of history and the influences that drive events and developments.”

    It has been a while since I read it, but I remember Herodotus’ work as having quite a bit of analysis. (It also contains an interesting reference to a group of people in Syria who practiced circumcision. That would be us.)

    “Davka the REAL stories of gedolei Torah of the past are a great source of encouragement for me in my wn religious growth.”

    Same here.

    “You can’t even begin to study the history of the twentieth century, for example, without studying the nonsense (Communism, Fascism, etc.) that lay at its root. Doesn’t make it any less valuable.”

    It may be even more valuable, as we can learn how nonsense ideology became popular and take action to prevent such in the future.

    ‘I have a theory that the Shulchan Aruch’s ban on “Wars” might be a stab at Josephus and his “Wars of the Jews”.’

    Maybe I and II Maccabees?

  41. >Do you mean that you enjoy the intellectual exercise or that you grow from it? The former isn’t convincing because not everything you enjoy is allowed. The latter is more convincing and is really the subject of the post.

    Both. I can grow from it and I simply enjoy reading and learning about history in general. The way nations develop, the way wars affect countries etc etc. The fact that the shulchan aruch forbids it, IMO, is the real problem here. Maybe the real question should be whether authority has spread its hand too much into things it need not be concerned with. I realize that not everything we enjoy is allowed. But how about a little common sense here!

  42. Abba's Rantings

    “leading scholars throughout the ages — including the Rambam — have published histories of Judaism and sometimes of gentile society as well”

    rambam?

  43. “Jon_Brooklyn: Why does everything have to be phrased in religious terms?

    Because the Shulchan Arukh said it’s assur!

    Why can’t history be just as valuable as any other empirical science…

    Because empirical science is gaining an understanding of God’s creation. History is learning about what people do. Among the reasons in this post is that history is ALSO about understanding God’s actions as they relate to history.”

    1) So now if we come up with some silly “religious” reasons like “we see how God works in history” then we can override the Shulkhan Arukh? I prefer my route.

    2) So if empirical science didn’t actually show us anything about God’s creation, then we wouldn’t do it? That sounds extremely unlikely. I’m pretty sure we’d still be trying to do science given the incredible practical purposes to which we can put it to use. Same with history – if you don’t know any at all, and you’re leading people, chances are you’re going to make some bad decisions.

    Moreover, aren’t we God’s creations? How is “what people do” distinct from “what trees do” on the scale of ‘religious’ signifiance???

  44. Abba's Rantings

    “However, the arguments above are, I think, quite convincing that the study of history is religiously valuable.”

    it’s aleady been addressed in a comment, but i will also ask, does every action have to be religiously valuable? religiously permitted and guided by religious principles (halachah), yes. but religously valuable?

  45. For those who value Sheker over Emes history is assur

    Read any Orthodox historian ie
    http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/704426/Rabbi_Dr._Jacob_J_Schacter/Facing_the_Truths_of_History

  46. Good point, IH.

    teiku.

    A

  47. Lawrence Kaplan

    Perhaps the title of this post should have been “Why is the Study of History Muttar and even Ratzui?”

  48. No-one’s bothered by it. We just ignore it. We all live in the real world, not an idealized one.

    This argument has led me to a lot of inconclusive thinking over the years, since I keep wanting to use it to justify every violation of halacha I’m ever tempted to perform. Presumably that is not OK. So please inform me where and how I should draw the line.

  49. Actually I made the specific point that this was NOT included, not even by the Maskilim. And I can see why. Is there value in pursuing EVERY truth? Is it religiously beneficial to learn everything possible about the competition to achieve the high score on Donkey Kong (real documentary, BTW). That’s why R. Yaakov Emden did not value gentile history. He did not see it as relevant.

    So there is not value in pursuing truth? The maskilim were writing to a pre-modern audience which did not have an historical consciousness – they had to justify it on religious ground. We are living in modernity and if someone is interested in a field that furthers our understanding of the world, then that has value. Even the documentary that you refer to (which I have actually seen) has some value in that it shows the effects of obsession and the length to which people will go in order to hold onto even questionable honor. Obviously, such a movie is much less important to the pursuit of truth than the study of history.

    >Why is the latter better than the other?

    Because lists of obscure facts does give you any insight into any metaphysical forces in the world, whereas the understanding of the forces that drive history is critical to understanding both humanity as well as our own nation and the forces that created the environment under which our great spiritual works were written. It actually surprises me that this needs to be explained.

    >If you reject the past, you have no rudder to guide your path.

    Sounds like an endorsement for the proper study of history to me. In fact, without history (critical history) you are far more likely to misapply and misunderstand the sources you engage than to find the truth which is in them. Further, sources that were written in pre-modern times or with a pre-modern conciousness are of limited applicability to the open intelectual atmosphere in which we live – the age of obstuctionist thought police is over and people who try to restore it in the name of the great sages of the past are not doing a favor either to our own community or to the memory of those sages.

    >Because empirical science is gaining an understanding of God’s creation. History is learning about what people do.

    God is in physics but not in history?!?

  50. S: In my opinion it is not a valid question; no rabbis ever forbade history, and indeed, most of them valued history, even if only by implication.

    I disagree. I think most rabbis forbade reading general (i.e. non-Jewish) history books, even during the week.

    So let’s talk about the answers.

    You still haven’t.

    But it certainly is insufficient to say “R. Yoseph Karo said history is assur.” He most certainly did not.

    In what way did he NOT say it?

    What history can’t help you study Torah?

    How about the history of Donkey Kong high scores or women’s headpieces in Alaska? But your general sentiment is precisely my point in this post. However, R. Yaakov Emden evidently disagreed, presumably you will say due to historical reasons but that hardly changes his view.

    J: I understand the importance of looking for sources as justification

    I’m looking for CONTEMPORARY sources that justify the practice.

    We should value history for the same reasons Harvard has a history department – historical studies enrich both the individual who engages in them and civilization overall

    Isn’t that point contained in this post?

    IH: The problem is that if Gil can’t find textual support for the halachic process being applied to his reading of SA OC 307:16, it is a slippery slope to “feel comfortable ignoring halakhos on the books”.

    No, the point is that I don’t believe in disregarding halakhic sources and going with your gut.

    Abba: rambam?

    Introduction to Mishneh Torah

    Jon_Brooklyn: 1) So now if we come up with some silly “religious” reasons like “we see how God works in history” then we can override the Shulkhan Arukh?

    Silly??? It’s an excellent reason.

    2) So if empirical science didn’t actually show us anything about God’s creation, then we wouldn’t do it?

    I’m sure some people would do it as their jobs but it wouldn’t be inherently valuable.

    Moreover, aren’t we God’s creations? How is “what people do” distinct from “what trees do” on the scale of ‘religious’ signifiance???

    Isn’t that what I said?

    Abba: it’s aleady been addressed in a comment, but i will also ask, does every action have to be religiously valuable?

    That is the Shulchan Arukh’s working premise, isn’t it? But see this post: https://www.torahmusings.com/2005/08/talking-politics/

    YC: That’s a great article by R. JJ Schacter. I wish you had read to the end of this post where it is quoted.

    Chardal: So there is not value in pursuing truth?… We are living in modernity and if someone is interested in a field that furthers our understanding of the world, then that has value

    I’m reminded of an Isaac Asimov story where people created a machine that lets you see the past anywhere in the world. Someone set it to 1 second in the past and then could see everything going on in the world. You are basically saying that knowledge of anything, no matter how mundane, is valuable in and of itself. I dispute that claim. Some things are trivial and knowledge of them has no value whatsoever.

    Even the documentary that you refer to (which I have actually seen) has some value in that it shows the effects of obsession and the length to which people will go in order to hold onto even questionable honor. Obviously, such a movie is much less important to the pursuit of truth than the study of history

    Here you are claiming that knowledge has instrumental value in furthering our understanding of human behavior. I agree with that.

    Because lists of obscure facts does give you any insight into any metaphysical forces in the world, whereas the understanding of the forces that drive history is critical to understanding both humanity as well as our own nation and the forces that created the environment under which our great spiritual works were written

    Exactly. It is not valuable in and of itself as truth but because it “Enables better understanding of human interaction in the political, economic and military spheres” (to quote from this post).

    Sounds like an endorsement for the proper study of history to me

    An instrumental argument, yes.

    Further, sources that were written in pre-modern times or with a pre-modern conciousness are of limited applicability to the open intelectual atmosphere in which we live – the age of obstuctionist thought police is over and people who try to restore it in the name of the great sages of the past are not doing a favor either to our own community or to the memory of those sages

    This is a totally different argument. We can’t stop people from learning history so we shouldn’t say it’s forbidden. Maybe that’s why poskim are quiet on the issue — not because they think it’s mutar but because they are concerned that saying it is assur will cause communal problems.

    God is in physics but not in history?!?

    You’re attaching yourself to the arguments in favor of learning history, specifically #2 in the first list and R. Charlop’s argument. It’s great that you agree with my arguments in this post.

  51. Lawrence Kaplan: Perhaps the title of this post should have been “Why is the Study of History Muttar and even Ratzui?”

    Doesn’t sound like the title of something that many people will read.

  52. I concede. This post must be poorly written if people don’t get that it is an argument IN FAVOR of studying history.

  53. it has typically been understood as referring to general history.

    No less an authority than the Mishnah Brurah, ad loc, removes the premise for this post. Anything containing דברי מוסר and יראה is not included in the Shulchan Aruch’s prohibition. Did the mechaber not intend this caveat implicitly?

  54. “I disagree. I think most rabbis forbade reading general (i.e. non-Jewish) history books, even during the week.”

    I was unaware that you were excluding Jewish history from the topic of this post.

    “You still haven’t.”

    Or you.

    I haven’t researched it, so I don’t feel that I am in a position to say “Here’s the kind of history books that the Beis Yosef meant.”

    “In what way did he NOT say it?”

    In what way DID he? Since when is “history” the translation of “ספרי מלחמות”? At least make the case. It certainly is not self evident. If we are reading about the history of technology in the past 50 years, what does that have to do with war chronicles of kings?

    “How about the history of Donkey Kong high scores or women’s headpieces in Alaska? But your general sentiment is precisely my point in this post. However, R. Yaakov Emden evidently disagreed, presumably you will say due to historical reasons but that hardly changes his view.”

    First, that doesn’t mean that it is therefore not mutar. Now that that’s out of the way, paradigms and ideas come from all over. It happens to me all the time, and I hope it happens to you too.

    As for R. Yaakov Emden, this is true. But as I said, he was also personally conflicted over chochma in general, while we are not. But even so, this gets us back to the first point: so it’s not Torah, so it doesn’t help you understand Torah. So? It doesn’t help you understand Torah to take pictures of your child’s birthday party, but there’s probably a good reason to do it anyway. And it certainly is mutar.

  55. “I disagree. I think most rabbis forbade reading general (i.e. non-Jewish) history books, even during the week.”

    I was unaware that you were excluding Jewish history from the topic of this post. Not to even mention the difficulty of what exactly is “Jewish history.”

    “You still haven’t.”

    Or you.

    I haven’t researched it, so I don’t feel that I am in a position to say “Here’s the kind of history books that the Beis Yosef meant.”

    “In what way did he NOT say it?”

    In what way DID he? Since when is “history” the translation of “ספרי מלחמות”? At least make the case. It certainly is not self evident. If we are reading about the history of technology in the past 50 years, what does that have to do with war chronicles of kings?

    “How about the history of Donkey Kong high scores or women’s headpieces in Alaska? But your general sentiment is precisely my point in this post. However, R. Yaakov Emden evidently disagreed, presumably you will say due to historical reasons but that hardly changes his view.”

    First, that doesn’t mean that it is therefore not mutar. Now that that’s out of the way, paradigms and ideas come from all over. It happens to me all the time, and I hope it happens to you too.

    As for R. Yaakov Emden, this is true. But as I said, he was also personally conflicted over chochma in general, while we are not. But even so, this gets us back to the first point: so it’s not Torah, so it doesn’t help you understand Torah. So? It doesn’t help you understand Torah to take pictures of your child’s birthday party, but there’s probably a good reason to do it anyway. And it certainly is mutar.

  56. Everyone here gets that it’s in favor of studying history. What commentators are rejecting is that such a post needs to be written in the first place.

    “Silly??? It’s an excellent reason.” – no it isn’t, because you can claim to have a religious experience every time you eat pork.

    “I’m sure some people would do it as their jobs but it wouldn’t be inherently valuable.” – If they’re doing it for their jobs then it’s mutar!

    “Isn’t that what I said?” – not even close. You explicitly distinguished (in your response to me) between what science studies as opposed to history.

  57. “I concede. This post must be poorly written if people don’t get that it is an argument IN FAVOR of studying history.”

    The meaningful concession – which you are unlikely to make – is that normative Orthodox practice sometimes goes against the SA *without* the textual support for the halachic process you believe in. Thank you for providing an example that you won’t be able to wave away in a future debate 🙂

  58. >Someone set it to 1 second in the past and then could see everything going on in the world. You are basically saying that knowledge of anything, no matter how mundane, is valuable in and of itself. I dispute that claim. Some things are trivial and knowledge of them has no value whatsoever.

    Trivial most likely, but I would let the individual decide if it has any value to them or not. It shouldn’t need to get into the realm of “forbidden” or “muttar.”

  59. R’ Gil: “The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 307:16) forbids reading books about wars because they are a waste of time.”

    in the source you quoted it is also assur to read secular books – literature – – ” parables of of a secular nature” so where is the posek that says its ok to read secular literature as well as studying for a phd. in said subject? – are all these moshav latzim – participation in the gathering of scoffers – which you translated as a waste of time? Maybe that answer will also answer your issue on studying books of wars (debatable if that is history) – per misnah berura this also include going to circuses (how about those charedei bans) as well as theatres- see aovda zarah 18b. Reading history is the least problem in this SA post.

  60. It also gets into the Daas Torah question. There can be no question that this is the Beis Yosef’s personal opinion. (I know, shocking.) The definition of moshav letzim is very malleable.

  61. Ye’yasher kochakhem to our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student and respondents.

    It is worthwhile to note that Rema permits reading history books if they are written in Hebrew.
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=49625&st=&pgnum=206

    Thus, the educational system in the State of Israel, with its Hebrew-language history studies, is offically kosher. No other jurisdiction in the world enjoys such an eclessiastically approved educational system. I hope our distinguished cousins in Iran take note of this remarkable theological fact, recognize the value of the State of Israel, and immediately do teshuvah by agreeing to follow international law through avoiding the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

  62. Lawrence Kaplan

    R. Spira: Naturally, the Israeli leadership cannot count on your rather unrealistic hope.

  63. There is a discussion of the value of history here: http://www.aleitzion.co.uk/contents_files/5772-degel-tishrei-793.pdf

    See p.37

    Whilst arguing for history, the article doesn’t give a great many sources to corroborate it. However, it does quote R’ Lichtenstein to the effect that history gives you a‘limited apprehension of the working of Providence’ and ‘insight into tselem Elokim’. Not whole-hearted endorsement!

  64. Sarina Kopinsky

    Quote from Torah itself, Deut 32:7 (Ha-azinu): “Remember days long gone by. Ponder the years of each generation. Ask your father and let him tell you, and your grandfather, who will explain it.”

  65. R Hutner wrote that because yisrael oreisa vkudsha brich hu chad hu, the study of jewish history is akin to talmud torah.

  66. Incidentally, a few years back I was “blown away” by E. H. Gombrich’s extraordinary “A Little History of the World” (Yale, 2005). See: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/03/arts/03conn.html

  67. See intro to Making of a Gadol for the author’s discussion of studying and writing history. IIRC, besides for sharing his feelings of guilt for taking away time from learning, he also mentions some interesting sources on the issue.

  68. Hirhurim on November 14, 2011 at 3:11 pm
    >“I concede. This post must be poorly written if people don’t get that it is an argument IN FAVOR of studying history.”

    It is??? Alrighty…. But it reads (to me) more like an argument that “Studying history is fundamentally asur, but I may be able to eke out a heter.

  69. Sorry been very busy and I’m having difficulty catching up. I probably missed some comments and apologize for that.

    JJ: No less an authority than the Mishnah Brurah, ad loc, removes the premise for this post

    No, he does not. He only permits studying history when it has religious benefits, not just “for the sake of truth”.

    ruvie: so where is the posek that says its ok to read secular literature as well as studying for a phd. in said subject?

    I agree. Poskim have permitted reading secular literature if it helps you religiously (like the Mishnah Berurah on history) but I’m not aware of any who have given blanket permission.

    Shalom Spira: Almost every acharon disagrees with the Rema regarding literature in Hebrew.

    Neil Clarke: Thank you for the reference to the article by David Pruwer http://www.aleitzion.co.uk/contents_files/5772-degel-tishrei-793.pdf

    Sarina Kopinsky: That can be interpreted in multiple ways. Are you aware of any commentator who explains it the way you are suggesting (which seems very resonable to me)?

    cp: Where did Rav Hutner write that? Thanks

  70. “I haven’t researched it, so I don’t feel that I am in a position to say “Here’s the kind of history books that the Beis Yosef meant.””

    Does anyone suggest that he is referring specifically to books on how to conduct a war, instead of books about wars that were conducted? For example, maybe the book “Combat Techniques: An Elite Forces Guide to Modern Infantry Tactics ” is not allowed because it is “nonsense”? 🙂

  71. Interesting suggestion, but I’m not sure it fits the language (“milchamos”). And, of course, we’d have to know if there even were such books. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest, first of all, that he was probably talking about Hebrew books to begin with.

    I would also go out on a limb and hazard that he meant a book like Sefer Divrei Hayamim Lemalkhe Tzorfat u-veis Ottoman Ha-togar by R. Joseph Hakohen, since that book is of the right era and fits the description to a tee.

    Here, for example, is a couple of sentences, from the 1835 English translation

    “And he fought against Hungary, and against Bosnia, and against Walachia, and against the land of Yavan many days: and he returned again to fight against Hungary. And he besieged Belgrade, and cast up trenches against it; but the men of the city did not move before him. And there died of his men about ten thousands, and he turned his back with shame, in the year one thousand four hundred and forty-three.”

    As anyone can plainly see, this is not what we call history. And even if it is, what we call history is not only about wars.

  72. “Here, for example, is a couple of sentences, from the 1835 English translation”

    … Sounds like half of tanach…

  73. Lawrence Kaplan

    And it was intended to.

  74. The bigger question, and I ask this not to cast aspersions, but merely to further my understanding, is that if the historical approach was so undeveloped in the pre-modern era, and, as has just been noted, many of the historical descriptions in Tanach sound eerily similar to other ‘sifrei milchamos’ of the time (and later times), can we justify regarding the descriptions therein as absolute historical truth absent the positing of theological axioms which leave no room for either debate or understanding?

    It’s almost as if history done by ‘uninspired’ people had to develop over thousands of years, from Herodotus on, to even get anywhere near to the ‘truth’, whilst inspired literature, despite clearly echoing the literature of its day, gets a shortcut to ‘truth’, although this shortcut was not passed on to later Jewish literature, whose historical value must once again be assessed in human terms. I suppose that’s what divine revelation (or inspiration in the case of Nach) means.

  75. re great article by R. JJ Schacter.
    Maybe you quoted the wrong part of the article

  76. >… Sounds like half of tanach…

    That is why yeshivish people don’t learn tanach, they are choshesh to the supposed shita that Gil is talking about that forbids such a genre.

  77. is that if the historical approach was so undeveloped in the pre-modern era, and, as has just been noted, many of the historical descriptions in Tanach sound eerily similar to other ‘sifrei milchamos’ of the time (and later times),

    Not sure why this in itself should bother us.

    1) The “historical approach” is not the same as historical accuracy. Modern history is written in a style which lends itself to further comparison, analysis, and evaluation, because we have figured out that that makes for a productive intellectual debate. Ancient history of whatever source did not aim for that style, in part because no intellectual debate was going on.

    2) The inaccuracies and guesswork in ancient history are to be expected because of the difficulty of gathering information. If one believes that Tanach is prophetically inspired, there is no a priori reason to doubt its historical statements even if broad. If some of those statements seem to be contradicted by other evidence, that is a problem, but it is orthogonal to the issue of style.

  78. There are quite a few Jewish authors of history. tsemach dovid. seder hadoros. Josephus and I am sure many more. Most of them used non Jewish sources. So can it really be ossur.

  79. Probably not. But I think many of us are reacting to the “Is Normal Thing X asur? It would seem so, but here’s why it’s not” style of the post, which at least for me, is a certain genre of discourse in our community which I think is more harmful than it is benign. Even if it isn’t harmful practically speaking – although I think it is – it also portrays the religion in an unattractive light to many people. I know the whole “Judaism is so intellectually vibrant – it encourages questioning and challenging everything!” thing is a tad overstated, but let’s not overdo it the other way.

  80. I thank Mori ve-Rebbi R. Kaplan, R. Student, and R’ IH for their kind responses.

    Regarding the Acharonim disputing Rema, it is true that Mishnah Berurah emphasizes this point in se’if katan 64 (-though I am not 100% sure this means Mishnah Berurah rejects Rema, for he never explicitly says so, only “u-le-fee zeh…”), but Arukh ha-Shulchan appears to defend Rema.

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=9101&st=&pgnum=209

    Apparently, then, the permissibility of whichever history books the Mechaber forbids, when they are written in Hebrew, will hinge upon a dispute between Mishnah Berurah and Arukh ha-Shulchan. Thus, there is at least some halakhic support for the State of Israel’s curriculum (-while not necessarily ideal, it’s better than no halakhic support), moreso than in any other place in the world, and I call on all Iranians to take this to heart.

  81. S. — So, my turn to ask the question generally aimed at me: where do you draw the line?

    Gil’s point is internally consistent. We follow the Shulchan Aruch, unless there is a later textual emendation that has gained historical acceptance. Here is a case (like others) where what is considered normal goes against the SA, but there is no later textual emendation. According to the rules of Gil’s system, that is an improper result (perhaps even minhag shtut).

    One possibility is that Gil’s system is too fetishized, but this conclusion doesn’t sit well with the RWMO and those to their right.

  82. According to the rules of Gil’s system, that is an improper result (perhaps even minhag shtut).

    Wrong, because Gil’s system takes into account sources other than the SA.

  83. “That is why yeshivish people don’t learn tanach, they are choshesh to the supposed shita that Gil is talking about that forbids such a genre.”

    Talk about generalization, unless you were trying to be cute.

  84. IH – you do get that Gil believes that the study of history is mutar, right? Or are you just talking to yourself (as usual).

  85. Rafael — Yes (since the beginning of the thread). You do get that my summary is the crux issue behind the post. Or do you just think you’re being clever (as usual).

  86. I have no idea if it’s Gil’s system, but in reality we no more follow the Shulchan Aruch consistently than we Ashkenazim do the Rema, as Gil said, “the acharonim don’t agree about Hebrew books.” What we follow is a complex potpourri, and I don’t know if there truly is a system to it. There are probably internally consistent trends which we can identify, but I don’t think there is an exact line or an actual formula.

  87. “Wrong, because Gil’s system takes into account sources other than the SA.”

    Really? I said: ” the Shulchan Aruch, unless there is a later textual emendation that has gained historical acceptance.”

  88. S. —

    Hirhurim on November 14, 2011 at 11:23 am
    […] I am arguing that there is religious value in studying history and therefore it should be permissible, and asking for sources that say similarly. You may feel comfortable ignoring halakhos on the books but I prefer textual grounding to practices. […]

    Hirhurim on November 14, 2011 at 3:09 pm
    […] the point is that I don’t believe in disregarding halakhic sources and going with your gut. […]

    He is being internally consistent. As opposed to picking and choosing. And, if you pick and choose, then where do draw the line?

  89. >And, if you pick and choose, then where do draw the line?

    Pesak constitutes a great deal of picking and choosing, so I don’t know what the question is. As for the but-I’m-not-a-posek angle, there’s also the element that we don’t start from the ground rule that everything is forbidden until someone researches the paper trail which shows that it is permitted. The entirety of Jewish intellectual history in the past 500 years shows conclusively that “history” is not and never was forbidden. We all know about the controversy over philosophy, but please remind me of the controversy over history? That’s why I said that it’s a non-question.

  90. S. — but, it’s not to Gil (and presumably others who share his hashkafa) as per the 2 quotations provided.

  91. And it is not limited to history. See Gil’s reponse to Ruvie’s query:

    Hirhurim on November 15, 2011 at 9:13 am

    […]
    ruvie: so where is the posek that says its ok to read secular literature as well as studying for a phd. in said subject?

    I agree. Poskim have permitted reading secular literature if it helps you religiously (like the Mishnah Berurah on history) but I’m not aware of any who have given blanket permission.
    […]

  92. “So ask him.”

    I understand Gil’s unresolved question. I don’t understand you (and others) objecting to him, while also asking “where do you draw the line” questions of people to your left.

  93. Did I ever condemn the people to my left?

    But putting that aside, the way Orthodoxy is practiced, and indeed the way Rabbinic and traditional Judaism developed, is complex and cannot be reduced to only simple, consistent principles. This is my opinion, and it developed over time. If anyone wants to convince me otherwise, they’ll have their work cut out for them, although I remain open minded since it is always possible to overlook something or simply be wrong.

  94. S. — Agreed on your 2nd point; and FTR I did not say anything about “condemn” in regard to your 1st (nor did I wish to imply it).

    In my view, this thread has been a useful way to validate your earlier point that “Pesak constitutes a great deal of picking and choosing” in a relatively uncontroversial way — particularly since it was raised by someone with an RWMO hashkafa.

  95. I have a RWMO hashkafah? Where do you get that from? My goodness.

    But putting that stuff aside, things are complex. The Orthdox communit(ies)could have turned out many different ways from how they did. We all could have used umbrellas on shabbos and the space-time continuum would not have split. We all could have been more liberal on many issues, and the earth would not have spun out of orbit. And how it will turn out yet is not fated in one specific direction either.

  96. S. — not you; Gil!

  97. It seems that this really boils down to a question of where the burden of proof is. For intellectual pursuits outside of Torah study, is the burden of proof on the side of permitting or prohibiting engagement?

    Gil argues to defend history, but he implies the burden of proof is on history to justify itself. Other than the “sifrei milhamot” line in Shulhan Arukh (which seems to be R. Karo’s own personal position rather than an established tradition), are there any other indications that history should be any more prohibited than knowing where to put countries on a map?

  98. I think that one can and should distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish history. “Jewish history”, IIRC, R Hutner ZL, commented, was akin to studying Talmud without Rashi. “Jewish history”, IOW, may very well be dependent on who is the author and the author’s own hashkafic orientation. In general, the study of history cannot be divorced from questions of historiography, and how a scholar views trends in history. That being said, I have always been an avid reader in American history, especially with respect to the periods of the American Revolution and the Civil War, as well as modern European history from the late 1800s forward, in light of the rise of Nazism and Communism, and their affects on the European Jewish community.

  99. “and their affects on the European Jewish community.”

    With few exceptions, there is little world history that did not affect the Jewish community.

  100. IH-your point is well taken, but IMO, at least, the rise of Nazism and Communism presented threats to European Jewry that the older variants of anti Semitism did not.

  101. steve b – and the crusades and expulsions were not close to being equal as threats? surely you jest – just nazism had a wider reach – similar devastation of wiping out whole communities (but less in numbers)

  102. Yerushalmi published a sweet little volume called Zachor, which addresses how jews have seen history and the writing of history over time. The intro by Harold Bloom is also highly recommended.

  103. Vernue-Zachor is indeed a wonderful work-how would you square Yerushalmi’s definition of Jewish history therein with a purely academic and/or verifiable definition of the same?

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