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):
- Understanding the Torah better by recognizing the personal and historical context of leading authorities
- Strengthening faith in: God, the giving of the Torah, reward and punishment, providence over the Jewish people, messianic redemption
- To teach the ways of the righteous, which are to be emulated, and the ways of the wicked, which are to be avoided
- To provide ammunition for defending Judaism against Christian or anti-Orthodox criticisms
Early Maskilim offered additional arguments that may resonate with us today:
- Allows Jews to speak intelligently with gentiles
- Develops the qualities of curiosity and critical thinking
- Enables better understanding of human interaction in the political, economic and military spheres
- 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.