History, Historians and How Not to Approach History

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19 Responses

  1. Shlomo says:

    Excellent post!

    Just a minor point, it is VENONA (all caps), not Verona.

  2. Toby Katz says:

    A superb article.

    My father — R’ Bulman — would not have had nachas from this former pupil of his, for whom he had great affection. In the olam ha’emes they will meet — if Rabbi Ellenson is permitted to enter — and my father will ask him, “Is this what you did with the Torah I taught you? You devoted yourself to introducing Reform into Eretz Yisrael? Was this what the Holy Land was lacking — a Judaism with no halacha and no Torah miSinai? Was this your tafkid in the world — to arouse animosity against Torah Jews?”

    On the same forehead where he once placed a kiss, my father’s tears will fall.

  3. Larry Yudelson says:

    “no proof was ever found that either Goldstein or Amir ever acted in accordance with the approval of any rabbinical authority.”

    Carefully parsed, to obscure the fact that Amir acted in accordance with the Rambam, as explained in the presence of the chief halachic authority of the OU and RCA. Amir may not have asked a shaila, but tell me, Steve, when you follow the psak of RHS, do you ask a shaila each time? Your point of partisan scholarship is important, and I look forward to following the links — but your comments betray that you are not immune from your own historical bias.

  4. Noam says:

    I guess one polemical article(R. Ellenson’s) deserves another(the above from Mr. Brizel).

    Lets start from the begining. Unless R. Eliyahu has ruach hakodesh, when he blamed Reform for the holocaust, he was making an assumption, not a statement of fact. Rabbi Feldman(a contributor to this blog) addressed this exact topic in a recent article in Tradition, where his conclusion was that we can’t fix blame for events on a particular cause. Certainly the Gemara in Ta’anit instructs us to examine our deeds when evil befalls us. However, it is to examine our own deeds, not someone elses. Everyone should examine their own deeds. And the purpose of the examination is to effect improvement, not to fix blame. The evil may not be related to the blemishes that are found. The evil may just be a reminder from God to examine one’s deeds. Therefore, to fix blame on the Reform is not justifiable, and obviously very insulting(to say the least) to the Reform. And by the way, does it accomplish anything? Do the Reform stop and think and say “you know, he’s right? We are so sorry about all the people who died because of our beliefs?” And do the Orthodox feel better, because now we have an answer to a previously unanswerable question? We can say ‘ at least we have a reason, we dont have to live with the theological uncertainty that horrible events sometimes cause.’ I think the answer is no on both counts.

    So, Rabbi Ellenson is correct in denouncing this proclaimation. And any thinking caring Jew should denounce it as well. Rabbi Ellenson however does go overboard in the other direction in accusing the Orthodox of excessive violence and hatred. Anyone reading the primary sources of the early Reform/Orthodox confrontations will see that there was tremendous ill-will on both sides, as would be expected. The Traditionalists felt(and still feel) that Reform is not in consonance with the Judaism that has been practiced for 2000 years. In fact, some early Reform leaders agreed that it was up to the Reform to prove that they were a valid interpretation of Tradition, it was not up to the Traditionalists to disprove the Reform innovations. Two isolated incidents of violence do not make a trend. However, the violence should be(and was) condemned.

    Rabbi Eliyahu, Rabbi Ellenson, and Mr. Brizel all illustrate, each in their own way, what is wrong with Orthodox/Reform relations. We have explored Rabbi Eliyahu’s remarks. Rabbi Ellenson issues a justified response, but adds polemics of his own. Mr. Brizel responds with opening sentences of “I don’t like to react to accusations, statements and articles by heterodox scholars. They have no halachic or hashkafic significance to me.” Basically he writes off 90% of the Jewish community in 22 words. This narrow minded view contrdicts the Rambam, in shmone prakim(8 chapters) where he advises to listen to wisdom from wherever it comes.

    Obviously Orthodox and Reform have major and irreconcileable differences on basic issues of halacha, hashkafa, and practice. THe Orthodox cannot and should not recognize the changes that Reform has made. I doubt that the Reform are going to give up on what they believe. However, we are all Jews. Unless the Orthodox want to write Reform out of Judaism, or the Reform want to secede from the Orthodox, there has to be coexistance. Some common ground can and should be found. The name calling, accusations, and insults need to stop. This is not the way that God wants Jews to behave, neither the Orthodox, nor the Reform.

  5. tzvee says:

    “Orthodoxy Caused the Holocaust”

    Sounds pretty stupid when you turn it around, doesn’t it?

    My friend David Ellenson opines in the Forward about the Orthodox rabbis in Israel who are saying that Reform Judaism is the cause of the Holocaust and who refuse to give legitimacy to the Reform rabbinate.

    This pains Ellenson as it should since he is the head of the Reform seminary, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

    But this Orthodox rhetoric no longer bothers me. My rebbe, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, would say about pronouncements like those of Mordecai Eliyahu, the former Israeli chief Sephardic rabbi, that they are essentially “kishuf” – sorcery – neither theology nor history – but rather the equivalent of witchcraft, magic or the occult.

    And I say that pushing a Reform rabbi out of a memorial ceremony is nothing more than sheer bullying.

    So, if these Orthodox “rabbis” want to be known as sorcerers and bullies, they have my blessing. But in my eyes they are no longer “rabbis.”

  6. S. says:

    >the Rambam, in shmone prakim(8 chapters) where he advises to listen to wisdom from wherever it comes.

    Truth, not wisdom. I’m not sure commenting on whether there’s a difference or not, but it is truth that the Rambam accepts no matter who says it.

  7. Malcolm Schosha says:

    Steve Brizel wrote in his article:
    “Of course, the Ellenson piece is noticeably quiet about the classical anti-Zionism of Reform, which rivaled that of Niturei Karta, and which urged FDR to ignore the plight of European Jews during the Holocaust.”

    Dear Steve Brizel,
    I have come across such claims as this, that Reform Jewish groups urged FDR to ignore the mass murder of Jews apparently with the aim of having as many Jews as possible die in the Holocaust, a number of times in the past. But I have never seen any verifiable sources. Because of the severity of the your accusation, I ask that you supply sources that will substantiate your words. (Remember that the laws of speech apply in this matter.) I would like to have a reference to a source that exists in the archives of FDR’s presidential records, such as letters, or notes taken of meetings.

    Personally, I doubt if this ever happened; but, if the evidence is produced, I will certainly accept it.

    Malcolm Schosha

  8. lawrence kaplan. says:

    Noam. I agree with you that Steve Brizel’s article is polemical,and there are some points in it with which I do not agree. In particular, I feel it is ubalanced on the part of Steve to only note that the Reform in the 19th century sought to convince the Gentile government in power to suppress the Orthodox. Many Orthodox leaders–not all, by any means– when they had the opportunity, tried to do the same with regard to the Reform. Alas, there is more than enough shame to go around. But it’s unfair to lump his article with the proclamation of Rabbi Eliyahu and the article of Dr. Ellenson. Unlike the latter two, Mr. Brizel, to his credit, is careful not to engage in inflamatory language and strives to achieve a measured tone.

  9. Reb Yid says:

    Hard to understand this article. Ambassador Kurtzer has always remained a committed religious Jew and committed to the Jewish people. And his efforts to do so in Egypt, in all places, are to be commended, not criticized. But according to the poster, Kurtzer is being compared to Jews who were raised traditionally Jewish/had exposure to traditional Judaism but went off the derekh, so to speak.

    If the poster doesn’t agree with Kurtzer’s approach to US foreign policy, then so be it. That’s a different discussion. But conflating Kurtzer with this discussion of Reform versus Orthodox is simply not appropriate here.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Noam-I agree with R Feldman. I also believe that statements such as those of R Eliyahu and the interference with the R and C rabbis on Yom HaZikraon are the wrong way to deal with R and C in EY. As I pointed out, we should never give R and C an excuse to cry “religious coercion” which IMO is the only way that they ever gain publicity and positive traction in EY, where all of the evidence on the ground shows that neither R nor C have ever been accepted by the traditional, albeit not O silent majority of Israel. All of the evidence shows that R and C use the court system to get what they cannot achieve because of the absence of a critical mass of R and C Jews in Israel.

    However, it smacks of intellectual dishonesty to write off an entire section of our tradition in which internal problems lead to anti Semitism on a major scale and to tragic consequences. I would add to the examples that I mentioned previously the discussion of the Ramban at the end of Acharie Mos to what happens when we live in EY but fail to recognize that one of the main purposes of our exisence there is a heightened closeness to God via observance of the commandments. Of course, the Rambam emphasizes that we should accept the truth (Mkabel es haemes) from any source. The key is that the source provide truth. In the areas of Halacha and Hashkafa,simply stated, heterodox scholarship cannot be considered a Cheftzah Shel Torah in any way, shape or form. In this instance, Dr Ellenson’s article was built on one author’s tendentious interpretation of a historical incident in which the author also portrayed R as progressive and the O community as reactionary. The author then makes a logically unsubstantiated leap that that incident released a violent streak within Orthodoxy. IMO, that is an intellectual house of cards that was a an obvious exercise in academic O bashing, which we should reject, especially considering the source and Dr Ellenson’s prior record on other issues. As Hillel Halkin pointed out, when a R oriented person became politically powerful, it was not coincidental that his target was the O kehilos and their communal structure.

    Larry Yudelson-Once again, you regurgitate old allegations and engage in what can almost be considered witchunting with respect to Goldstein and Amir. There is zero proof of what Goldstein thought or that he contacted any rabbinical authority.The fact that some residents of Hebron viewed Goldtsein as a hero or that a song with the words “Baruch HaGver” was viewed as referring to Goldstein is IMO neither evidence of a psak nor of widespread intellectual rot in RZ. Amir explicitly stated that he was acting on his own without consulting on his own. FWIW, as RHS often says, while a talmid need not ask a rebbe everything and should be to think what would his rebbe say or view a particular instance, there is zero proof that Amir engaged in this process as he segued from KBY to Bar Ilan and then to Kach. Amir never claimed that he received a “heter” even in the most theoretical sense of discussing the halachos of rodef.

    Malcolm Schousa_RJ was strongly anti Zionist in ways that rivaled NK. It is well documented that R S Wise refused to discuss the Holocaust with FDR and advised FDR to ignore the delegation from the Agudas HaRabbonim. Read David Wyman’s book if you need more evidence.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    I would be remiss if I did not point out that Larry Yudelson, as he has done elsewhere, and as the JW attempted to do in the wake of the Rabin assassination, claimed that RHS provided halachic justification for the same. IMO, there is no such evidence and in fact, when I confronted the JW’s editor at a public gathering about this grossly inaccurate statement, the JW issued a retraction in the following issue.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-When Dr. Kurtzer was dean of Yeshiva College, he was not on campus on one occasion when YU was honoring then PM Begin ZL. It is no secret that as a career Foreign Service officer with decidedly Arabist leanings, that an appearance on campus with an Israeli PM would have ruined his chances to become an ambassador to an Arab country. When he was Ambassador to Israel, his public comments were very critical of Israel’s right to self defense. I could care less whether he wears a black hat or a kipa srugah to shul. IMO, his views were very dangerous and harmful to Israel. WADR, I do not consider either Dr Kurtzer Or Dov Zakheim, who singelhandedly spiked the development of the Lavi as appropriate role models for TuM. They only prove that a person may appear to be MO, but really comparmentalize what they do at work from what they believe. IIRC, R Riskin viewed that type of attitude as approaching “intellectual marranoism.”

  13. Malcolm Schosha says:

    Steve Brizel wrote:
    “Malcolm Schousa_RJ was strongly anti Zionist in ways that rivaled NK. It is well documented that R S Wise refused to discuss the Holocaust with FDR and advised FDR to ignore the delegation from the Agudas HaRabbonim. Read David Wyman’s book if you need more evidence.”

    This is an answer? I am looking for a source that can be verified. (It would be nice if, at minimum, you could spell my name.)

    Malcolm Schosha

  14. Larry Yudelson says:

    I hope Steven’s reading of the sources he cites is better than his reading of my comment.

    I did not write that “RHS provided halachic justification” for the Rabin assasination; I wrote that he remained silent when such justification was provided by the speaker who followed him, and then declined to comment.

    Would RHS have remained silent if the speaker next to him at the table paskened that, say, women’s tefilah groups were mutar, rather than that Rabin was a rodef?

  15. Baruch Horowitz says:

    For the record, it should be noted that not all Gedolim have chosen to publicly identify causes of the Holocaust, even in general terms. For example, Dayan Berel Berkovitz(JA, Summer 2005) writes that:

    ” …While never giving up on the possibility of finding answers to agonizing issues, [a believer] recognizes that it is equally possible that he may never find solutions. Hence, the Chazon Ish refrained from expressing an opinion about the Holocaust. In response to a questioner, he said: “Is it possible for a person who just about manages to understand a mishnah to object to a Tosafot on the grounds that the reasoning does not seem right to him?(Pe’er Hador 3, 126)…”

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe(Sefer HaSichot 5751 Vol.1 p.233) was strongly opposed to explaining the Holocaust in terms of punishment, and as quoted by Rabbi Dovid Dubov on the Chabad Website website:

    “The destruction of six million Jews in such a horrific manner that surpassed the cruelty of all previous generations, could not possibly be because of a punishment for sins. Even the Satan himself could not possibly find a sufficient number of sins that would warrant such genocide!

    There is absolutely no rationalistic explanation for the Holocaust except for the fact that it was a Divine decree … why it happened is above human comprehension – but it is definitely not because of punishment for sin”

    However, there are those who do identify general or specific sins as causes of the Holacaust, and in general, attributing a cause to events in a post-prophetic era did not start with the Holocaust. The Tosophos Yom Tov, for example, said that the massacres of Chmielnicki(1648-1649) were a punishment for the lack of decorum in synagogues.

    I understand such explanations, in terms of an analogy, as identifying a pattern of ten cogs in a wheel among thousands of cogs and other wheels, rather than pointing to a complete understanding of what turned the “Divine Machine”. Or to take another analogy, one may explain that damage was caused by a fire(fire= general or specific sins), but a person still has not “understood” the fire, in terms of the essence of the chemical reaction.

  16. Reb Yid says:


    Again, I beg to differ with your assessment of the Kurtzer example on several levels. You seem to take the view that one who does not hold a politically “right wing” position on Israel is therefore, by default, an “Arabist”. In your viewpoint, there is only one legitimate way one can be “pro-Israel”. While you are entitled to your opinion, this assertion is hardly self-evident (it is highly questionable/debatable and should be the subject of a separate thread).

    But my main concern with your post is that it assumes that there has been a single “Orthodox” religously based hawkish position on Israel, l’olam va’ed. From a historical perspective, this is clearly inaccurate. Certainly before the birth of Israel, only a minority of Orthodox Jews and rabbis were favorably disposed towards Zionism at all, let alone a particular political position within that configuration. And it wasn’t until after the Six Day War that the notion of a “Greater Israel” got the attention of mainstream Orthodox Jewry.

    Even today, there are a variety of positions on Israel within the vast spectrum of Orthodox/Chareidi/Hasidic Jews. Are you suggesting–as you are in characterizing Ambassador Kurtzer the way you are–that those Orthodox/Chareidi/Hasidic Jews who do not espouse the same political views you have about Israel only “appear” to be frum?

  17. mycroft says:

    no proof was ever found that either Goldstein or Amir ever acted in accordance with the approval of any rabbinical authority.”

    One should read R. A. Lichtenstein on the Goldstein massacre and his comments on the hespedim for Goldstein.

    You devoted yourself to introducing Reform into Eretz Yisrael? Was this what the Holy Land was lacking—a Judaism with no halacha and no Torah miSinai? Was this your tafkid in the world—to arouse animosity against Torah Jews?”

    Unlike Mrs. Katz-I don’t see Reform and Conservative Jews as the enemies-one can assume that they genuinely believe they are for unity of Klal Israel-some may not be-but some Ortho Jews are also not for unity Klal Israel. The reasons for institutions not developing in Israel is that both Reform and conservative Judaism developed in the diaspora. Still unfortunately the majority of Jews in Israel are not shomer Shabbos etc, I don’t see Reform as a worse challenge to Yahadus than Meretz, Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion or other secular Jews.

    BTW there are Reform Rabbis who will tell their divorced congregants not to get remarried without a get. Not that they believe it is necessary from a religious standpoint but because they want to keep the unity of Klal Israel and have their congregants children be able to marry Orthodox children.

    classical anti-Zionism of Reform, which rivaled that of Niturei Karta, and which urged FDR to ignore the plight of European Jews during the Holocaust.”

    Unfair polemic from someone who I respect. A reason why I comment often on his comments is that I read them-many others I simply don’t spend the time to read. Steve Brizel-maybe polemical at times -but I find his writings worthy of reading.

  18. mycroft says:

    Certainly before the birth of Israel, only a minority of Orthodox Jews and rabbis were favorably disposed towards Zionism at all, let alone a particular political position within that configuration. And it wasn’t until after the Six Day War that the notion of a “Greater Israel” got the attention of mainstream Orthodox Jewry

    Note that before the 6 Day War-the holdout in the Israeli cabinet to going to war was Warhaftig-the Mizrachi member of the Cabinet.

  19. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-Kurtzer’s stance as Dean of YC was his way of signalling to his true superiors at Foggy Bottom and the Foreign Service that he would not be on campus, engage in photo ops with PN Begin, etc. His public record as Ambassador to Israel during the Intifada IMO is proof that he has been an Arabist at heart, which is a position that I consider far more damaging to Israel’s best interests than merely supporting “land for peace”. Arabists view the interests of the Arab world as paramount and those of Israel as willing to be sacrificed for the same, no matter what the cost to Israel.Someone whose professional career is based on supporting that premise or spiking the Lavie remains IMO a person who is simply an inappropriate role model for TuM, regardless of his personal level of religious committment.

    I think that those who support “land for peace” have yet to realize that there is no one who wants to engage in serious peace talks and that the Arab world is probably more anti Israel and the home of more anti Semitism in literature , culture and education than any other place on the planet. WADR, land for peace has been an abysmally poor strategy for Israel. More fundamentally, the notion that RYBS would have supported Oslo I and II IMO ignores the fact as set forth in a number of articles in Commentary Magazine that Oslo I was a faith accompli negotiated by Yossi Beilin at the direction of Peres and presented to Rabin without any input from the Israeli military , national security and political leadership. One cannot argue that Oslo represented the view of experts that this was the best deal possible for Israel.

    As far as Zionism and American Jewry, I think that while the historical evidence is there to show that while American Jewry did not regard it as the prime communal issue pre 1967, the NCYI, OU, RCA and RZA were certainly involved in supporting Israel in a pragmatic, albeit not messianic manner. However, RJ was very anti Zionist until the leadership of R R S Wise and A H Silver moved it gradually towards supporting Israel. (Hazony’s book shows that R R Judah Magnes, both while in the US as a leading R rabbi and in EY, was very anti Zionist and shared his thoughts with the publisher of the NY Times, which was equally anti Zionist. In that regard, their views rivaled that of NK for opposing Zionism of all stripes. IMO, that view stemmed from the German progressive and nationalist origins of RZ which also opposed Zionism strenuosly, as did RSRH.) I would argue that the views of most Orthodox Jews today, except for NK and some RZ, is to view land for peace as a flawed formula that failed and should be relegated to the historians as such.

    Mycroft-thanks for your comments. Yes, the Mizrachi held out against going to war. Having read and reread Michael Oren’s book many times, I can’t fathom that vote.I have read RAL’s discussion re the hesped for Goldstein. While I certainly understand RAL’s concerns, IMO, I saw no groundswelling of rabbinic or lay support for Goldstein’s actions. As far as the R and C presence in Israel, IMO, this is a simple case of people voting with their feet and IMO, their effect as religious movements in Israel so far has been negligible. I would also question whether today’s generation of R and C rabbis are as supportive of “Klal Yisrael” as you think. OTOH, some R rabbis will recommend that their congregants obtain a get when necessary. There is a wonderful organization called Kayama that works wonders in such cases.

    Larry Yudelson-FYI, RHS discussed the documentary about RYBS as a member of two panels with R S Riskin, whose views on WTGs and many other issues are quite different than those of RHS. A

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