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Orthodox Historiography

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Orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe started to engage in historical and pseudohistorical research in the middle of the nineteenth century—shortly after more secular historians became involved in such study—and began publishing a series of chronicles parallel to the better-known writings of secular maskilim. An outstanding group of rabbis and scholars was exposed to the new type of research near its inception, and responded to it directly. Most of the Orthodox works were printed in the major cities of Galicia, Congress Poland, and Lithuania. The authors generally belonged to the class of auxiliary communal religious functionaries, such as preachers, religious judges, and cantors. They received the endorsement and assistance of a wider circle of supporters, often made up of rabbinic scholars and communal rabbis. These works may be divided into five categories: community chronicles; rabbinic genealogies and biographies; rabbinic lexicons; new editions of ancient chronicles and books recording the chain of rabbinic tradition; and Hasidic biographical and hagiographic literature.

Community chronicles were monographs containing biographies of the rabbis and rabbinic scholars of a particular city. Examples include the pioneering works on the rabbis of Lemberg: Matsevet kodesh (1857–1869) by Gavri’el ben Naftali Herts Suchestov (1820–1879), and Kelilat yofi (1888–1893) by Ḥayim Natan Dembitzer (1820–1892).

Rabbinic genealogies and biographies were studies of outstanding rabbinic figures and dynasties—for example, Ya‘akov Abril Banet’s biography of his father, Mordekhai Banet, published in 1832; Jonas Spitz’s Zikhron El‘azar (1827), on El‘azar Fleckeles; Yehoshu‘a Heshel Levin’s ‘Aliyot Eliyahu (1856), on the Gaon of Vilna; and Megilat yuḥasin (1864), on Maharal of Prague and his family. Increasingly, also, introductions to rabbinic works began to include biographies of the author along with valuable primary documents.

Rabbinic lexicons were lists of rabbis and Talmudic scholars in chronological or alphabetical order. Among these, for example, was Aharon Walden’s Shem ha-gedolim he-ḥadash (1864).

Alongside these works, many new editions of ancient chronicles and books recording the chain of rabbinic tradition were published over the course of the nineteenth century, including Yosipon, Tsemaḥ David, Seder ‘olam, Shalshelet ha-Kabalah, Sefer yuḥasin, Shevet Yehudah, and Yeven metsulah. These texts enjoyed great popularity and a wide audience.

Finally, a new wave of Hasidic biographical–hagiographic literature began to appear in the 1860s, including Shivḥe ha-rav, ‘Adat tsadikim, and Sipure tsadikim, which were published in 1864 by Mikha’el Levi Frumkin (Rodkinson; 1845–1904), and Seder ha-dorot mi-talmide ha-Besht (1865) by Menaḥem Mendel Bodek (1825–1874).

At least two parallel motivations for this flowering of publications can be identified: one scholarly and the other ideological. On the one hand, both maskilim and traditionalists had an interest in uncovering and preserving the past. This is strikingly evident in the efforts of both groups to collect ancient manuscripts, copy tombstone inscriptions, and publish primary sources. In addition to scholarly curiosity, however, there was also an ideological motivation: the desire to enlist new historical research in the confrontation with challenges posed by modernity. Publishers and editors chose to exploit the older historical and genealogical literature to suit new, conservative ideological objectives. The search for genealogical roots served as a protective tool in the struggle against modernity; it constituted a response to the many works of maskilim dealing with Jewish texts and the study of Jewish history that were published in the same geographical region of Central and Eastern Europe during those years. Against the new pantheon of outstanding Jewish personalities established by the research of Jewish studies scholars, Orthodox writers erected an alternative rabbinic pantheon. Anyone choosing to identify with the traditionalist camp could connect his roots to a glorious rabbinic heritage.

Contemporary maskilim viewed the Orthodox historical writing of the nineteenth century as a pale and unprofessional imitation of modern research—though the authors themselves saw their work as a continuation of canonical historical literature. An analysis of the scope of Orthodox historical literature indicates that despite its conservative bent, it demonstrated innovation in a variety of areas. First, it embraced works written by maskilim that underwent a process of “conversion”: Orthodox publishers reprinted chronicles that had been published by maskilim after adapting them for an Orthodox audience. These texts underwent comprehensive editing in order to become acceptable to that readership. Several publishing houses began to specialize in the publication of “kosher” historical literature of this sort.

The status of such books within the totality of rabbinic literature also underwent a change: they moved from the periphery to the center. Instead of being considered marginal, they became standard rabbinic reference sources. The nature of the reading audience also changed. These books were mainly read by the elite of both the rabbinic and the Haskalah camps, and therefore were mostly written in Hebrew or translated from Yiddish to Hebrew.

The publication of biographical works and rabbinic genealogies continued from the end of the nineteenth century until World War II. Among the most prominent authors were several community rabbis, including Yosef ben Avraham Lewinstein of Serock (1840–1924), Yeḥezkel Tsevi Michaelson of Plonsk (1863–1942), Avraham Segal Ettinger of Dukla and Brody, and Yekuti’el Aryeh Kamelhar (1871–1937). Paralleling this genre of writing, more comprehensive Orthodox historical works began to be published in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. They presented “a counter history,” an Orthodox narrative that served as an alternative to the contemporary secular, maskilic perception of the history of European Jewry in the modern period. These works were concerned with a variety of topics that were generally connected to the history of the rabbinic elite and traditional society in Eastern Europe: a reassessment of the struggle between Hasidim and their opponents; a discussion of the history of the clash between rabbis and maskilim, and the confrontation with the Reform movement; a history of Hasidic courts; biographies of outstanding personalities, both Hasidic and non-Hasidic; a history of the world of Talmudic scholarship; and the network of yeshivas, to name a few.

The authors of these works included Orthodox activists and publishers such as Ya‘akov ha-Levi Lipschitz (1838–1921), author of the series Zikhron Ya‘akov (1924–1930); Shelomoh ben Avraham Sofer of Beregszász (1853–1930), author of Igerot soferim (1928) and Ḥut ha-meshulash he-ḥadash (1908); and several writers close to the Lubavitch court, including Ḥayim Me’ir Hellmann (1855–1927), author of Bet rabi (1902), which describes the history of Lubavitch rebbes up to the end of the nineteenth century; Mordekhai Teitelbaum, author of Ha-Rav mi-Ladi u-mifleget Ḥabad (2 vols., 1910–1913); and the Hasidic leader Yitsḥak Yosef Shneerson (1880–1950), author of Admor ha-Tsemaḥ Tsedek u-tenu‘at ha-Haskalah (1957) and Divre ha-yamim ha-hem (1964).

These writers adopted some of the formal and stylistic principles of modern historical writing: acceptance of the periodization used by modern secular historiography; adoption of the method of historical argument; use of manuscripts and primary sources in the process of historical reconstruction; citation of earlier studies; and writing accompanied by footnotes. Nevertheless, the authors never gave up on their fundamental metahistorical assumptions. Most twentieth-century Orthodox historical writing reflects educational and didactic objectives: it is apologetic, ahistorical, and infused with harmonizing and anachronistic inclinations; and the authors are often inclined to blur the difference between testimony and interpretation. Nevertheless, these works preserve many trustworthy traditions and primary sources along with noteworthy interpretations of the historical events under discussion.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, “‘Kevod elokim haster davar’: Perek nosaf ba-historiografyah ha-ortodoksit shel ha-ḥasidut be-Eretz-Yisra’el,” Katedrah 68 (1993): 57–66; David Assaf, “Mumar o kadosh?: Masa‘ be-‘ikvot Mosheh Beno shel R. Shne’ur Zalman mi-Lyadi,” Tsiyon 65.4 (2000): 453–515; Yisra’el Bartal, “Zikhron Ya‘akov le-R. Ya‘akov Lipshitz: Historiografyah ortodoksit?” Milet 2 (1984): 409–414; Yisra’el Bartal, “‘Shim‘on ha-Kofer’: Perek be-historiografyah ortodoksit,” in Ke-Minhag Ashkenaz u-Polin, ed. Yisra’el Bartal, Chava Turniansky, and Ezra Mendelsohn, pp. 243–268 (Jerusalem, 1993), in Hebrew and English; Yisra’el Bartal, “‘True Knowledge and Wisdom’: On Orthodox Historiography,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 10 (1994): 178–192; Immanuel Etkes, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image (Berkeley, 2002), pp. 96–150; Haim Gertner, “Re’shitah shel ketivah historit ortodoksit be-Mizraḥ Eropah: Ha-‘Arakhah meḥudeshet,” Tsiyon 67.3 (2002): 293–336; Nahum Karlinsky, Historyah sheke-neged: “Igrot ha-ḥasidim me-Eretz-Yisra’el”; Ha-Tekst veha-kontekst (Jerusalem, 1998); Ada Rapoport-Albert, “Hagiography with Footnotes: Edifying Tales and the Writing of History in Hasidism,” History and Theory 27 (December 1988): 119–159.



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss