Lecture #17a: Letter 89 - Part II - sections F-J - Torah and History

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #17a: Letter 89 – Sections F-J – Torah and History



We previously addressed the question of slavery itself. In this lecture, we will deal with the theoretical dimension of a far broader issue, of which slavery is just one of many examples: the Torah-history relationship.


This issue concerns the religious principle of the eternity of the Torah. The Rambam includes, as one of the principles of Jewish faith, that “this Torah shall never be exchanged,” and this article of faith has been accepted by Jews throughout the ages. If the laws of the Torah are fixed and unchanging, then the values and ideals expressed in them must also be eternal and must stand above and beyond history.


It seems that up until the modern period, this principle was not subject to any questioning. In medieval times, as in the ancient world, there was no historical or historiosophic world-view maintaining that the world is gradually developing, and truth seemed like an entity that was beyond time. When a Jew compared the values of the Torah to the values of his environment, he usually found the latter to be primitive and inferior, and he could safely attribute this to the historical, temporal nature of the other cultures – as opposed to the eternal character of God’s Torah. The greatest conflict during these periods between the Torah and external culture took place during the Middle Ages, when the Torah was compared with Greek philosophy. In essence, this conflict involved two truths, each of which was believed to be eternal, and it was specifically for this reason that they competed for the same honor. Philosophy has its source in wisdom, which reveals eternal truth, while the Torah has its source in revelation – which also, of course, reveals eternal truth. Hence the problem arose of which of these two truths was actually correct.


With the rise of modern thought, man began to recognize the importance of history, the developing nature of culture, and of reality in general. Differing truths and diverse cultural paradigms were no longer perceived as simply being in conflict with one another; rather, they were understood as developing out of one another. The natural world, too, assumed a developing character in the eyes of modern man.


In fact, the development theory has two primary sources:


a. The Darwinian and Lamarckian theory of evolution – a biological theory maintaining, in essence, that one organic phenomenon gives rise to a difference organic phenomenon that develops from it. According to this theory, the natural reality is the result of a very long chain of such processes, beginning with primitive entities and ending with very highly developed and complex organisms. The mechanism of this development is a matter of debate between Darwin and Lamarck, but both agree on the essence of the process.


b. The theory of philosophical and cultural development, which is an historiosophic theory explaining how values and cultures are created and what set of laws underlies their appearance. The fathers of this theory were the German philosophers Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling,[1] on one hand, and the English philosopher Spencer, on the other. There are many differences between them, and I shall attempt below to provide a description of their approach that ignores these distinctions.


The central claim of the philosophical theory of development (dialectic) is that there is a fixed lawfulness of development that explains the appearances of certain ideas in time. Hegel explained this lawfulness in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (mentioned in a previous lecture on Letter 44), but this is not the only explanation. In any event, these philosophers all agree that over the generations, existence as a whole, and human existence in particular, manifest progressive stages of its essence. Different cultures and ideas come to the world because the world spirit propels their revelation. Metaphorically, we might compare this to a child who, as he grows, manifests increasingly developed aspects of his personality – a phenomenon that we witness as part of the inner developmental plan of the personality, which is progressively revealed in accordance with what the child’s circumstances and educational conditions allow him.[2]


However, the scientific context of the question of development falls short of addressing its full significance. The development of culture is the most central fact in the existence of modern man; it is expressed in every aspect of his private life and his social dealings: in technology, in his living arrangements, in political structure, in art, in values, in the spheres of his interest and occupation, and many more.


The modern period is different from all those that preceded it; there is no other period of history in which human society developed so fast and so extensively. Moreover, at the beginning of the twentieth century – and in certain senses today as well – there was no doubt that human development was proceeding in the direction of what we call “progress.” Exalted human values and developed means overcame values and means that were primitive. Criticism and liberalism overcome dogmatism, democracy took the place of dictatorship, freedom overcame slavery, and feminism challenged chauvinism. The airplane succeeded the wagon and the Internet replaced the pigeon. All in all, the world was raised in every way. There is also no other period that witnessed so many revolutions – many of them spurred on by movements that championed exalted values.


This consciousness of the modern world challenges a person of faith in many ways, giving rise to doubts:


1. Is it possible that the Torah, as a set of laws reflecting values, stands outside of all this historical lawfulness, which applies to the entire world – from the lowest levels of the natural world to the highest and most meaningful cultural achievements? Can history allow for a phenomenon that is not historical?


2. The above question pertains not only to the theoretical level, but also with regard to the positive laws and values in the Torah. Do the laws of the Torah indeed reflect ideal morality and ideas, or is the opposite the case – that its laws are suited to a lower cultural and scientific state? Of course, the question arises because we cannot ignore the connection that exists not only on the rhetorical level, but also essentially, between some of the laws of the Torah and other ancient normative systems. (Recall that Rav Kook’s letter addressed the laws of slavery, discrimination between Jews and non-Jews, laws of warfare, and other subjects relevant in this comparison.)


3. On a deeper level: is the perception of the Torah as eternal (in the sense of being fixed and unchanging) an advantage or a disadvantage? Our familiarity with historical evolution as a fundamental characteristic of existence renders a moral and normative decision in this regard most difficult. If the permanence of the Torah arises from the fact that it is connected to a certain period in history, then the Torah is not progressive and – heaven forefend – is not supremely exalted. If its permanence arises from its being an ideal system, presenting a supremely exalted system of values and laws suited to the End of Days, then it is not relevant for our times!


Torah and history – Different Approaches


1. The heretical stance entails the conclusion that the Torah is bound in time, and hence must not be Divine, but rather human. This is a conclusion which many have drawn, but of course cannot be acceptable to God-fearing Jews. Those who adopt this approach cannot be counted as genuine observers of Torah and mitzvot even if they continue to practice the rituals out of a sense of tradition or culture.


2. The militant position rejects modernity outright and argues that everything that seems like progress and development is really only human arrogance and an illusion. This position manifests itself in several variations: some reject modern philosophical development but accept technological development, while others reject both.


This approach, drawing the obvious conclusion from the conflict between the eternal Torah and temporal history, was accepted among many among the charedi spiritual leadership. It was further validated in the wake of the Holocaust, which represented, for those who maintained this view, ultimate proof of the failure and evil of the culture that had prided itself on being so highly developed. Today, this approach enjoys support even among some non-charedi circles owing to the reinforcement it receives from post-modernist criticism. This criticism undermines the modern world-view, which entails a sense of all-encompassing truth able to order all values and phenomena within a perfect construction, at whose pinnacle we stand. Against the backdrop, some Jewish circles argues, “If the criticism is arising from within the culture itself, this can only be proof that the attempts to bridge Torah and history are unstable and superfluous; we are better off clasping our eternal Torah and not grasping at some or other passing cultural fad.”


4. The harmonistic approach maintains that modernity, with all its values, can be accepted, and that what is revealed by culture in its highest form is exactly what is written in the Torah, whose values have been superbly illustrated by modernity. Humanism, liberalism, etc. – these are the Torah’s values, which modern man has interpreted for himself only in modern times. This, in very general terms, is the approach of R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.


This approach has some obvious disadvantages. First, since it assumes that the values of modernity – as perceived in the 19th century – are identical with the values of the Torah, the whole concept is self-contradictory. The world’s values have changed since the 19th century, and hence we are faced with two alternatives: either to reject the entire “developmental” approach and argue that since the 19th century the world has been receding, or to posit that the Torah achieved the cultural level of the 19th century but no further…


Worse still, this approach labors under an illusion. R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch had the supreme naivete to believe that everything that he thought to be correct was indeed actually written in the Torah, and that his commentary needed only to describe this identity. I humbly suggest that R. Hirsch did not describe such an identity but rather created it in his commentary, in fact engaging himself in historical activity.


5. The dialectical approach maintains that the Torah is indeed eternal an unchanging, and that history does indeed develop, and we belong to both of these worlds and are torn between them. This is the path of R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who was all too familiar with modernity and believed that we belong to two consciousnesses or existence: the natural consciousness and the revelatory consciousness. Obviously, one must believe that this rift may be healed – if not on the philosophical level then at least on the existential level.


(To be continued)


Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1]  Mention should also be made of the French Jewish philosopher Bergson, some 100 years later, a contemporary of Rav Kook. The principle of development is central to his philosophy, and Rav Kook appears to have been familiar with parts of his approach.