"If you wish to know what brand of tobacco Rashi used, ask Leopold Zunz. If you wish to know the interpretation of Rashi's writings, ask me."
--remark traditionally attributed to...R. Jacob Ettlinger (1798-1871) of Altona (quoted from "Bernard Revel Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy" by Aaron Rothkoff, pg. 241)
"The great historian of the Jewish past, Heinrich Graetz, got most of his facts right in his monumental work, History of the Jews. But his obvious bias against traditional Judaism and his almost obsessive hatred of the rabbis of Israel spawned a school of Jewish history that did great damage to the Jewish people. They may have known what color shirt Rashi wore, but they ignored what Rashi really stood for and his immortal contribution to Jewish survival and destiny."Paranthetically, and at the outset, it's worth pointing out that tobacco is native to North America and therefore the brand of tobacco Rashi smoked was none at all. This fact oddly and unwittingly illustrates R. Ettlinger's point in a way he probably didn't intend!
--R. Berel Wein, published originally in the Jerusalem Post and reprinted here
But getting back to the matter at hand: Wissenschaft des Judentums, or חכמת ישראל, and its modern descendent, academic Jewish studies.
R. Yitzchok Adlerstein posts today at Cross Currents about thoughts he had about the media coverage of the Gospel of Judas, one of many so-called Gnostic Gospels, which were texts of early Christian heresies. The Gospel of Judas, for example, presents Judas Iscariot as the most beloved disciple of Jesus who remained faithful to the end, "betraying" his master at his command.
Writes R. Adlerstein, "The general attitude [of Christians and institutional Christianity]I have noticed is, “What, we should be disturbed by a bunch of meshugaim suffering from desert heat-stroke? What makes their version more valuable or authentic than ours? For this you want us to discard a tradition of thousands of years?”
"I’m jealous. In the Jewish world, we often don’t react as calmly and sanely."
Unlike us Jews, who sold our birthright for a small price, by accepting the so-called scientific investigation of Judaism over tradition (that is, those of us who did and who do).
The truth is there is a lot to be said for that point, even though the Gospel of Judas is roughly equivalent to a late Sadduccean document rather than a fragment from a book of J. There is also a lot to be said in defense of חכמת ישראל.
Like most things, there is a lot more nuance to this subject than presenting it in terms of light and darkness, which does no justice to it. It is certainly true that Wissenschaft did violence to traditions. It's also true that many of its favorite sons had motives which one can disagree with, and that the movement spawned, directly and indirectly, plenty of crises for Jews and Judaism. But at the same time, it came about because of historical circumstances (there I go again!). There is a reason why it arose in the 19th century and not, say, the 14th.
A quote from "American Judaism" by Nahum Glatzer (pg. 69). It concerns the title character of Abraham Cahan's novel The Rise of David Levinsky, a young Russian yeshiva student who emigrates to the United States. On the boat he eats only kosher and davens regularly. Once in America he immediately seeks out a shul. But he also cuts his peyot, then shaves, then abandons the synagogue for night school--and "soon nothing is left--and with practically no soul searching":
The case of David Levinsky illustrates the crucial point that Judaism in eastern Europe, as in Germany, tended to ignore everything that might be considered theology. Only the practices of Judaism were taught. One was brought up to observe the commandments, and, for this reasons, as soon as one came in touch with a kind of thought which questioned fundamentals, one was at a loss. In other words, it may be said Jews lost their faith so easily because they had no faith to lose: that is, they had no doctrine, no collection of dogmas to which they could cling and with which they could resist argument. All they had, surrounding them like armor, was a complete set of practices, each presumably as holy as the next (emph. mine).Whether this happened in America in the 1880s or another version of the same story in Altona in the 1780s or in Vilna in the 1920s, it is what happened. And in fact, the sentence I italicized in the above paragraph was a key element. מנהג ישראל תורה הוא may have been a rallying cry in response, but it was one that just illustrated how the two kinds of Jews couldn't communicate.
Here is worth repeating the reaction of Shadal to the news that Reformers in Germany had eliminated the second "יקום פורקן" from the liturgy: They fulfilled that which is written "וימח את כל היקום" (Gen. 7:23). Shadal, ever the traditionalist--but the irony is that he was also very modern, and very much engaged in his own brand of the scientific investigation of Judaism. In fact, this is one area where the lack of clear lines comes to the fore: lots of talmidei chachamim with yirat shamayim engaged in Wissenschaft, including an original member of the Agudah's moetzes gedolei ha-Torah, R. David Zevi Hoffman.
The question is, why? Is it just an evil way to approach religion? It is useless? Some of the people who would have applauded Shadal's witty remark would say just that, and that its forbidden also. But likely many of those people would have felt that way about some of his writings!
(Parenthetically, on doing some research for this post I came across this statement, by R. Adlerstein: "Alas, it has been a long time since Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and his headlong charge against Higher Criticism and Jewish Wissenschaft." This is very curious. It's true that R. Hoffman fought against source criticism of the Bible. But he personally engaged in Wissenschaft, and taught it as a core component of his rabbinical seminary. A big part of his personal style of learning Gemara was חכמת ישראל. And not only that, his book "Mar Samuel" was branded apikorsus by R. Samson Rafael Hirsch.)
There are no easy answers. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. אין הכי נמי, R. Adlerstein has a point. To have a healthy Judaism we shouldn't destroy it! But neither should we totally interdict modern methods of study and investigation. Like R. Meir, when we find a רמון then תוכו אכל קליפתו זרק (Chag. 15b).