Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'Facing the Truths of History' revisited, pt. II; on the Weinberg-Atlas correspondence

The whole Weinberg-Atlas correspondence thing has renewed itself, in a discussion here about this symposium. For the unfamiliar, see my overview on the subject from almost two years ago.

Here is a quote from the Chopping Wood blog:

"While Dr. Shapiro's thesis about the Seridei Eish might certainly be true, the letters that he published were truly private. Rabbi Weinberg never published them, but instead sent them to a friend in confidence. After all, aren't private letters supposed to be confidential. In fact, Dr. Atlas saved his letters but never disseminated them publicly, and it was only his widow - who really had no appreciation for the implications of the publication of those letters -- who gave final permission for him to use them.

"To me, this raises the complicated issue of rabbinic privacy. Of course the Seridei Eish was a gadol, and his halachic works and other public writings have defined him for posterity. But does that public persona then make his entire life "public property"? Doesn't he also deserve to have a private life?"
(emphasis mine)

The answer to that question must be "yes," however there is a common and widespread tradition in both Torah and Western scholarship of collecting and publishing the correspondence of notable people, particularly of the non-mundane variety (sometimes shopping lists are published, but you've got to be a George Washington for that, not a John Paul Jones). While this doesn't mean that there is therefore no such thing as the private life of the notable person, it does mean that the notable person does not write letters under the mistaken impression that they will never see the light of day.1 It is unlikely that R. Weinberg expected Prof. Atlas to destroy the letters he sent him, or that he could have had the expectation that no one would ever publish them.

Finally, there is the question of the judgment that the correspondence between a respected Orthodox rabbi and a Talmudic scholar in a Reform theological school2 would be embarrassing to the respected Orthodox rabbi. One could make a case that respected Orthodox rabbis who carry intimate correspondence with a Talmudic scholar in a Reform theological school are simply not like other Orthodox rabbis in the first place, and assuming the correspondence to be embarrassing is merely projection onto the respected Orthodox rabbi on the one hand, or perhaps the embarrassment is to elements within Orthodoxy that respect the rabbi on the other.

Indeed, in one of Prof. Atlas's published studies on the Talmud3 there is a letter from R. Weinberg printed, which highly praises these studies and wistfully observes that he wished that the traditionalist Torah students would read these studies and learn how to express themselves clearly, precisely and scientifically in Hebrew. Was this letter a secret and was Prof. Atlas wrong to have printed it?

R. Spolter (the Chopping Wood blogger) continues that he got when he challenged Shapiro on the issue of privacy, the latter agreed that he wouldn't be the one to reveal that a respected rabbi had an illegitimate child, provided that the rabbi had acted correctly as a father to that child. On the other hand, if the rabbi had not then he would publicize that fact. This then shows that even Marc Shapiro agrees that gedolim are entitled to a degree of privacy, even posthumously.

It is indeed interesting that Marc Shapiro personally feels that having an illegitimate child is not per se a diminution of the gadlus of a rabbi, but it is no chiddush that a responsible historian must distinguish between gossip and something of importance, nor is it a chiddush that sometimes what is or isn't gossip is basically a matter of opinion. These are problems, to be sure, but nothing ever leaves everyone happy.

Hat tip.

1 I would agree that a distinction might be made between letters from the notable person's youth--before they were notable--and afterward. People cannot predict their future, but the Weinberg-Atlas correspondence which was published in TUMJ begins in 1946.

2 Also notable is that R. Weinberg published a paper jointly with Paul Kahle in the Jewish studies annual of this very Reform theological school (see here if you want to read that paper). Perhaps the reader wishes to make a distinction between the relatively private life of R. Weinberg after WWII, and before when he was Rector of the Berlin Rabbinerseminar? While the Weinberg-Atlas letters were indeed from after the war, the HUCA article is from 1935.

3 I don't remember the name or much about it. I found it lying unloved on a shul's bookshelf, and only got to look at it for about twenty minutes.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts with Thumbnails