A while back I promised a post about the popular Jewish history books of R. Berel Wein. First of all, let me make clear that whether he is a "historian" or not is immaterial. I say this because I have seen him dismissed because he is an amateur history buff. Well, so am I.
It's hard to know where to begin, so let's just begin in the middle of things. One bone I have to pick is R. Wein's very negative attitude toward his predecessors who essentially created the field of Jewish history. Three or four or ten chronicles over a millenium are not why R. Berel Wein has an abundance of historical materials and libraries full of journals and books to learn about the Jewish past. It is because of the determination of scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, to uncover the Jewish past using modern research methods.
I will get back to that point, and show specifically how he shows no appreciation for the pioneering work of those who came before him, but in the meantime, I want to mention that his books constantly cite "neutral" scholarly historical works about the time periods he discusses. The scholars who wrote those books and studies use the same modern research and the same critical methodology as the Jewish scholars whom he disapproves of. Furthermore, although he is very dismissive of the early generations of Jewish historians and scholars who created and worked in Wissenschaft des Judentums, many of their successors of the second and third generation after the pioneers are cited by him as authoritative sources. I'm not sure why the work of Abraham Berliner, H.J. Zimmels, Cecil Roth, Irving Agus and Jacob Katz are reliable, but not Zunz and others. Yes, I am aware of the flaws and biases that could be found in the early works, but the later work also contains them, and rely on the earlier ones, and most importantly, use the same methods and consider them valid. 150 years removed from the Zeitschrifts it might be easy to pretend that they are not a layer in the foundation of which he works, but they are there.
One sort of criticism I find that R. Wein engages in is against the skepticism regarding legends that were assumed to be true in traditional sources. Thus, in Herald of Destiny (covering the years 750 to 1650), pg. 26, we encounter the legend--yes, he calls it "Jewish legend"--that Spanish kings were allies of Nebuchadnezzer who actually participated in the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple. "Spain's influence was known in ancient Israel as well," he writes. In n. 1 we find the following:
The legend is first recorded in Shevet Yehudah, a historical work written by Shlomo ibn Verga at the turn of the 16th century. Modern secular scholars, as is their wont, disregard the account as fiction.
Now, the problem with the legend is that--according to Wein--it first appears in writing 500 years ago. This, in a discussion of events of two thousand years earlier. "As is their wont"? Is it disrespectful to view a report from 1500 CE regarding the political situation in 500 BCE as simply not admissable as a historical source? Incredible.
Incredible, I say, because R. Wein reserves the right to be skeptical and dismiss things which were traditionally believed to be historical as legendary. See pg. 64 n.11:
There is no basis, except for the love of Rashi shared by all of Israel, and their wish somehow to be identified with him, for the legend that Rashi visited all the major communities of the Jewish world. Neither is there any basis to the legend that Rashi met Rambam in Egypt. Rashi died in 1105 and the Rambam was born in 1135.
Okay, the last bit is just impossible, but what of the first part?
Getting back to the legend (Spain fighting in Jerusalem), on the very next page (pg. 27 n. 2) there is a footnote which clarifies that the biblical Hebrew place 'Sepharad' is 'Spain' according to Rashi following Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, "However, many Biblical commentators describe Tzorfas and Sepharad as names of Phoenician or Elamite cities. Nevertheless, in the early Middle Ages, and from then onward, the words came to mean France and Spain exclusively."
Thus, we see just how tenuous a legend this is, yet "Spain's influence was known in ancient Israel" and the skepticism of "modern secular scholars" about the historicity of a legend appearing 2000 years after the fact is sneer-worthy?
More posts to follow, including praise of R. Wein's work that I feel is due him.