Moravian-American Reform Rabbi Gotthard Deutsch was a very entertaining writer. Two volumes of his articles were published in the work Scrolls, and they're just a lot of fun to read. But much much more remains, scattered in various periodicals. A voracious reader of traditional responsa, which he gleaned for sources and polemics, and countless other works, his articles were written in a kind of very whimsical, chatty, personal and arrogant way which I like. Can't beat a piece by Gotthard Deutsch for a good anecdote. For fun, someone should mine his articles the same way he mined the Sdei Chemed (his favorite). Maybe one day I will collect them.
In any case, I came across a polemical article in the American Israelite (Sep. 4, 1913) in which Deutsch responds to his conservative critics, specifically, to Solomon Schechter. Now, Reform rabbis like Deutsch had something of an obsession with so-called Neo-Orthodoxy, because it seemed to pull the carpet out from the central arguments of Reform Judaism. Deutsch and many others believed that Neo-Orthodox Judaism is no more authentic, no more traditional, and no more continuous with pre-modern rabbinic tradition than Reform Judaism is, but unlike Reform, it is not honest because it pretends that it is. Furthermore, the half-measure reforms of Neo-Orthodoxy did nothing to solve the modern dilemmas of the modern Jews, let us say, because according to them Jews must still miss two months of working days out of the calendar year, and so on. People like Deutsch intentionally used the term Neo-Orthodox to highlight the discontinuity with what they saw as the genuine traditional Orthodoxy of old and, in Deutsch's case, of his own childhood. A Noda Beyehuda, a Chasam Sofer, a R. Mordechai Banet - they were really Orthodox.
Now, Solomon Schechter had given a speech in which he was talking about how "cultured conservative Jews . . . are sometimes stigmatized as neo orthodox." Schechter said that this taunt can only hit its mark if the idea of something like an orthodox Jew taking a college degree is something new, and a paradox. But, said Schechter, "a better knowledge of Jewish history would have taught them that culture combined with religion was the rule with the Jews. Culture without religion was an exception."
Taking this personally, Deutsch assumed that it was he who was being told he needed "a better knowledge of history." So he wrote an article in which he listed source after source of traditional Orthodox rabbis who were decidedly against culture and secular education.
Of course both positions can be defended in different ways, because the truth is that the truth is complex. Neither Schechter nor Deutsch wanted to truck in complexities, so there you have it. In any case, toward the end of his piece Deutsch has this wonderful nugget about history-as-dry-facts. And that's really the purpose of this post:
"...the idea that history in general...is a dry array of indifferent facts. This argument, used by an orthodox, is on one level with a statement ascribed to Rabbi J. J. Oettinger of Berling, who said of Zunz: "If you wish to know what color Rashi's trousers were you ask Zunz, but if you wish to know what Rashi taught, you ak me." Similarly one of the leading liberals is fond of amusing his audiences with an attack on those who write volumes on the color of the socks which Rabbenu Tam's grandmother wore on Sabbath Hanukah. You see that this is the same clever speculation on the vanity of the Philistine. He is to be told that he is just as well, or even better, off for not knowing the results of painstaking scholarship, and naturally, Mr. Philistine appreciates the compliment.
The actual situation is this. There are indeed a number of facts that are brought out by historical research that are in themselves indifferent. At the same time it goes with these things, as with furniture in a well arranged household. Every piece has to have its place, because our aesthetic sense, our love of order, demands it so. It may be, and in all likelihood, it is is indifferent, whether Alfred Sutro, the English playwright, was born in 1870, as the Jewish Encyclopedia states, or in 1863, as I found out recently, but there is no reason why we should not state a fact correctly, as long as we know it.
In some instances such a trivial fact may be a valuable point in determining an important historical fact. Napoleon was of late often praised as a liberator of the Jews. Quite recently someone published reminiscences of his physician in St. Helena, who reports that Napoleon claimed credit for his work in emancipating the Jews. The emancipation, however, took place in 1791, while Napoleon did not become first consul until 1799. In this way we establish proof that the reports of this physician are not reliable.
In another instance somebody-again I do not name him because I wish my statement to be understood, free from all personal prejudice-claimed Zunz for the conservatives. Such a general statement is easily made, and not one out of a hundred, perhaps out of a thousand readers, will have reason for doubting. I prove with quotations from chapter and verse, that Zunz said, he had no interest in Judaism, that rabbis, priests, lamas, fortune tellers, etc., were all the same to him, that all he cared for was Jews. I further proved with chapter and verse that Zunz dated Leviticus from post exilic times, which would result in making Yom Kippur an institution with which Moses had no more to do than he had with Hanukah or with Thanksgiving. I admit that such insistence on cold facts is occasionally inconvenient, but it's the only sound method of presenting history.
It goes without saying that while I think Deutsch is right abut lots in this, once again, he is incapable of nuance and also it does not occur to him that his interpretation might be incorrect. To take the reminiscences of Napoleon's physician. Is it really the case that because France emancipated its Jews in 1791, and Napoleon only became first consul in 1799 that the physician made it up? Can we not imagine that Napoleon himself may have given himself more credit than was due him? My goodness, Napoleon exaggerate? Never! Or, perhaps, even though technically the emancipation of Jews in France happened in 1791, Napoleon might have been referring to other acts and initiatives he took concerning the civil rights of the Jews in France and conquered territories? Dismissing the testimony of the physician (and presumably all else he said) because two dates do not work the way he thinks it should is more of a failure of deeper thinking, or at least imagination, than good critical historical thinking. Same with Zunz. While maybe it did not occur to him in 1913, Zunz's opposition to Reform-style reform may well have been more significant in how to characterize him overall than his view of rabbis or the Torah's origin.