Monday, September 12, 2005

Nitpicking Karen Armstrong; We all make mistakes

Time and again I've noticed that when I read something that I know a lot about I'll inevitably catch a factual error (especially if the thing I'm reading wasn't written by a specialist in that subject). This shouldn't be surprising. After all no one's perfect. If a treatment of some subject gets 98% right that's really good. But if this is true of what I do know, what about what I didn't know? Surely everything contains factual errors.

Karen Armstrong's "The Battle For God" is a good example. The book treats the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam worldwide over the past 50 years, a phenomenon that virtually no one predicted. It's a pretty good book. She is a thorough scholar. According to she cited 175 works. The bibliography is 17 pages long, each one containing about 36 entried. Thats more than 612 sources, plenty of them good ones. But on page 101, discussing the beginning of Chassidus, she writes of
"....a powerful figure: Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-97), head (gaon) of the Academy of Vilna."
I'm not sure its an exaggeration to say that any twelve year old kid in yeshiva knows that this is nonsense. The Vilna Gaon most certainly was not the head of the Academy of Vilna (nor was there an 'Academy of Vilna').

Now I'm not saying this is an unreasonable screw-up. Armstrong probably read a hundred and one times over the years that a gaon was an academy head. She probably didn't even realize that she was making the Vilna Gaon a rosh yeshiva without having read it in any source. But a mistake it is, and not a minor one in that to understand the Vilna Gaon is to know first of all that he was an independent, secluded scholar. Even his having disciples meant something completely different than having disciples normally does.

It's understandable how Armstrong got this wrong, but of course it means that she probably has no concept of the Vilna Gaon apart from some dry facts, namely that he was reputedly a genius, extremely influential and an opposer of Chassidus.

So what else does she misunderstand and what else does she get wrong, especially in the parts of the book that deal with Christianity and Islam, which I have less intimate knowledge of? This is a problem native to any work of this kind, al achas kamma ve-kamma, articles in the daily newspapers or popular magazine.

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