Friday, June 09, 2006

'Facing the Truths of History' revisited

Most of you probably know this back story, but here it is again.

In the Torah U-Madda Journal 7 Dr. Marc Shapiro published an article called Scholars and Friends: R' Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg and Prof. Samuel Atlas. The piece included private correspondence between the Seridei Esh and his friend Prof. Samuel Atlas of Hebrew Union College. A lot of people were upset that this private correspondence was published, both because of what it was in itself: letters between a גדול and his friend who was a professor at a Reform university, but also because of the content of those letters. Of course other people felt that this is the truth, and the truth is not upsetting, but just true.

In the next volume, TUM 8, journal editor R. Dr. J.J. Schachter publishd a piece called Facing the Truths of History in which he basically questioned his decision to publish Shapiro's article, but also defended it. He also recounted how he visited R. Weinberg's grave at Har Ha-menuchot to ask forgiveness in case he would have caused R. Weinberg pain. Obviously we cannot know what R. Weinberg would have wanted.

The article explored many aspects of revisionism in Orthodox Jewish historiography, from trying to distort the positions of R. Samson Rafael Hirsch to omiting information about Gedolim which serve someone's agenda. An example he gave is in a biographical sketch in Yated Ne'eman about R. Eliyahu Dessler it mentioned that as a child he read Uncle Tom's Cabin and that this was part of his father's educational program for him, in the spirit of his own rebbe, the Alter of Kelm. The following issue of Yated printed a letter from a person suggesting that Yated should never have revealed that R. Dessler had read Uncle Tom's Cabin and that not mentioning it would be to present the emes--the truth!--since R. Dessler should not be viewed as someone who read such a book (or perhaps--a book). (See Yated's policy on biographies.)

(Disclaimer: I haven't read R. Dr. Schachter's article in a long time, and I may be presenting aspects of it slightly incorrectly--so feel free to read it yourself and correct me.)

Of course this article provoked a lot of conversation. It raised important points and counterpoints. What is important information and what is gossip? Is R. Hutner's love of opera at all relevent in a biographical sketch of him? Does it make him look bad? Maybe it makes him look good? Who gets to decide? What can be learned from it? His attitude towards culture? Kol isha? A personal 'failing'?

Does a realistic portrayal of a good person necessarily entail making him or her look good all the time? What about lashon ha-ra? All these questions and more are important. Why do we need to know what Thomas Jefferson did with his slave girl? Are their good reasons? (yes) Do we need to know if he had a temper tantrum on an occasion? All important questions for biographers who must balance presenting as true a picture of the person as they can without assasinating their subjects character--unless obviously the subject is a lousy person.

When Marc Shapiro published his bio of the Seridei Esh, it was really trashed in a review in Jewish Action by R. Berel Berkovits, chiefly on the grounds that a Godol's private correspondence doesn't represent aspects of their true self as much as their public statements and writings. An interesting opinion. Shapiro's response and R. Berkovits' reply can be found here.

In any event, here is the real meat of this post: Marvin Schick published a critical response to 'Facing the Truths of History' in the Jewish Press, and here it is:

You can click on the picture or you can download it as a PDF if you like.

I disagree with much of Dr. Schick's article, mainly because I think an article like 'Facing the Truths of History' is important--very important. But at the same time, he raises some good points, especially concerning memory.

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