Sunday, August 04, 2019

On Rav Herzog's Encyclopedic Knowledge, Cultural Influence and Jews as Parasites

 Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog

       This morning in shul, the person sitting next to me was deeply engrossed in a volume of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog's magnum opus, The Main Institutions of Jewish Law. Excitedly, he pointed out to me a few examples of the author's exquisite English style (and it is, indeed, exquisite). 

       After a few minutes, he called my attention to a passage where Rav Herzog expresses exasperation with another scholar. The latter had claimed that a certain law in the Mishnah was wholly derived from Roman Law. Rav Herzog reacted with, albeit polite, indignance. He asserted that he did not know whence this writer had the temerity to make such a claim. Indeed, he declared, no such law appears anywhere in Roman Legal Literature! The ruling in the Mishnah, then, was uniquely Jewish and bore no debt to the outside world. I smiled in appreciation.

         My friend, who know a thing or two about science, research and data bases was deeply impressed at Rav Herzog's ability to make such a declaration. Obviously, in an age before Data Bases and scanned books, search engines and keywords, Rav Herzog carefully, methodically and judiciously mastered the entire Roman Legal corpus. Otherwise, he would not have been able to make such an authoritative and definitive assertion. I responded that we have paid a very high price for relying overly on databases and search engines, instead of systematically engaging and studying various works. One misses nuance, not to mention a certain intuition that comes from immersing oneself in the works of other writers.

           Suddenly, I thought about Rav Herzog's rejection of the idea that some rule in the Mishnah was Roman in origin. Why, I wondered, was he so indignant? Why did he feel the need to triumphantly declare that there was no way the law in question emanated from outside of the Jewish orbit? And, more to the point, why was I warmed by his actions?

           The question of the impact of outside cultures on Judaism has always both fascinated and frustrated me. On the one hand, good Jewish patriot that I am, I would like to naively think that everything in our received heritage developed imminently from within. After all, we experience Torah as a totality, and naturally tend to weigh and interpret its various elements in light of the totality of its parts. On the other hand, such a sentiment is patently wrong, even absurd. Jewish civilization has interacted with countless other cultures over the millennia, and has been greatly enriched by that interaction. We are inevitably influenced by the material and cultural surroundings wherein we find ourselves. The real questions are how that influence occurs and in what it results?     

           Contrary to the prevailing trends in the contemporary academy, I am something of an essentialist (or, better, neo-Essentialist to use Andrew Sayer's phrase). I am convinced (independent of my religious belief) that Rabbinic Judaism has a basic integrity that remained consistent throughout the centuries. Hence, when it encountered multiple cultures it interacted with them. It did not mindlessly, uncritically and mechanically embrace outside ideas and practices (by perhaps tossing thereupon some Jewish decoration). Judaism interacted with the outside world. That which it chose it accept was accepted critically and adapted to the core values and spiritual vision that was uniquely Jewish. There was, I think, even discrimination as to what was adopted. 

            This position was best expressed by the distinguished scholar of Islam, H. A. R. Gibb, in his article, 'The Influence of Islamic Culture in Medieval Europe.' Two citations from that study will suffice to make the point at bar.


           I fully subscribe to both of these sentiments. I would add that even when reality forced itself upon Jewish culture (as, for example, certain aspects of Christian penitence that impacted upon German Pietism, aka Hassidut Ashkenaz), the forces that imposed themselves were still refracted through a Jewish prism (a point I made in a lecture that I offered some years ago at Yeshiva College.) 

          As a result, I confess that I bristle when I encounter the wholesale reductionist stance that characterizes the work of so many Jewish academicians. Whenever there is any parallel between a Jewish source and a non-Jewish source, the automatic reaction is: Aha! The Jews took it from there!!! The idea that Jews might have originated something out of their own religious or cultural nexus isn't taken seriously. Neither is the possibility that similar phenomena might emerge from similar circumstances. (Never mind the consideration that even if there was influence the significant questions are: What? How? To what Extent? and not just establishing that there was influence.) Indeed, sometimes, when I read or hear colleagues presenting this kind of argument, there's something triumphalist, celebratory in their words. But why? Sometimes I think it's an expression of a deep seated need to belong to the outside world. Other times, it seems that Jewish otherness bothers them, or that they are burdened by a serious cultural inferiority complex. 

          Whatever the motivation for this non-nuanced understanding of cultural interaction, one thing struck me as I was talking to my friend. The obverse of the compulsive search for outside influences upon Judaism and Jewish culture is that Jews are incapable of being original on their own terms. If so, they must be deemed cultural parasites. Hence, on some level there is a similarity between this operating assumption and the Antisemitic (and deeply Marxist) trope that Jews are not productive economically but merely parasites on the body politic of Europe. That image of the Jew, in turn, is rooted in the notorious blood libels of the Medieval and Modern Worlds.  

          When that insight hit me this morning, I fully understood Rav Herzog's indignation.

           And my delight in his reply.


Rabbi Mois Navon said...

Excellent and essential! In case you are not already aware, there is a great book on this subject entitled, "Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures." You may find significant support for your point regarding Judaism's “discrimination as to what was adopted” and why, in R. Lichtenstein's contribution to this book.

Ovadya said...

Hello there! An interesting and seemingly pure interpretation of R. Herzog’s indignacne and a nice anecdote to boot. Yet one must not quickly dismiss the notion that some laws do have origins in Geco-Roman history as many a scholar has demonstrated, e.g. B. Cohen and S. Atlas to name a couple. Nay, even R. Herzog could not have been ignorant of such influences on our Jewish legal concepts as is evident from his thorough familiarity in the field, demonstrated in his The Main Institutions of Jewish Law.

Though admittedly I came to this blog with a different intention: Has your PhD in Maharik been published in book form? I’ve been searching for it but to no avail, other than pdf form.