Orthodox heilsgechichte

This weekend, I read a work on modern Jewish thought that considered the only Orthodox heilsgechichte as that of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. The author, writing in 2006, could not name any other Orthodox theory of history.

Actually, by definition most Orthodoxies must have a heilsgechichte to avoid secular causality and historicism. Therefore all of these authors will engage in the general outline of schoolbook history to produce a theology.Heilsgeschichte is German for “Salvation History.” The term is used for theological writing that is committed to two things: the affirmation of God’s suprahistorical activity in history and the need to critically reconstruct these events through the sources. In these approaches, the historical writings of Nahmanides, the Vilna Gaon, and Maharal are drafted into new contexts, to explain modern data.

About a decade ago a former colleague of mine asked about Orthodoxy and historicism and I gave a quick list of about eighteen  20th century orthodox theologies of history including:

Rabbi Isaac Breuer and Yeshaya Leibowitz who said that Judaism was ahistoric. This one is not popular anymore because it requires one to take refuge in philosophy. Now people need a theology of history. Especially since historical thinking was so important for modern thinking that it had to be subsumed, integrated and then overcome with a relgious theology against historicism.

As against secular history:Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman turned  Graetz on its head and making Torah study the causality for Graetz’s lachrymose history. Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote a triumphalistic anti-Zionist vision of the end of modernity as shown by the baalei teshuvah. He includes quotes from several modern historians including Scholem.

As a messianic vision: Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and the age of redemption and ingathering of the exiles. Rabbi Amital’s accounting for setbacks in the redemptive process. Rabbi Kasher (as probably author of Kol Hator), redemption through natural means.

On the Holocaust: Rabbi Teichtel’s blame of the Holocaust on the anti-Zionists. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek, with its references to Secretary of State Dulles and recent American history.

Chabad: Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak’s messianism, and his version of Dubnow’s history of the common folk. He also has a history of the hidden saints. Rabbi M M Schneerson’s account of the fall of the Soviet Union and the post-historic messianic age.

Centrism:Treating Jewish history as history of the mesorah. (This one needs its own discussion because it accepts facts but without historicism.)

Even a figure as progressive as Rabbi Cherlow gave a paper at an academic conference on halakhah and ideology on the need for a theology of history. Cherlow wanted the academics to produce the chronology and raw facts, while rabbis will provide the meaning in history and evaluate the value of the data. Needless to say, it provoked reaction.

6 responses to “Orthodox heilsgechichte

  1. I believe that Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt”l also wrote a Heilsgeschichte sefer. It was republished and distributed at the KAJ dinner a few years ago. (If you would like I can send to you a copy.)

    My question is how central is these thinkers’ Heilsgeschichte to their overall theology and worldview. In otherwords, how much did they care about history?

    Additionally, how much effort did they invest in these efforts?

    It is my impression that in general, compared to American Exangelical Christians, and in particular Premillinial Dispensationalists, Orthodox Jews are far less interested in History and do not invest as much effort in understanding either history or current events in a religious context.

    • At this point, much of the discussion of mesorah, Israel, and Holocaust is deeply concerned with a theology of history. So I think now it is a major issue.
      In the case of Rav Elhanan, it was less a theology of history and more a way to undermine the modernist post Graetz and Dubnow view of peoplehood.
      The followers of Rav Zevi Yehudah are completely in a theory of history and politics. I see they respond in quotes given to newspapers about current issues and events using their history. If you think they are not concerned, then what would constitute being concerned??
      what would make these lesser theologies of history that R. Yoel?

  2. I was imprecise with my earlier comments.

    Of course the followers of Tzvi Yehudah Kook and the Lubavitcher Rebbes are animated by a historical theology which motivates their activities large and small.

    But, in my experience, mainstream Modern Orthodox in America and Chareidim in Israel & the Diaspora largely do not have a theology of history. Though they could create one if they wanted.

    Do people need a strong historical consciousness to need a Heilsgeschichte? Chareidim, by and large, do not have an historical consciousness.

    As for the American Modern Orthodox, I spend less time around them than I should, but in my impression people are dismissive of Heilsgeschichte the same way that they are dismissive of Slifkin.

    Additionally, for much of the 20th Century the main concern was Halakha and its nature, which the America Orthodox tend to think of as outside history.

  3. You neglected to mention Rav Yitzchak Twersky. What about his engagement with historicity?

    • His writings actually embrace historicism with side stepping into theology. He was working on a theology of history using Polish Hasidut before his untimely death, there may be a surviving draft in his papers. But his BA thesis was on heilsgechichte in the Church Fathers.

  4. I think you are blurring sociology and theology. I am not sure that most people carein any group, even Satmar.
    But there is a strong historical sense in MO, maybe I have seen more of it and need to bring example in future posts. But there is something heilsgeschichte when i hear things like:
    “Zionism was founded by the Avnei Nezer or Chofetz Chaim and not by secular Zionists.” [even though both were anti-zionist]
    “How can the reform movement still show its face and produce new books after the Holocaust?”
    “Everyone in Eastern Europe used to follow the mesorah and do anything their rabbis said.”
    “We are the ones seeking truth in history and do not create hagiography.”[ followed by a factoid that is not historically true.]

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