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.