by Rabbi Berel Wein
Henry Ford, in many respects the founder of modern manufacturing processes a century ago, was also a very great hater and a classic anti-Semite. He also posed himself as the champion of the “plain people” against the intellectual snobbery of academia and academics. In this role he described history as “bunk.” In an interview that Henry Ford gave to the Chicago Tribune in 1916 he stated: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present. The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” I feel that this attitude of Ford’s was a contributing factor to his virulent anti-Semitism. For Judaism and the Jewish people are founded on history and tradition Our teacher Moshe bade us to remember the days of the past and to study and understand the happenings of generations gone by. Ignorance of the past creates the boors and ignoramuses of the present. A nation that has no recollection of its past, that has no past heroes to treasure and that feels that history is “bunk” is doomed to eventual failure as a society.
But, perhaps even worse than no history, for a people, is having a falsified version of history. The rewriting of history to conform to current political correctness and/or ideological purity is a widespread occurrence amongst scholars over the past two centuries. One need only look at the textbooks of the Palestinian schools to realize the clear and present danger of falsifying history to meet current political goals. History as ”bunk” is foolish enough. But history as lies is absolutely dangerous.
History in the Jewish world was not viewed as a science or a discipline until the nineteenth century. There had been historical works written throughout Jewish life but they were almost ancillary to the main purpose of those works, which was to transmit and validate the traditions of Torah and halacha, especially of the development of the Oral Law. Thus such works as Seder Olam, attributed to the third century tanna Rabi Yossi, Iggeres Rav Sherira Gaon, authored by the one of the last of the Babylonian Geonim in the tenth century, and Tzemach David, written by Rabbi David Ganz in the sixteenth century, were all books of history but not in the modern sense of scholarship but were rather recordings of oral traditions passed down through the ages. Through intensive Torah study and strict observance of customs, coupled with the sanctity of oral traditions of the past, Jews had an acute and accurate idea of their past and of the historical events that shaped their existence. However, in the nineteenth century, Heinrich Graetz, a former student of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who left Jewish observance and became an “enlightened” one, wrote a magisterial multi-volume of Jewish history in a scientific fashion. Graetz’ work became the basis for all subsequent Jewish historiography. Graetz was meticulous in his research and facts. However, his overwhelming antipathy towards Orthodoxy and rabbinic Judaism, especially his loathing of the Chasidic movement, colored much of his work Thus an otherwise accurate work of history became somewhat of a polemic of a false and inaccurate picture of Jewish life, much more dangerous than “bunk.”
As a reaction to Graetz and his followers and to the secular Zionist movement that purposely negated all the past Jewish history of Jewish accomplishments in the Exile, the religious Jewish world began to construct its own works of history. These tended to be biographical in format and hagiographic in content. Again, history was reshaped to fit current mores and accepted behavior patterns. Orthodox history tended to be a collection of stories, sometimes with interchangeable names as to the protagonists of those stories. It allowed for no unpleasant details and no human deviations and/or failings from exemplary pious behavior. Great disputes within the religious Jewish world were ignored or whitewashed. The “enlightened” ones on their part continued to rewrite Jewish history to fit their conceptions of correct modern liberal democratic values. Even the history of secular Zionism has been rewritten in a fashion that removes all of the former Zionist heroes from their previously lofty secular pedestals. Thus today children in the Israeli school system have two totally different and usually opposite versions of the past of our people. It is difficult to see how unity of national purpose can be fostered under such conditions. History is not “bunk.” It should also not be inaccurate, misleading and overly selective in viewpoint and presentation.
Reprinted with permission from www.rabbiwein.com