< Back

The Science of Jewish History. Presidential Address.

Israel Abrahams

<plain_text><page sequence="1">PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS. By Mr. I. ABRAHAMS, M.A. November 23, 1904. THE SCIENCE OF JEWISH HISTORY. It is my agreeable duty to propose the adoption of the Report, and in doing so I will deliver all that I have to offer by way of Presidential Address. The Report, you must have observed, is painted in optimistic colours; but this optimisim is justified by the facts of the case. Much of our prosperity is clearly due to exceptional good fortune in our choice of Presidents in the past. It is usual for the new incumbent of a dignified post to express misgiving as to his own fitness for the position, the occu? pancy of which has been made difficult by the distinction and devotion of his predecessors. But I disclaim any such diffidence. My predecessors have not made the post difficult; they have made it easy. They have so firmly established the policy of the Society that a new-comer has nothing to do but to continue on the lines which his forerunners have so truly and so ineffaceably marked out. Further, my own responsibility is lessened by the fact that one of our most momentous undertakings, the founding and endowment of the Mocatta Library and Museum, still remains in Sir Isidore Spielmann's capable and willing hands, and thus his successor is relieved from what must havexbeen a formidable task to any one less gifted than Sir Isidore with the faculty for successfully organising artistic enterprises. Yet I cannot altogether flatter myself with the prospect of an easy tenure of the Presidentship. The Society does undoubtedly stand at the parting of the ways. In one sense this parting merely means that we are turning from promise to fulfilment. Among our earliest promises was a Calendar of the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews. This promise occupied a prominent place in the original circular summoning VOL. V. 193 N</page><page sequence="2">194 THE SCIENCE OP JEWISH HISTORY. the meeting which resulted in the formation of our Society. But such a Calendar is at once costly and technical. Its publication makes a strong demand on our funds, and a stronger demand on the forbearance of our members. The first volume is nearly ready j1 it will cost us something like ??250; yet it will not be found very entertaining reading. And the complete Calendar will fill another two or three similar volumes. That we were in honour bound to redeem our promise and begin the issue of this work has already been indicated. But our motive and justification lie deeper even than honour; for by this publication we proclaim that as a Society we take our stand on the side of the new theory of history, which was one of the chief legacies left by the latter half of the nineteenth century. If you wish to read a brief and con? vincing statement of this new theory, you cannot do better than study the brilliant Inaugural Address delivered last year by Mr. J. B. Bury (one of our honorary members) when taking up the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge. He entitles his Address " The Science of History," and his main contention is that History is a science, no less and no more. History on this view is not a branch of literature or of art. Still less is it a branch of politics or religion. It is a branch of science, and its methods must be severely scientific?critical, systematic, minutely analytical of sources, without thought as to the interest of those sources or their absolute importance or even novelty. Truth is always novel. The new theory of History proclaims that laxity in deal? ing with evidence is criminal, and that the only end to be aimed at is scrupulous conformity to fact. In the case of an individual historian this may be difficult. Subjective prejudices influence his selection of facts, just as his partiality may vitiate his interpretation of them. But a society has no theories, still less, I hope, has it a philosophy. Hence an historical society must necessarily range itself with the new objective theory of historical science, and must leave to individuals the formation of a subjective philosophy of history, such as Bishop Stubbs?one of the founders of modern historical methods?so profoundly distrusted. Stubbs will certainly outlive Buckle. Jews have now come to see, though they have come to see it slowly, that the scientific method is the only one that offers them any real hope 1 It was published in 1905; vol. ii. is in the press.</page><page sequence="3">THE SCIENCE OF JEWISH HISTORY. 195 on the one hand to present their history truly to the world, and on the other hand to win from the world a true judgment. In 1820 Isaac Marcus Jost, the first Jewish historian after Ghetto days, in the preface to the opening volume of his Geschichte der Israeliten, complained that there was an over-supply of books on the value of Judaism, and an under-supply of books on the history of the Jews. "It is time," he said, " to close the proceedings as to the worth or unworth of Jews and Judaism, and to begin to examine the phenomena themselves." Jost, by the way, complains of lack of financial support at home, and asserts that though his History was made in Germany, the funds came largely from foreign sources. His theory, however, that the first duty of the historian as such is to collect and analyse facts, that it belongs not to the historian but to the philosopher to interpret the facts, was not destined to win immediate recognition. Jost was not himself consistent to the theory, and others rejected it altogether. In Jewish literature, the critical scientific spirit made wonderful and rapid progress ; but in Jewish history the progress was slower. Europe as a whole acquired a literary criticism before it attained to an historical criticism. There was no Jewish genius to do for history what Zunz did for literature. Graetz was a literary artist, not a scientific historian. Hence while Zunz created a school of literary critics, Graetz created no school of historical critics. Graetz met Zunz for the first time at the house of Michael Sachs in Berlin. Dr. Philipp Bloch tells us what occurred. " The two visitors had not yet made each other's personal acquaintance. The host pre? sented Graetz, adding in praise of him that he was about to publish a Jewish history. ' Another history of the Jews?' Zunz asked pointedly. * Another history/ was Graetz's retort, 'but this time a Jewish history.' " Graetz thus proclaimed himself what he was, the subjective historian; Jost's view that the historian dealt with facts, not judgments on them, was abhorrent to Graetz. Graetz always judged his facts. He loathed mysticism, and so was unjust to the Cabbala; he did not record the progress of reform, he condemned it. His judgments are highly interest? ing as a human document, but they are too personal to be called history. Graetz, in short, gave us a work of art. But his History is not the starting-point of a school. It ends, it does not begin, an epoch. The economic aspects of Jewish history such as later on occupied Scherer? dead all too soon?were almost ignored by Graetz. He was too intent</page><page sequence="4">196 THE SCIENCE OF JEWISH HISTORY. on the spirit to care for the body which enshrined it. And so, in the preface to his fifth volume, Graetz wrote : " My work bas not been much forwarded by Dr. Zunz's more confusing than illuminative detailed notes and dry lists of names." Graetz did less than justice to himself here, for he, too, was a careful collector of facts. But always for a purpose. He incessantly talked of "harmony"; he loved harmonious minds, and admired only well-proportioned edifices. But, said Stubbs, " All chrono? logical minutiae are the pebbles of the concrete in which the foundations of the storeys must be laid." Zunz thought so too, and this is why his edifice stands so firm. It is wonderful how every new discovery supple? ments Zunz rather than corrects him. On the other hand, the very volume to which Graetz prefixed this remark?the volume containing the account of the Gaonate and of Karaism?has been rendered obsolete by later discoveries. In other words, Zunz founded a Jewish literary science; Graetz was a unique exponent of a Jewish historical art. Zunz gave us method; Graetz a finished product which is itself the great historical event of the Jewish renascence. I have referred to the inaugural lecture of the new Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge; let me now refer to the more recent Inaugural Address of the new Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford. In his " Plea for the Historical Teaching of History," Professor C. H. Firth (also one of our honorary members, and known to us as a contributor to our Transactions) takes a view somewhat unlike that of his Cambridge colleague. He too is for the study of sources. But he tells us that "in England the publication of materials has outstripped the capacity of our historical workmen to utilise them." " Is history," he asks, "a science or an art1? Men give opposite answers, according to their conception of the methods and objects of the historian. One tells us that history is a science, nothing more and nothing less; another that it is an art, and that one only succeeds in it by imagina? tion. To me," continues Professor Firth, " truth seems to lie between two extremes. History is neither, but it partakes of the nature of both. A twofold task lies before the historian, One half of his business is the dis? covery of truth, and the other half its representation. .... The discovery of truth is a scientific process . . . [The] work of combination, construc? tion, and re-creation is essentially artistic rather than scientific in its nature."</page><page sequence="5">THE SCIENCE OF JEWISH HISTORY. 197 Now it is impossible for us to doubt that as a Society our object is the first of these tasks : the discovery of truth, rather than its representa? tion. The publication of materials in England may in general have out? stripped the capacity of historical workmen to utilise them, but this is certainly not the case with regard to Jewish history. It may surprise you to hear it, but Mr. Joseph Jacobs is undoubtedly right in dating the new era for scientific Jewish historical research, and not in England only, as late as the year 1887. True, the collection of materials had begun earlier, with Prynne's "Short Demurrer." But Prynne's was a biassed work, and science knows no bias. In 1887 we had not only the Anglo-Jewish Exhibition but also the German Historical Commission and the Julius Barasch Society of Roumania. The Exhibition aroused the Jews all over the world to the need of studying records, and the Barasch Society followed up the impulse with conspicuous success. Since that date such Jewish Societies have immensely increased. The American and our own societies date from 1892 and 1893. Still more recently, in 1903, the Societas Litteraria Hungarico-Judaica has published a most useful volume of Monumenla Hungariae Judcdca, which consists entirely of original sources derived largely from secular archives. Of the local archaeological societies in Frankfort and Vienna I need not speak, nor need I do more than name the Jewish Statistical Society of Berlin. All these organisations are new. How did they arise, and what is their value ? They arose out of the wave of nationalism which passed over Europe and America in the middle of the nineteenth century. In every country local patriotism led to pride in the local past, and the new spirit of history may be traced, not so much to the idea of a general evolution in human affairs, which was one of the pet theories of the nineteenth century, as to the national idea, to which equally the nineteenth century gave birth in every State of Europe. The French Revolution had introduced the reign of general cosmopolitan ideas; the revolutions of 1848 introduced the reign of special, national ideas. As Professor Bury explains, it was fortunate that scientific method had won its triumphant successes just when the new nationalism revived the desire to study history. Scientific method, he says, controlled, while the national spirit quickened the work of historical research. The Jews caught the contagion, and their eager devotion to local national interests led them to desire and demand the investigation of their local Jewish</page><page sequence="6">198 THE SCIENCE OF JEWISH HISTORY. records. Proud of the present, they felt convinced that they might be proud of the past if they knew it fully and impartially. This is the cause of the new movement, and what has been its value 1 It has led not only to a division of labour, but to a possibility that the labour may be thoroughly executed. Do not underrate local pride. Local pride is like family affection : it concentrates love where it is most needed and effective. Suppose we had possessed a great international Jewish historical society instead of smaller national societies. Would such a great, general society have thought it worth while, would it have found it possible, to give us the Cologne Juden-Schreinbuch, Aronius' Regesten, the Memorbilcher such as the German Commission gave us, the accounts of small French communities such as the Societe des Etudes Juives has poured upon us in beneficent stream, the annals of petty Rhine states such as the Monatsschrift provides so usefully, the records of Hamburg tombs, the elaborate family histories of Austrian worthies which David Kaufmann produced, minute details of the South American Inquisition, which we owe to the American Society, the Hungarian Monumenta, and last, but not least, the romantic history of the English Marranos, and the Calendar of the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews 1 Each of these things in itself would have seemed too insignificant for an International Jewish Historical Society. It is scarcely too much to say that the last twenty years have added more to our knowledge of the economic and institutional history of the Jews all the world over than the previous five hundred years had added, and the next twenty years will immeasurably add to this knowledge, just because of our present predilection for local research. With reference to a paragraph in our Report, I cannot help saying that my predecessor in this post showed a true instinct when he associated the Jewish Historical Society of England with the memorial to the Jewish heroes of the Boer war; and if I may venture to say so, I think that our American brothers do well to record with pride and painstaking the part played by American Jews in the War of Independence and in the War of North and South. We are only getting to the truth of our varied world-wide history when superadded to our general Jewish sentiment is a sentiment of local patriotism. It is only when we realise the position of the Jews in national economics that we get a true history of the Jews. It is to us no small matter for congratulation that the Seiden Society regards</page><page sequence="7">THE SCIENCE OF JEWISH HISTORY. 199 our Calendar as a purely national, while we regard it as a national and Jewish enterprise. It would surprise and gratify you could I find time to read out to you the list of those members of the Seiden Society, judges and advocates, professors and men of affairs, who have subscribed for the Calendar which one of our members, Mr. J. M. Rigg, is so ably and conscientiously editing for us. Mr. Rigg is a lawyer, and we need the legal mind to be turned on to historical sources. But the lawyer, though he aids the historian, cannot replace him. The lawyer's is an a priori mind, though apparently he deals with evidence. A lawyer, like Mr. Henriques, tells us that the Jews could not under Cromwell celebrate public worship, that such celebration was impos? sible, being illegal. Mr. Wolf, the historian, collects the facts which prove that such celebration actually took place. Now there is one thing more that I must not omit to say. You may feel, and rightly feel, that after all Judaism is one and undivided, that over and above our local fortunes there rises in splendid elevation the common fortune of all the Jews. True, but there are two reasons why you need feel no misgiving, lest we merge the world in the village. The first reason why no such fear need assail you is that the records needing research for a general history of the Jews are not all of the same type as those which occupy the local Jewish historian. The wider research deals with literary and religious sources rather than with the merely political and economical. Freeman held that history is past politics, and politics are present history. As Jews we cannot assent to such a view. The attitude of men to their past is indeed a political influence. But there is more in history than politics. Besides the institutions of outer life, there is an inner life. Culturgeschickte has won the devotion of many, including the present pleader for local research. All over the world zealous and scholarly students are occupied in the wider aspect of historical research. True, we have not yet a scientific Jewish theology, we have not even a satisfactory literary history of the Jewish people. But there is one on the way. Graetz once for all marked out the path here. If above I detracted from the merits of Graetz as a scientific historian, here and now let me do justice to him as an inspired exponent of the Jewish Weltan? schauung. When Graetz weighed as well as counted facts, when he acted as backward-looking prophet and forward-looking prophet, he was laying</page><page sequence="8">200 THE SCIENCE OF JEWISH HISTORY. the foundations of a philosophy of Jewish history. To take a specific instance, all over the world Jews are interested in the revelations of the Cairo Geniza ; and to take a more general instance, all over the world Jews are resolved that our common Judaism shall not be crushed out by short-sighted fanatics for local patriotism. As Joseph le Maistre said: " Je defends aux myopes d'ecrire 1'histoire." And in so far as Zionism strengthens this sense of the solidarity of our common Judaism we are all Zionists; and whether we be so or not, we all lament with one undying sorrow the loss of the man who stood before the world as the representative of that solidarity?Theodor Herzl, i&gt;"?"T. In our own way, too, our Society is devoting itself to general Jewish history. Its " Jewish Worthies " series is evidence, and so is the fine volume of Essays by Dr. S. A. Hirsch. This volume is in no sense of local interest only. Further, we shall shortly place on sale Mr. Elkan Adler's fascinating account of " Jews in Many Lands "?the very title of which proclaims aloud its cosmopolitan character. Again, the Asher I. Myers Memorial Fund will be devoted to the encouragement of general as well as local Jewish history. In the current session a prize will, in accordance with Mrs. Myers' wishes, be offered to Jews' College, and from year to year the Myers Memorial Prize will be presented where it seems most likely to keep green the memory of our dear friend and counsellor. And I hope to persuade our Executive and our individual members to participate in the endowment of the Rashi Stiftung which Herr Buber of Lemberg is founding on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of Rashi's death, which falls on Tammuz 29, August 1, 1905. It may interest you to know that the first English contributor to the Rashi Endowment has been Dr. Charles Taylor, Master of St. John's College, Cambridge. Himself a distinguished student of Rabbinics, Dr. Taylor needed no persuasion to associate himself with a monument in honour of the beloved commentator, Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, who has made easy the way to the Torah, and by doing so has won the eternal gratitude and affection of all its students. This, then, is one reason why there is no ground for alarm, lest in our Anglo-Jewish enthusiasm we forget the enthusiasm that we owe to Judaism without a qualifying adjective. There is another reason. In his Presidential Address before this Society, Mr. Joseph Jacobs discoursed on the typical character of Anglo-Jewish history. He showed that when</page><page sequence="9">THE SCIENCE OF JEWISH HISTORY. 201 we investigate thoroughly our own local aspect of Jewish history we are throwing light on every aspect of Jewish history. Mr. Lucien Wolf has also presented to our fascinated attention the conclusion that the romance of English crypto-Judaism was not an insular incident, but was perhaps the most far-reaching phenomenon of universal Jewish history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A similar remark applies to the local histories of Jews in other lands. In short, we must regard our local research as a means to an end, and the more conscientious and pertinacious we are in prosecuting the means the nearer is the end to accomplishment. We live in hope that the master-historian will in due season arise to gather up the details given by science into a whole con? structed by art. Neither a Gibbon nor a Graetz is born in every generation, and perhaps it is well, for art is long, and the wider the intervals between general surveys the more likely are those surveys to be true. For our day, the Jewish Encyclopedia worthily represents the limits of our generalising capacity. Yes, our scientific historical research is only a means to an end ; but I implore you not to think that end near. You must not expect direct, immediate returns ; you must be satisfied that research is a duty which you owe to posterity. You must sow seeds now that after seventy years the Carob fruit may ripen. There must be no expectation of present reward. Many famous authors have taken a different view, and have vindicated history on the ground of its contem? porary utility. Cicero called history " magistra vitse," yet Cicero made a failure of his own life. Sir Walter Raleigh spoke of the "end and scope of all history being to teach us by example of times past such wisdom as may guide our own desires and actions." Yet Sir Walter could not keep his own head secure on his shoulders. Myself, I am rather enamoured of Coleridge's simile. History, he said, illuminates; but it acts like the stern light of a ship, which shines back on the path traversed and leaves in darkness the path to be accomplished. We must not expect from history an impossible service. History cannot light up our forward path. We must turn elsewhere than to history for such illumination. Call it philosophy, call it religion, it is in our belief in the ceaseless progress of mankind towards an ideal goal that we see light. Let justice grow from more to more, said the poet; or as the ancient Hebrew sage put it more categorically, " The path of the just is as a shining light, shining more and more unto the perfect day."</page></plain_text>