On Facts and Theory: A Hassidic Tale


This week, during Shabbat, I took a few hours to read Maurice Samuel’s The Professor And the Fossil, a critique of Professor Arnold Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History. Toynbee was a renowned British historian who rose to particular prominence while at the Chatham House.

His sweeping A Study of History was welcomed by many for its synthesis of world history and macro-examination of the rise and fall of human civilizations and critiqued by others for its historical inaccuracies, strong religious overtones, and underlying political agendas. Jewish scholars in particular took exception to Toynbee’s characterization of the Jews as a “fossilized people” of an “extinct civilization.” Samuel’s book is an extended critique of this element of Toynbee’s study and the apparent anti-Semitism which colors his conclusions.

Apart from his critique, Samuel  provides rich evidence of the Jewish people as a “living” entity in antiquity and modern times (at least as far as the book’s publication in 1956). This account is valuable in its own right as accessible scholarship which can be appreciated by any interested reader, academic and not. Although the book as a whole was really quite interesting for me, I was particularly moved by a story Samuel tells at the end of the second chapter. In it, he offers a Jewish tale of intellectual conflict between the hassidim and mitnagdim, competing movements in traditional orthodox Judaism.

The story serves as a parallel to the broadly positive reception of Toynbee’s sweeping work juxtaposed to its factual inaccuracies. This is a challenge I have often encountered in academia as well, where a “good” theory is accepted as valuable even when it fails to conform to reality. I strongly identified with the story and have reproduce it here for your enjoyment:

There is a charming Jewish story that […] belongs to the days when parts of the Chassidic movement were declining from their original purity, and Chassidic rabbis were becoming wonder-workers and wealthy rulers of dynastic “kingdoms” that counted their subjects by the thousands.

One such rabbi held his court in a townlet three days distant from Warsaw, and to him was brought one day a skeptical Lithuanian Jew, a “Litvak,” one of those Talmudically trained intellectualist representatives of orthodoxy whom the Chassidim, with sublime impertinence, had already labeled Misnagdim, or schismatics, when Chassidism was still in its infancy. The ardent Chassid who persuaded the Litvak to attend the court promised him revelations that would melt his stony Misnagdic heart into submission.

At the customary public meal, the Litvak sat among the Chassidim and watched with contempt the competition for scraps from the rabbi’s dish. He was repelled by the superstitious obsequiousness of the rabbi’s followers, he was moved to disdain by the occasional “learned” comments on the Torah which fell from the rabbi’s lips. “Wait,” his Chassidic friend enjoined him with expectant exultation. “The moment is yet to come.”

The moment came. Toward the end of the meal the rabbi closed his eyes and seemed to be passing into a trance. The murmur at the long table died into a deathly silence. Then from the rabbi’s lips came these words: “Warsaw is burning!” A shudder passed through the assembly. So powerful was the general effect that the Litvak started in terror. The rabbi did not come out of his trance, and the Chassidim remained rooted to their places.

Several minutes passed and the rabbi spoke again: “The Emperor of China has been assassinated!” Once more a shudder of awe followed by silence. Finally, a third revelation: “The lost ten tribes have been found in Peru!”

The Litvak fled as soon as he could, and to satisfy a lingering skepticism traveled at once to Warsaw. A week later he was back in the rabbi’s village, and, encountering his Chassidic friend, said hotly: “What is all this? I have no means of finding out what happened in China or Peru; but I went specially to Warsaw, and there was not even a single fire there last week.”

“Pedantic Litvak!” the Chassid answered with icy contempt. “What does it matter whether the rabbi was right or wrong about Warsaw? Have you no reverence for the sweep of his vision?”

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