Maccabee's Wars

A venting rage against the ills of our society with some hopeful observations.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Truth or Fiction?

David Assaf, a prolific historian, recently published a collection of articles in Hebrew under the title of “Caught in the Thicket: Chapters of Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism.”

Most of the articles have already been translated into English but are unavailable online.

The gist of the collection is that stories which have circulated in Hasidic circles about the Hasidic masters have been in direct conflict with versions of the same stories presented by Maskilim, who were anti-Hasidic.

Assaf tries to unweave this web and present the truth as he sees it.

After brushing through the first article, I came to the realization that this was a thoroughly researched work. There were over a hundred lengthy quotes from both side of the spectrum.

However, as with all human beings and even some historians, a bias comes through. In Asaaf’s eyes, Hasidism and a select few of their leaders take a turn for the worse.

But why is that? Can’t a historian search for the truth and present it as he sees it in a true historical light?


But if time and again your search leads you to negativity about your subject matter, bias must enter the picture.

In a previous volume published in English, entitled “The Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin,” Assaf did not present Rabbi Israel Friedman in the best light.

But if it’s the truth what does it matter?

Well, sometimes it’s not the truth and even if it is true maybe it shouldn’t be presented at all.

In the past I have been a defender of “The Making of a Godol,” by Rav Nathan Kamenetzky and all of Nosson Slifkin’s works. I still stand by those decisions. Both of these authors addressed ideas that needed to be addressed to certain audiences. Both authors gave information which helped many appreciate Torah and Torah scholars, more so than they had before.

However, I do not see the same in Assaf’s latest work. Even if there is no malice, even if the discoveries and assertions are all truthful, what’s the point? Why do we need to know? If the point is to embarrass individuals or groups, well, that’s another matter.

And if the history presented is a lie, that is also another matter.

Ariel Toaff, in his most recent book, entitled “Pasque di Sangue” (Bloody Passover), makes outrageous claims that the Blood Libel which Jews have been accused for centuries may be true.

There is more than embarrassment when publishing such lies. There is potential for rampant anti-semitism. There is potential for bodily harm as well.

Now I’m not comparing Assaf’s work to Toaf’s. The latter is a work of fiction in the guise of academic research. The former is a ‘true’ historical analysis. The damage by the latter is immense, not so the former.

But did we need either to be published?

I don’t think so.