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The Importance of the Study of History

04/16/2021 12:33:25 PM

Apr16

­­­I love history.  One of the aspects of Reform Judaism that I cherish is that it puts an emphasis on the importance of history in terms of understanding Judaism.  In traditional Judaism there is a concept which renders history irrelevant.  This concept is ein mukdam v’ein muchar ba’Torah, “there is no before and there is no after in the Torah”.  This idea means that historical order is non-existent or irrelevant from the point of view of traditional Judaism in practicing and being a Jew.  Reform Judaism, however, places extreme importance on history in terms of our ability to be fully realized Jews.

Many believe we study history in order that it not be repeated.  There are two problems with this line of reasoning.  One is that knowledge of history does not seem to lead to changing future behaviors.  People who are very well educated in what happened long-ago often duplicate, with slight variation, the mistakes of the past.  As the saying goes, “history tends to repeat itself”.  Secondly, the study of history to simply not repeat it, in my opinion, robs the study of history of the richness it can actually offer to the mind and soul.  To merely study something to know what not to do seems like a particularly tedious and uninspiring exercise. 

Peter N Stearns offers a different reason for the study of history in the following way, “History helps us understand people and societieshistory helps us understand change and how the society we live in came to behistory contributes to moral understandinghistory provides identityStudying history is essential for good citizenshipWhat skills does a student of history develop? The ability to assess evidenceThe ability to assess conflicting interpretationsexperience in assessing past examples of changeWhy study history? The answer is because we virtually must to gain access to the laboratory of human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness.” (https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/historical-archives/why-study-history-(1998))

Therefore, we in fact study history because it enriches our understanding of who we are and how we came to be where we are.  In short, history is training in understanding that I offer allows our minds and souls to grow.  The virtues of understanding are that it makes us wiser, more compassionate, empathetic and allows us to see a wider spectrum of existence. 

As we are living between the periods of Passover and Shavuot, the benefits of history are particularly relevant to the spiritual work of this time.  The study of these holidays will allow us to, as Peter Stearns suggests, “acquire some usable habits of the mind” and I might add strengthen our souls for the future.  There must be a before and after in Judaism, for without it we can never fully gain all the spiritual benefits our religion has to offer.

Sat, May 15 2021 4 Sivan 5781