This Purim I'll raise a l'chaim to one of the great European philosophers of modern times, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770ñ1831). Here's why:
Hegel reoriented European philosophy with a stunning proposal. All of history, he claimed, is at bottom an evolving "dialectic" -- a continuous interactive exchange -- between Matter and Mind. The goal of this dialectical historical process is -- get this! -- that God becomes aware that He is God (for details, drop me an e-mail and I'll send you a bibliography)! This idea of history as a process of God discovering Himself as the Absolute Idea gave the study of the past a whole new dimension.
But, of course, there was a catch. Historians call it "the cunning of history" or "the dialectic of unintended consequences." The tools of science often yielded a history that contradicted the one told by God Himself in the Bible. It was one thing to try to shoehorn the discovery of the Etruscans into the Genesis story of Tubal-Cain. It was quite another to dissect the Torah into four "documents," each testifying to an evolution of the Absolute Idea that was completed in, of all places, the New Testament!
This is precisely what the Hegelian "Higher Biblical Criticism" of the 19th century proposed. German Jews grumpily dismissed it as "higher anti-Semitism," but there was, ultimately, a much more useful Jewish response. One unintended consequence of the Hegelian higher anti-Semitism was, of all things, the beginning of the academic study of Judaism.
The founders of modern academic Jewish Studies all came of age during Hegel's greatest influence. Who today remembers Leopold Zunz (1794ñ1886), Nachman Krokhmal (1785ñ1840), and Zachariah Frankel (1801ñ1875)? Sporting the Hegelian dialectic as their banner, they created a discipline that still shapes work in every university with a Jewish Studies major. They called it Wissenschaft des Judenthums -- "The Science of Judaism."
The purpose of this science? To rescue the "original idea of Judaism" from the distortions promoted by "lower" and "higher" anti-Semitism. Wissenschaft summoned Hegelian science to back a remarkable assertion: namely, Judaism -- through its "dialectical antithesis," Christianity -- formed the bedrock of all Western civilization. Jewish research, from this perspective, would teach Europe to recognize itself as an expression of Judaism. Europeans could embrace the Jews as fellow Europeans rather than despise them as malodorous invaders from the Orient!
Real Europeans, of course, paid no attention to any of this, but it took the Jewish world by storm. In Western Europe, one or another scientific view of Jewish history was marshaled to verify every ideology of Jewish modernization -- Reform, Zionism, you name it.
But in the Jewish East--hoo hah! Hungarian Chassidim and Lithuanian yeshiva-layt, who otherwise wouldn't even eat each other's meat, shared at least one theological opinion: the deepest pit of Gehinnom is reserved for a Jewish science founded on the "imitation of Gentile wisdom!"
Reacting to the threat of Jewish science, the rabbinic leaders of Eastern European Jewry limited study of the past to the stories preserved in the Bible, Talmud, and their medieval commentaries. This narrowing of historical knowledge wasn't all bad. It created a flowering of yeshiva culture unseen since 16th-century Poland and Turkey. Jews needed books, and Hebrew publishing went off the charts.
The best of the new publishers was the Widow Romm & Sons, Inc. in Vilna. Anyone who has studied a page of Gemara since 1886 has used one of their editions or, more likely, a later knock-off, like ArtScroll.
Are you ready for the next turn of the dialectical wheel? Well, it turns out that for decades Romm hosted a mole of Wissenschaft at the very center of its publication process! His name was Shmuel Shraga Feigenzon, Romm's managing editor.
Feigenzon authored the "Afterword" that concludes Volume XX of Romm's Babylonian Talmud (1886) and the "Introduction" to the first volume of Romm's Palestinian Talmud (1922). In a footnote to that essay, Feigenzon expressed his indebtedness to the Talmudic research of none other than Zachariah Frankel, one of the pioneers of the science of Judaism!
Somehow Feigenzon's reference flew under the yeshivish radar (who reads introductions?). Maybe because Feigenzon neglected to remind readers that Frankel's research provided a scientific grounding to what was then known as "Positive Historical Judaism," the European zayde of what, in America, became Conservative Judaism!
Breathtaking! The arch-symbol of Unchanging Tradition -- the Vilna Shas -- was brought to you by, among others, the folks who would one day argue that Hillel himself would have -- if he could have -- driven his Chevy to shul on Shabbos. Talk about the cunning of history!
Did Hegel want Jews to think of themselves as part of European civilization? No, but through Wissenschaft they did! Did the yeshiva world intend its support of Talmudic publishing to fuel the historicism of Feigenzon and his ilk? No, but its book orders paid his salary for decades. Did Feigenzon imagine that the children of America's Jews would embark, through college Jewish Studies programs, upon a road leading to expanded enrollments in yeshivas from Borough Park to Jerusalem? No, but there they are today.
So consider one last dialectical twist this Purim. Recall Mordecai's confident charge to Esther: "if you keep silentÖdeliverance will come to the Jews from another place!" (Esther 4:14). What did he mean by "another place" (makom aher)? This could only be the God of Israel, known in the Passover Haggadah and elsewhere as haMakom -- "the place." As the Sages explain: "The entire world is His Place, but His Place is nowhere in the world (Genesis Rabbah, 68)."
Mordecai, it turns out, was the first Hegelian. HaMakom inhabits the historical process even while standing infinitely beyond it. He cunningly orchestrates the redemption of Israel, using Haman's hatred to summon Esther's heroism. Mordecai knew that this skirmish had implications beyond his own time and in "another place." It would, in the most cunning plot twist of all, secure for modern Jews a place in universal human history and win for the sages' Torah a whole new audience of Jews and Gentiles!
So, whether you're Hasidish or Misnagdish, Sephardi or Ashkenazi, a YU musmach or an HUC rabbanit, a Dead Sea Scroller at NYU or a student of the Hebrew novel at the UDub -- join me in toasting the greatest of the disciples of Mordecai the Jew: Herr Professor Doktor G.W.F. Hegel! L'chaim!