In the 1950s historian Arnold Toynbee made the argument that Jews and Judaism did not fit into any definition of nation, race, or religion. We were not a nation because we lived for centuries without a land and our people were scattered throughout the world. We were not a race because we accepted converts. And we were not solely a religion because we counted among our numbers people who do not believe in G-d. But given the Jewish presence in world history for more than 3000 years, he classified us as a "fossil." His comment led to a famous debate with Yaakov Herzog. Did any of the great post-Holocaust sages publish a response as well?

  • Atheists and other kofrim are not considered Jews Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 2:37

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Regarding Yaakov Herzog's participation in the debate with Toynbee, R. Mordechai Elefant, in his unpublished memoirs, wrote:

Yakov Herzog was ambassador to Canada for a few years during the early sixties. He met the British historian Arnold Toynbee there. Toynbee was anti-Israel, and he was no great friend of the Jews. Herzog and Toynbee started arguing, and one of them challenged the other to a public debate. Herzog was anxious do do it, but he couldn't do something like that on his own; he needed Ben Gurion's okay. Ben Gurion didn't veto it, but he wasn't keen on the idea. Yakov went to Rav Aharon Kotler. He and Rav Aharon were very close because when Rav Aharon would go to Dublin raising funds for his yeshivah in Kletzk, Rabbi Herzog would let him stay at his house studying Talmud, while he [R. Herzog] raised the money for him. They stayed great friends, and Rav Aharon got to know Rabbi Herzog's children very well. It's no coincidence that Yakov went to study under Rav Aharon's father in law, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer.

So Yakov asked Rav Aharon what he should do. He told him, "If you think you'll win, do it. Otherwise, don't." Yakov told Rav Aharon that he was sure he would win, but still, he would agree to debate only on one condition -- that Rav Aharon, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and Rav Yakov Kamenetsky would pray for him during the debate. All three of them agreed. He won hands down. Even Toynbee conceded that in a letter he wrote to him. GET COPY OF LETTER FROM HERZOG'S WIDOW, COUSING OF HIRSHOWITZ.

Regarding Herzog's victory in the debate, see also here.

Prof. Eliezer Berkovits wrote a book in response called "Judaism: Fossil or Ferment?."

In his recent Erasmus Lecture, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks responded to Toynbee's critique of Judaism (starting at 25 min.)

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his Abraham's Journey, responds to an article criticizing Jewish students for arguing about the ancient past instead of focusing on the present. In his response, R. Soloveitchik notes:

The conclusion [the author] arrived at was obviously and unequivocally reminiscent of Toynbee's interpretation of Jewish history, wherein the living Jewish historical drama came to a stop with the rise of Christianity, when our people forfeited its political independence. There is no longer a growing, developing, destiny-conscious Jewish nation, but only a fossilized or mummified community that lives on in memories and thinks in retrospective terms. Using an almost vulgar pseudo-scientific idiom, the author of the article spoke of the frozen stream of the collective consciousness and the absence of continuity and creativity within it...

It appears to me that the answer to this question is simple enough, and it is to be found in the unique time awareness of our historic community. Our time experience is three-dimensional; past and future address themselves to us in the fleeting moment of the present. We live, of course, in the so-called present, but it can envelop us only if it is interlocked with the other two dimensions. The retrospective mood is one of the major motifs our our time apprehension, and so is the glance that we cast at the silent morrow, and the "not yet," at the expected and fervently desired or hated. Retrospection in the sense of reliving and reincarnating and anticipation, which gives rise to a new world, constitute the central motifs of our unique time experience. We see the distances separating the ages and millenia as not so pronounced as in general history.

In his work Festival of Freedom, pp. 156-157, R. Soloveitchik wrote:

People have no idea how much freedom we have in interpreting the Torah. They speak about the Halakhah as fossilized, but people who say so simply do not know what Halakhah is; they have never studied Halakhah. If there is an area in which human ingenuity, freedom of research, sweep, and depth play a role, it is in the area of Halakhah...

On another instance, R. Soloveitchik commented:

to speak about halachah as a fossil, Rachmana litzlon, is ridiculous. Because we know, those who study halachah know, it is a living, dynamic discipline that was given to man in order to redeem him and to save him. We are opposed to shinuyim (changes) of course, but chiddush is certainly the very essence of halachah. There are no shinuyim in halachah, but there are great chiddushim. But the chiddushim are within the system, not from the outside. You cannot pychologize halachah, historicize halachah, or rationalize halachah, because this is something foreign, something extraneous. As a matter of fact, not only halachah – can you psychologize mathematics? I will ask you a question about mathematics – let us take Euclidian geometry. I cannot give many psychological reasons why Euclid said two parallels do not cross, or why the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If I were a psychologist, I could not interpret it in psychological terms. Would it change the postulate, the mathematical postulate? And when it comes to Torah, which is Hakadosh Boruch Hu, all the instruments of psychology and history, utilitarian morality, are being used to undermine the very authority of the halachah.

R. Norman Lamm wrote:

More than once do I recall from my own experience being introduced to a well-meaning stranger as an Orthodox Jew or Rabbinical student, or Orthodox Rabbi. To my infinite annoyance there spreads on the face of the stranger the look of incredulousness, and he says:, "Orthodox — and you so young?" As if Torah were an affliction brought on by old age, a kind of spiritual geriatrics. How frustrating and often how futile to have to explain that to be "frum" is not to be a fossil, and to be religious is not to be a relic...

No doubt many of those here today have had similar experiences. Someone learns you are an observant Orthodox Jew, and he clucks his tongue in sympathy, feeling genuinely sorry for you, and responds in a half-admiring and half-pitying tone: You observe the Sabbath, with all its restrictions? You cannot smoke or travel or write?" And we must explain: Sabbath is for us not a day of gloom and restriction, but one of עונג, unadulterated joy, when (without being an ecstatic mystic) an ordinary observant Jew can experience נשמה יתירה, the "additional soul" that comes from a day of pure rest and recreation, when we feel liberated from the tyranny of all the pettiness that surrounds us during the week. Or someone discovers that you believe in and practice the laws of "family purity." And again the incredulous reaction, with a mixture of pity and admiration: "You really practice these ascetic regulations denying your basic drives?" And we have to explain so patiently: No, it is not asceticism, but a healthy and vital self-discipline, which ennobles the animal within us and purifies and sublimates it, and makes of marriage a dream, not a nightmare. So, we observe Kashruth and we expect no awards and want no sympathy for it. It simply is part of our life of קדושה, the practical program of Jewish holiness and differentness. And the very fact of the observance of Kashruth away from home, with all the minor inconveniences it entails, that by itself gives us the feeling of being at home everywhere!

Indeed in every area of life, the outsider sees only size and number rather than content and quality, the conventional rather than the moral, the fashionable rather than that which is indeed dignified, opinions rather than ideas. He beholds a synagogue and can see only the membership and budget and activities and aesthetics. But he lacks that which the insider knows in the depths of his being: the heights of joy, the touch of mystery and grandeur, the whisper of the echo of the sound of the voice of God.

  • Obviously, "the great post-Holocaust sages" mentioned in the question constitute a rather amorphous group. But can you give (in your answer) any indication as to why you consider Professor Berkovits to be among that group?
    – msh210
    Commented Feb 21, 2013 at 16:24
  • 3
    @msh210 He is a "rabbi, theologian, and educator in the tradition of Orthodox Judaism' and notable enough to be on Wikipedia. Given his qualifications listed there (talmid and semicha from Seridei Eish and Dor Revii, PhD in Philosophy, pulpit rabbi for 20+ years, director of Jewish Philosophy at Skokie Yeshiva, etc.), I think sage is an apt title.
    – Double AA
    Commented Feb 21, 2013 at 16:51
  • @DoubleAA, thanks: I've added a link to the info to the answer. Perhaps you wish to flesh the answer out with more info, wfb.
    – msh210
    Commented Feb 21, 2013 at 17:25
  • See also haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-features/…
    – wfb
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 3:34
  • See also arielzellman.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/…
    – wfb
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 21:17

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