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?

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Regarding Yaakov Herzog's participation in the debate with Toynbee, R. Mordechai Elefant, in his unpublished memoirs, wrote: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

  • 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
    Feb 21, 2013 at 16:24
  • 2
    @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
    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
    Feb 21, 2013 at 17:25
  • See also haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-features/…
    – wfb
    Dec 22, 2013 at 3:34

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