HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

PaRDeS: History as Spirit in Action

by Michael Feuer Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

Inspired by postmodern historians’ questioning of “facts” and “objectivity” in historical research, Feuer offers a schema for transmuting historical texts and data into a national story.

Ever since Thucydides’ rejection of inherited narrative in favor of empirical observation, facts have been the gold standard in the Western conception of history. Homer may have been a great poet, but to Thucydides he was a lousy historian. Truth is about the literal, not the literary. Give me the facts, he asserts, and I will give you the truth. In our day, the ability to teach history “as it really was” is crumbling under the weight of unlimited information and the unavoidable subjectivity in how we filter; it is not possible to claim to tell the whole story anymore. This reality evokes reactions ranging from a willful ignorance of the problem, to rejection of all facts outside of traditional narratives, to the denial of any coherence to be found in history whatsoever.

Through the Tanakh and rabbinic literature, Am Yisrael has carried forward a conception of history as an articulation of inner truth, in which facts are a necessary but not sufficient means. We embrace the twin tools of the literal and the literary in telling the story of our past. We also understand that the significance of our history can never be divorced from the goals of cultivating consciousness and dynamic identity in the present. Further, when the prophet expressed his desire for redemption in the phrase “renew our days as of old,” he taught that our story of the past must provide inspiration toward actualizing its truth through our future.

As teachers, we must ask whether we aim to give our students information about the past or knowledge of it. If facts are points of data, then knowledge consists of these points, together with the values and beliefs we use to assign them significance and integrate them into a coherent whole—a story. If teaching history means providing facts, then its events remain in the past, unable to shape the present or to guide our behavior toward a constructive future. But if we want to bring history into the realm of knowledge, then we must tell a story of the past that provides these facts with meaning.

But how to tell such a story? Clearly it must be rooted in fact, but just because it is factual, a story does not necessarily articulate an essential truth of human experience. Conversely, if a story is a vehicle for such an essential truth, what happens if the facts are uncertain? And if we open the door to such questions of where the truth lies, how do we avoid the traps of moral relativism and subjectivity?

When struggling with this question of where to locate truth in the study of history, Cambridge historian E.H. Carr (What Is History?) offered the following insight. “The absolute in history is not something in the past from which we start; it is not something in the present, since all present thinking is necessarily relative. It is something still incomplete and in process of becoming—something in the future towards which we move, which begins to take shape only as we move towards it, and in the light of which, as we move forward, we gradually shape our interpretation of the past. This is the secular truth behind the religious myth that the meaning of history will be revealed in the Day of Judgment.”

The truth of history cannot lie solely in present analysis of the facts of the past, because we know that our present identity is not neutral. In order to tell a true story our very definition of objectivity must shift. Instead of seeking an unobtainable, objective view of past events, we must bring ourselves and our students to consciousness of the beliefs which shape our present identity. Before we look for truth in history, we must make explicit the standards by which we judge things to be true. Once we have come to consciousness of our present identity, we can begin to build a history of consciousness.

Our map for integrating the literal and literary aspects of truth, and joining stories of our past with the development of consciousness, is found in the four-dimensional framework of meaning which we are enjoined to seek in the text of the Torah—pshat, remez, drash and sod (forming the acronym PaRDeS). PaRDeS can be engaged as a framework for Jewish consciousness as it has emerged in its historical context: rooted in mythic truths, embodied in facts and their narrative, and ultimately experienced as a present self that prays for the future. Here is a taste of what such a structure might look like.

Every story begins in pshat. In text, pshat is the surface meaning, the point of contact between reader and text. In the development of personal consciousness it is the child-like simplicity which precedes self-awareness. In chronology it is the phase of pre-history, the dreamtime. From this perspective, the stories of the Torah can be taught as living spiritual archetypes to be engaged in their timeless relevance, and as the beginning of our story.

The next stage is remez. In text, remez is meaning bounded by the text itself. In the development of consciousness it is the coming to awareness of self without critical comparison to other; that innerness which grants prophets and soldiers the courage to be consumed by their passions. In chronology, it begins with the conquest of the Land of Israel. At the end of his life, Yehoshua evokes Am Yisrael’s memory of their past in order to transform their experience into a story which can serve as the whole context for their national life (Joshua 24). The exposure to meaningful perspectives which transcend local experience would only come with the destruction and return that mark the end of the First Temple period, and the end of the phase of remez. This transition from self-referential consciousness to critical awareness is the evolution from living within our story to learning to tell it. This complex process is canonized in the Tanakh and is the fertile ground from which both classical exegesis and critical analysis grow.

From here we move into drash. In text, drash is the search for meaning in total context. The text no longer bounds meaning, but rather serves as anchor, trigger and organizing principle for the reader’s understanding. In the development of consciousness, drash is the knowing of self in relation to other. In chronology, we enter the age of encounter. Ezra and Nechemiah mark the beginning of this phase by building walls that are physical, textual and halakhic. These walls serve as the system boundary for a new phase of Am Yisrael’s development: the process of compare and contrast. Such growth requires an identity strong enough to integrate insights gained through knowing others, without losing a sense of self.

The Sages characterize this period as one of subjugation, with Am Yisrael passing through the “four kingdoms” of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. But they also read this historical journey into the opening lines of the Torah (Bereshit Rabba 2:4). In so doing they reimagine exile as an essential component of creation, thereby transforming its meaning. We are not meant to live an exclusively national experience; we are on an evolutionary journey toward consciousness which incorporates the whole world’s experience. This phase of history provides a rich context for the exploration of the nature of identity and relationship. Furthermore, the question of where one locates its endpoint offers the opportunity to explore how one understands the idea of leaving exile.

The final phase is sod. In literal translation sod means secret. This level of meaning lies wholly within the reader as an inner understanding because communication relies on language, which is itself rooted in the shared structures developed through pshat, remez and drash. In the development of consciousness, sod is the awareness of self coming to be through the meeting with other, rather than self as an atomized being. In chronology it is where the past meets the present and fuels our dreams of the future. From the perspective of sod, an event like Sinai is not a fact to be critically dissected, a story we tell ourselves, or even a context for knowing the world. It is an inner understanding which we touch, whose reality is experienced in our ability to shape the world in its image.

The subjectivity of sod seems to enhance the problem of relativism, but in reality it can address it in the sense that the Torah tells a story of absolute truth to individuals with a subjective experience. One of the primary tasks of tracing the story of Am Yisrael through time then becomes identifying the vessels which held together collective experience. These vessels mute the subjectivity of individual existence and serve as primary vehicles for national experience.

The birth pangs of modernity shattered many of the walls that Ezra and Nechemiah built for Am Yisrael, provoking a crisis of identity unseen since the end of the Second Temple period. The postmodern era has added a healthy dose of subjectivity, calling truth into question to a degree unfelt since the closing of the age of prophecy. Uncertain heirs of a rich history, we are struggling to articulate our story in a fashion which can guide our fragmented communities toward a future worthy of our past. If our present identity is assumed to be absolute, we can only tell a story of the past which justifies our present; but if we deny the importance of a coherent, shared identity then we have no basis for telling a story which can shape a collective future.

So how do we begin to use this map and integrate facts and narrative into a story which can challenge present identity to grow in a healthy manner? One starting point is to pose the simple question: where does Jewish history begin? This serves as a frame for exploring the definition of history itself, and any assumptions our students have about its purpose. Choosing a foundational story from the Torah, like the Binding of Yitzchak, and tracing how it is used to shape identity at various time periods is also an illuminating process. Finally, if we want the story of our history to serve as a basis for personal growth and healthy identity, we must encourage in our students the capacity to project vision into the future and to dream.

The Sages tell us that it was Ezra the Scribe who gave us the first work of Jewish historiography, the Book of Chronicles. There is a message for every student of history in this book. Ezra lived in a time of reconstruction, and his writing of Chronicles was more than an account of the past—it was an attempt to set the present on a solid foundation. But his efforts were also guided by the understanding that our past only serves our present well if it imbues us with a longing for the future. When the Sages finished the task of canonization, they chose Ezra’s words to conclude the Tanakh because they understood that telling our story ends off where we begin to live it. Our story of the past ends with an invitation to our future: “Whoever is among you of all his people—the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!” ¿

Rabbi Michael Feuer is educational director of Bet Midrash Sulam Yaakov and co-author of the upcoming work of biblical fiction The Lamp of Darkness. mike@ravmike.com

Go To the Next Article

On the Virtue of Not

Lockshin, another prominent medievalist, advocates presenting students with points of contention and debate in the......


Log in or register to post comments

Teaching Jewish History

Is Jewish history the linchpin to Jewish identity formation, the weak link in day school Jewish studies, or perhaps both? Jewish history provides students with critical links to their past and gives them the context for their own experiences. Discover insights in this field from senior scholars and educators, and find creative new initiatives being used by teachers in day schools today.

Click here to download the PDF and printer friendly version of this issue of HaYidion