Isaac Halevy (1847-1914)

Rabbi Isaac Halevy Rabinovitz presented the most comprehensive, profound, and significant Orthodox response to the Wissenschaft des Judentums school of historiography. He was born in Ivyanets, near Vilna (now Belarus), and received an Orthodox Yeshiva education, including studies in the Volozhin Yeshiva. He left Russia in 1895 when his business went bankrupt, and, after several years of wandering in Europe, he settled in Germany, where he remained until his death in 1914. Starting in 1897, while still wandering in Europe, he published the first in his series of historical books, Dorot HaRishonim (First Generations). He published two additional books during his lifetime, and other books were published posthumously from his manuscripts. Dorot HaRishonim presents the history of the Jewish nation during the classical and early medieval period from an Orthodox point of view.

Halevy believed that Orthodox faith and modern historical scholarship could be reconciled by their common aspiration to seek truth: Orthodoxy liberates the historian from false prejudices, whereas the science of history provides the Orthodox Jew with tools for anchoring his faith in the past, because in his view the Orthodox foundation underlies the True Wisdom of Israel (Wissenschaft des Judentums). For Halevy this is not an empty declaration, and his books express a comprehensive effort to apply the principles of modern historiography from within an Orthodox worldview, i.e., to create a critical Orthodox historiography.

Halevy’s approach to Josephus symbolizes his general attitude: on the one hand, in the name of seeking truth, Halevy permits himself to criticize Josephus and present him as having betrayed his people for a bowl of Roman lentil stew. That same view of historical truth led him to develop a methodology for gleaning reliable historical information from Josephus’s writings, enabling him to rely on Josephus as though he did not represent values essentially opposed to the values of Orthodoxy.

Halevy, Isaac, Dorot Ha-Rishonim: Sefer Divrei Ha-Yamim Li- Bene Yisra’el, Frankfurt, 1920.

Breuer, M., ‘Hochmat Yisrael – Three Orthodox Approaches’, in: Rabbi Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik Jubilee Volume, eds. S. Yisraeli, N. Lamm, and Y. Raphael. Jerusalem, 1984: 856-65.
Breuer, M., Modernity within Tradition, trans. E. Petuchowski. New York, 1992: 193-201.
Reichel, O.A., Isaac Halevy (1847-1914): Spokesman and Historian of Jewish Tradition. New York, 1969.
Sariel, E., ‘Historion Bireshut HaTorah: Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac HaLevi’s Historiographic Approach (1847-1914)’, Moreshet Yisrael 4 (2007): 33-75 [Hebrew].
Yedidya, A., Bikkoret Mevukkeret. Jerusalem, 2013: 147-94 [Hebrew].

JRA entry contributed by Eliezer Sariel