Years ago I told an elderly woman about my Talmudic studies. She was a kind of modern national religious, of American origin and she and her husband z”l used to run a famous political website. While we were talking about Talmudic subjects she said something what has always been stuck in my mind since:
“I always look at the times. You first have to analyze in what times people lived !”
Her statement doesn’t mean that, Chas veChalilah, the Talmud is wrong but it is helpful to study history. In what times did people live, how was their environment, society and who was actually ruling ?
I just finished reading a Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi biography and what I liked about the book was history. How did the Jews live in Israel under Roman occupation and how were the relations among leading Rabbis as well as relations between Rabbis in Israel and in Babylon ? One of the conclusions was that, although Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was a great Rabbi, he still had opponents who also were leading Rabbis. Rabbinic life wasn’t just wonderful and soooo terribly great but there were quarrels. The Talmud, by the way, doesn’t hide these quarrels.
However, in order to understand various halachic decisions and famous Rabbis, you have to go back in time and learn history. The same with Rabbi Saadia Gaon whose biography I am planning to read next. When we understand the times people were living in, it makes it much easier to understand WHY so and so was acting in this way.
This also applies to the chassidic world. Why was there a need for Hasidism to come into existence ? Was it because the Baal Shem Tov had a new idea and became successful with his own “start – up” ? Was it, as the historian Simon Dubnov claimed, due to the Chmielnecki massacre (1648 – 1649) or maybe because of the failed Sabbatean movement ?
There is a reason for everything in it’s time. Maybe the Baal Shem Tov really did revive something and the Jews went for it because everyone was free to join. Suddenly every Jew could get closer to G – d because the chassidic movement was teaching the way to do so. Something very revolutionary in those days. Not that the teachings of the Besht were totally new but what he did was reviving something already existing.
It helps a lot not only to study facts but also the times people were living in !