Douglas Southall Freeman was recognized as one of the premier American historians of the 20th century.
He was a confidant of presidents, a noted author and Pulitzer Prize winner and a man of great charm and character. During the Cold War he was the thorn in the side of Leftist academics who insisted the inexorable tide of history was on the side of the Soviet Union, and the West was doomed to witness the victory of the "progressive" forces of the world.
This Marxist view of history allows little room for individuals, and sees all major human events as being steered by ill-defined, unseen but all-powerful social, historical and economic forces - and it held sway in the halls of Western academia for decades. Not even Stalin's ruthlessness and the ineptness of the Soviet economy could sway the true believers in discounting the role of the individual in shaping events, both personal and national.
To counter this Marxist idea Freeman wrote: "The influence of personality in History cannot be overestimated. While there are always great events that stir humanity, it will always be found that these events center around one man, and in him have their life."
Freeman's view of history corresponds with the traditional Jewish view on the same matter. It is interesting to note that the Bible itself, in recording the great sweep of history over more than a millennium of time, deals not with historical, abstract, impersonal forces that push individuals around and into the corner of the story, but rather it depicts almost exclusively the stories and lives of individuals. And it is clear from the biblical narrative that these individuals, through the exercise of their divinely granted freedom of will, created the events and policies that we call history.
To a great extent, Marxism absolves humans of any responsibility for their actions. It postulates that things must happen in a certain way and that humans are powerless to stem that tide or defeat those forces that guide history. Judaism, having postulated that God grants humans ultimate free will and freedom of action and behavior, makes humans therefore responsible and acutely accountable for decisions, behavior, policies and actions.
Thus, humans, individuals like you and me, are the true creators of history and its events. The individual is not a passive pawn in shaping events that affect human life. Rather, humans are the active catalyst that create events and thereby propel the story of human history onward.
This point is emphasized by Rambam, in his commentary to the biblical narrative of Abraham being told by God that "your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and they will be enslaved and afflicted there for 400 years." The question is raised here that if that be the case, that God predicted this event, so to speak, then why were the Egyptians punished for enforcing God's decree?
Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, answers that they were punished for their cruelty in "overdoing" it. However, Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, states the principle of free will. No one commanded the Egyptians to enslave the Jews. God's prediction in no way removed their freedom of choice. In fact, they should have treated the Jews nicely out of gratitude to Joseph who saved them in the years of famine and established Egypt as the dominant economic empire of the time.
This is what the Torah means that an Egyptian king arose "who knew not Joseph." He made himself not know Joseph. That was his personal decision and his people went along with it, much as the German people went along with Hitler's murderous policies.
The Lord grants freedom of will and action to even the most evil and malevolent of human beings, but God also holds all human beings responsible for their choices and behavior - that is the essence of all Jewish belief and traditional thought. All other interpretations of human behavior and history are rejected forcefully by Judaism.
It is no wonder, then, that the "dialectical materialism" explanation of human history fostered and advanced by the Soviet Union turned it into an anti-Semitic state and a hater of Judaism and traditional Jewry. Much of the modern world treasures its right to individual free will and freedom of behavior. Yet, many of these same individuals are loath to accept responsibility for that behavior and its consequences, again both individually and nationally.
It is Judaism that does not allow humans to wriggle off that hook easily. The Torah commands individuals in correct behavior and policies. It is the behavior of those individuals, of each and every one of us, that creates our history.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).
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