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Ideas of Jewish History, edited by Michael A. Meyer

Ideas of Jewish History. Edited. with introductions and notes.
by Michael A. Meyer.
Behrman House. 360 pp. $12.50.

The aim of this volume is an excellent one—to assemble a selection of writings reflecting diverse conceptions of Jewish history (and, incidentally, of history in general), beginning with the biblical period and ending with Jewish historians of our own time. The book’s value lies not only in its being the only anthology of its kind, but also in Meyer’s introduction and in the informed discussions which precede each of the textual excerpts, ranging from II Maccabees to Salo Baron. One must note further with gratitude that Meyer himself has translated selections from eleven authors (mainly from Hebrew and German), thus providing an English-reading public with at least a glimpse of a number of major writers, some for the first time, others in welcome retranslation.

The presentation is largely chronological; while one might wish for a future study that would take a “history of ideas” approach in the manner pioneered by Arthur Lovejoy, the anthology format, with its focus on characteristic conceptions of individuals, has merit. It must be stressed that the volume provides Jewish conceptions of Jewish history—views of Jewish history propounded by Christians or Muslims are not included, nor has any space been allotted to discussions of Jewish history, however interesting, to be found in the works of theologians or philosophers rather than historians. Such omissions are, of course, dictated by the overall design of the book; still, I find them regrettable. One would have welcomed the inclusion of something by Max Weber, for example, especially since Meyer complains that 19th-century historians like Heinrich Graetz neglect social and economic history.

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The first part of the book covers the period from II Maccabees to Nathan Hannover’s Yeven Metzula (1653). Meyer is right in his assertion that a fully secular approach on the part of Jewish historians did not come about until the 19th century. Before that time, and for observant Jews until today, Jewish history was always interpreted in a religious light. Meyer maintains that there were strongly divergent viewpoints within the religious tradition itself, even before the advent of secularism. If this is true, however, he fails to elucidate them. Instead of divergent views on the nature of Jewish history, the reader is offered examples of one or another trait held in esteem by modern historiography.

In general, Meyer gives us too little insight into the biblical-rabbinic view of history that, with essentially minor variations, informed Jewish writings on Jewish history prior to the 19th century. It is true that Solomon ibn Verga’s Shevet Yehuda (16th century) reveals a good deal of sociological and psychological sophistication, as Meyer maintains, but it is neither more advanced nor even more perceptive than earlier Jewish or non-Jewish writings. Again, Meyer finds the 16th-century thinker Azariah dei Rossi “the only truly critical Jewish scholar of the pre-modern period” for his questioning of the reliability of rabbinic legends as historical source material, but such material had been treated cautiously even by the rabbis themselves, if not perhaps by the more fundamentalist among Rossi’s own contemporaries.

Flavius Josephus, in the first century, stands as an exception to all this, and his treatment is thus particularly revealing of Meyer’s approach. Meyer ranks him, as a historian, above the authors of the Bible, for he “puts forth the goal of historical truth for its own sake,” but below Thucydides. Josephus’s account of the division of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus is offered as an example of an event Josephus found it hard to credit. Yet if anything, this particular event enhances the credibility of the biblical account, for it is entirely in accord with geographical facts. (The waters do divide at the head of the Gulf of Suez and formerly did so also between the Bitter Lakes, which is today accepted as the actual route of the exodus from Egypt. As late as the 19th century, Bedouins and sometimes even pilgrim caravans to Mecca used this passage under weather conditions perfectly described in Exodus 14:21.) Actually, I suspect that Josephus should be read not as a doubter of religious truth but as the exponent of a viewpoint which made its appearance among Jews of his period: that miracles were “natural” events, timed to occur when the need for them was most acute.

Meyer ranks Josephus below Thucydides not, one assumes, on grounds of relative historical accuracy—Thucydides invented most of the speeches of his protagonists and cooked up some of his historical data—but for the latter’s superior methods of interpretation and judgment. Josephus, that is, remained in thrall to the older biblical view of what makes history unfold, whereas Thucydides brushed off the old accounts of Greek history as “mythical” and substituted human action and the dictates of reason as the springs of historical writing. Yet in ranking authors as historians, it is essential to distinguish the sober narrative of an event from the explanation offered for its occurrence and its location in an author’s overall view of history. That neither Josephus nor the Jewish historians who followed him through the centuries were able to free themselves from the idea of history that informs the Bible is ultimately due to the immense and compelling force of that conception of history, one which, along with its Christian and Muslim variations, has dominated the historical thought of much of mankind. This conception is not dealt with adequately in Meyer’s introduction, nor is it given sufficient emphasis in the pie-modern texts themselves, which have been selected primarily on the basis of historiographical innovation.

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The book is strongest in its treatment of writings from 1800 onward, though here too a certain perspective is lacking. Thus, in his introductory essay, Meyer establishes the pervasive influence of German idealist philosophy on most of the early historians of the 19th century (represented in this volume by Immanuel Wolf, Abraham Geiger, Leopold Zunz, and Isaac Marcus Jost). While there is no doubt of the extent of this influence, and Meyer’s presentation is very cogent, there were other factors involved besides intellectual ones. It would have enhanced this section of the book had Meyer made clear the polemical purpose behind the effort of these thinkers to discover some eternal, unchanging “essence” of Judaism which could be dislodged from its historical accretions: in doing so, they hoped to abolish Jewish “peculiarities,” thereby enabling Jews to participate fully in the majority culture.

In other words, these writers were not merely historians, but also reformers and apologists who were responding consciously and often explicitly to the anti-Semitism endemic among German intellectuals. From the 1830′s on they found themselves constantly called upon to defend Judaism against defamation, and their persistent efforts both to uplift the Jew and to defend him were evident not only in their writing but in the societies they founded, and the meetings they convened.

By failing to emphasize the social and political setting of these “historian-reformers,” Meyer conveys an imperfect understanding of their ideas of Jewish history. For their scholarly denial of the relevancy of Jewish historical practice to the present—the bibliographer and Orientalist Moritz Steinschneider was of the opinion that the time had come to terminate the history of Judaism altogether—was also a way of shedding the burdens of the past. They periodized Jewish history, extracted its “fundamental” and “universal” concepts, pronounced these fulfilled—at least in the realm of German culture—and departed. Not surprisingly, a good number of them later converted to Christianity, generally for the sake of furthering their academic careers.

One “fundamental” concept of Jewish historical thought which was for the most part ignored by the 19th-century historians, and which receives too little attention from Meyer as well, was the idea of national redemption. This idea, born in Egyptian slavery, where the memory of the patriarchal past was linked with a promised redemption (“God will surely remember you”—Genesis 50:25) and return to the land of the fathers, had become by the end of the biblical period a comprehensive view in which national history, social, individual, and even cosmic destiny were integrated into a single redemptive scheme. Undoubtedly, part of the appeal of this conception of a redemptive goal of history for Jews in times of dispersion came from the unhappy conditions in which they found themselves. Nonetheless, it cannot be explained simply in sociological terms as a “religion of the oppressed.” For one thing, the conception received its full development at the high tide of national sovereignty and cultural achievement, not during the period of national dispersion. For another thing, history itself, through its repetitive symmetries, seemed to validate the redemptive idea: the Egyptian exile and the Babylonian exile; the exodus from Egypt and the return from Baby-Ion; the conquest of Canaan and the restoration of the commonwealth after the Babylonian exile. All these seemed to point to a divinely established cyclical pattern whose final fulfillment was prevented only by man’s failings.

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The belief in an ultimate return culminating in redemption, when man will finally not fail God, provided the underpinning of the Jewish idea of history for Jewish historians up to the 19th century; it is a belief that continues to remain central for some Jewish historians today. Meyer, to be sure, mentions the idea of redemption as the target of Jewish history, but he treats it as an ahistorical concept. Perhaps so, but it was one of the dominant notions in Jewish history, and it is a shortcoming of this volume that messianism is given so little weight as an “idea of Jewish history.”

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