Commentary Magazine

The Texture of Jewish History

Is there some way for an ordinary reader to get on top (as it were) of Jewish history, taking it all in, adding it all up? The answer is probably no, for the complexity of the subject matter leaves even the best historians hard put to convey both its unity and its diversity. The late Cecil Roth’s Short History of the Jewish People, limiting itself deliberately to a broad outline, brings out the highlights very readably in about 500 pages, but at the cost, inevitably, of dealing with issues and characters in the most generalized way. The opposite approach—exemplified notably in the work of the American historian Salo W. Baron—is concerned less with the outline than with the texture, digging deeply into original sources, hitherto unexplored or misinterpreted, to reveal currents of thought and feeling—and, above all, social issues—which cannot be fitted neatly into a chronological outline. The reader of Baron’s multivolumed A Social and Religious History of the Jews is not concerned with what happened next. He is absorbed on every page—and even more so in the notes—with the realities of daily existence. The play of ideas and the richness of documentation bring the Jews to life in their time and place with no pattern imposed on how it will all end, or indeed what it might all mean.

A massive new English-language work of more than 1200 pages takes a stance, in some respects, between these two approaches. In A History of the Jewish People,1 six professors from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, dealing respectively with periods in which they are experts, are given leeway to write in depth, amplifying the outline with a wealth of illustrative material reflecting the great flow of Jewish research and discovery in modern times. The work appeared originally in Hebrew in 1969, under the editorship of Professor Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, whose own contribution, on the Middle Ages, occupies a third of the book. If the Hebrew version showed differences of literary style, this has disappeared in the uniformity of the excellent translation, though differences of tone and pace are still evident.

Offering a full panorama of Jewish existence from the dim origins of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. to the hard politics of modern Israel, this work breaks new ground for a one-volume history, both in its range and in its authority. The reader is also aware throughout that the past is being explored through a new approach—basically “secular” (the history of a people), with comparative studies in the foreground, so that oddities and loose ends yield constantly to explanation through the wider context.

There is great intensity in this approach; yet, oddly, the reader is not left with a really satisfying sense’ of cohesion. This is not because the book lacks a unifying theme. Indeed, it is the imposition of a conscious theme—the pointing of all Jewish history toward the emergence of the state of Israel—which ultimately throws up an unresolved paradox. Throughout the book one is carried forward by the story of a people of immense vitality whose life in “exile” is a triumph of will, a life bursting with talent, adventure, intellect, and aspiration. Against a background of often hideous persecution, we see the Jews moving through history as an anomaly, yet woven deeply into the story of man. In the final chapters the drama of Israel’s emergence as a state takes over, presented as a natural conclusion to the centrality given to the ancestral land in many earlier sections of the book. But what seems to be lessened, through the later emphasis on Israel, is the deeper story, always relevant and certainly valid today, of the Jews fulfilling themselves wherever they are as a world people. Even though, for Jews everywhere today, Israel has now become the focus of attention, the canvas of Jewish experience is wider than this.

The book seems to suffer by having been clearly prepared in the first instance for an Israeli readership, a textbook on a magnificent scale to bring the Jewish past to life for students whose range of interest is heavily geared to the immediate issues of national existence. Though a large part of the work is a brilliant evocation of Jewish/non-Jewish confrontation in the Diaspora, it may well speak differently to those within and those outside Israel today. For those within, it may seem right that so much points to the “abnormality” of the Diaspora; for those outside, what lingers in the mind is the variety and richness of the Jewish response to Diaspora life. It is a continuing force—the sense of destiny, the genius to adapt, the concern with ideas, issues that surface in the book in the context of their times but remain valid in new forms for Diaspora Jews—who are by far the majority of the Jewish people—wherever they find themselves.

For these reasons, one gets the best out of this new book by treating it as a mine of experience rather than as a straight unfolding story. This is not because a book of such great length is bound to be too full of detail and diversions to be absorbed as a whole. It has often been pointed out that collecting the “facts,” with the aim of showing how things “really were,” takes a writer only a short distance along the road. “Facts,” however carefully amassed, come to life only when illumined by historical imagination. The great historian, full of his subject, communicates a sense of vision. By definition, that vision is rooted in his own time, and in this sense is never fully “objective”: but by the same token it conveys truth—a feeling, sustained by vast knowledge, which is a view of life, transcending, as any work of art does, the immediate circumstances which the historian is discussing.



The subject of Jewish history as a whole—a story stretching over three or four thousand years—is certainly difficult to portray with this kind of sustained excitement, though for his own time, the mid-19th century, Heinrich Graetz’s pioneering History of the Jews came close to achieving it, despite all the limitations we now recognize. Our feelings today, with the story of the 20th century vivid in our minds, force us into a new stance. We expect the historian to respond with a different kind of imagination. But it must still carry with it the largeness of vision which has room for every shade of experience that is valid for the Jewish people as a whole.

If the new book fails by this standard, it is perhaps because the populist approach, so rewarding in many ways, carries a fatal drawback in dealing with the earliest phases of Jewish history, where research and scholarship are no substitute by themselves for the sense of awe and mystery that the Bible evokes. There is no period of Jewish history which is constantly un-folding to scholarship more excitingly than Bible times, and Abraham Malamat’s opening section—“Origins”—gives us every theory, with great verve. In his account (as in the section by H. Tadmor which follows on the days of the Kings and the Prophets) we are offered many new ideas about the adventures of this tiny people in achieving the miracle of national existence; but what is missing, quite deliberately, is the creative power, the element of the miraculous. The “social” approach, brilliantly expounded through comparative studies, seems to leave a gap at the center. Nothing is ultimately explicable, either in biblical times or in the subsequent centuries until the full emergence of the Talmud, without an evocation of the God-vision which forged the inner life of this people and sanctified their sense of separation. Jewish history becomes understandable only if it brings out constantly the inner theological conviction.

The issue gets its first sharp definition in Malamat’s exposition of what the early Hebrews felt about their “right” to the Holy Land. In his account, we see the force of history working itself out in human terms, with the role of God played down. The Hebrews are originally “a negligible factor within the overall play of powers in Canaan.” The land itself is a shuttlecock between powerful neighbors, with no natural cohesiveness—no separate identity at all—until after the conquest. That the Hebrews found a foothold is shown to have “needed a rare political moment when the northern and southern powers were simultaneously on the wane.” The “right” to the land emerges in the sequence of what happened. There was a Promise because it was fulfilled. It was only when the Hebrew people was ensconced in its own land “that its national image and historic activity became crystallized.”

One becomes more aware of the uniqueness of the Jewish vision in the section on Hasmonean times by Menahem Stern, unquestionably the deepest student of this period. The documentary sources on the Second Temple era have only recently been molded into a shape that explains a central mystery—when and how “the rabbis” first acquired the authority that was to dominate Jewish life in later centuries. The creative struggle is now seen in the Hellenistic context. One has a clear view, through Stern’s analysis of the two centuries preceding Jesus, of the deep roots of the rabbinic view. Ironically, the historical picture is less clear in the rather dry treatment of the Talmud era itself (70-740 C.E.) by Shmuel Safrai. Here one almost feels Jewish history running to seed. And perhaps this is correct: because it is only when we finally begin to see the Jews breaking out of the Holy Land into endless years of history as a Diaspora people that the force of the earlier vision receives its full exemplification. In Ben-Sasson’s hands, the Middle Ages—the period most of us know least about—becomes decisive for Jewish self-understanding.



The “Jewish” Middle Ages, for Ben-Sasson, cover a stretch of a thousand years from the early Muslim-Arab conquests of the 7th century “to the spiritual crisis experienced by Jewry during the second half of the 17th century, after the collapse of the messianic Sabbatean movement.” It is a middle period—a transitional stage—for the Jews, between the Bible and Talmud periods which preceded it and “emancipation” which was to follow. Unlike these two, it is an era of incoherence: there is no clearly defined story, nothing fixed to hold on to. Yet one is aware, immersed in it, that here is the crucible; the permanent issues of Jewish existence have to be understood in this context. If one is trying to understand the riddle of Jewish life—not to solve it but to be at home with it—one needs illumination from this period of a thousand years in which every idea about Jews which is potent today—open or furtive, inspiriting or mischievous—worked its way through to expression in a world that has now vanished.

The great virtue of this section of the work—it is really a book on its own—is its evocation of a timeless structure of experience. In form there is a brave attempt to bring the mass of disparate detail into chronological order under broad chapter headings—“Social and Cultural Life until the End of the 11th Century,” “The Status and Economic Structure of Jewish Communities, 1096-1348,” and so on. Within this arrangement, moving back and forth between “Ashkenaz” (Northern Europe), the Mediterranean, and the Near East, we are taken through the catalogue of settlement and wanderings, conflicts and entrenchment, martyrdom and independence. But “order” is not really the aim. If one were concerned with a straight story, one would miss the direct, if inchoate, contact with the people to whom these adventures were happening. For Ben-Sasson, the story is a history of ideas: and these come at us not only through his generalizations but in the documents of the time which he quotes in rich profusion. This source material, however fragmentary in nature, is drawn from chronicles, community records, rabbinical commentaries, letters, prayers, laments, philosophical works, sermons, poems—all richly communicative in the hands of a scholar who is not only at home instinctively in the nuances of Jewish significance, but is able to set it all in the broader context of its time.

To illustrate how Ben-Sasson leads us through this detail, one can pick out two broad themes which surface repeatedly, albeit in different forms, through the long story, the first dealing with problems of livelihood, the second reflecting the endless tug-of-war, in Jewish experience, between the competing attractions of what one might call (in shorthand) rationalism and mysticism.



On how the Jews made their living, Ben-Sasson is anxious to get rid of the idea that “the dominant Jewish occupation in those days was usury,” a conception suggesting an inherent talent for exploitation which has had a baleful effect on the Jewish image ever since. He has no difficulty in showing that in different countries and periods the Jews were occupied in every kind of economic activity, “productive” as well as mercantile; yet this is not where the novelty of his approach lies. What he communicates is a need to recognize that money-lending, even where it was dominant, never by itself yields an understanding of the economic role of the Jews. Even more significantly, we are shown the problems—religious and philosophical—which money-lending raised for the Jews themselves.

For Ben-Sasson, it was not that the Jews found themselves in Europe and decided to adopt usury as the only occupation available. It was more the other way around. Their concern with money in a variety of economic roles, but mostly as a concomitant of trade, was how they found themselves in Europe. The broadening of its application—ranging from consumer credit to tax-farming and governmental support-became highly specialized at various points and often harmful; but in the widest sense it was a natural evolution, in the context of the times, from the economic and political realities of that world. It was a pattern of livelihood which equally affected other merchant peoples, but with one crucial difference: the subservience of medieval Jews to the overriding claims of their religious tradition.



In secular terms, the pattern of Jewish wandering and settlement was heavily conditioned by trading opportunities. In the Arab-Muslim empire, which at one stage contained more than 90 per cent of the Jews of the world, they became dominantly urban after the 8th century, engaging locally in every type of occupation and profession, but also participating naturally, as time went on, in the huge international trade, stretching from the Atlantic to the Far East, which had been opened up through conquest. If they were good at trade, it was because they had built-in advantages. They were literate and numerate. The kinship which flowed from their adherence to a common religion expressed itself in mutual confidence and in a freedom to communicate in common languages.

The impulses which carried the Jews all over the Muslim empire operated in a different fashion (as Ben-Sasson shows) in feudal Europe, but with similar effect. In Western Europe, “they were to be found in the ancient Roman cities along the waterways and the continental trade routes,” spreading into northern France from the Rhine Basin and eastward into what was to become Germany. The expansion of their numbers in many countries (which is very evident from the 9th century) was linked to this trade-motivated migration, “usually of their own free will and not under duress.”

Ben-Sasson establishes that as far as the Gentiles around them were concerned, the Jews were not merely practitioners of a curious (often hateful) religion but a “class”—merchants and “colonizers”—in a world of fluid boundaries and loyalties. Amid the tensions of authority, in which the edicts of the highest powers—the Emperor, the Pope—were enforced or ignored without set pattern by local rulers, who in turn were never too sure of their control over their own populace, the Jews felt their way, “protected” or attacked, settling or wandering, but always carrying with them a sense of security, even “privilege,” in the certainties they had inherited. It was a world in which there were many groups with “corporate rights” leaning on tradition. The Jews found a place within this complex, alert to sudden waves of persecution, but adapting themselves—if they survived—to fortifying their own autonomy, in a living adjustment between their own religious law and the political and social demands of the worlds around them.

If it is impossible from the remaining evidence to paint a full picture of economic existence, there is enough variety in quotations from contemporary documents to banish any generalized impression of suffering. In the responsa (rabbinical dicta) of the great scholar Rashi (11th century) we hear of transactions in land and vineyards in northern France. There is a case of a Jewess and her son who held a village and the tithe from it “as a [feudal] reward . . . like other recipients of rewards from the lords.” The issue being raised was the son’s anxiety that his heritage be kept in the family, which gives one some idea of how capital was amassed. At a more endearing level we find a husband trying to persuade his wife to move from their old home: “Come with me to my township, for my occupation and trade are there. Although it is a smaller town than ours, still it has a synagogue and a bathhouse and grinding-mills; and it has a wall.” One feels one knows this husband; he is part of the texture of Jewish history.



In the medieval setting, one can identify two elements of tradition which lent themselves powerfully to the evolving economic background. First, the Jews carried with them a familiarity with contracts, exemplified in talmudic discussion and maintained unbroken, so that the trading opportunities offered by kinship were developed not merely on sentiment but on a structure of law. Ben-Sasson quotes “a model agreement” found in a Baghdad responsum:

On such and such a day and at such and such a place we have contracted with A for the amount which B is entrusting to him, namely 3,000 gold pieces, on condition that A shall add another 2,000 gold pieces . . . and what may come to him more than this. . . .

A, who is putting the money to use, declares: “What is yours of right is your share of the profit of the 5,000 gold pieces only; the rest of all my transactions have been carried out with my money and the money of others: and you have no share in the profits earned on them.” There could hardly be a clearer exposition of a developing entrepreneurial role linked firmly to the style of talmudic law.

The second factor was the tireless effort of the rabbis to explore the underlying principles of traditional law. Applying this to changing circumstances, the Jews could be staunchly observant yet move with the times. The role of interest is central here, because the biblical prohibition of taking interest from “thy brother” was a problem for Jews and Christians alike, each surmounting it with a certain amount of double-think, though with more baleful effect for the Jews than for their neighbors.



Money-lending became a serious concern for Jews in the 12th century, partly because the range of their livelihoods had narrowed decisively after the slaughters of the First Crusade (1096-99), but also in response to a notable change in general European conditions. Europe was short of ready cash for local use: “a large quantity of precious metals had been withdrawn from circulation and immobilized in the form of regalia for the courts, the nobility, and the Church.” The Italian cities had taken over the vastly increasing trade with Muslim countries, which cut out Jewish merchant trade and drew in such “Christian” funds as were available. Cash was needed for military adventures, for the clearing of forests, and for the development of the textile trade in Europe. With the diversion of Christian funds into large-scale ventures on which the Church turned a blind eye to its prohibition of interest, there was a gap everywhere for “consumer” financing, where the Church was still finicky.

The Jews, who “still had ready money available from their former engagement in extensive international trade,” were drawn into the local field—monasteries needing building loans, knights being ransomed, priests in debt, peasants suffering a bad harvest; and where capital grew this way, the wealthy could move into wider financing (as, in England, with the famous Aaron of Lincoln, whose financing extended to the state itself). But if the Church could accept this service from “outsiders” (exploiting and despising those who provided it), the Jews wrestled continuously with the theological problems of interest. The Bible seemed to permit lending to non-Jews, but interest and credit could not be kept in a watertight box, and principles had to be established which would express the spirit of the Torah in this difficult field.

It was a subject which led to constant rabbinic argument. We find one approach in the dictum of a rabbi of Perpignan in the 13th century that “thy brother” means anyone believing in God. This meant that the Torah’s moral purpose in setting up its rides was to emphasize honesty in all business dealings: “and this holds true for dealing with both Jew and Gentile.” If a Gentile comes to one for a loan it is wrong “to send him away empty handed,” but “morality and precept apply even when lending money to a Gentile.”

A cash loan for interest, it was increasingly seen, was a natural part of a freely developing market. economy. This idea, in its most general form, is expressed by a rabbi in a disputation at Ferrara in 1500. “When a man needs something of which his comrade has plenty . . . he purchases it at a price”: hence rent (for a house) and wages. One isn’t called upon to give something away for nothing, unless the applicant is a pauper, “when he is aided for pity’s sake.” Indeed, “the lending of money can be more useful than the loan of a horse or a house.” As for lending on interest to fellow-Jews, which had to emerge despite its being prohibited, economic reality led to the use of a partnership agreement (shetar iska) in which profit to the lender, as a silent partner, avoided classification as interest. This halfway fiction, soothing to Orthodox Jewish nerves, was very valuable in the burgeoning conditions of Jewish economic expansion in Poland/Lithuania in the 17th century. A way had to be found, in the practical sphere, of reconciling “common sense” and faith.



In the God-haunted world of the Middle Ages, there was a parallel tussle of deeper moment on the philosophy of being a Jew. How did one make sense of the Jewish fate? Why had God chosen the Jews, given them His commandments, and then sent them into exile? It is a theme which surfaces repeatedly, in Ben-Sasson’s analysis, as a struggle between rationalism and mysticism.

The ordinary Jew would not have defined things this way. For the most part it was enough for him to be loyal in observance, leaving argument to the philosophers. But ideas ultimately work their way through, and nowhere more potently than in the Jewish Middle Ages. There was drama, also, in the tension between “indigenous” Jewish thought and influences from outside, always palpable even though they never worked in a single direction.

Distinctive as the Jews were, they were always part of the world around them. In one broad summary, Ben-Sasson suggests that the struggle in Jewish thought between rationalism and mysticism “reflects the opposing influences of Islam and Christianity”; but he makes it clear in the same passage that “influence” could mean following or opposing the surrounding ideas. Intellectually, it is illuminating to see examples of this two-way reaction spelled out in the writings of different scholars, and it is a measure of Ben-Sasson’s quality as a historian that his own approach, which leans toward rationalism,2 never obscures the respect he feels for those whose instincts have taken them in a different direction.

Typically, he follows a long account of the rationalism of Saadiah (886-942) and Maimonides (1135-1201) with a most sympathetic exposition of the ideas of the poet Judah Halevi (12th century), whose “concept of the election of Israel was based on a singular combination of a mystical, anti-rationalistic approach to the relationship between man and God.” In a later section we are shown how the persistence of rationalism in Spain (Rabbi Abraham Bivach: “The Jewish nation alone is attracted toward pure intellect. . . .”) was deeply shaken by the impact of the expulsion in 1192, and even more profoundly by a consideration of the real significance of the Marrano experience.

Against this dark background we are not surprised (any more than we are today in the shadow of the Holocaust) to find mysticism resurgent as a poetic refuge, with kabbalist fantasies conveying a certainty that Shelley (in a different context) was later to express:

Dreams and the light imaginings of men,

And all that faith creates or love desires,

Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes. . . .

For the Jews of the Mediterranean, kabbalist thought was drawn to the Holy Land, finding a perfect physical setting in the mysteriously rare atmosphere of the village of Safed. Isaac Luria, the central figure there, emerges not only as a creative religious genius in the system which flowed from him but as a saint of gentleness in his personal life. Far off in time and place, we are taken through an equally striking mystical phenomenon among Jews in Germany (hasidei Ashkenaz) in the 12th century, related “undeniably” (in Gershom Scholem’s view) to certain ascetic Christian ideas which “filtered into the religious philosophy of some Jewish groups,” but were ultimately derived from old—and still persisting—trends in Jewish thought.



If one were looking further into the Middle Ages for ideas due to emerge more cogently in the period which was to follow, there is no shortage of connecting links. We see Moses Isserles arguing in the 16th century that nine-tenths of the commandments have their origin “in the material and social advantages they ensure”—a very pragmatic notion. In the same period we find the great Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague offering Jewish nationalism in 19th-century style: “Exile is a departure from the natural order, whereby the Lord situated every nation in the place that best suited it.” The Jews, however dispersed, are one undivided nation. “According to the order of being, it is not fitting that one nation should be subjugated by another.”

We are brought back through this last theme to consider how valid it is that so much in this long book (apart from Ben-Sasson) seems dominated by the concept of independent statehood. If, to some extent, it results in a lack of perspective, Shmuel Ettinger, dealing with “The Modern Period” in a section also of book length, is the most culpable. He is objective enough in discussing the firm (if unsteady) march in the 19th century toward a freer life in the Diaspora, but when he reaches the pogroms of 1881 and the subsequent crescendo of “agonizing tribulations” until the establishment of the state in 1948, he puts history into an ideological straitjacket by summarizing this century, in a chapter-title, as “The Failure of Emancipation.” It is certainly legitimate to set the miracle of Israel’s emergence against the fiendish horror of the Holocaust; but a history of the Jewish people cannot characterize the years since 1881 as “the failure of emancipation.” If anything, this century has testified to the vitalizing force of emancipation. The undying sorrow of the Hitler years does not obliterate the power that the Jewish people have shown in many countries of the world (including Germany before 1933) to draw something new and inspiriting out of Western freedom, with a tone that reflects but also transforms the older strands of Jewish experience. In this sense Israel itself exemplifies the power of emancipation, in what it both shares with and owes to the force of contemporary Jewish life in other countries.

This wider view is missing in Ettinger’s treatment. American Jewry—the most astonishing product of emancipation—receives perfunctory mention. Indeed, the whole Diaspora since 1945 is treated in eleven pages, whereas we are taken in detail through the military and internal political struggles of Israel in this period—extremely interesting, but in the wrong proportion for the broad subject of the book. One would gladly have exchanged the detailed analysis of election results in the Knesset (given in the last chapter) for an imaginative consideration of the ongoing social and intellectual relationship of Israel to the variety of forces in Diaspora life.

It is here that one sees the real limitations of a work that had its origins in a series of Israeli textbooks. But if this sounds carping, one must also stress the total view. The book as a whole is a monument to scholarship and feeling, immersing the reader on every page in the rich texture of the Jewish heritage.


1 Edited by H.H. Ben-Sasson, Harvard University Press, 1170 pp. (including 28 maps) and 38 pages of photographic illustrations, $40.00.

2 See the quotation from him in my “The Litvak Connection and Hasidic Chic,” COMMENTARY, May 1976.

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