Commentary Magazine


Visions of History

To the Editor:

I am filled with admiration for Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s deft assault on my book Jews, God and History (“Writing Jewish History,” September ’63) without even reviewing its contents. We now know what Rabbi Hertzberg thinks, but the reader has no idea what my book says. Thank goodness, however, that he does grant me a “vision,” but as he does not tell your readers what that vision is, permit me to state it. I have a vision of Jewish history pried loose from the obscurantism of Jewish zealots and dogmatists, as Western history was pried loose one hundred and fifty years ago from the obscurantism of priests and Church. I have a vision of Jewish history told without special pleading . . . of the Jew . . . as a proud man of ideas. I see the Jewish saga not as a linear history from Abraham to Ben Gurion, but as a succession of six histories, each developing within the context of the six alien civilizations playing hosts to the Jews. . . . I view Jewish history through sociological, Marxist, existentialist, . . . and psychoanalytic eyes without rejecting religion as a force. . . . I may have done this well or badly, but certainly I have a right to present a secular history of the Jews without its being suggested that I am either vulgar or ignorant for doing it.

Rabbi Hertzberg says that “generally, the popularizers of a vision of history would be expected to follow the scholars rather than to precede it. Max Dimont’s book is an example of the opposite process. . . .” How I wish he were right! . . . .

If I have a vision, it is because I stand on the shoulders of such scholars as Victor Tcherikover, whose Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews has resurrected the fascinating Jewish past in Grecian times, . . . Hugo Mantel and Paul Winter, whose books . . . have brought new illumination to subjects too long shrouded in dogmatism, . . . Yehezkel Kaufmann and Max Weber whose The Religion of Israel and Ancient Judaism have brought new insights into an old subject, . . . Harry Austryn Wolfson, . . . And yes, also Josephus . . . . I am for the heroic Jew, especially since history supports me . . . I call it heroic that the Jews, with but 24,000 men, held out for four years against 80,000 Roman legionnaires. The much heralded battle of Marathon involved 11,000 Greeks against no more than 25,000 Persians.

Yes, I wish this vision of history were mine, but I acknowledge with pride that I am a popularizer attempting to bring the visions of the great scholars to the people, as has been the Jewish ideal for 2000 years. When men like Dr. Jacob R. Marcus, Will Durant, Max Lerner, Bishop Gerald Kennedy, Louis Untermeyer, and others acclaim Jews, God and History, I rest content.

Rabbi Hertzberg’s description of my “major howler” in “speaking of the Jews as exempt from Spengler’s (really Vico’s) law of the decay of civilizations, without once mentioning Nachman Krochmal, the great Jewish source of this idea,” leaves me . . . . somewhat puzzled . . . . Since Krochmal died 40 years before Spengler was born, how could he have incorporated Spengler’s morphology of civilizations into his thinking? Or is Rabbi Hertzberg suggesting that Spengler cribbed from Krochmal? This would have the charm of novelty. As for Vico, his relationship to Spengler is that of da Vinci’s drawing of a flying machine to a modern jet aircraft. The engine is missing.

No, I do not “assure” my readers that “Hasidism and early Christianity were kindred spirits.” I present it as an idea for the reader to accept or reject on the basis of three preceding paragraphs. I base many observations on Solomon Schechter’s fascinating essay, “The Chassidim” . . . .

Dr. Hertzberg takes me to task for not knowing that the “Hasidim affirmed the Law.” What I said was that the Bal-Shem-Tov “opposed the Talmudic intellectuals,” which is not quite the same thing. But . . . if the Hasidim were such affirmers of traditional Judaism, why did all the other rabbis, including the Vilna Gaon, excommunicate them time and time again? Rabbi Hertzberg speaks of my ignorance of the great Hasidic Talmudists, to which I confess. Which of the thirteen officially listed great Talmudic commentators, since 1700, were Hasidim? . . . .

Jews, God and History is a history of the Jews, not a history of Judaism. There is a difference. As a secular historian, I make no value judgments on religion, though I do speculate on some interpretations, after first warning the reader that they are speculations . . . .

Max I. Dimont
Clayton, Missouri

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Rabbi Hertzberg’s review reveals . . . aspects of American Jewish life more important than the review itself. First, why was a rabbi rather than an historian chosen to review the book? . . . With all due respect to Rabbi Hertzberg and his many talents, he is a historian neither by vocation nor training.

Secondly, the rabbi’s comments reveal the dichotomy in the minds of many of the non-Orthodox rabbinate. Rabbi Hertzberg wrote, “In the Bible . . . women give themselves to gain personal position and power, like Queen Esther.” . . . (These Freudian allusions have become the lingua franca of our rabbinical intelligentsia.) If this represents Rabbi Hertzberg’s concept of Esther, why does he permit the Megillat Esther to be read in his synagogue on Purim?

The good rabbi is guilty of another Freudian slip in his final comments on what he termed Dimont’s “climactic” paragraph . . . concerning the role of the American rabbi, prayer, and the function of the synagogue or temple. Many “positive” American Jews and many other rabbis subscribe to the contents of the paragraph quoted . . . . Jews, God and History represents a contribution to Jewish learning in spite of several shortcomings. To call a serious effort of scholarship . . . “vulgar and ignorant” because of a difference in point of view . . . ill becomes a reviewer.

Seymour B. Liebman
Mexico City, Mexico

_____________

 

Rabbi Hertzberg writes:

Mr. Dimont could hardly have been expected to like a highly critical review of his book. His letter confirms the obvious.

I can only reiterate: what kind of hash is a “sociological, Marxist, existentialist . . . and psychoanalytic” view of history? Mr. Dimont’s letter begins by accusing me of not having read his book. It is interesting that he does not reply on some matters of fact on which I questioned him in the original review. For example, where indeed did I get the idea that he gives the Jewish population in France at the time of the revolution incorrectly as 70,000 instead of 40,000? I got it from a careful reading of his book. I wonder from which of the impressive names that he hurls in his letter he derived such information.

Mr. Dimont does try to answer another of my specific strictures, in re Spengler and Krochmal. He tells me that Spengler never heard of Krochmal—so there. This is of course not what I was maintaining. My point in the review was, rather, that in 19th-century Jewish thought, and in Jewish historiography to this day, Nachman Krochmal is the source of the cyclical theory of Jewish history. It is almost inconceivable that a book about Jewish history, even a short one, could be written without mentioning him at all in his own right as a seminal intellectual figure of the first magnitude. This is all the more surprising in an author whose view of history is based to a considerable degree on the law of decay of civilizations. Why, therefore, did Mr. Dimont not mention Krochmal? I suspect that this really reflects an insufficiency in Dimont’s knowledge of Hebrew. Krochmal has never been translated into English. Despite a publisher’s blurb attributing Hebrew scholarship to Mr. Dimont, I can understand the text of his book only if that means that he once had a moderately good Jewish education, so that letters of the Hebrew alphabet are not entirely foreign to him. It is clear that Dimont wrote without the use of modern historical scholarship in Hebrew. Otherwise the absence of the work of Ben Zion Dinur, the leading Israeli historian, both from his bibliography and from any influence in his text is inexplicable. It makes sense only if my supposition is correct, that Dimont either reads no modern Hebrew or pieces it out with great difficulty.

Where in the world did Mr. Dimont get a list of “thirteen officially listed great Talmudic commentators since 1700”? I know of no Jewish authority which decides who are the great Talmudic commentators, either before or after 1700. This is the kind of notion that one might possibly find in a Sunday School text, but that is hardly a prime source even for the popular historian.

If Mr. Dimont’s research into Hasidism had led him to standard works available only in Hebrew, like the four volumes of Horodetz-sky, he would have understood the distinction that I made in the review. Concurrently with the appearance of Hasidism, the false messiah Jacob Frank was active in the same milieu. The memories of Shabbetai Zvi, and indeed remnants of his followers, were also present. It is little wonder therefore, out of fear of any innovation, that the Hasidim were excommunicated in the first years. What is important is that this soon faded. Jacob Frank’s followers and Shabetai Zvi’s both left and were driven from the Jewish fold. The Hasidim did not form a separate religion nor were they made to form one. In our own time, the most deeply Orthodox group consists of a harmonious coalition of both Hasidim and the descendants of their Lithuanian enemies. Why? For the reason that I gave in the original review: contrary to Mr. Dimont, who did try to make them out to be a sect opposed to the Law, the Hasidim remained within the Jewish community because they affirmed the Law.

On this point I am really shocked at Mr. Dimont’s defense of himself. Did he really say no more than that “the Baal-Shem-Tov opposed the Talmudic intellectuals”? I have always regarded tendentious quotation as a cheap trick in reviewers. What is one to say of it in an author, in relation to his own book? Here is the whole paragraph (p. 283 in Dimont’s text) from which he quotes the phrase about the Baal-Snem-Tov and let the reader judge:

Hasidism was not a simple thing; it was a complex syndrome. It was the triumph of ignorance over knowledge. The Talmud said that no ignorant man could be pious. Hasidism preached the reverse. It affirmed the Jewish spirit without the Jewish tradition. It created its own tradition proclaiming itself more Jewish than Jewishness itself. Hasidism was strength through joy, an affirmation of the ecstatic, not the ecstasy of knowing God. In one fell swoop, Baal-Shem-Tov turned weakness into strength, defeat into triumph. Just as Jesus had opposed the Pharisee intellectuals, so Baal-Shem-Tov opposed the Talmudic intellectuals. Hasidism and early Christianity were kindred spirits.

Mr. Liebman raises other issues. His remark about my “Freudian allusions” in discussing Queen Esther is ill-informed. The Talmud is certainly pre-Freudian. In Megillah 13b (and the Tosafot a. 1.) Mr. Liebman can find a startlingly frank discussion of Esther’s sex-life, as shared between Ahasuerus and Mordecai. That her marriage troubled the minds of the rabbis is evident in talmudic literature almost every time it is discussed; see, for example, Esther Rabbah 6:10. Why do I read the Scroll of Esther on Purim? For the obvious, and talmudic, reason: it is the account, whether true or fanciful, of Jewish deliverance from a classic anti-Semite.

However, what really annoys Mr. Liebman is not an incidental remark about Queen Esther but my rabbinic title. I may be an incompetent critic of historical writing, but Mr. Liebman cannot prove it except by argument about facts and ideas. Geiger was a rabbi; so was Guedemann. Graetz held the title and taught at a rabbinical seminary. This is but a small sample of a long list. Surely even Mr. Liebman would agree that their rabbinical training did not debar these men, a priori, from competence in Jewish history. On the personal level, I am glad that Columbia University does not share Mr. Liebman’s prejudices, for I have enjoyed serving that institution for the last several years as Lecturer in Jewish history in the Graduate Faculty.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.