Commentary Magazine


Wanderings, by Chaim Potok

Among the Nations

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews.
by Chaim Potok.
Knopf. 398 pp. $17.95.

This history of the Jews is beautifully produced, with marvellous illustrations. The novelist’s hand is evident in the flow of the narrative and the often felicitous turns of phrase. Despite the fact that it is not the work of a historian, it is sophisticated and judicious in its use of professional sources. Yet as the title makes clear, this is meant as a personal history, and its personal character is emphasized through the deliberate intrusion of the author into the narrative. Here, for example, is Potok on Rome: “I see her through my Jewish eyes; I have no love for Rome. Of all the peoples of her vast empire she understood the Jews least.” On Islam:

When I was very young I was told by a white bearded man I revered that Muslims were desert barbarians who had somehow stumbled upon the God of our fathers and had taken Him for themselves, distorting His worship to suit their whims. This man, gentle and very old, was deeply pious and sealed within the world of Torah. Beyond that world lay the poison fruit of alien civilizations. How easily we label unknown worlds barbaric. Everyone is a barbarian to someone.

This sort of thing has a purpose: to help Potok formulate a perspective on Jewish history, and especially—as the two quotations above suggest—on the Jewish confrontation with other cultures and civilizations. Yet considered as history, the volume never makes its thesis clear. And considered as personal history, it never makes clear how Potok’s own faith has been reshaped, as he says it has been, by his encounter with non-Jewish, particularly Eastern, cultures.

The title, Wanderings, is suggestive of a perspective. Wanderings normally lack direction; they are not pilgrimages but random movements, perhaps searches for something whose exact location is elusive. The Church Fathers saw Jewish wandering as a punishment; the same notion was widespread among Jews, though they had a different notion of what they were being punished for. But despite the title and the frequent repetition of the idea in the book, I do not think that Potok’s central thesis is that the Jews are a wandering people. Indeed, the book reveals the extent to which Jews in the last two thousand years have been at home in various civilizations and made efforts to remain where they have settled, often long beyond the time when it would have been wise for them to move.

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There is another problem with finding this book’s perspective. It is possible to come away from Potok’s narrative with a clear impression of the fabulous achievements of Sumer and Akkad, Egypt and Persia, Greece and Rome, Christendom and Islam, and also of what Potok calls “modern paganism”—all the civilizations through which the Jews have passed—but without any real understanding of what the Jewish role in these civilizations has been. Potok’s volume leaves one with the sense that even Christianity and Islam, in all but their earliest stages, show little or no trace of Jewish influence.

Why should this be so? According to Potok: “The central idea of biblical civilization was the covenant . . . the central idea of rabbinic civilization was the Messiah.” In his book, the covenantal idea is fully discussed; its roots in the pre-Hebrew world are analyzed in detail, and the transformation of the covenant idea in Judaism is lucidly described. No such treatment, however, is accorded to the messianic strain in Judaism—precisely that element in Jewish thought and life which perhaps has made the greatest impact on others, and whose influence continues to be felt to this day.

While one can only speculate as to why Potok should have devoted so much less attention to messianism than to the covenant idea, one reason may be that there exists a large specialist literature on Middle Eastern covenants while the origins of the messianic idea in Israel are shrouded in fog. In general, historical information about the Second Temple period has many gaps. We know next to nothing about the Persian period after Ezra and Nehemiah, practically nothing about the transition to Greek rule and the Greek period itself. With the Maccabees the documentation is better but still not good. Yet it is this period that saw the beginnings of an apocalyptic and messianic literature. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, who suddenly appear as fully defined groups, messianic doctrines at the time of their first known literary expressions are well developed.

But whatever their antecedents, these ideas were a factor of first importance, both in national resistance to the declining cultural paganism of the Greco-Roman world and in the attraction Judaism exerted upon Gentiles in this period. It was, of course, Christianity that ultimately capitalized on the enormous power of the messianic idea. Although Potok might have found it difficult to discuss the roots of the concept, he might well have described the subsequent transmutation of Jewish messianic and apocalyptic expectations into their Christian and Muslim versions and their continuation in chiliastic, millenarian, and modern secular garb.

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For this reader there are also difficulties with Potok’s division of Jewish history into two chronological civilizations, separated by the destruction of the Second Temple. Potok never defines what he means by a Jewish civilization. He says only that the central idea of the first is the covenant; of the second, messianism. But this is to say both too much and too little. It is too much because messianism predates rabbinic Judaism and because the covenant remained a central idea even after the maturation of the messianic concept. It is too little because a definition of Jewish civilization in terms of these two themes alone is oversimplified. The true distinctiveness of Jewish civilization both before and after the destruction of sovereignty lay in Jewish religious law and in the life that it shaped—biblical law in the first instance, rabbinic law in the second. Yet about this element of key importance Potok has relatively little to say. Furthermore, if one is talking about civilizations, perhaps a distinction of another kind should be made between the Jewish culture that grew up under Islam and the Jewish culture that grew up under Christianity. May not these be different enough to be considered separate Jewish civilizations?

At the end we are told that a third civilization of the Jews may be at hand. In Potok’s diagnosis, today “everything seems to be in fragments: Judaism, Christendom, socialism, the secular dream . . . it is all in pieces around us.” But there is also renewal, “a troubled springtime for the Jewish people in the United States and Israel. . . .” American Jews, together with Israel, will succeed in creating a third civilization: “We will renew our people.” The reader may be forgiven a certain skepticism on this point. Jews historically have been able to create for themselves images of their host societies which accord with their own specific identities and expectations. They did it in France, in Germany, in Italy, to name but a few places. At this time, toward the end of a terrible century, it appears a specifically American Jewish habit to glide from an appreciation of the distinctive and receptive elements of American society and culture to an implicit foreclosure of negative developments which despite all due vigilance may prove impossible to arrest.

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Potok glancingly touches on an agenda for the third civilization of the Jews, including a new literature, art, philosophy, and sense of community. But as he makes abundantly clear, Jewish art and literature in the first civilization were a function of the great cultural creativity of the ancient world, while Jewish art in the second civilization was Jewish only in content, its form reflecting the artistic conventions of the great civilizations enfolding the Jews. Even Jewish philosophy was a subspecies of the dominant schools, from Kalam to Thomism to the Orthodox Hegelians and Kantians of modern times. It is, to repeat, in law that Jews have shown their major originality and creativity, and it is hard to imagine a new Jewish civilization not built upon a new development of law. Yet there is no sign of this in the Diaspora, and very little of it in Israel.

It would be possible to reverse the upbeat prophecies of Potok’s final paragraph, in which he affirms his faith in the renewal of the Jewish people. The Jew is not solidly inside the affairs of the world. What surrounds him is a fresh wave of hate that has managed to encompass much of the so-called Third World, whole areas of the globe that never concerned themselves with Jews before. If, as Potok says, there will nevertheless be peace and renewal for Israel, the day seems as far distant now as it has ever been.

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