Commentary Magazine

Essays in Jewish Biography, by Alexander Marx

Jewish Scholarship and Scholars
Essays In Jewish Biography.
by Alexander Marx.
Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America. 298 pp. $3.00.


The first four Jewish scholars whose lives and works are described in this collection of popular essays flourished in the Middle Ages; the remaining eight were born in the 19th century, and one, Max L. Margolis, died only about fifteen years ago. At least six of these eight, all of whom Professor Marx knew, were master builders of the towering structure of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, of which the author himself could truly say, pars magna fui.

The medieval figures are Saadia Gaon; Rabbenu Gershom, Light of the Exile; Rashi; and Maimonides. With the possible exception of Rabbenu Gershom, they exercised a decisive influence on the further development of Jewish thought: the learning of the yeshiva, the researches of modern scholars, and the thinking of contemporary Jewish Existenz theologians. Of the eight moderns, Joseph Jacobs occupied a peripheral place in Jewish scholarship, and Mayer Sulzberger, a judge and community leader in the United States at the turn of the century, is included in this roster mostly honoris causa. The others—Moritz Steinschneider, David Hoffman, Solomon Schechter, Henry Maker, Max L. Margolis, and Israel Friedlaender—were unusually learned and creative men.

It has been remarked that a significant difference between genius in mathematics and the physical sciences and genius in the social and historical sciences is the age at which the great practitioners reach the height of their powers. Einstein has said that typically the mathematician and theoretical physicist must be revealed as a genius before he is thirty, or not at all. The social scientist matures late; the greatest of the subjects of these essays, Moritz Steinschneider, was still adding to his massive and irreplaceable work in Jewish bibliography when he died, in his ninety-first year. (The mathematician Evariste Galois was killed in a duel before he was twenty-one.) Yet the men of these sketches, if they matured to creativity late, also showed extraordinary intellectual capacity from their earliest childhood. We are deeply impressed when we learn that John Stuart Mill was reading Greek at a time when the rest of us are struggling with the notion that c-a-t spells cat; but at the same age most of these future Jewish scholars were reading the Pentateuch with Rashi’s commentary, in Hebrew. (Rashi is printed in a separate script, without vowel points.)



Probably the main reason for the relatively late-maturing creativity of Jewish scholars, in bulk and in excellence, is the difficulty of mastering the tools needed for their work. A dozen or so languages, ancient and modern, Semitic and Indo-European; the whole extent and depth of the Talmudic and rabbinic literatures; the detailed history of remote countries and obscure periods; the matter and history of philosophy and theology, and a few ancillary skills like paleography—a mastery of all these, and more, had first to be won before a man like Steinschneider could begin to feel confident of his ability to carry out the program of work he had set for himself. It is easier to be an American historian.

One curious and characteristic feature of their work was that they tended to avoid Biblical research. (Schechter established the Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus, but that is a very late book; only Margolis’s pioneer work in the Septuagint text of Joshua is a real exception.) The Higher Criticism had been carried on chiefly under Protestant auspices. Jewish scholars, and especially the rabbinical institutions with which many of them were associated, preferred to avoid a discipline in which the accepted science was an affront to the traditional tenet of Torah from Sinai. Even the Jewish scholarship of these days, though somewhat more Biblical than it used to be, is still embarrassed by the Pentateuch and tends to concentrate on the Prophets and the later books.

Dr. Marx is the professor of Jewish history in the Jewish Theological Seminary, the head of the Seminary’s famous library, and the outstanding Jewish bibliographer of our age. He has the bibliographer’s weakness for the publication history of the works of great men, to the relative neglect of their ideas and the place of those ideas in intellectual and social history. In a sense, therefore, an essay like the one on Saadia Gaon is like Hamlet without Hamlet; frequent mention is made of the Karaites, but the reasons why Karaism was so formidable a danger to traditional Judaism as to engage much of the energy of Saadia in combatting it are not set forth sufficiently.

More than twenty-five years separate the original dates of publication of some of the essays in this book. This fact explains minor discrepancies, like Professor Marx’s statement in his chapter on Maimonides that there is no proof Maimonides was ever nagid (official head) of the Egyptian Jewish community, and an apparent contradiction in the Friedlaender chapter.



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