Commentary Magazine

Galut, by Yitzhak F. Baer

The Jewish Exile
by Yitzhak F. Baer.
Translated by Robert Warshow. New York, Schocken Books, 1947. 123 pp. $1.50. (Schocken Library, Number 2.)


In this little work, only 123 pages long, Fritz Baer, professor in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and perhaps the most eminent contemporary historian of medieval Jewry, discusses the interpretations of the Jewish exile advanced by Jews from the Hellenistic age to the French Revolution.

The old chroniclers saw Jewish history as an enduringly edifying narrative of gesta Dei per Judaeos—God’s exploits by means of the Jews—and their latter-day disciples have continued to preach the same sermon. Professional historians simply brush this sort of thing aside; but when Dr. Baer sees Jewish history as something more than life-size, his colleagues cannot ignore him. It is Professor Baer’s undeniable mastery of the scientific method in historical investigation that makes his rejection of a naturalistic philosophy of Jewish history so impressive.

Dr. Baer gives the impression that he intends to suggest incalculably more than he spells out in the scant pages of Galut. This effect is created, in part, by the seriousness with which he treats his subject—a quality that distinguishes him from most modem historians as sharply as the commentators that really believed in the revelation on Sinai are distinguished from modem Bible critics. But even more than his tone and doctrine, the very nature of Dr. Baer’s subject must make the least sensitive reader aware that this small book may be not so much the full text as a table of chapter headings.

Consider only the time dimensions of the Galut problem. The Jewish people came into existence, or began to come into existence, shortly after the time of Hammurabi. They established their First Commonwealth three thousand years ago. Their Second Commonwealth was destroyed two thousand years ago, and then, not long after the Roman Republic became a monarchy, they entered the Galut that has lasted to our day. (There had been others, imposed by the Assyrians and by the Babylonians—not to mention the Egyptian exile.) Jewish history extends over almost two-thirds of recorded human history, and the Galut forms an unbroken bridge between high antiquity and tomorrow morning’s news broadcast.

Sheer duration has a heavy weight of meaning. Furthermore, Galut and Christianity are coeval, and Christianity has always had very decided views on the Galut. In most essentials, these were the obverse of the views held by Jews. To Christendom, all Jewry was personified in the legend of the Wandering Jew, who dragged out his weary existence in obedience to Jesus command: “Tarry thou till I come.” In the Christian view, the Jews existed to testify to the historical truths concerning the early history of Christianity, and to suffer their exemplary punishment for rejecting the true Messiah. Until the Second Coming, therefore, the Jews as a people were assured of immortality; at the Second Coming, they would cast off their blindness and accept Christianity.

The Jewish view, essentially, was that the exile of the Jews was a kind of ritual drama, representing the alienation of mankind from God. The return would be accompanied by the turning of all men to their maker, followed by the reign of peace and justice on earth.

The conflict between these two views, the Christian and the Jewish, could hardly be more extreme; but they have in common an element that is perhaps greater than their differences. That is the conviction that the exile was divinely ordained, that it would last until the coming of the Messiah (first or second), and that at least until the Kingdom of God was established on earth (which is as much as to say, for the entire future course of human history) the Jews were necessary to the fulfillment of God’s plans for mankind.



In his chapter on Judah Halevi, Dr. Baer writes: “Ultimately, what lifts the poet above the horrors of his time is not only the strength of inner religious liberation, but also a historical vision that sheds light over the events of all times. More clearly, perhaps, than any Jew of later times, Judah understood the opposition between the historical principle of Judaism and the historical principle of the other nations—between the close relationship of the Jews to God, which raised them above all causal laws, and the power politics of the others.” Dr. Baer is thus in complete agreement with the medieval poet.

Most of us are empirical and naturalistic in our thinking about human affairs, and we would consequently tend to reject Dr. Baer’s vision out of hand. Let us provisionally suspend judgment, however, and examine two interesting corollaries of Baer’s historical thinking. We may then be specifically justified in saying that his doctrine is not for us.

The first adjunct of Dr. Baer’s basic belief has to do with national genius. He does not elaborate this fully, but it can be reconstructed readily enough from what he says about competing modes of thinking in Jewish history. In brief, he sees truly Jewish thinking as intuitive, visionary, prophetic. Rationalistic thinking is proper to the Greeks and their heirs; it is almost tainted with betrayal in Jews, and the Jewish tradition consistently and rightly has withheld popular approval from the systems of its rationalists. At the same time, the visionary quality of truly Jewish thought is disciplined—Baer speaks with approval of Maimonides’ insistence on concrete political criteria for recognizing the Messiah.

It cannot be denied that there is good warrant in the Jewish tradition for this view of the genius of a people, in general, and of the extra-rational genius of the Jews, in particular. At least from the book of Daniel to Hasidism, Jews thought that each distinct people had its own distinct genius, personified by an angel (the “prince” of the people in question) in the councils of heaven. This thinking goes very far back in Jewish history, to a time preceding monotheism, when every people was supposed to be under the protection of its own one god. (“Genius” is the word that the Romans used to designate a vaguely divine tutelary spirit.)

Whether Baer’s view is in an authentic Jewish tradition or not, however, most of us will not be able to consent to it. In Jewish Social Studies for January 1947 Professor Isaiah Sonne of the Hebrew Union College gently reprimanded Dr. Baer for denying the unity of the human spirit. It would be absurd and unjust to make even an implied comparison between Baer and the Nazi doctrinaires, but the Nazi distinction between Aryan and non-Aryan science shows what may be involved in imposing ethnic boundaries on thinking.



The second corollary of Dr. Baer’s thesis can be called historical predestination. It is clear that for him the Galut has lasted because it was destined to last.

A number of Jewish kingdoms have risen and fallen since the days of Titus and Hadrian. The most notable of these was the Khazar state of southern Russia, whose court and aristocracy adopted Judaism during the 8th century. Judah Halevi, in his Sefer ha-Kuzari, represented the conversion of the Khazar ruling class as the result of a religious disputation held before the pagan king by representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, after which it was obvious to the king that Judaism was the best and truest of the three. We need not doubt either that a religious debate was actually held before the king of the Khazars or that he preferred Judaism on its merits. It will not be impious, however, to suppose that political considerations also played their part. Vernadsky, the Russian historian, suggests that the Khazar rulers, forced by philosophic enlightenment to give up paganism, chose Judaism, rather than Christianity or Islam, in order to preserve their independence of Christian Byzantium and the Islamic Arabs.

Toward the end of the 10th century a similar choice faced the Russians, Christianity now being represented by Roman and Byzantine variants. The Russians finally decided to accept Byzantine Christianity, but it was far from sure that they would choose any form of Christianity at all. They might have followed the Khazar example. If they had, there is little reason to suppose that we would today be discussing a Galut like the one Dr. Baer discusses. Those who believe in a predestined Galut can dismiss this objection by pointing to the fact that the Russians, after all, did not follow the Khazar example—the implication being that it was predestined that they should not. For the rest of us, it was a near miss, emphasizing the element of contingency in history. Dr. Baer would not deny this element in human history as a whole, but he would also say that contingency has no place in the history of the Jews, which is “raised . . . above all causal laws, and the power politics of the others”; what is raised above causality must also be raised above contingency.

And so the argument can continue to run, indefinitely. It cannot be conclusive either on general or on particular grounds. We cannot convince Dr. Baer, and he cannot convince us. There is much grave emotion, much admirable piety toward ancestral ideals, in Galut. But we shall continue to insist that the alternative vision—that of a common humanity—gives equal shelter to unique tradition, and that indeed it can base itself on better Jewish doctrine.



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