Commentary Magazine

Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, edited by Leo W. Schwarz

First-Rate History
Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People
Edited by Leo W. Schwarz
Random House. 514 pp. $5.00.


This is the best one-volume social and cultural Jewish history that I know, and Hadassah deserves our thanks for sponsoring it. The section on “The [mostly medieval and Christian] European Age,” by Dr. Cecil Roth of Oxford, is weak, but the rest is first-rate: “The Biblical Age,” by Professor Ezekiel Kaufmann of Jerusalem; “The Hellenistic Age,” by the late Professor Ralph Marcus of Chicago; “The Talmudic Age,” by Rabbi Gerson D. Cohen of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia; “The Judeo-Islamic Age,” by Professor Abraham S. Halkin of the Seminary and the City College of New York; and “The Modern Age,” by Professor Salo W. Baron of Columbia. Footnotes are missing, which is regrettable, but there are good “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the end.

The most interesting section—and the one singled out for comment in this review—is the first, Kaufmann’s “Biblical Age.” It is the most interesting not because it is the best, the chapters by Cohen, Halkin, and Baron being its equals, but because it is by a Jew. About post-Biblical Judaism we take it for granted that the authoritative scholars will be Jewish. In Biblical scholarship, however, from the classical Higher Criticism of the 19th. century to the contemporary revisionist schools, Gentile scholars have had what amounts to a monopoly. Kaufmann is the only Jew to have produced a massive history of the religion of Israel, the traditional mark of greatness in modern Bible scholarship; many volumes of his Hebrew History have already appeared, and others are in the offing.

Perhaps it should not matter whether a treatise on Biblical history is by a Gentile or by a Jewish scholar, but it does. Though Solomon Schechter was not altogether fair when he dismissed the Higher Criticism as the Higher Anti-Semitism, there does seem to have been an uncomfortable grain of truth in his sarcasm. Kaufmann’s work can partly be understood as a Jewish reaction to that sort of thing, a kind of Higher Philo-Semitism. The effect of much of the revisionist scholarship has been to overthrow or to soften the doctrines that so annoyed Schechter, but we may surmise that for Kaufmann even the revisionists have not sufficiently rehabilitated the reputation of ancient Israel.

Kaufmann would restore to the people of Israel not only the merit that many modem scholars deny them—as when they assert that the prophets were a monotheistic minority in a more or less pagan mass—but even the merit that the plain text of the Bible itself denies them. For instance, this is how he interprets Israelite idolatry: “It is true that the Bible charges pre-Exilic Israel with the sin of idolatry .. . Nor can this oft-repeated charge be denied . . . But the nature of this idolatry must be properly assessed . . . genuine mythological-magical polytheism was nonexistent in Israel. Its idolatry was—as is charged by the Bible—the product of foreign influences. It was something external and peripheral, the superstitious worship of imported figurines . . . always fetishistic . . . When the Bible attributes Israel’s calamities to persistent national idolatry, it is only this vestigial idolatry that can be intended . . . the living, authentic polytheism of the pagans served always as the fountainhead of a rich, variegated creativity . . . while Israel’s fetishistic idolatry had no creative force. And this situation is reflected in the Bible, where idolatry exists only as a sin, a monstrosity—not as a source of creativity. The cultural growth of the nation is rooted solely in the religion of YHWH.”

In the Hebrew journal Bitzaron a few years ago, Kaufmann gave a similar interpretation of the famous altercation in the 44th chapter of Jeremiah between the prophet and the Israelite émigrés emigres in Egypt: “Then . . . all the women that stood by . . . even all the people that dwelt in the land of Egypt . . . answered Jeremiah, saying: ‘As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee. But we will certainly . . . offer unto the Queen of Heaven, and . . . pour out drink-offerings unto her, as we have done, we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then had we plenty of food, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we let off to offer to the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink-offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.’” Kaufmann sees this as a dispute between a reformer zealous to purify the cult and a populace attached to the good old ways, not as a dispute over monotheism. All those offerings and libations to the Queen of Heaven were merely part of the old, popular worship of the one Lord.

What Kaufmann reproves in the Gentile scholars is their reading of the “Old Testament” through the lenses of Christian theology or modes of thought. But he stands in a tradition too. His tradition is Jewish: ahavath Yisrael, love of Israel. Levi Isaac of Berditchev, appalled when he saw a wagoner apply grease to an axle while in tallith and tefillin and muttering the morning prayers, lifted his eyes and called out immediately, to forestall the Accuser: “Lord of the world, who is like Thy people Israeli? Even while they grease their axles they recite Thy praises!” (Even while they pour out libations to the Queen of Heaven, they are worshipping the Lord.) And I remember my grandfather interpreting harsh verses in a way, not entirely playful and certainly not original with him, that had a certain resemblance to Kaufmann’s. He would sometimes read the indictment of the Israelites in the first chapter of Isaiah interrogatively, making of an exclamatory denunciation a rhetorical question implying a negative answer.

Kaufmann’s ahavath Yisrael is an amiable weakness, at most, and he remains a most impressive scholar. Still, was he the best choice for this booki1 Perhaps a less radical revisionist would have been more suitable for readers unfamiliar with the differences among the experts. But then, perhaps Kaufmann’s bent is not a bad thing in a volume intended for adult Jewish education.



Because this book is intended for adult education, the authors were asked to show the bearing of the ideas and events with which they deal on Jewish life today. Conversely, the concerns of Jewish life today partly determine what is discussed of the past. The attempt, therefore, was to combine sound scholarship, relatively popular presentation, and the pointing of morals. All this, no doubt, is impure history, a sitting duck for the criticism of any first-year graduate student; but the history of history is that it is always being pulled back to its origin as philosophy by example.

For well over a hundred years now, Jewish history has been the preferred subject for adult Jewish education in emancipated communities. If, as a wit once said, the Jewish people was healthy until its rabbis became doctors, it also was learned and pious until it began to study Jewish history. Nobody was at fault. The rabbis’ becoming doctors did not cause but was caused by the Jewish people’s losing its health, and the study of Jewish history did not cause but was caused by the loss of the old learning and piety.

There are several reasons for the popularity of Jewish history in adult curricula. The first is that Jewish emancipation and enlightenment got their characteristic stamp in 19th-century Germany, the birthplace of modern historiography and historicism. The great German Jewish scholars were historians, and though some of them had reservations about popularizing Jewish history, the demand and the need could not be resisted. If we were asked to think of a Jewish historian, we would probably think first of Graetz, and he was a popularizer as well as a scholar.

Most of the other reasons for the popularity of Jewish history have to do with the contemporary Jew’s equivocal relation to his forebears and their tradition. They could afford to ignore history, as Jews had ignored it since before the canonization of the Bible, because they knew the sacred past, awaited a redeeming future, and tried to bear and do God’s will in the present. The modern Jew, who cannot be as they were and do as they did, contents himself with stories about them. It is easier to read history than to study the Talmud, or even the Pentateuch with Rashi. The Jew of the past did good deeds and thought holy thoughts; the good deeds of the Jew in America today are the UJA and Federation, and his holy thoughts are his courses in Jewish history.

The curious result is a change from worship of the Lord who chose Israel, despite their unworthiness, and whose revelation to them we read in the Torah, to a worship of the ancestors, the people of Israel, who had the genius to originate the lofty idea of monotheism and to compose so great a literary work as the Bible, and whose creativity, in everchanging form, never ceased in all the ages that followed. Like physical theory, historical inquiry banishes God, who explains too much too easily; and the axiom of historicism is that thought and belief are historically determined. That his ancestors so feared and loved God that they endured exile and death for His Name’s sake teaches the modern Jew to honor them, not to believe in Him. The Bible can talk of the idolatry of the Israelites, because for the Bible the object of reverence is God. If Kaufmann insists on the essential monotheism of the Israelites, is that because for him, as for many others, the object of reverence has become the people of Israel?


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