Scholars Convene in Jerusalem
Last summer a World Congress of Jewish Studies was held at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the third since 1947. About 14 sections, covering Archeology to Yiddish Language and Literature, met simultaneously, more than 150 papers were read, and the attendance sometimes went as high as 2,000. The patron of the Congress was the President of Israel, and a large audience at the opening festive session heard the only two prime ministers Israel has ever had deliver speeches they had obviously written themselves. Besides the Israelis, lecturers and visitors came from all over Western Europe, the United States and Canada, South Africa, and one or two Latin American countries. Scholars from several countries behind the Iron Curtain had been expected, but the only one actually allowed out was a Christian from East Germany, a specialist in the Dead Sea literature. Among the many other Christians present were a large number of Catholic priests, mostly from Belgium, Italy, and especially Spain.
The Congress was an unqualified success despite the absence of some first-magnitude stars like Saul Lieberman, Salo W. Baron, Edwin R. Goodenough (who was to read a paper), Harry A. Wolf son, Leo Strauss, Ezekiel Kaufmann, Gershom Scholem, and Martin Buber (the last two being members of the organizing committee). The average level of presentation and discussion was high. Besides, people from all over the world had a chance to meet and assay each other. Friendships were formed and invitations given and accepted. When any scholarly conference does this, it has done well.
I was there to learn what I could about the present state and direction of Jewish studies and, more particularly, about the effects of Israeli circumstances and outlooks on the practice of Jewish scholarship in Israel. As to state and direction, no generalization is possible. Mostly, the methods and approaches that have always characterized modern Jewish scholarship are still in use, and rarely was there evidence of a sensibility or an angle of vision that could only be contemporary. Perhaps the feeling one got of the Jewishness of early Christianity, from both Jewish and Christian scholars, might be considered as new; but the newness would then be less in the idea itself than in its being more widely shared and perhaps more deeply felt, on both sides, than ever before.
The importance of Spain in Bible scholarship was strikingly new. Modern Bible scholarship has been largely German, Scandinavian, Dutch, Anglo-American, and to some extent French. It is easy to explain the eminence of those nations in this branch of learning—the Calvinist and Lutheran traditions of a learned clergy; scholarly interest in Near Eastern culture and civilization, whether ancient or modern, arising out of imperial conquest; a strong academic tradition in linguistics and the classics; application of saga and folklore research to the ancient Near East. Spanish circumstances have not encouraged scholarship of that kind. Yet a handful of Spaniards have been doing much work toward publishing an edition of the Hebrew Bible which—together with the forthcoming Hebrew University Bible, decided on at the second Congress, in 1957—will soon challenge the long monopoly of the German Kittel-Kahle Biblia Hebraica. For some reason, perhaps related to Franco’s concern with the southern and eastern Mediterranean, the Spanish government decided fifteen or twenty years ago to encourage Arabic and, by extension, Hebrew scholarship. A few scholars, mostly priests, set themselves to master the new subject matter of Hebrew, and they now rank among the outstanding students of the Bible text in the world.
As to how Israelis cultivate Jewish scholarship, I brought with me some information about what they have been doing and some expectations about life in Israel. I thought I understood that life, understood the attitudes it gave rise to, and understood the effect of those attitudes. What I saw and heard led me to change my mind, slightly on some points and considerably on others. I had arrived as a friend with certain apprehensions about parochialism and Israelism. I left less apprehensive.
The Israelis themselves keep worrying about parochialism. One reason for their having an international Congress in Jerusalem was to relieve that worry, which arises from their smallness and their being hemmed in by hostile neighbors. In the same summer they were hosts to city managers and plastic surgeons from everywhere. They joke about their passion for international conferences.
They are right to be worried, because parochialism is a danger. I had supposed that it was something more as well, an actuality, but I think I was wrong. Last year was the 2,500th anniversary of what has been called Gyrus the Great’s Balfour Declaration, which authorized the Judean exiles in Babylonia to return to Palestine. Not only to celebrate the anniversary, but also to assert Israel’s contemporary friendships in Asia and the non-Western world generally, the committee in charge invited an Iranian authority on Old Persian to open the first plenary session with a paper on Zoroastrian messianism. (He droned it in French.) Obviously, this was as much a gesture by the government as a decision by the scholars, but whatever their motives, the Israelis were consciously doing what they could to ward off parochialism.
Then there was the very nature of the Congress itself—its inclusive definition of Jewish studies and the participation in it of a large number of Christians. The agenda of the Congress was what a composite agenda of four American societies might be like: the American Academy for Jewish Research, cultivating the Wissenschaft des Judentums as it has been understood for a century and a half, with a textual and philological emphasis and a preference for rabbinics, history of philosophy, and the Arabic age in Jewish history; YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, emphasizing Yiddish language and literature and East European Jewish folklore, economics, and politics; the Conference on Jewish Social Studies, for modern and contemporary history and sociology; and the American Society for Biblical Literature and Exegesis, with a predominantly Christian membership. In the United States, Bible and archeology appear infrequently on the programs of the Jewish scholarly societies. At the Congress in Jerusalem too, if the sections on Bible, archeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, and the ancient Near East had been excluded, there would have been few Christian lecturers or auditors; but in Israel it would have been absurd to exclude those subjects. In the United States what we call Jewish studies has a relation to Bible and archeology something like the relation of Jewish education to general education: it is supplementary. In Israel, a Congress of Jewish Studies could attract men like André Dupont-Sommer of the Sorbonne.
In fact, the Congress was not only less parochial, in this sense, than a Jewish scholarly society in the United States, it was also less parochial than the average learned society of any kind in the United States. At the sessions I sampled, the papers and discussion were in Hebrew, English, French, and German. In contrast, American scholarship is almost completely dependent on English. Durkheim and Weber are translated from French and German as much for our professors as for our undergraduates, and in an American social-science journal a footnote reference to a work in a foreign language is rare. We take this so much for granted that we do not see how scandalous it is, how offensive to the ideal of an international republic of learning. By the linguistic standard—though of course it would be wrong to judge by that alone—American scholarship is more parochial than Swedish, or Dutch, or Israeli, or even Spanish scholarship. At the sessions I attended there were papers by two Spanish scholars: one, by a layman, was in German and the other, by a priest, was in French.
The Congress took place during a lull in the Eichmann trial and shortly after a crowd in Jerusalem had shown its displeasure with an American fundamentalist missionary’s use of candy and other spiritual inducements of that sort to entice children from poor and devout families into his mission. In the American press there had been some talk of powerful anti-Gentile sentiments in Israel. I saw nothing of the kind. The Israelis who made up the Congress’s audience were hardly a representative cross-section of the population, but I think it meant something that even the obviously Orthodox seemed to be hospitable, rather than merely correct, to the Christian clergymen among the visitors.
More generally, if parochialism implies sameness, Israeli society is as far from parochial as can be. Everywhere there was a great variety of human types. One morning I saw an old Jew from an Arab country on a donkey in a busy Jerusalem street, and an hour later I was speaking at the University with two men, a poet in his forties and a former revolutionist about sixty, who between them had spent thirty-five years in Soviet slave-labor camps. Nor were the newspapers and radio parochial. They had a sensible coverage of domestic and foreign news, and in foreign news a sensible distribution between what was of special importance to Israel and what was more general.
Not many languages of comparable historical and cultural importance are spoken by so few people as Hebrew, but that has not made Israel parochial. The first and obvious fact is that most educated Israelis are more proficient in foreign languages than most educated Frenchmen or Americans, who are tempted to believe that their tongues are universal rather than national. In Jerusalem the university and private bookstores are more polyglot than in New York or Paris. The revival of Hebrew must be seen as a triumph of the human spirit and will, rather than as just another linguistic self-assertion by a small nation.
The priest who wrote his paper in French being ill, a Spanish monk stationed in Jerusalem read it for him, rather haltingly. After a few minutes, annoyed by a draft, he called out in rapid-fire Hebrew, “Will someone please shut that damned window!” (An American murmured to a colleague, “It’s frightening.”) Again, of the papers read in Hebrew one of the most impressive, for language as much as for content, was by Professor Schubert, a young Catholic scholar from Austria, on an aspect of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Hebrew was used less in the Bible, archeology, and related sections, with their many Christian participants and auditors, and in the section on contemporary Jewry, with many Jews from abroad, than in most others. Even the Israeli scholars in those sections tended to use English, out of courtesy to their guests. But the signs are unmistakable. Though Christian Hebraists have been the great lexicographers and grammarians of the Bible, only a few have been like Franz Delitzsch, who translated the New Testament into Hebrew, in mastering the whole range of the language. Now they will have to learn more than is found in the classical lexicons and grammars.
Impressed as I was by all this, I was not surprised. Lectures in Hebrew were an old story, and it is also an old story that for an elite even dead languages can be living. When Berlin classicists, honoring Gilbert Murray, praised him in Latin, he was so moved that he forgot himself and responded in Greek. To this day Latin is spoken in some Catholic seminaries, and in the first part of the 19th century it was still the language of the Hungarian parliament—though the Latinity was not Cicero’s.
What really shook me was to hear the chambermaids in my hotel chattering away in Hebrew. I told myself that I should not have been surprised, that I had known this was so, and that I was yielding to the sentimentality derided by the Israeli joke: “Jewish train engineers, for the first time in two thousand years!” But knowing-about and really knowing are not the same, and the chambermaids were gossiping in Hebrew for the first time in two thousand years. For the contemporaries of R. Judah the Prince it was something to wonder at that his maidservants spoke Hebrew, and spoke it so well. Aramaic had long been the vernacular.
A young colored man attending the section on Hebrew language and literature was a Christian Ethiopian studying at the University. Just as other students from Africa and Asia were learning how to apply Israeli irrigation or cooperative or trade-union methods to their countries, so he was learning from the example of Hebrew how to help his people make an old language say new things. It is the scholars and writers, amateur as well as professional, who have accomplished this. At the Congress my teacher Abraham S. Halkin lectured to a large audience on the attitude of medieval Jews toward Hebrew. In the Arab lands, especially Spain, they felt guilty about neglecting Hebrew, but wrote in Arabic. They thought that Hebrew could not express complex philosophical thought, while Arabic seemed to have been almost providentially appointed for that purpose. The thoughts Professor Halkin was expressing in Hebrew, like the thoughts of the historians, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists at the University itself, were not lacking in complexity, yet he, like the University teachers, found Hebrew thoroughly adequate. Only a few months before, the Tunisian students’ association had declared that French should continue to be their language of higher education because Arabic was not suited for it. The irony was almost too heavy—in the Middle Ages Jews thought Hebrew hopelessly clumsier than Arabic; today Hebrew meets the needs of a vigorous intellectual life, while Arabs regard Arabic as being out of place in a university.
I had feared that an excessive Israeli patriotism and feelings of superiority toward Jews and Jewish scholars in the Diaspora might be distorting the Jewish scholarship of Israel. Some years ago, for instance, an Israeli historian indulged his Palestinocentric bias so extravagantly as to date the beginning of modern Jewish history from a time in the 18th century when some Hasidic rabbis and their followers went up to Palestine. (The usual dating is from the French Revolution, with its transformation of European and Jewish society and thought. My own preference is for the mid-17th century, with the Peace of Westphalia’s secularization of politics, the victory of cash-nexus economics, the reversal of the Jews’ west-to-east migration in Europe after Chmielnicki, the settlement of Jews in New Amsterdam, and their resettlement in England. That was also when the mystical heretic and false messiah Shabbethai Zevi and the rationalist heretic Benedict Spinoza—Sephardim, and therefore with family memories of expulsion from Spain or expedient baptism—pointed the way to modernity for Jews. Shabbethai Zevi, as Gershom Scholem has shown, had some later followers active in the French Revolution and others in the creation of Reform Judaism; and Leo Strauss has shown that Spinoza, in the Tractatus theologico-politicus, was the first not only to advocate a secular society of ex-Christians and ex-Jews—Moses Mendelssohn’s ideal a hundred years later, according to his 19th-century biographer Steinheim—but also to assert the possibility of a secular Zionism.
Other instances of Palestinocentric distortion are less clear-cut. When a Palestinian Jewish historian of the Mandate period described Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai as a collaborator with the Romans not essentially different from Josephus, rather than as the hero who assured the continuity of Judaism after the Temple was destroyed, he could make a good scholarly argument for that proposition. Still, his ideology was showing. Micah Joseph Berditchevsky, whose Zionism was a kind of Nietzschean protest against Rabbinical and Diaspora Judaism as an unmanly, spiritualizing passivism, had said the same sort of thing. So had the poet Saul Tchernikhovsky. And so, in an important sense, had their ideological enemies, the Yiddishist Diaspora nationalists. All agreed that Western Jews, writing in Gentile languages, were afraid to tell the full truth or could not even see the truth, because they wore the blinkers of accommodationist ideologies and myths of Jewish nobility, if only in the form of noble suffering.
This could not be dismissed so easily as dating modern Jewish history from the ‘aliyah of some Hasidim. After all, it was Leopold Zunz, the founder of modern Jewish studies about one hundred and fifty years ago, who had said: “If there are ranks in suffering, Israel takes precedence of all the nations; if the duration of sorrows and the patience with which they are borne ennoble, the Jews can challenge the aristocracy of every land,” etc.; and the requirements of emancipation had always been present to his mind. So the Israelis, and the Zionists, and the autonomists had a point.
But might they not be making too much of a good thing? It was a Diaspora historian in the great tradition of Zunz, Salo Baron, who vigorously repudiated the “lachrymose interpretation” of Jewish history, showing its roots in a religious ideology and the needs of communal discipline and control. At the Congress I was amused that it was a French Jew, not an Israeli, who in an aside accomplished a neat bit of Baronian debunking. In medieval Latin documents relating to Jews, the abbreviation dus sometimes appears before the name. Dus can represent either dominus (Master or Sir) or dictus (the aforesaid or aforementioned). Scholars used to assume that for a Jew the abbreviation must have the second meaning, because if a Jew was a sufferer by definition, how could Christians give him a title of respect? Dr. Blumenkranz showed that whatever we may have supposed, the dus before a Jew’s name is often read dominus.
I was relieved to see that the Israelis were not overdoing it, but instead were using some of the real advantages of their experience for understanding the past more perspicuously. After the Iranian had read his paper on Zoroastrian messianism, two Israelis lectured, Dr. Tadmor on the political background of Cyrus’s edict to the Jews and Professor Urbach on the Rabbis’ attitudes to him. Dr. Tadmor observed that Cyrus, a foreign monarch, was encouraged by the priesthood of Marduk to overthrow their own king, who had demoted their god from his primacy in the Babylonian pantheon, and that the restoration of the Jews was a kind of incidental by-product of a general policy of restoring the cultic status quo ante throughout the empire. By being an Israeli, by having personally experienced the Balfour Declaration in our day and having learned how a great power can arrive at decisions fateful for Jews, this scholar was helped to understand the earlier Balfour Declaration in a new and convincing way.
Professor Urbach’s paper almost demonstratively refused to apply such labels as collaborationism to the Rabbis’ political philosophy and pointedly asserted that while attitudes toward the present can affect attitudes toward the past, sometimes it is the other way around. His problem was the Rabbis’ equivocal feelings about Cyrus, centuries before them. On the one hand, Cyrus was the Lord’s shepherd (Isaiah 44:28) and annointed (meshiho, His mashiah!—45:1), who brought the exile to an end; but on the other hand, he did not abolish idolatry or himself acknowledge the true God. When another would-be Cyrus appeared, Julian the Apostate (scil., from Christianity to paganism), the Rabbis’ coolness to the past Persian emperor made them ignore the contemporary Roman’s offer to restore the Temple destroyed by his predecessors. It was just as well. Julian died within the year.
As striking as the new Spanish eminence in the study of the Bible text is the Israeli lead in the study of Jewish mysticism. One can understand why that is a more respectable field of research now than it was in the last century, when nearly every Jewish scholar treated it with revulsion. The victory of the Jewish rationalists in their struggle with the obscurantist enemy; the Freudian revolution; the repeated demonstrations since, say, the Dreyfus case, that myth and nonrational belief affect the destinies of men and nations—all have had their effect. Even the classicists, who used to hold up the Greeks as a model of rationality, have long since had to come to terms with the Greeks and the Irrational. But why, in the Jewish field, should mysticism—including Hasidism—be so predominantly an Israeli subject of inquiry? Hasidism is treated extensively and sympathetically in Yiddish literature—Peretz, Bashevis Singer, etc.—while Hebrew writers like Bialik, though not strangers to it, tend to ignore it. (It may be that Yiddish writers had a linguistic and an ideologically plebeian fondness for a movement that expressed itself largely in Yiddish and was plebeian, while the more elitist Hebrew writers disliked it for those reasons. But even if this conjecture is sound, there must be other reasons as well.)
It is not enough to say that the Israeli domination in the study of Jewish mysticism is due to one man. To be sure, the great explorer and cartographer of this dark continent, Gershom Scholem, has been at the Hebrew University since the 1920’s, and the influence of an outstanding man is not to be underestimated. He could have done his work and probably raised up disciples anywhere. But Scholem himself implies that there is a relationship between his being a Zionist (and an Israeli) and his specialization. He has written that after beginning his university studies in mathematics and physics, he turned to Semitic languages, and then to Jewish mysticism. After publishing his first book, he met the ranking German authority, who was exceptional in bothering with mysticism at all—an old, alert rabbi, a 19th-century liberal and a disciple of the great Heinrich Graetz (who hated mysticism) . Impressed by that scholar’s manuscripts and rare books, Scholem congratulated him on being able to study such documents. To which the old man answered: “Was? Den Quatsch soll ich auch noch lesen?” (“You don’t really expect me to read that drivel, too?”) Then says Scholem, he understood much that he had not understood before. He is emphatic about “our readiness to know and acknowledge all the forces that have sustained the Jewish people as a living body in all the vicissitudes of its history”—presumably in contrast to the un-readiness of the German (French, etc.) citizens of the Mosaic persuasion, who had to deny, to themselves and others, that the disreputable Cabbala had been so powerful for so long.
There is in Israel, then, a willingness, or rather an eagerness, to recognize and make public Jewish realities that non-Israeli Jews are squeamish about. (For me some of the citations in Scholem’s recent Jewish Gnosticism . . . and Talmudic Tradition were strong meat, grossly anthropomorphic.) But beyond that, and beyond Scholem’s ability to attract and inspire, I think there is something about Israeli life which helps to explain why so many young people—not absolutely, perhaps, but at least relatively—specialize in his field. It may even explain why so many of his students, relatively, are women. (The equality of the sexes in Israel does not seem to have produced many women Talmudists or, as far as I could make out, Bible scholars.) In Israel Jewish mysticism, or more precisely messianism (or pseudo-messianism), is felt to be relevant. Scholem has demonstrated, for the Cabbala, its close link to the yearning for national redemption; and for pseudo-messianism, especially of the various wings of Shabbethai Zevi’s movement, the ambiguous relation of its antinomianism to normative Judaism and its capacity to be channeled from a kind of proto-Zionism into aspirations of a universally messianic character. For young Israeli intellectuals, whether Zionists or the heirs of Zionism, that complex of affirmations and negations, visions and discontents, is not merely something out there, in the past. If we set aside the theosophy of Shabbethai Zevi and his descendants, much remains of their doctrine which has a contemporary flavor—the attempt to affirm while transcending or actually negating traditional Judaism, the blending of Jewish and universal longings, activism in the pursuit of the impossible. Above all, Israelis know, by the lives they have lived, how an obsessive vision can overcome reality.
So much for the ideology of Jewish scholarship in Israel. As for its sociology, the Congress was proof that Israeli Jewish scholars stand in a uniquely favorable relation to their subject, to their public, and to their colleagues in other fields of learning. Ever since the beginning of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, its practitioners in Europe and America have been in a situation resembling the one that modern poets complain about: isolated, talking to each other, without a public, without a recognized and respected place in the community. (The annual Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research are distributed in a few hundred copies.) Those committed to Jewish learning of the old-fashioned kind have had little use for the new scholarship, suspecting it—often correctly—of heterodoxy. This leaves the emancipated as a potential public. But few emancipated Jews in Europe or America have the equipment or the interest to follow what the scholars are doing. Even emancipated former students of the old-fashioned yeshivot usually turn their backs on Jewish studies. If they are scholars or retain scholarly interests, their fields are the sciences, or the social sciences, or the general humanities. The loneliness of Zunz and Steinschneider in the 19th century was not much more intense than their successors’ in the 20th.
Instead of being likened to poets in the United States, the Israeli scholars may be likened to historians of the Civil War in the United States. They do not talk to themselves. They have a public and a standing. What they do and say is reported in the newspapers. The President and the Prime Minister take them seriously. President Ben Zvi, who had a reception for the guests of the Congress, has done important things in Jewish ethnology, and Prime Minister Ben Gurion is an eager consumer of Jewish scholarship. In his opening address to the Congress Mr. Ben Gurion urged the scholars to do more research into Jewish messianism and messianic ideals. Afterward I heard someone, not an Israeli, grumble about a would-be Zhdanov telling the scholars what they should do. The critic had it all wrong. If I were an Israeli scholar I would not resent the interest or even the advice. It is lack of interest that I would resent. English classical scholars must envy their predecessors, who lived when the classics counted and every other Mr. Bennet was trying his hand at translating Horace, the Government and Opposition benches capped each other’s quotations from the elegiac poets, and Gladstone wrote a fine book on the Homer question.
About the same time as the Congress, a yeshivah in Bene Beraq, an Orthodox stronghold near Tel Aviv, was conducting an annual week-long retreat—as we assimilated Jews in America would call it—for Talmud study. This too was covered in the press, which reported an attendance of several hundred workers, farmers, businessmen, men in the professions, and government officials. One interview I remember was with a lieutenant colonel in the army, who had fallen away somewhat from Orthodox practice but looked forward every year to that week in the yeshivah as a chance to refresh his mind and spirit. People like that can be an informed, enthusiastic public for Jewish scholarship, and despite all the secularization that has taken place, Israel is likely to continue producing them over the years. At the Congress I was impressed by the number of Israeli lecturers and auditors with heads covered, and by the easy relations between them and the bareheaded. There are many, who may be described as liberal Orthodox, who are very much at home in the Hebrew University, whether as historians, or physicists, or physicians. And for all the talk of a Kulturkampf between the Orthodox and the rest of the Israelis, no one is stared at because he wears a kippah on the street or at work. (A man who wears the skimpy, varicolored kippah one sees in Israel is likely to encounter unpleasantness only among the stand-pat Orthodox, who seem more offended by headgear that is not black and ample than by none at all.)
In the academic community itself, Israeli practitioners of Jewish scholarship are in the thick of things and not, as they would probably be somewhere else, off in a corner, having merely personal relations with scholars in other fields. In Israel the contact between those in Jewish scholarship and classicists, general historians, orientalists, sociologists, etc., is sustained and nourishing. Many of the learned are themselves part of the public for Jewish scholarship. In short, the difficulties of people pursuing Jewish scholarship in Israel are the difficulties of all scholars—income, jobs—rather than the disabilities of people in a specialty regarded as eccentric and irrelevant.
This does more than keep the Jewish scholars from being too actively unhappy. Knowledge that their public has fairly high standards offsets temptations to court celebrity by hasty popularization and by vulgar modernization of the past. They are also aware that they are, after all, men of here and now. That awareness, which comes harder to scholars when their field is remote from general interest, is a safeguard against unconscious bias. (To be free of bias altogether is not given to us.)
Still, the Israeli scholars would be better served if there were an informed non-Israeli public for them as well, if only to balance the Palestinocentrism of both scholars and public in Israel.
After the Congress was over, a two-day tour in Galilee was arranged for the visitors. As a handsome gesture of hospitality, two distinguished archeologists talked about their digs, each at the site for which he was responsible—Professor Mazar at Bet She’arim and Professor Yadin at Hazor.
At Bet She’arim, R. Judah the Prince’s seat, parts of a large necropolis had been uncovered, where members of the Jewish upper classes from Palestine and neighboring countries were buried in the early Christian centuries. Their coffins were stone sarcophagi, carved in what appeared to my inexpert eyes to be a somewhat clumsy, provincial Roman style. But what were Jews doing with stone sarcophagi—especially since the inscriptions commemorate not only archisynagogoi (presidents of congregations) but also rabbis? Perhaps naively retrojecting into the past the unadorned wooden coffin, with wooden pegs, of our more immediate ancestors, I had always thought that law-abiding Jews were buried in great simplicity. The Mishnah records that when the poor began to abandon their dead without burial, because of the crushing expense of a funeral a la mode, Rabban Gamaliel decreed the simple shroud for all. Apparently he did not decree the simple coffin. Or if he did—or if a simple coffin is to be inferred from the reason for a simple shroud—his contemporaries and the immediately following generations may have regarded the decree as a counsel of perfection rather than as unbreachable law. If, then, later generations took as obligatory what earlier generations had taken as pious advice, that would not be exceptional in Jewish history, which has consistently shown successors extending and legislating what was personal and supererogatory for their predecessors. That which the learned more or less contemporary with Gamaliel disregarded, even the masses of a later age observed with all meticulousness.
An epitaph at Bet She’arim commemorates a certain Julianus, employed in the Roman administration, who was Judah among Jews. The Greek-translation name of a relative of his, R. Nehemiah, was Paregorios (Comforter). Earlier, the Hellenizing Jews against whom the Maccabees made their revolution used to adopt Greek names that sounded something like the Hebrew, e. g., Jason for Joshua, and in the modern period this has been so common that many believe it to be a kind of religious custom, e. g., Arthur for Aaron. Similarly, in modern times Baruch is often translated as Benedict (the same initials helping) and Aryeh as Leon, while in the Middle Ages Shem Tov (Good Name) became the Greek Kalonymos. I should have known from the books and journals, but I had to be physically in Bet She’arim to realize that even in Palestine, and even when Rabbinical Judaism ruled almost unchallenged among the Jews, they were doing the same thing.
Much has been said about the archeological passion of the Israelis. It has been linked to their feeling, often expressed by Ben Gurion, of being closer to the Israelites of antiquity than to the Diaspora Jews of much more recent times. The archeology of Palestine, after all, is about Palestine. Yet Bet She’arim shows that Palestinian archeology has an ineradicably Jewish quality about it. The comedy of names is Jewish, and if contemporary Israelis are writing a new act—all those thumping, bisyllabic, pristinely Hebraic surnames, and all those long-unused biblical given names (“names from the haftarah,” the lection from the Prophets, as they are called in Yiddish)—the Israelis are not breaking with a Jewish habit, but merely adding another variant to it.
At Hazor, “the head of all those kingdoms” (Joshua 11: 10), Professor Yadin showed us two strata, a Canaanite city built a few centuries before Joshua and immediately above it the Israelite city built by King Ahab centuries later. It was not hard to follow the demonstration that Ahab’s city was less impressive than the Canaanite one on whose ruins it had stood. One of our party found it hard to accept that the Israelite city, though much later than the Canaanite, was yet inferior to it. He must have forgotten that the Bible takes for granted the inferiority of Israelite material culture; e. g., it is Phoenicians (Canaanites) who build Solomon’s Temple in I Kings. W. F. Albright’s Penguin Archaeology of Palestine, which no one at the Congress had the right not to have read, shows how much more advanced than the Israelites their Canaanite predecessors and contemporaries were, and says that only in the realm of the spirit did the Israelite excel. Or, as Zechariah puts it, “not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” Yadin, a former chief of staff of the Israeli army, is less given than Albright to saying things that can be regarded as homiletical, yet he too had to give Albright’s answer. The facts exclude any other. It is, again, a Jewish rather than a Palestinian set of facts.
Everything else about Israeli archeology seems to teach the same lesson. There is the brute reminder of conquest and domination in the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, and Arab-Turkish remains. There is the provincialness of the local imitations of metropolitan styles. There is, in contrast to the weight and size of all those foreign monuments, the smallness of, say, R. Isaac Luria’s (rebuilt) synagogue in Safed. It is small, but from it radiated the Lurianic Cabbala, which so profoundly affected not only Shabbethai Zevi, and not only Hasidism, but even that arch -mitnagged R. Elijah, Gaon of Vilna.
It was my first visit, and I had not expected Israel to be quite that Jewish. For a few months before the Congress I had been participating from time to time in an informal dialogue—or is the word now colloquy?—between some Israeli and some American Jews. One of the things the Americans would tell the Israelis was that from what we knew of Israel, it was not Jewish enough. We were thinking, I suppose, of a moral-emotional tradition associated with minoritiness, including a certain irony about power. We gave examples. We had heard that some young Israelis observe the Fast of the 9th of Av with parties, on the ground that the exile it was supposed to lament has come to an end in Israel, which is the opposite of exile. For the Americans, that was coarse, literal, and insensitive to the traditional Jewish distinction between the Jerusalem below and the Jerusalem above, as well as to the doctrine that all men, everywhere, are still in exile. (Luria taught a relation between Jewish exile and cosmic alienation. It was Shabbethai Zevi who turned fasts into feasts.) Or we had read that some Israelis actually call their children Nimrod, who in the Jewish tradition is the anti-Abraham, the symbol of all that is un Jewish.
Perhaps I changed my mind in Israel more than the facts themselves, in the absence of my expectations, would have warranted. But I do not think so. Mr. Ben Gurion, a contemner of the Diaspora’s past, scoffer at its present, and skeptic about its future, celebrates rootedness, normalization, sovereign independence; but he is also a visionary believer in the power of the spirit and in a prophetic, messianic future which will be simultaneously Jewish and universal. Indeed, he regards Israeli strength and normality as means, and Jewish spirituality as end.
One can say that Ben Gurion is an exception, or that he is old. Then one discovers that the younger men, especially among his opponents, seem to believe as he does. When the Lavon case erupted, a group of intellectuals within Mapai, his own party, came prominently to public attention, less as pro-Lavonists than as anti-practicalists—practicalism (bitsu’ism) being the hard-headed, somewhat statist, somewhat realpolitisch temperament and behavior of Ben Gurion and his younger followers. (See Ben Halpern’s article in the March Jewish Frontier.) These intellectuals, headed by Nathan Rotenstreich, have just published a collection called Min ha-yesod (“From the Ground Up”). There is an essay in it by Lavon, in which he asks what Israel’s uniqueness among the nations can be. It cannot be industry or technology—or even science, since modern scientific work has become such a collective thing, requiring huge budgets and teams of researchers. “If so,” he goes on, “how can Israel be a peculiar people [Deuteronomy]? How can it be a light to the nations [Isaiah]? Israel can be these things only in ways independent of budgets and physical dimensions, namely, in the realm of basic social values. We shall be able to be light to the nations only if we succeed in creating a society whose life, structure, and moral atmosphere are a model. We can be a light to the nations only in so far as we shall be able to build a country which is not a kind of imitation of other countries, but one that shapes an image and a mode of life that express, from a moral, social, and human point of view, a redeeming idea for all mankind.” Ben Gurion and his enemy speak the same language.
Whether or not this sort of thing is pretentious, whether or not Israel’s most useful course might be to strive for a normality uncomplicated by such visions, the most unexpected people in Israel cannot forget the old Jewish dream. The very archeology of their country, for one thing, will not let them.
It seemed to me that fewer Israelis were engaged in a flight from the Jewish tradition than I had thought and that Jewish scholarship, which is essential for the right understanding and development of the tradition, has found a good home in Israel.