Commentary Magazine

The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion, edited by Louis Finkelstein

Fruits of Scholarship
The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion.
Edited by Louis Finkelstein.
New York, Harper. 2 Volumes. xxiii-1431 pp. $12.00.


In his prefatory letter to the Honorary President of the American Jewish Committee, which provided funds for these volumes, Dr. Finkelstein describes the contents and character of The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion: “This book is the first comprehensive description of Judaism and the Jews. While avoiding the anatomical structure and purely alphabetical organization of an encyclopedia, it is designed as a readable and unified sketch of a singular human phenomenon. The principal relevant facts concerning the people of Israel and its faith are summarized in a succession of essays, which form an ordered whole and afford penetrating glimpses into particular aspects of the subject. This book includes the first compact history of the Jews written by scholars specializing in the several fields; an appreciation of the rule of Judaism in world culture, seen from a wide variety of disciplines and skills; an initial effort toward a demography of the Jews in America; and a brief outline of the Jewish religion.” This is a fair statement (though it sweepingly and surprisingly disregards the two volumes of the Central Yiddish Culture Organization’s The Jewish People: Past and Present that have appeared in recent years); and indeed the substance of the work goes some way toward meeting the promise with which it is introduced. Certainly, this work makes available to the general reader, often for the first time, the fruits of Jewish scholarship in many specialized fields.

The text consists of thirty-five chapters, distributed among the four divisions Dr. Finkelstein lists. In the historical category, three chapters are outstanding in excellence. These are “The Biblical Period,” by W. F. Albright (who seems to be the only Christian contributor); “The Historical Foundations of Postbiblical Judaism,” by E. J. Bickerman; and “The Period of the Talmud,” by Judah Goldin. Professor Albright’s work is well known not only to scholars but also to the lay public; his chapter here is as good as anything he has ever written. Dr. Bickerman’s treatment of the difficult period from 400 to 150 BCE combines erudition and thoughtfulness in a manner that must move every reader to respectful admiration; it is even better than his book, The Maccabees—more solid, more complex, and more subtle. In Professor Goldin’s chapter on the twelve centuries of the Talmudic period it is hard to single out which is the more impressive, the feat of condensation or the lucid exposition of exceptionally intractable and resistant matter.

As the history comes closer in time and space, the quality lessens. Cecil Roth’s two chapters, “The European Age in Jewish History (to 1648)” and “The Jews of Western Europe (from 1648)” are still very good, and he could not have made much better use of the thirty-five pages he was allowed for each. But the presence of Arieh Tartakower’s “The Problem of European Jewry (1939-1945)” is bewildering; it is dated, representing the stocktaking and speculation that were common at the end of the war, and to retain it in a book published in 1950 was a mistake. With “The American Jewish Chronicle,” by Anita Libman Lebeson, we touch bottom in the historical section. It is arch, breathless, and trite, unworthy of appearing in a book that starts with Albright, Bickerman, and Goldin. Moshe Davis’s “Jewish Religious Life and Institutions in America,” however, is meritorious, with a base in solid scholarship and original research; but it has marked bias for right-wing Conservative Judaism, and better editing would have suggested a redistribution of emphasis among the parts and the clarification of a number of statements that are only allusive as they stand now.



The catch-all section on the role of Judaism in civilization, including twenty-nine chapters and covering almost seven hundred pages, is the longest. It could readily be subdivided into three further categories: Jewish cultural achievements; the contributions of Judaism and of Jewry in given historical situations (in contrast to individual persons who by coincidence were Jews) to general culture; and Jewish communal affairs. Under Jewish culture we may list Robert Gordis’s “The Bible as a Cultural Monument”; Shalom Spiegel’s “On Medieval Hebrew Poetry”; Hillel Bavli’s “The Modern Renaissance of Hebrew Literature”; Abraham J. Heschel’s “The Mystical ¦ Element in Judaism”; Ralph Marcus’s “Hellenistic Jewish Literature”; Abraham S. Halkin’s “Judeo-Arabic Literature”; Walter J. Fischel’s “Israel in Iran”; Yudel Mark’s “Yiddish Literature”; and Rachel Wischnitzer’s “Judaism and Art.” The chapters on the Jewish influence on world culture would include “The Influence of Jewish Law on the Development of the Common Law,” by Jacob J. Rabinowitz; “Judaism and World Philosophy,” by Alexander Altmann; “The Contribution of Judaism to World Ethics,” by Mordecai M. Kaplan; “The Jewish Contribution to Music,” by Eric Werner; “The Contributions of the Jews to Medicine,” by Arturo Castiglioni; “Science and Judaism,” by Charles Singer; “Judaism and the Democratic Ideal,” by Milton R. Konvitz; “The Influence of the Bible on English Literature,” by David Daiches; and “The Influence of the Bible on European Literature,” by Frederick Lehner. Jewish communal matters would include Israel S. Chipkin’s “Judaism and Social Welfare,” Julius B. Mailer’s “The Role of Education in Jewish History,” and Simon Greenberg’s “Jewish Educational Institutions.”

The best chapters dealing with Jewish culture as such are those on Hellenistic Jewish literature, Judeo-Arabic literature, and art. The piece on the Bible as a cultural monument is diffuse, and reads at times almost like a testimonial statement. In comparison with Gershom Scholem’s article on mysticism in The Jewish People: Past and Present, the corresponding chapter in the present work is disappointing. The account of Iranian Jewish literature deals with a subject so special and so removed from the main currents of Jewish life and thought that we must attribute its presence to the accident of the author’s availability, not to its intrinsic importance. The brief history of Yiddish literature is better for the early than for the modern period, and the discussions of medieval Hebrew poetry and modern Hebrew literature are too uncritical.

Most experienced readers tend to shy away from proofs of “the Jewish contribution to civilization,” having come to expect a kind of naive vulgarity that typically seeks either to find the chapter and verse of an ancient Jewish source that may be the direct origin of a clause in the Declaration of Independence, or to establish that the grandmother of somebody important was Jewish. To write well about Jewish contributions is unusual because it is difficult, and it is difficult because a proper notion of contributions requires of the writer learning, honesty, and sensitivity in an exceptional measure. The high average level of all the chapters in the section on Jewish contributions is therefore particularly to be praised. The best are Jacob Rabinowitz on the common law, Alexander Altmann on philosophy, Eric Werner on music, Arturo Castiglioni on medicine, Charles Singer on science, and David Daiches on the Bible and English literature.

Of the three chapters on communal matters, only Simon Greenberg’s “Jewish Educational Institutions” is fair. “The Role of Jewish Education in History” is an extreme example of the solemn foolishness that unkind critics attribute to professors of education.

The third section, on the sociology and demography of the Jews, includes the following chapters: “Who Are the Jews?” by Melville J. Herskovits; “Sources of Jewish Statistics,” by U. Z. Engelman; “Jewish Migrations, 18401946,” by Jacob Lestchinsky; “The Economic Structure of Modern Jewry,” by Nathan Reich; and “The [American] Jewish Community,” by Samuel C. Kohs. All five authors have done a solid, workman-like job. The final section, on the Jewish religion, consists of one chapter—Dr. Finkelstein’s “The Jewish Religion: Its Beliefs and Practices,” a revised version of something he wrote previously. It has an engaging simplicity, warmth, and high-mindedness.



In his introduction, Dr. Finkelstein expresses the hope that a second edition will include chapters on major subjects that the exigencies of time and the disordered state of the world caused to be missing from the first. These are a history of the Jews in Moslem lands, the cultural life of the Jews in Eastern Europe in recent centuries, the Jewish influence on mathematics and astronomy, the cultural life of the Jews in the Middle Ages, Ladino literature, and the development of the Palestinian Jewish community into the State of Israel. The absence of a history of East European Jewry (political, economic, and communal, as well as cultural) and of Zionism from the edition before us is especially striking.

It would be desirable for the second edition to show other improvements as well. The editors should watch the proofreading, introduce greater consistency in the technical apparatuses of the various chapters, help some of the contributors with their style and presentation, and completely rework or discard the few painfully inferior chapters and those that are already outdated. They might consider, too, the inclusion of an article on the relations between Jewish law and Greek and Roman law.

A book with these additions and modifications will be even more effective in accomplishing the purpose of the editor and the sponsors—“to dispel widespread misinformation, and to provide authentic information.”



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