Commentary Magazine

The Meaning of Jewish History, by Jacob Bernard Agus

Dialectical Judaism1

by David Daiches

The hebrew patriarchs discovered the one true God by their own disinterested virtue and thus founded a rudimentary Jewish religion; Moses, in leading the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, led them to the Sinaitic revelation (the central fact in Jewish history) and the association of monotheism with ethical norms and a precise legal and ritual code; the Hebrew Prophets emphasized the ethical and universalistic aspects of that code and in so doing revealed the true potential of the Jewish religion; the breakdown of the Jewish state, the return from Babylon, and the subsequent codification of Jewish records by Ezra were further stages in the emergence of Judaism as a religion in the modern definition of the word; the fight of the Maccabees against Hellenistic assimilation was a glorious moment in Jewish history and presented a worthy model for later Jewish nationalist and Zionist movements; the destruction of the Temple and the final ending of the Jewish state made it necessary for the Jewish people to preserve themselves in dispersion among the nations with the invaluable help of the elaborate codification and expansion of Biblical law found in the Talmud; Christianity, originally a Jewish heresy, in maintaining the absurd belief in the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity, was inevitably led to malign and persecute the good, pious, scholarly Jews of the Middle Ages; with the 18th-century Enlightenment came release of the Jews from the ghetto and from many of the medieval restrictions and torments, which was a Good Thing and resulted in modern Jews being able to lead full lives as equal and respected members of the Gentile society in which they found themselves, while at the same time keeping themselves separate and different by practicing all the rituals laid down for Jews and associating with Gentiles in only a limited degree; nevertheless, anti-Semitism is endemic in the Christian world and may always crop up again, so that we need Zionism as a protection, and we praise Theodor Herzl for having demonstrated that if Jews can settle as a nation in their ancient homeland they will then be respected like all other nations; at the same time a great new revival of the Jewish spirit will go forth out of Zion which will give new strength and religious illumination to those Jews who will (inevitably) remain in an increasingly enlighted Diaspora.

That was the version of Jewish history that I learned as a child, pretty much the standard version prevailing among moderately Orthodox Jews of the West in the early years of this century. Was it religious history or national history or a mixture of both? It is hard to say; but it was certainly a self-flattering history. The Jew was always either the glorious religious pioneer, the eternal protestant against idolatry, superstition, and bad theology, or the innocent victim of savage persecution. If a child is taught Jewish history as a means of promoting his Jewish consciousness and loyalty, then that history must be self-flattering—no more so, perhaps, than the American history learned by the American school-child. Americans, too, are a People of the Book (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), and being also a nation of immigrants, have geared their elementary education to the fashioning of loyalty and a sense of belonging. Still, the self-flattering quality of the kind of Jewish history I am describing was much more urgent and catered to a much deeper need. To admit that Jewish history was not wholly glorious was to play into the hands of the anti-Semites. One was exhorted at one's Bar Mitzvah to “be a good Jew,” and one looked to Jewish history to learn what that implied.


Rabbi Agus, in his learned and thoughtful study, attempts to undermine this kind of simpliste historiography. His book is both refreshing and disturbing. It is refreshing because it faces all issues with a manful objectivity and with a historical dialectic sophisticated enough to take account of conflicting and even radically contradictory elements in Jewish history and Jewish thought. It is disturbing because the conclusions he arrives at, and which peep out intermittently throughout the two volumes, are either question-begging or else contradict much of the evidence he himself has brilliantly laid out. “Our concept of religion,” he tells us at the outset, “is devoid of fixed dogmas. Religion is to us an ongoing quest, not a finished possession.” This is a very enlightened, liberal, appealing position. But if it means (as it surely does) that religion is a constant groping, an always tentative understanding of ultimate ethical and spiritual reality, then I can only say that surely that is just what religion, as distinct from philosophy, is not. A distinguished Anglo-Jewish scholar has recently defined a Jew as one who believes that something (whatever exactly it was) of central ethical significance happened on Mt. Sinai. Whatever we believe about the place of the Torah in Jewish history and Jewish life, surely it was the concept of Torah which made Jewish religion what it was, and the Torah is anything but “an ongoing quest.” “God will not alter nor change His Law to everlasting for any other,” says the ninth verse of the central Jewish hymn Yigdal, paraphrasing Maimonides, who himself put the matter even more uncompromisingly (“the whole Law, now in our possession, is the same that was given to Moses our teacher”). If Rabbi Agus—we feel, as we read his first chapter—is going to interpret the Jewish religion (which is so much a part of Jewish history) in such high-minded modern terms, surely it will fare very badly indeed?

Well, sometimes it does; but Rabbi Agus saves himself from the consequences of his definition by admitting a polarity within the Jewish religious tradition and tracing the varying movements between the poles. To put it crudely, the polarity is between the self-glorifying, ethnic, “chosen-people” aspect of Judaism, and the more “objective,” humanist, and universalist aspects.

When the loyalty of religion is reinforced by ethnic bonds, we may expect redoubled tension between objective idealism and subjective self-glorification in both domains of the human spirit. The idealistic phases of nationalism are likely to be unfolded and illuminated, since religion focuses attention on the individual and on objective human ideals. On the other hand, the saintly aura of religion might bathe the raw impulses of nationalism in a mysterious glow and raise them beyond the reach of rational criticism. Similarly, the bonds of ethnic loyalty are likely to furnish a powerful cementing force to the ritualistic phases of religion, since ethnicism is essentially romantic, subjective, and conservative.

(Rabbi Agus, incidentally, consistently uses “romantic” in a pejorative sense, and attributes 19th-century anti-Semitism to a “Romantic reaction against the new liberal society,” forgetting that there was also in the 19th century a romantic pro-Semitism, as in Daniel Deronda.) Agus goes through Jewish history remarking when the tensions were fruitfully operative between “the vision of a national ideal and the fantasies of ethnic egotism, between the self-surrender of genuine faith and the self-sanctification of its shadowy counterpart,” when the idealistic element predominated and when ritualism, ethnicism, and obscurantism took over. Explaining the factors which brought one or other or both sides into operation, Rabbi Agus can give marks, as it were, to each period, and at the same time explain how that period came to acquire its special characteristics.

The result is the reversal of many received opinions. The very ardor of early Jewish monotheism led the Jews, culpably, to refuse “to see aught but primitive fetishism in the pagan cults,” and this is one root of anti-Semitism. The concept of a Divine Covenant between God and Israel could lead to a valuable sense of ethical mission or could (and often did) imply a morally disastrous view of “the biological character of the Jewish people as Divine.” Ezra's quest for racial “purity” was “tragic” and represented a sad lapse to the pole of crude ethnic pride. The traditional conflict between Hebraism and Hellenism has been grossly exaggerated: “the inner correspondences of philosophy and prophecy are generally overlooked.” The tensions between Hellenism and Judaism should have been kept in fruitful counterpoint: the Hasmonean total rejection of Hellenism was wrong (even though it produced the noble idea of martyrdom), and the Hellenistic Judaism of Alexandria (“reestablishing the balance between faith and reason”) was right. (Indeed, Rabbi Agus seems to see Hellenistic Judaism as something very similar to Reform Judaism in modern America.) Jewish nationalism in the Roman era was a bad thing, “undermining the leadership of the aristocratic, ‘pro-peace’ parties and stimulating the revolutionary elements.” Throughout, Rabbi Agus tends to see a class basis in the difference between ritualism and ethnic pride on the one hand (favored by “the masses”) and more exalted and universal ethical and spiritual ideas (developed by isolated leaders) .


But all this is to oversimplify a cogently argued historical argument and so to do an injustice to the stimulating and provocative quality of Rabbi Agus's book. It is impossible to go through all of his points, and I must skip a great deal to comment on his treatment of more recent Jewish history. He sees the rise of Zionism not only as a response to anti-Semitism but as itself anti-Semitic in that it used the arguments of anti-Semites about the Jews being perpetual and inevitable aliens in Western nations—so that Zionism in fact worsened the lot of all Jews in the Galut and was partly responsible for Nazism. He quotes Jacob Klatzkin: “If we do not admit the rightfulness of anti-Semitism, we deny the rightfulness of our own nationalism. If our people is deserving and willing to live its own national life, then it is an alien body thrust into the nations among whom it lives.” Political Zionism and Jewish cultural nationalism are both seen as belonging to the (bad) ethnic pole. In a revealing sentence, Rabbi Agus welcomes the Reform-Conservative movement which “restored the spiritual equilibrium of the Jews in the West” and deplores the Jewish national-cultural renaissance which came out of “the reactionary and fanatical East” (i.e., Russia). Herzl's Zionism, he tells us, “could only obtain the allegiance of uprooted students from the vast reservoir of Russian Jewry, of stray disillusioned intellectuals and disenchanted liberals, retreating into the shadows of an imaginary dreamland.” This, I suggest, is simply untrue. My father, who was an Orthodox rabbi, trained at the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin and at Berlin and Leipzig Universities in both rabbinics and Western philosophy, and who believed in “Torah ve derech eretz,” was an ardent Herzlian Zionist and so were many of his generation of Western-trained Orthodox rabbis. In his desire to exalt a tolerant, non-ethnic, “humanist” (the word is his) concept of the Jewish religion, Rabbi Agus sometimes goes too far in describing all others forms of Jewish belief as belonging to the pole of crude ethnic self-glorification.

Rabbi Agus believes in the viability of the Galut and castigates those Zionists who do not. He also dislikes the secularism of the State of Israel. At the same time he pays warm tribute to the achievements of Israel and makes an eloquent plea for Israeli initiative in solving the Arab problem with imagination and generosity. But in the end modern Reform Judaism operating in a pluralistic Western state is his ideal view of Judaism's true destiny. But he does not say, however, what in his view Judaism is. “All surveys of opinion among Jewish youth indicate that the vast majority regard themselves as being Jewish by virtue of faith.” But what faith? If religion is a continual quest, if the Torah is not the God-given basis of Jewish thought and action, as Orthodoxy maintains or used to maintain, if a general humanist spirituality is what Galut Judaism ought to stand for, how does it differ from, say, Unitarianism or the faith of any spiritually minded, questing, uncommitted theist? Or need we indeed restrict the definition to a theist, since Rabbi Agus affirmed in chapter two that “we can see things only from the human point of view. Poets and mythologists may write from the standpoint of God . . . But they are useless to the sober task of exposition.” Is the ideal Galut Judaism, then, simply an open and humane state of mind? I should like to believe this, because I should like to think that that is my own state of mind. But is this the meaning of Jewish history? And must we keep ourselves apart for this? I wish Rabbi Agus, in his thoroughly stimulating book, had added a final chapter to spell out more clearly his answers to these questions.


1 A review of The Meaning of Jewish History by Jacob Bernard Agus, Abelard-Schuman, 2 volumes, 509 pp., $10.00.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.