Commentary Magazine

The Sacred Chain, by Norman F. Cantor

Deconstructing the Jews

The Sacred Chain: The History of the Jews.
by Norman F. Cantor.
HarperCollins. 472 pp. $35.00.

If there is a case for scholars sticking to their specialties, this book makes it well. Norman Cantor is a well-known medievalist who has written, I am told, some excellent studies in his field. Now he has branched out to write a general history of the Jews, and the results are a volume marked by error, arrogance, and a degree of disdain for his subject that makes his choosing of it seem a puzzle.

Or perhaps not—for The Sacred Chain is written under the cocky assumption that the author’s very distance from what he writes about renders him its first reliable commentator. Cantor makes no bones about the fact that he is out to debunk (or, as he more fashionably puts it, to “deconstruct”) his predecessors, and to present what he seems to think are a number of original theses. As it happens, however, nearly all of these have been advanced long before him—and by writers, from Apion in the 1st century to Arnold Toynbee in the 20th, not known for their friendliness toward the Jews.

These theses may be summarized as follows:

  1. The writing of Jewish history—whether in Europe, where it functioned as an apologetic weapon against anti-Semitism; in Israel, where it has been coopted by Zionism; or in the United States, where it has been endowed by “billionaire patriarchs” who fund Jewish-studies departments in universities—has until now been a sentimentally triumphalist “regurgitation of the serviceable mythology of the past” that rejects “realistic truth-telling.”
  2. The entire biblical account of the origin of the Jews is a “brilliant, elaborate romantic fantasy developed by the scribes and rabbis between 600 and 300” B.C.E., an invented “structure of hypostasized narrative culture that sufficed for nearly all Jewish historical speculation and time-sequential theorizing until the present day.”
  3. The history of the Jewish people in the post-biblical era is a story of missed opportunities—that is, of the repeated failure of rabbinic Judaism to respond positively, as did Christianity, to the challenge of becoming a universal faith with a relevant message for its times. Instead, Judaism remained a mere struggle for communal survival, characterized by “intellectual stagnation and increased hierarchic stratification” and failing to “break out of the cultural mode of talmudic times.”
  4. Far from being the victims of undeserved persecution, the Jews have always been at least partly responsible for the hatred and violence directed against them. This is because in different periods of their history, from ancient times down to the Holocaust, they have aroused the wrath of Gentiles with their “central doctrine of racism,” their “corrupting” of Christians to “betray Christ,” their “parasitical, petty-bourgeois life-style,” their “stinking, impoverished domiciles,” their “propensity to exploit the peasantry,” their “nefarious big Jewish businessmen,” their many “slippery entrepreneurs and conspiratorial Communists,” and other provocations. When it comes to anti-Semitism, Cantor asserts, “there is plenty of blame to go around.”
  5. Jewish history is now coming to an end and the Jews are fated to vanish through assimilation and intermarriage, not only in the Diaspora but in Israel too, where “a new Judeo-Arab Near Eastern elite will emerge in the next century.” This, though, is nothing to get upset about, for “the Jews have fulfilled their role in history” and “pragmatically, they are no longer very much needed as a distinct race.” (Like the Nazis, Cantor seems to think the Jews are biologically unique, although, unlike the Nazis, he ascribes to them a “genetic intellectual superiority.”)
  6. If the Jews nevertheless are to survive, they can only do so by adopting the Cantor plan, which is outlined in the book’s final chapter. Here, in Cantor’s own words, are some of the measures it calls for:

Jewish scholars would have to reinterpret Judaism in light of modernist and postmodernist thought. . . . They would be given an absolute time limit of three years to produce a new Jewish theology.


A new Jewish liturgy would have to be devised, jettisoning 80 percent of the current boring, medieval-derived synagogue liturgy. . . . An elite group of Jewish composers, poets, novelists, and theater, film, and TV people would do this work and the synagogue councils would have to promise beforehand that they will implement their new liturgy, which should be completed on an absolute deadline of two years.


No Jewish synagogue service will last more than 90 minutes, with another 30 minutes allowed for sermons. Henceforth at least half of the sermons in Jewish synagogues within a calendar year must be delivered by lay people drawn from academia, the other learned professions, government service, and the media. One-quarter of all sermons . . . should be given by women and one-quarter by people less than fifty years of age.

“These provisions,” concludes Cantor modestly yet pessimistically, “would probably save the Jewish people as a collective entity. So will the coming of the messiah. The latter is a more likely prospect.”



A more likely prospect, one might add, only if the messiah himself does not have to be chosen by a search committee chaired by Norman Cantor. But the combination of conference calls, affirmative action, and bureaucratic guidelines by which, Cantor believes, the Jews can be snatched from the jaws of extinction, as loony as it is, does form an appropriate end to The Sacred Chain, because it selfparodistically underlines the attitude with which the entire book is written.

This attitude derives from a central paradox in much of contemporary liberal thought—which, while harshly critical of the many pernicious “-isms” and “-centrisms” that supposedly bedevil Western society, is itself so smugly fixated on its own self-righteous standards that it has little capacity to empathize with the very diversity of human culture in whose name it purports to speak. It stands to reason that, as a historian, Cantor should want to understand how Jews in the past experienced and viewed their world. Yet what really seems to interest him is how well they anticipated our world.

This is especially true in his judgments of Jewish thinkers. Thus, we read that the philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.) was “the prototype of the liberal or Reform Jewish intellectual”; the rabbinic luminary Saadia Gaon (882-942) was “a cultural chauvinist”; Yehuda Halevi, the great 11th-century poet, advocated “nationalist racism”; the religious philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) failed “to make the Jewish heritage compatible with science”; it is “easy to see the similarity between Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav [1772-1811] and West Coast New Age or Southern evangelical preachers”; and so on and so forth. It is hardly surprising, then, that in Cantor’s eyes the true test of contemporary Judaism is whether it can be “reunified” with “modernist and postmodernist thought.” That a truer test might be whether it can resist a good deal of modernity, just as it resisted environments inimical to Jewish values in the past, seems never to have occurred to him.



The Sacred Chain is also full of factual errors, including seemingly knowledgeable references to books and writers that Cantor has clearly never read or understood, and it frequently cites the views of “authorities” who are in fact nothing of the kind. For example, Cantor bases his case for the nonauthenticity of biblical narrative on the work of Kathleen Kenyon, a British archeologist who stopped digging in Palestine/Israel in 1967, and whose findings are by now badly dated; passes on with solemn credulity the literary critic Harold Bloom’s puckish theory that large parts of the Bible are fiction written by a woman; accepts without challenge the eccentric claim of Lawrence Shiffman that the Dead Sea Scrolls were produced by Sadducees; thinks that “the most insightful book on the [anti-Roman] Jewish rebellions” is Yehoshafat Harkabi’s The Bar Kokhba Syndrome, a political polemic written by a man who was not a historian of the period at all; etc.

From someone of Norman Cantor’s stature one has a right to expect more. And were he writing about Carolingian kings, or Provençal troubadors, one would presumably get it. It has often struck me that there is a type of Jewish intellectual who, no matter how little he may know about the Jews, believes that the very fact of his being Jewish makes him an expert on them. Cantor knows a lot about the Jews, but not nearly enough to write their history, and it is perhaps one of the most Jewish things about him that he has not let this deter him in the least.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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