Commentary Magazine

With My Own Eyes, by Jacob Katz


With My Own Eyes: The Autobiography of a Historian.
by Jacob Katz.
Translated by Ann Brenner and Zipora Brody. Brandeis University Press/ University Press of New England. 172 pp. $29.95.

As one of the most distinguished Jewish historians of the 20th century begins the tenth decade of an extraordinarily productive life, this translation of his autobiography provides the English reader with an account of his intellectual, spiritual, and physical odyssey, ranging from the rural Hungary of his birth, to Nazi Germany, to the newborn state of his youthful Zionist dreams. Jacob Katz established his scholarly reputation with Tradition and Crisis (Hebrew, 1958; English, 1961), a study of the transition from traditional to early modern Jewish society. Not only does his own experience, recounted here, mirror that transition; his early education in the heartland of Hungarian Orthodoxy gave him the tools to study modernity with a full understanding of what had come before it.

The story of Katz’s “yeshiva years” is the often charming account of a rebel with a very small “r.” In these pages, Katz chronicles his youthful rejection of the Hungarian yeshiva world’s growing intolerance both of secular education and of the burgeoning Zionist movement—while also making a point of his fundamental loyalty to the religious culture in which he had been raised.

In 1928, at the age of twenty-three, Katz left Hungary for a yeshiva in Frankfurt. Officially, secular learning was encouraged in his new environment, and Zionist affirmations, though frowned upon, were openly tolerated. But secular education really does have its dangers, and in his description of these years in Germany, when he also enrolled in a university, Katz affords us a brief glimpse into an inner world of religious doubt.

Other students, he says, were disturbed by “a sense of contradiction between the Jewish tradition by which they lived and the scientific concepts and universal values encountered during their academic studies.” He himself, however, was bothered not by this conflict but by his intuition that Judaism—notwithstanding the prevailing conception in his circles of a system fixed and immutable since the revelation on Mt. Sinai—had undergone a process of development over the centuries. In other words, he was tormented by a sense of history. He confronted this dilemma with a theory which offered both inner respite and intellectual stimulation: Judaism had indeed evolved historically, but it had done so by elaborating upon elements that were already immanent in its earlier stages.

It was no easy task for a Jew to complete a doctorate in Germany after the Nazis came to power. Katz took his final oral examination on July 31, 1934, the last day of the last semester a Jewish student would have been permitted to do so and one day before the key Jewish professor on his dissertation committee was dismissed. Upon arriving soon thereafter in Palestine, doctorate in hand, he naively presented himself to the Hebrew University in the vain hope of obtaining a position. Even a reader familiar with the situation at the time cannot fail to be struck by the names of all the distinguished senior Jewish scholars who, as Katz quickly discovered, were then teaching in high schools or, at best, in religiously sponsored teachers’ colleges.

And so, in his early thirties, after marrying the woman to whom he had been engaged in Europe, one of the great Jewish scholars of our time took a job teaching geography, botany, and other secular subjects to pre-teenagers in a religious school. Shortly thereafter he secured a post in a new teachers’ college where he developed a reputation, almost against his will, as an authority on psychology and pedagogy; on the side, he wrote what quickly became a standard high-school textbook in Jewish history. Finally, in the academic year 1949-50, Jacob Katz entered the Hebrew University at the age of forty-five.



The rest is history—social history, legal history, economic history, religious history, institutional history, intellectual history, political history. In his many books and articles, Katz has penetratingly elucidated a dazzling spectrum of significant movements, and moments, in medieval and modern Jewish life. The development of a “semi-neutral” and “neutral society” in early modern times; the distinction between traditional and Orthodox communities; the difference between a society marked by occasional deviation from a norm and one where the norm itself has broken down; the social functions of ostensibly pietistic organizations; the method for uncovering or questioning the existence of unstated motivations in legal decisions by rabbis—these and many other fundamental insights are a part of Katz’s legacy to Jewish scholarship.

His academic reputation, he says, was consolidated first by Tradition and Crisis and then by his second book, Exclusiveness and Tolerance (Hebrew, 1960; English, 1961). While this autobiography is not intended as a guide to Katz’s scholarly work, it does help to illuminate the personal side not only of the historical processes analyzed in the former book, to which I alluded at the outset, but of the religious tensions addressed in the latter.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jewish spokesmen to the outside world had tended, somewhat defensively, to emphasize the universalist elements in the tradition, citing rabbinic texts that spoke of the obligation upon Jews to support the non-Jewish poor, that guaranteed a portion in the world-to-come for righteous Gentiles, and so forth. By contrast, in Exclusiveness and Tolerance Katz focused on ancient texts which reflected a less tolerant strand in the tradition, and then scrutinized the shifting perspectives from which medieval and modern authorities confronted them.

As he reports proudly here, his analysis did not succumb to apologetics, and the book was indeed a pathbreaking discussion of how Jewish legists responded to changing historical circumstances. In it, as well as in his later study, The Shabbes Goy (Hebrew, 1983; English, 1989), Katz avoided the facile assertion that the law was simply qualified or neutralized through clever casuistry whenever observance of it became inconvenient. Rather, he demonstrated how a complex interaction of text, tradition, economic need, ritual instinct, and moral sensitivity shaped a legal system that combined dynamism with loyal adherence to sanctified norms.

The choice of topic in Exclusiveness and Tolerance demonstrated not only Katz’s interest in the evolution of Jewish law but his own concern with the relationship between Judaism and universal values. In many ways the hero of the book is Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri of Perpignan (late-13th, early-14th centuries), who developed an approach to the law that virtually exempted contemporary Christians and Muslims from discriminatory norms which the Talmud had applied to non-Jews. If Katz’s analysis of ha-Meiri was honest and perceptive, both his interest and his orientation were molded by concerns that emerged from the core of his own spiritual quest as at once a modern and a traditional Jew.

With My Own Eyes makes only fleeting reference—and sometimes no reference at all—to a number of Katz’s later seminal works. Among those worth singling out as most familiar to American readers are Out of the Ghetto (1973), a mature treatment of the issues addressed in his doctoral dissertation, and From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism 1700-1933 (1980), a fundamental analytical survey of another subject which profoundly affected his life. And of course Katz is well known to readers of COMMENTARY, to which he has contributed essays on Jewish religious and social history for decades.



As the story of a life, this book is marked by considerable emotional reserve. Still, there are moments when the spare narrative affords glances into a reservoir of passionate feeling: the impact upon a youthful student in Pressburg of a lecture given by a visiting religious-Zionist leader; a hushed moonlight walk along the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem during Katz’s first Passover in Palestine; a trip to Cyprus for a round of exhausting but exhilarating teaching at a camp for Holocaust survivors.

In one particularly wrenching but characteristically quiet passage, we learn a little more about a young member of the Katz family to whom we have been only fleetingly introduced before. Katz is recalling that in the early days of the state, as war raged, he had told a colleague that all the residents of Israel would have to be prepared for the ultimate sacrifice. He goes on:

Shortly thereafter, a bomb landed behind our house, where three children from the building were playing. Our son David was lightly wounded, but his friend Reuben Halbertal and our eight-year-old daughter Havah—as charming a little girl as could be—were killed. When that same colleague from the college came to offer his condolences . . ., I told him: “I was trapped by my own words; I accepted the divine sentence even before I knew it.”



This memoir, combined with Jacob Katz’s prolific scholarly work, puts on display an unusual constellation of personal and professional qualities, qualities that one might be tempted to regard as self-contradictory: piety and openness; passion and objectivity; breadth and focus; methodological innovativeness and traditional learning; wit and deep seriousness; a critical spirit and a gift for friendship. In his final sentence, Katz expresses his gratitude “to Him who measures out the life span of all life” for having granted him so many productive years. So should we all.

About the Author

David Berger is Broeklundian professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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