Commentary Magazine

Yisrael Ba-amim, by Isaac F. Baer

Great Jewish Historian
Yisrael ba-amim (Israel Among the Nations: an Essay on the History of the Second Temple and the Mishnah . . .).
by Isaac F. Baer.
Bialik Institute (Jerusalem). 144pp. I£2.800.


Professor Baer of the Hebrew University, the distinguished medievalist and authority on Spain and Spanish Jewry, now is chiefly interested in early Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Yisrael ba-amim, based on his lectures to undergraduates, is paralleled by a series of studies that have been appearing in the Historical Society of Israel’s quarterly Zion, of which he is an editor. It is a remarkable document, whether as a work of scholarship about the past or as a transparent prescription for the right nurture of the Israeli ethos in the present and future. It is also well printed, written in straightforward Hebrew, and equipped with a solid technical apparatus.

The period dealt with begins in the generations after Alexander the Great conquered Palestine together with the rest of the Persian empire, or roughly the early 3rd century B. Its end Professor Baer puts variously: narrowly and most infrequently in the 3rd century C., with the redaction of the Mishnah; more often in the 7th century, with the Arab conquest; preferably in the late Middle Ages, after Rashi and Maimonides; and sometimes as late as the eve of the French Revolution and the beginning of modern Jewish history. Periodization is a serious matter for a historian, because when he defines a segment in the flow of time as a historical period, he is saying that a unitary spirit informs the occurrences and especially the thought of that segment of time, and that what happens within it is less productive of change than the events marking its beginning and end. Baer’s periodization, therefore, means that in his understanding of the career of Judaism and the Jews the example, tradition, and discipline established by pietist (hasidim) farmers near Jerusalem early in the Hellenistic era transcend the independence won by the Maccabees, the Roman conquest, the destruction of the state and Temple, the rise of Christianity, and exile.

The Rabbis sought to obey the word of God: to love and revere Him, to do His commandments, and to mold a society ruled by justice and love, in which the relations between man and God, and between man and man in the earthly microcosm, would mirror the order of the heavenly macrocosm. The pillars of this society were an elite of saintly scholars and a larger mass zealous to be a holy community. It centered in Palestine but extended beyond, and it used Temple and state but could do without them. Its characteristic mode of expression was law, halachah, but its legalism was rooted in a mystical and indeed mythological outlook. The men who framed the Mishnah over the centuries were mystics, ascetics, and pneumatics who thought of themselves and were perceived by their followers as being filled with the Spirit.



The hasidim of the generations before the Maccabean independence of the mid-2nd century B.C. were Utopians with an uncompromising ethic. Most of their successors had to be less Utopian, because they were faced with the needs of a real society and had some of the responsibility for governing it. These were the Pharisees. They found it necessary to condemn some things that their predecessors had preached and practiced, such as giving all to the poor, and they introduced the prosbul a kind of legal fiction to circumvent the Biblical provision that the sabbatical year cancels a debtor’s obligation to his creditor, because experience had shown that otherwise loans would not be made. Baer draws an analogy with what happened in Christianity, the utopianism of the early Christians being followed by the compromises of the state church of Rome.

According to Baer, those successors of the early hasidim who remained Utopian were the Essenes. He grants the need for responsibility and compromise but admires the impractical Utopians. The pressures and temptations to be realistic are so great, he implies, that men do not need much urging to take that course. It is harder to be Utopian.

About the relation between Rabbinic and Greek thought Baer speaks in two voices. Mostly he cites influence and example. He attempts to show the influence of Plato, and he mentions the Pythagoreans as a possible model of a fraternity of masters and disciples engaged in intellectual and theosophical speculation, guiding a real community, and observing a ritual and dietary code. But sometimes he prefers to suggest that great societies, like great minds, independently think alike. In law actual Greek influence on the Rabbis was from contemporary Hellenistic practice, but Baer sees in certain property legislation of the founders of the Mishnah an unborrowed, spontaneous resemblance to the earlier law of Periclean or pre-Periclean Athens.

Besides being a work of scholarship and a kind of program for Israel, Yisrael ba-amim is also a sustained polemic against the positivist temperament in modern Jewish thought—the hardheaded, no-nonsense temperament. Jewish positivism regards mysticism, and even theology, as absurd, aberrant, un-Jewish. In religion, the positivist says that you have to obey the commandments; to be concerned about God and belief is unbecoming; halachah is the only thing that counts, and it has nothing to do with aggadah. If a secular nationalist, the positivist has no use for the spiritualizing exceptionalism of an Ahad Ha-am. If a scholar, the positivist follows Graetz in dismissing the Cabbala and all it represents as an impudent forgery. Baer has always opposed this frame of mind. The ostentatious absence of the Dead Sea materials from his discussion can be explained by his desire to avoid complicating his demonstration that the founders of the normative tradition were mystic, ascetic, and pneumatic. Showing this to be true of the sectarians would not help his case.

A close friend and associate of Baer’s, Professor Gershom Scholem, in recent American lectures adduced other strong proof of the antiquity and normativeness of Jewish mysticism. A corollary of what Baer and Scholem have been saying is that the Zohar is less a forgery than a pseudepigraphon reflecting authentic tradition, and more generally, that the positivists have been presumptuous. When one thinks of it, it seems odd that they have been able to speak with such assurance for so long. The author of the Duties of the Heart was a judge on a rabbinical tribunal, the author of the Shulchan Aruch was a visionary mystic, and Elijah of Vilna was no contemner of the Cabbala.



Besides Jewish positivism, what ideologies, assumptions, and prejudices more specific to Israel is Baer arguing against? What may he be trying to correct in his students?

The most striking thing about his book is that Baer feels he has to defend Judaism and the history of the Jews. Some Israelis apparently think that the Jewish tradition is negligible in comparison with the Greek, and he tries to show that this is not so. But there also seem to be some who think that Judaism is negligible in comparison with Christianity; and he has to assert and repeat that in vision, spirituality, and abnegation of self the Rabbis were the equals of the early Christians, let alone the imperial Christians.

A related attitude that Baer finds unacceptable has for its best-known spokesman Mr. Ben Gurion—a love of the Bible accompanied by a distaste for post-Biblical and galut Judaism, one kind of “negation of the Diaspora”: “. . . the distant past is closer to us than . . . the last two thousand years. . . . Abraham . . . Moses . . . King David . . . the prophets . . . are closer to us than Rav Ashi . . . Maimonides . . . and in recent times all the Zionist ideologists.” To which Baer answers that Rabbinic Judaism is the legitimate successor to Biblical-prophetic Judaism, not inferior and not less important. And since Mr. Ben Gurion admires the Greeks, Baer can make the point that it is post-Biblical Judaism which was affected by Greek thought and example.



To those negators of the Diaspora for whom statehood is the difference between life and a stunted, twilight existence, Baer’s answer is that both the rise and the fall of the Second Commonwealth are subordinate incidents in his history. Without a state, to be sure, there may not be a sufficiently bracing challenge to conviction and doctrine; the fittest objects for moral guidance and criticism are the state and the market. Maccabean independence, therefore, as much by the opposition as by the assistance it offered, was helpful, but its disappearance was not fatal. States are not ends, they are useful means and tests of moral perfection. As for galut, it could impose only physical, not spiritual ignominy on the Jews.

To the cosmopolitans, who urge that Israel should seek out the greatest measure of cultural influence from abroad, Baer implicitly gives this advice: receptivity to foreign influence is good, provided that it is discriminating and that the new influence is harmonious or at least compatible with the tradition. Be careful about contemporary foreign culture, because it may be in a state of decadence; an earlier, more nearly classical, phase of the culture may be preferable. In any event, natural absorption is likely to be better than deliberate grafting. Best of all is to bring into being and maintain a spirit that will generate an independent achievement comparable with that of the foreign culture when it was classical. The capacity to do that is the test of Israel’s health. Direct Hellenistic influence on the Jews of the early Mishnaic period led to an unprophetic emphasis on the sacrificial cult and to gilding the horns of bullocks in festal processions, while independent creativity produced laws like those of Hellenic Athens.

Against the Orthodox Baer can turn this argument around. The Mishnah combined the old and the new in the right proportions. The Rabbis knew they could not safeguard their heritage by freezing it, and the lesson of the Rabbis is to preserve the tradition by broadening it, creatively to naturalize good influences from the outside.

Finally, Baer dislikes Realpolitik, domestic or foreign. He knows that the best policy cannot always be followed, and even that the best may be the enemy of the more urgent real. But if there are to be departures from the best, Baer wants them to be grudging. Utopians are valuable in their own right. They also remind governors of the distance between the real and the ideal and keep them from becoming too fond of the real. Without the Utopian insistence on an impossibly high morality, public life would decline to an intolerably low reality. In this last point Baer comes closest to a defense of the Magnes-Ihud spirit and the Hebrew University group associated with it.

Professor Baer’s concerns are unlikely to cease being topical for some time to come. Obviously, they do not detract from his work as history; Gibbon, Ferrero, and Rostovtzeff also went to the past to discover or prove something about the present. After scholarly debate has made all the necessary corrections and modifications of Baer’s thesis and facts, he will still be recognized as a great historian and philosopher of Jewish history.



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