Writing Jewish History
Jews, God, and History.
by Max I. Dimont.
Simon and Schuster. 463 pp. $7.50.
Charles Beard often warned that historians see what is behind their own eyes. No matter how remote from the present his subject may appear to be, the historian’s judgments of men and events—indeed, his choice of what to include in his description of the past and what to leave out as irrelevant—inevitably reflect the mind of a contemporary pamphleteer, moralist, or philosopher. Each age discovers, or even invents, a past to serve its own needs. Even revolutionaries go forth to wreck the world they have inherited in the name of some ancestor.
Beard’s insight certainly fits the writers of Jewish history from the very beginning. The historians who are represented in the Bible embroider one point: things go well with a people which obeys God and ill with those who fall away from Him. The great immediate concern of the Biblical age was idolatry, i.e., the attractiveness of the gods of the natives of Canaan to the Hebrew invaders and, later, the lust of the Jewish kingdoms for the gods of their more powerful neighbors. To combat religious treason in the present, the historians in the Bible pointed out its dire results in the past, and predicted even graver consequences in the future.
In the Bible men make war and steal other men’s wives, like King David, and women give themselves to gentiles in order to gain personal power and position, like Queen Esther. However, by the first century a great and radical transformation of Jewish existence had reached its final stage with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. One result was that the Pharisees won out over the other sects in the complicated inner struggles to reconstitute Judaism under the new conditions. In their myth-making, David was transformed from a warrior-bard to a legalistic scholar and Queen Esther was imagined as going through tortuous casuistry, with the aid of Mordecai, to justify her giving herself to Ahasuerus. The Talmud recast the Jewish past as the history of a community dominated from its beginnings by the spirit of a rabbinic theocracy, and this theocracy was, of course, precisely what Johanan ben Zakkai was engaged in creating immediately after the year 70.
Philo and Josephus were writing Jewish history in the same century, but their work was in Greek and it addressed itself to the situation of the Jews in the Hellenistic diaspora. In that environment, Jewish apologists needed to claim that the Jews, though standing apart from the philo-Hellenes, were not therefore barbarians and, at the same time, that their loss of national independence did not prove they were deficient in the warrior virtues. Philo, therefore, reinterpreted the Bible as the greatest of philosophical works, and assured his readers mat Moses had been the great teacher of the Greeks. The histories of Josephus reached their most eloquent heights in describing the superhuman heroism of the outnumbered Jews who lost the war with the Romans. Between them, Philo and Josephus created a gallery of philosophers and fighters who would serve as the “ancestors” of a Jewish diaspora which admired such figures, for they were also the heroic types of the dominant culture.
The centuries of the Exile produced very little writing of Jewish history even in the form of implicit revisions that are normally made in the course of writing legal or philosophical works. The basic theory of this period already existed in the Bible and the Talmud—that Exile was punishment for sin and that the Messiah would come when the term of suffering was eventually ended. The Jewish present was therefore a period of patient waiting, and the only response possible was to suffer with unshaken faith. The martyr thus became the central hero. The prayer book for the high holidays contains an account of the lives of various rabbis who rebelled against Rome or resisted its oppression. The tales are told not in the tone of glorying in their resistance but rather of sharing in their horrible tortures and deaths. The early victories of Bar Kochba do not figure in this retelling of the life of Rabbi Akiba, his chief supporter; instead we learn about the minute details of the Rabbi’s suffering.
The beginning of the Emancipation, at the dawn of the 19th century, brought a new situation for the Jews, and each of the schools of thought which responded to it again created its own new reading of the past. In our generation a further turn has come with the creation of the State of Israel and the refusal of American Jews to consider themselves to be in Exile. What myths, then, are being evoked to serve these new needs?
In Israel the task is easy, for the way has been prepared by several generations of Zionist theorists. For them Jewish history is the story of the achievement of sovereignty during the Biblical period, followed by its loss, by the many abortive attempts to retrieve it, and finally the regaining of it in the contemporary period. Rebels and fighters like Judas Maccabeus and Bar Kochba are far more important, therefore, than Talmudists like Adret in the 13th century or Caro in the 16th. The centuries of the Exile were creative only insofar as they kept casting up dreams of Zion.
This nationalistic history is alien to the present Jewish diaspora, which needs a version of the Jewish past that makes of it an heir rather than a betrayer. Generally, the popularizations of such a vision would be expected to follow the work of scholars rather than to precede it. Max Dimont’s book is an example of the opposite process, but that is not his fault. Clearly he would feel more at ease before his popular lecture audiences as the apostle of a relevant version of Jewish history by a recognized historian, but such an authority does not exist. Diaspora historians, including the greatest of them all, Salo Baron, see Jewish history as primarily the story of the religious factor, a point of view that does not quite serve the present need. What men like Baron mean by “religious” is clearly not the present religion of the Jews or Jewesses of St. Louis, for such a faith is as demanding as the Zionist imperative to emigrate to Israel, if not more so. Neither the American Jews nor their scholars have yet solved the contemporary problem of self-definition, though some things are clear. The people want to feel that Judaism is now out of the ghetto, that it is very contemporary, intellectual in the middlebrow mode, undemanding, and honorific. Therefore, this popular book on Jewish history, as seen “through the eyes of a 20th century Western man rather than a 16th century ghetto Talmudist,” is eager to tell us in its first paragraph that Jews hold “12 per cent of all the Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine.”
But what is one to make of this contemporary Western man who lumps together psychoanalysis, philosphy (what kind?), and existentialism as the sources of his interpretation of Jewish history. I can only deduce that he belongs to the Book-of-the-Month Club. I have nothing against that, but would also want him at least to have read more Jewish history. He would then have been saved from such minor errors as giving the Jewish population in France at the time of the Revolution as 70,000 instead of 40,000, and such major howlers as speaking of the Jews as exempt from Spengler’s (really Vico’s) law of the decay of civilizations, without once mentioning Nachman Krochmal, the great Jewish source of this idea.
In dealing with the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Caro’s codification of Jewish law in the 16th century, Dimont tells us that “it became a strait jacket constricting the universal ideas of the Jews.” To be sure, he grants that it acted to preserve them as a group, but he denies to Jewish observance any merit as the bearer and the incarnation of a great faith. Elsewhere Dimont also assures us that Hasidism “affirms the Jewish spirit without the Jewish tradition. . . Hasidism and early Christianity were kindred spirits.” Surely he ought to know better than that. The crucial difference between Hasidism and the Messianic movements of Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank is precisely in their respective attitudes to the Jewish tradition. Hasidism affirmed the Law; that is why it remained within Judaism and why the true heirs of the Hasidic tradition continue today to produce their share, or more, of great Talmudists and deeply obedient traditionalists. Indeed, what makes Martin Buber a tendentious and misleading interpreter of the Hasidic tradition is that he has taken the step away from the Law that Mr. Dimont wrongly ascribes to the Baal-Shem Tov.
All this, and much more besides, is found along the path leading to Dimont’s climactic paragraph which celebrates the emergence on American soil of the new Judaism:
The rabbi is no longer an interpreter of Talmudic Judaism but a counselor and an interfaith mediator; prayer is no longer exclusively personal intercession with God but praise of the Creator; the synagogue or temple is no longer exclusively a place of worship but also a social community for expressing one’s ties to Judaism. Just as the Pharisees discarded the third of the Torah and Talmud dealing with sacrifice and priesthood, so Reform Judaism is discarding another third of the Torah and Talmud dealing with dietary and ritual laws, leaving the last third, which it considers the core of Judaism—its code of ethics, morality, and justice. Will it be the historic role of American Jewry to usher in the Spinozian Age of Judaism—the universalist phase?
Even Mr. Dimont must know that in his universalist phase Spinoza left the Jewish community and the Jewish faith. Felix Adler, a century ago, took this same road and arrived at Ethical Culture, but he at least had the courage to make clear that he was breaking with the Jewish heritage. For Mr. Dimont to affirm that the present departure is the logical culmination of everything honorific in Jewish history is both vulgar and ignorant.
Dimont’s book is not history. It is not even historic myth-making. Here are reflected the unordered yearnings of many “positive” Jews. This reviewer finds himself more disposed today, if Dimont’s implicit picture of them is correct, to join their critics.