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The Re-Orientation of Jewish History

By Gershon Hundert, Dept. of Jewish Studies, McGill University

The most recent trends in the humanities and the social sciences are reflected in historical writing. For historians, however, the general subversion of truth claims presents enormous difficulties. While on the one hand it cannot be denied that all literary composition is subjective and partial: history is literature; on the other hand history is about real events and the description of those events is not absolutely relative and subjective: history is not literature. For example, a recent book about the accusation of ritual murder against Jews in early modern German territories is devoted largely to an analysis of the "discourse", the language used chiefly by the accusers. The sufferings of the Jewish victims of judicial murder are barely noticed. The epistemological crisis in the academy has had an effect on Jewish historiography that is mixed at best, but I shall be devoting these few minutes to a review not of methodological developments but of new emphases and current debates in historiography.

Although I have not tested my hypothesis systematically, I think that the way most people understand what happened in the course of the history of the Jewish people is informed in a fundamental way by the writings of Shimon Dubnow. There is a sense of the continuity of Jewish experience from Biblical times to the present with various "centers" succeeding each other in prominence.

Another paradigm, superimposed on the basic Dubnowian template, is a consequence of the vast influence of Gershom Scholem's writing about Kabbalah and Jewish mystical movements. Scholem's work has also become canonical though I suspect the process of percolation to the level of "collective memory" is still happening. So I would argue that the outlines sketched by Dubnow and emended by Scholem form the basis of what has become the conventional view of the Jewish experience, what is called a "master narrative" of Jewish history. In recent years that narrative, the story has been subverted and destabilized in a variety of ways.

Revisions of the basic elements of a well-known story does not occur without resistance. A vivid example of this is the deafening silence with which Israel scholars have treated Jacob Neusner's voluminous opera. In his many, many books, Neusner has proposed the detachment of the time of the creation of the Mishnah from the preceding period. He argues for a substantial discontinuity between the Biblical period and the creation of rabbinic Judaism in subsequent centuries. This is surely, if it is accepted, a substantial undermining of the master narrative.

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