Jewish History After the End of Ideology
In 1953, Isaiah
Taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel a single, universal organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude themselves from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self- contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.
A hedgehog is a guy who limns the big picture: the grand design of reality in relation to the ideology the beliefs, values, and acts by which it can be held to make sense. The fox is overwhelmed by the manifold jumble of a close-up perspective. To the hedgehog the world is seen from the wrong end of the telescope; to the fox, as through a magnifying glass. Hedgehogs are convinced that their viewpoint is grounded in a grasp of the totality of history. Foxes believe that no such logically consistent, comprehensive explanation is possible. The foxes are pluralists, insisting on the multifariousness and diversity of all that is; the hedgehogs see the overall structure which subsumes the particulars under a coherent, unified account of the whole.
There have been several modern ideologies which have provided an integrating pattern for constructing a coherent, unified account of the whole of Jewish history. The leading exponents, either directly through their own works or indirectly through popularization of their ideas, educated several generations of Jewish readers, endowing their loyalty to their people with transcendent meaning through identification with the grand concourse of the Jewish procession through time. I would like to describe two of these ideologies which (since there have been variations within each according to different historians) are actually two ideal types or families.
The first is that associated with Heinrich Graetz, whose reconstruction of
Jewish history climaxed in his eleven-volume History of the Jews, published
between 1853 and 1870 and whose approach was adumbrated in his programmatic
essay of 1846, "The Structure of Jewish History."
Showing the impress of the Enlightenment, romantic nationalism, and
Hegelianism, and drawing on the already substantial achievements of
Wissenschaft des Judentums (the modern scholarly study of the Jewish past) by
the middle of the nineteenth century, Graetz assembled the saga of the Jews,
not a church but a living people (ein lebendiger Volkstamm) whose destiny it
was to give rise to pure monotheism and to explicate its significance in age
after age in the homeland and the diaspora. Jewish history was the story of
that people as pointing to the unfolding of the implications of the biblical
insight of the incomparable oneness of God a sequential growth in
understanding the implications of a unique spiritual idea. The Jewish destiny
was to be "a martyr people" foreshadowed by the collective figure
of the suffering servant in Second Isaiah and destined to serve an example to
the nations of the world through its devotion to reason, morality, and Geist
(spirit). Graetz divided Jewish history into a series of eras and sub-eras
beginning with Israelite tribal existence after the entrance into
The second classic model for understanding the forces driving Jewish history, especially in the modern period, is an approach developed among Eastern European Jewish intellectuals in the 1890s and echoed through Jewish historiography into the 1950s and beyond. It has been called "bipolar" by Jonathan Frankel in that it understood the fundamental dynamic of Jewish history in intrinsically dichotomous terms. Frankel writes: "On the one hand, there was the Jewish nation which had tenaciously survived almost two millennia of exile and dispersion by dint of its internal solidarity, faith, and inventiveness. On the other, there were the combined forces of change which, unless creatively absorbed and organically integrated by the nation, could only set in motion a process of inexorable erosion and a process of self-destruction." Put starkly, Jewish history takes place through the intersection of the vectors of assimilation and the collective will-to-survive of a religious and ethnic minority. The new, largely East European Jewish historiography represented a paradigm shift from the older focus on literature, theology, and philosophy to an emphasis on the Jews as a nationality, more or less like other nationalities. Simon Dubnow's influential version of this ideology (he was largely responsible for working it out and propagating it in convincing historical form) was concretized in his ten-volume World History of the Jewish People. For Dubnow Jewish historiography was essentially "sociological" in that its central theme was the Jewish people as it created a series of semi-autonomous communal institutions to cope with a wide range of cultural and political environments from ancient to modern times. The fundamental thrust was not the unfolding of transcendent Geist in its Jewish mode: religion was a means and not a universally necessary one by which the Jewish people maintained its identity, morale, and ethos over the vicissitudes of time. The primary causative nexus was the interplay of centrifugal and centripetal forces that shaped the Jewish historical record: pressures from without that tended to undermine the perdurability of a small, often beleaguered group versus continued efforts by the Jewish people to reintegrate and revitalize itself. The Jewish national spirit was epitomized by the persistent reshaping of old patterns of association, community organization, and cultural forms to adapt to a long string of changed circumstances.
Frankel shows how several of the most influential twentieth-century figures of this school of historiography elaborated this bi-polar approach, such as Benzion Dinur, Raphael Mahler, and Shmuel Ettinger. The bipolar approach affected their and others' evaluation of various historical moments. Thus, the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) was presented as a movement positive in original intentions but flawed in its aims and methods. The Haskalah did bring about the literary renaissance of Hebrew (synthesizing ancient and modern elements, thus sustaining Jewishness), but the maskilim undermined Jewish unity, for example, by denigrating Yiddish as a "jargon" or by turning to the absolutistic Hapsburg and Tsarist regimes to impose modernization of the backward Jewish masses. The bipolar approach produced a similar mixed evaluation of modern Jewish emancipation. The Jews of France were awarded French citizenship, not as a nation but as individuals, as famously enunciated by Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre in his support of Jewish emancipation in September 1791 in the National Assembly. The declaration of the Napoleonic Sanhedrin fifteen years later that the Jews no longer constituted a nation (a compromise with the new state system) justified a process of dissolution that was remedied only by the emergence of Jewish nationalism and Zionism after 1881. (Some have called this the "fatal bargain" theory of emancipation in that the price paid for equal rights for the Jews, a most desirable goal in itself, fatally undermined the unity of the Jewish people.) Instead of assessing the importance of events and personalities according to their contribution to the unfolding rationality of Judaism as had Graetz and his colleagues, the Dubnow-East European school evaluated elements of Jewish history according to whether they furthered "assimilation" or promoted Jewish national self-affirmation.
Academic Jewish history in the last thirty or forty years has sharply broken with both paradigms, especially the second, more salient, twentieth-century model. Rather than presenting the underlying process of Jewish history as the unfolding of the implications of ethical monotheism or the saga of Jewish survival against the centrifugal pressures, the contemporary tendency draws attention to the complexity of motives, the multiple layers of causality, the great variety of Jewish situations in different places. In his thoughtful essay, "When Does the Modern Period in Jewish History Begin?" Michael Meyer laid out the problematics of establishing a clear beginning point for Jewish modernity:
With all of these difficulties, is there any value in setting a definite terminus for the beginning of modern Jewish history? I would argue that there is not, unless stimulating discussion with some new theory be itself a value. Any endeavor to mark a borderline which will be meaningful for all Jewries and embrace the origin or rise to normative status of all or even most of the characteristics of Jewish life as it presently exists seems to be bound to fail. In practice it is, therefore, probably best to begin with the 17th century where, according to nearly all views today, many of the elements that become constitutive of later Jewish life made their appearance to any degree. But the conventionality of so doing must be fully realized. For, looking further backward, it is possible to attest certain apparently modern developments in some form even in earlier centuries. . . . On the other hand, there remains a vast difference between the degree of modernity in evidence before the mid-18th century and that apparent thereafter. . . .
In the last analysis, periodization, which is a way of distilling the underlying structure, depends on what aspect of Jewish culture -- political, economic, literary, religious, and so forth we are studying. There is no simple, unitary pattern.
In fairness to Dubnow, his system for structuring Jewish history in connection with the hegemonies of certain Jewries over others gets around this difficulty to some extent, so that the "master narrative" in effect becomes the rise and fall of these hegemonies themselves. The Darwinian sociology espoused by Dubnow and others implied that a collective Jewish will-to-survive impelled each major Jewish community to select from a continuum of possible social and cultural forms those best fitted to its political and social environment, and that secondary aspects of Jewish culture, such as religion, were adjusted accordingly. We noted that contemporary academic historiography abandons such a priori conceptions of causation in favor of multi-layered, multi-causal analysis. Each social and cultural context has to be understood in its own terms. (Perhaps we could define the quintessential historian at present as a describer of change and elucidator of contexts.) Thus recent Jewish historians use the meticulous methods and conceptual tools of the social sciences to factor in the effects of changing demographic trends, comparative migration, and evolving gender configurations, or they turn to the current hermeneutic methods to reinterpret written texts and other cultural artifacts. Their aim is not subordinate the details to an overall scheme (indeed the exponents of postmodernism insist is no longer possible to agree on a "master narrative") but to clarify what can be seen through one of many windows.
Take, for example, the uncoupling of assimilation from acculturation. Jonathan Frankel notes that most historians now recognize that acculturation the adoption by an ethnic group of the vernacular of the land as its dress, manners, and other cultural styles does not inevitably lead to assimilation, the attenuation of the group's common identity and the disappearance of its social network. Group consciousness gets reconstructed in unpredictable ways as primordial loyalties are adapted to a new context. Some of the most influential modern Jewish figures have been individuals who were highly acculturated (Theodor Herzl, Franz Rosenzweig); at a certain stage in their lives they ventured forth as Jewish political or intellectual leaders of great energy and influence. The Haskalah is a prime example of the principle that acculturation can reinvigorate Judaism and not only undermined it (examples can be found in premodern times as well). The Haskalah is more than just a temporary, transitional era in Jewish literature and ideology, the "antithesis" that rejected what Dubnow called the "thesis" of traditional Judaism but paved the way for the "synthesis" of modern Jewish nationalism. The Haskalah was the first wave of a lengthy, multi-dimensional encounter with new cultural, social, and economic patterns that affected every area of Jewish life, a phenomenon that varied in its political and religious strategies and its radicalism or conservatism from region to region (as recent studies show), and that constituted for a while an attractive way of balancing old and new in the permanent revolution of modernity. In the last analysis, there was not just one Haskalah but several, and Emanuel Goldsmith has argued that the Haskalah impulse is still with us, despite the emergence of non-rationalist, existentialist modes of Jewish self-definition in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Against the secularist tendency of the East European school, recent historiography is determinedly non-reductionist in its treatment of Jewish religiosity. Historians now take seriously the phenomenology of Jewishness as the description of forms of consciousness that have to be understood not as a mere byproduct of other causative factors. Consider the treatment of Reform Judaism. In Dubnow's account, the Reform tendency in German Jewry in the 1840s was nothing more than a craven device for furthering civil emancipation. He wrote: "Those who stood 'between the graves of the forefathers and the cradles of the children' turned out to be good gravediggers for the old but unskilled builders of the new. They committed suicide in the national sense; their contrived reform, plucked from the historical roots, turned out to be stillborn, deprived of vital blood." Compare this with Michael Meyer's account in Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism of the efforts of that generation of reformers to redefine their Jewishness, convey Jewish values to their progeny, and win recognition of Judaism as a living, evolving faith, noting the pathos of nineteenth-century liberal German Jews who explicitly challenged the demand that they reform their religion as a price for emancipation.
Moreover, the multidimensional approach subverts the overly simplistic
us-versus-them account of the Jewish situation in periods of stress and
persecution. The treatment of the Jews by
Decisively important areas of Jewish history are being rewritten in light
of more nuanced grasp of the context. The religion of the Dead Sea Scrolls,
for example, has to be seen in relation to superheated first-century
apocalyptic tendencies indicated in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, as
James Kugel has recently reminded us. Even if there is no consensus
on defining the Pharisees (Ellis Rivkin's notion of a Pharisaic revolution
that resulted from the spread of Hellenization should be taken much more
seriously by the new generation of scholars), it is accepted that this
period was one of blatant Jewish pluralism in a time when the crucible of
Hellenization resembled the Westernization processes of the last two
centuries. We are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the use of
the Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmuds, and Midrashim as historical sources. The
methodologies of studying rabbinic texts and clarifying their historicity are
just starting to reach the sophisticated level evolved for the close study of
the Greek classics or the Bible. (Jacob Neusner, who has pioneered in this
field and whose prodigious series of works demands much attention, has
undertaken to reconstruct the transformation of rabbinic Judaism through an
analysis of the religiosity of each of the major rabbinic collections.)
Considerable attention recently has been paid to evaluating the etiology and
importance of the kabbalistic worldview. As a result of the work of Gershom
Scholem, the history of the Jewish religion is far less monolithic than it was
two generations ago and has been refined and augmented by Joseph Dan, Moshe
Idel, Elliot R. Wolfson, and others. We have at our disposal much more nuance
evaluations of the impact on Judaism of the other religions: for example, the
effects of the Crusades and militant medieval Catholicism in the work of
Robert Chazan and others, which situate the Jewish reactions more adequately
in connection to the Christian power structure and the heated religious
atmosphere of those centuries. And we have the de-centering of Jewish
historiography away from the Ashkenazic bias of yesterday as more research is
done into the history of the Sephardim and even more far-flung Asian and
African Jewries. We are now beginning to appreciate their forms of Jewish
spirituality, their paths to modernity, and their roads to
Just a few more examples of new trends will have to suffice. With all due
regard to the venerable philological method and whatever the limitations of
postmodernist literary criticism, some of its preoccupations, such as
deconstruction, intertextuality, and the active role of the reader as
interpreter, apply nicely to traditional Jewish ways of exegesis and
eisegesis. Jewish social history has flourished in the wake of such
ground-breaking works as S.D. Goitein's five-volume A Mediterranean Society:
The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the
Cairo Geniza, which exploited exactly those documents business letters and
the like, which the earlier generation of Geniza scholars had put aside in
their preoccupation with newly discovered medieval philosophical, poetic,
liturgic, and sectarian materials. (One must also take note of the work of Paula
Hyman, Gershon David Hundert, David Sorkin, Deborah Dash Moore,
and others in the burgeoning field of Jewish social history.) The early
modern period is coming into its own, rather than being treated as a mere
extension of the "Middle Ages," furthered by Jonathan I. Israel's
European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550-1750. The early modern
Sephardim in the West, especially the children of Marranos who were
uncomfortable both with the Christian and the Jewish options, has attracted
scholarly attention and stimulated interest on marginal Jewishness.
Magisterial biographies of Jewish luminaries have sought to delineate more
subtly the tensions faced by a sensitive individual and his or her environment
(I mention only Alexander Altmann's book on Moses Mendelsohn Arthur Green's
book on Nahman of Bratzlav, Steven Zipperstein's book on Ahad Ha-Am, and Mel
Scult's book on Mordecai M. Kaplan). There has been a flourishing of urban
histories that go far beyond the amateur filiopiety that had often marked the
study of Jewish communities in the
Before we evaluate the possibility of new ways of integrating the growing
body of sophisticated historical study, we might ask why this reorientation
of Jewish history toward greater pluralism, anti-reductionism, a multiplicity
of variables and levels? Partly it is an expression of the growing presence
of experts in one or another aspect of Jewish studies in North American
The decline in obeisance to the two great schematic interpretations of
Jewish history may also be a reflection of the changing concerns of the
Jewish community in the last three or four decades. We now see references to
"postemancipation Judaism" in the diaspora and hear of
Is there a model or metaphor that can do justice to the multiplex interpretative approaches of our time and yet can serve as a framework for the overarching continuity of Jewish history despite remarkable transformations from ancient to modern times? An updated version of a Dubnovian goal of a "world history of the Jewish people"? A more intricate version of Graetzian goal of the progressive elucidation of the cognitive dimension of Judaism? After all, the insights of Graetz and Dubnow, if limited, were not totally wrong. All sciences grow dialectically, by reassessing, reformulating, revising the views of previous generations of scholars. Conceivably we might be able to incorporate the older and newer approaches as a way of bridging academe and the lay public in our time.
Let us return to the hedgehog and the fox. Are students of history neatly
divisible into two distinct genera with incompatible "life worlds"?
According to Isaiah
When I was a graduate student at
I find very haunting Gershom Scholem's description of the kabbalistic conception of revelation as going beyond an single meaning to be laden with multiple new meanings: To the kabbalist, he writes, "The Torah appears as a texture woven from the name of God. It represents a mysterious unity the purpose of which is not primarily to convey a specific sense, to `mean' something, but rather to give expression to that creative power itself which is concentrated in the name of God and which is present in all creation as its secret signature in one or another variation." Perhaps we need a metaphor that is equivocal rather than univocal, indicative of the muiltifarious nature of the Jewish tradition or of any great civilization tradition, for that matter.
Having left his or her cocoon, what vista presents itself to the Jewish
butterfly historian? I offer an image which lacks the profundity of Jewish
history as the story of Judaism unfolding or as the product of centrifugal
and centripetal forces, but which may be more in tune with the multiple
interests of our era. Think of Jewish history as an immense weaving of
multiple dimensions of culture and event, intellectuality and folk a tapestry
made up of interconnected threads of many colors, textures, tangles, degrees
of obscurity and luminescence. There are some topoi that run through almost
the whole (the concepts of creation, revelation, and redemption, monotheism,
Eretz Yisrael, the divine attributes of justice and mercy, a concern for
learning and a preoccupation with ethics). There are threads that hang loose,
were snipped off, or morphed into a different form (the sacrificial system,
the ark of the covenant, the
In a time of the exponential growth of knowledge, there may be no acceptable single master narrative of the Jewish past, but there is a repertoire of likely narratives, some more inclusive than others. Perhaps we need an even more complex and modernistic metaphor than a tapestry to embrace the multiple dimensions of Jewish civilization. The Jewish past is a congeries of symbols, values, meanings but also of people in their bodily concreteness and social interconnectedness, people with their particular Jewish memories, habits of mind, perceptions, and hopes, people interconnected, in positive and negative ways, with neighbors, Jewish and gentile. As the historians do their work and as the parameters of contemporary life change, the Jewish heritage is rewritten. As the future changes, the past changes. Every generation of scholars are part of a joint process of reconfiguring the tissue that connects the Jewish past to a Jewish future which will probably be very different from anything now expected.
 Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993), p.3.(The book was revised in 1978.)
 Heinrich Graetz, The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays, translated and edited by Ismar Schorsch (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1975), pp. 63-124.
 Possibly once again in the homeland, according to the last paragraph of “The Structure of Jewish History.”
 Reprinted in The Structure of Jewish History, pp.275-302.
 Jonathan Frankel, “Assimilation and the Jews in
 Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer 1975), 336-37.
 “Haskalah as the Modernist Quest for Judaism,” in Lessons from History: Jewish Adjustments to New Realities, Occasional Papers in Jewish History and Thought, No. 5 (New York: Hunter College Jewish Social Studies Program, 1998), pp. 19-28.
 Simon Dubnov, History of the Jews, trans. Moshe Spiegel (South Brunswick, New Jersey: Thomas Yoseloff, 1975), Vol. 5, p.94.
 The Revolution of 1905, 2 vols. (Stanford University Press, 1994).
 “What the
 A Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees’ Search for the Kingdom Within (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1978).
 See Robert Goldenberg, “The Hellenistic Crucible of Rabbinic Judaism and its Modern Parallels,” in Lessons from History: Jewish Adjustments to New Realities, Occasional Papers in Jewish History and Thought, No. 5, pp. 12-28.
 Jews in Christian America: The Pursuit of Religious Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) and her other books on aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Jewish history.
 For bibliographical details and judicious selection of books on medieval and modern Jewish history, see the section edited by David B. Ruderman in The American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature (3rd edition), edited by Mary Beth Norton and Pamela Gerardi (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 704-723.
 Examples in recent Jewish historiography: Ezra Mendelsohn’s On Jewish Politics, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, and Ephraim Shmueli’s neglected Seven Jewish Cultures.
 A butterfly who returned for a while to caterpillar status is Eli Faber, who wrote the volume on Colonial Jewry for The Jewish People in America, edited by Henry Feingold and mentioned earlier, and recently has published Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
 “Reflections on Jewish Theology,” in Jews and Judaism in Crisis (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), p.258.