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Jewish History After the End of Ideology

by Robert M. Seltzer, Hunter College of The City University of New York

In 1953, Isaiah Berlin published a study of Tolstoy's philosophy of history entitled "The Hedgehog and the Fox." The title is based on fragment 301 of the seventh-century BCE Greek poet Archilocus: "The fox knows many things the hedgehog knows one big thing." At the beginning of his essay, Isaiah Berlin explained:

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.[1]

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."[2] 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.[3] 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 Canaan when, he expounded, the social dimension was in the foreground and the religious in the background. In the second phase, with the formation the Israelite kingdom and the building of the Temple, the religious factor gained more prominence. In the third phase (after the breakup of the united kingdom) it was elevated further by the rise of classical prophecy. A new cycle began with the Babylonian exile, which saw the complete disappearance of polytheism among a people now fully committed to the God-idea of Judaism. Then followed several sub-phases (the Hellenistic and Maccabean periods) in which the religious dimension became an independent reality. In the subsequent era, the talmudic system was sharpened to safeguard diaspora Judaism for its messianic mission among the nations. In the next (i.e., the medieval) sub-periods, the philosophical aggadah, Aristotelian philosophy, and other branches of medieval literature advanced the rational elaboration of the theological content of Judaism. In the modern period (I am skipping some sub-phases) the religious actions of Judaism -- the ceremonial and other laws - - are now open to full historical understanding. For Graetz, therefore, Jewish history was a process leading toward a full consciousness of what the initial substance and essence of Judaism had signified. Even as his generation of scholars culled the archives and libraries of Europe for manuscripts, inscriptions, charters, inculabula, and references to the Jews, ferreting out long-lost liturgical, poetic, and philosophical works and analyzing texts with the up-to-date tools of critical philology, they were laying out the achievements of each phase of Judaism in relation to this great mission: how did Philo and Judah ha-Nasi and Maimonides foster it, did the Kabbalah represent a retreat, was Spinoza a harbinger of the future and Shabbatai Zevi a destructive force, how did Moses Mendelsohn further Jewish progress and the Besht represent a step backward, and so forth. The spiritual dimension was always primary: in 1889 and 1890, at the end of his life, Graetz wrote a series of essays entitled "The Significance of Judaism for the Present and the Future" in the Jewish Quarterly Review, defending the ethical ideals of Judaism at the heart of Judaism and its continuing claim to loyalty.[4]

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."[5] 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. . . .[6]

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.[7]

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."[8] 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 Russia after the partitions of Poland is an example. In Dubnow's account, the tsarist regime was unrelentingly hostile to its Jewish subjects, except for the limited reforms of Alexander II. Recent studies by Abraham Ascher[9] and others indicate the contradictoriness of tsarist treatment of Jews: the pogroms were not merely a plot hatched by evil government officials to deflect social unrest onto a defenseless scapegoat but the result of a complex of forces that included, to be sure, reactionary elements of the administration and proto-fascist street gangs. They also were symptoms of inchoate popular resentment emerging during a time of vast social dislocation inasmuch as the Jews were convenient scapegoats during the growth of capitalism in Russia. But there were statesmen and even nobles who wanted Russia to be a modern Rechtstaat and who did not demonize the Jews. Were it not for World War I, the latter sector might well have turned out to be stronger than the former.

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.[10] 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),[11] 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.[12] 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 Zion. As a result of all these and other concerns, historians have abandoned the goal that motivated the exponents of Wissenschaft des Judentums who saw their work as clarifications of an "essence of Judaism." Rather, it is much more commonplace to think of Judaisms in history, branches of a family tree expressing the ethos of different times and places.

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 United States. The results so far can be seen in the five-volume Jewish People in America, edited by Henry Feingold for the centenary of the American Jewish Historical Society, or in the work of Naomi W. Cohen, which has opened up new windows to understanding the American Jewish past,[13] as well as the writings of Lloyd Gartner, Jonathan Sarna, Jeffrey Gurock, Leon Jick, and others. Almost every volume of Studies in Contemporary Jewry, published by Oxford University Press, presents a variety of new historiographical perspectives. The result is that we are acquiring deeper, more precisely detailed, increasingly refined knowledge about ever more sharply focused topics. The increasing fragmentation of advanced knowledge is a problem in almost every field. Are we not in danger, as a wag noted, of knowing more and more about less and less, until we know everything about nothing?[14]


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 universities, Britain, and Europe. No longer is Wissenschaft des Judentums confined as it was for so long to the modern rabbinic seminaries of America and Europe, a few specialized secular research institutions such as Yivo in Vilna, a handful of independent scholars in various countries, and in the Land of Israel to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and other Jewish institutions of higher learning. In America, despite the exponential growth of the last thirty years, there are only a few departments of Judaic studies but a plethora of interdisciplinary programs, drawing together courses on Jewish subjects from departments of history, sociology, anthropology, comparative literature, political science, religion, and sometimes art history, linguistics, and philosophy. Inevitably the work of faculty in these areas takes on the professional qualities of contemporary academe: specialization, meticulous research, interdisciplinary perspectives, sophisticated awareness of what is going on in the scholar's general field which is becoming increasingly divided into subspecialties and cross-methodological hybrids. Moreover, it is expected of academic scholars that they be skeptical, that they mistrust previous reconstructions, problematize their topics, ask unsettling questions, and reappraise issues long put aside. The promulgation of revisionist views is almost built into the scholarly mentality, as well as being a not-infrequent career tactic.

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 "postZionism" in Israel, actually a result of the achievement of the liberating goals of the last century: Jewish political emancipation in the diaspora and the establishment of a Jewish State in the homeland. The decline of ideological anti-Semitism, except in certain pockets of the diaspora and in the Arab world, the recognition that the Jewish people can have situational antagonists opposed to Jewish interests who are not pathological haters of "the Jew," efforts by leaders in almost every branch of Christianity to purge their traditions of anti-Jewish stereotypes -- all these developments indicate that the Jews are linked to the world in ways more complicated and less isolating than before. A new set of concerns now occupy Jewish opinion: the changed role of women in the Jewish family and the Jewish community, the increasing rate of intermarriage that results in a large number of families on the margins of Jewish ethnic and religious identity, the vacuum left by the demise of militantly secularist ideologies (mainly Marxism), and the rise of Jewish as well as Christian and Muslim fundamentalism -- these raise questions about the Jewish future for community activists and about the Jewish past for scholars. Finally, there is the shift in the cultural climate which is sometimes called postmodernism, a rejection of the very possibility of rational foundations and universal perspectives that undercuts the classical approaches to Jewish history and any holistic view of reality. Some postmodernists go so far as to propose that global truths are no longer possible, only local truths, only particular narratives, one's own story versus another's story. In my opinion, proclaiming an end to a universal framework is an unlikely solution in an age when humanity is moving toward the awareness of interconnections between the regions of the world and global in that we are increasingly conscious of the multi-dimensional network of connections between different aspects of human life. However, the decline of a Jewish consensus, the polarization of Orthodox and non-Orthodox, intellectual pluralism, fragmentation, and specialization of knowledge do problematize Jewish historical unity in ways quite different than those confronted by Graetz and Dubnow.

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 Berlin, Tolstoy said to a disciple in 1908, "History would be an excellent thing, if only it were true."[15] Yearning for a unitary vision was not unknown even to such a dyed-in-the-wool fox as Tolstoy. Imbued as they were with the desire to offer an integrated picture of the whole of Jewish history, Graetz and Dubnow were also masters of detailed knowledge in some important areas of study. In place of Archilocus's dichotomy as glossed by Isaiah Berlin, let me call your attention to another polarity, one which pays homage to change and the passage of time within a single species.

When I was a graduate student at Columbia a teacher of mine, Ihor Shevchenko, an eminent historian of Byzantine and early Russian history, proposed that historians be categorized as caterpillars or butterflies. Historians are caterpillars when they chew their way through the minutia of texts and documents, absorbing their juices line by line, detail by detail, fact by fact, in order to store up vital nutrition from which they spin their cocoons. Graduate students should note that for them there is no shortcut to avoid those caterpillar years of meticulous research: academic training mandates that we start out chomping away at the leaves in order eventually to defend a dissertation and deposit it the library as the major requirement of becoming a learned doctor, and then to distribute it to a larger public as published articles or a monograph. But graduate students should take heart that the caterpillar mode can give way to another state of being if the cocoon breaks open and out flies a butterfly, a historian able to soar, with his or her newly formed wings of knowledge and insight, to take in large vistas and the grand panorama.[16] The ideal regimen for the scholarly life is to alternate between the butterfly and caterpillar modes,[17] to see the big picture while maintaining a permanent respect for historical objectivity and exactitude. Gershom Scholem could be an exemplary model in twentieth-century Jewish studies.

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."[18] 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 Temple, the dynasties of David and Aaron, the laws of ritual purity and tithing, the heavenly palaces, the sefirot). Some lines in the Jewish web extend beyond the perimeter to be links to the representations of other traditions (the psalms, the sabbath, the End of Days, the Last Judgment, the resurrection of the dead, the messiah, God's heavenly book, the angels). There are strands which entered Judaism from without (the lighting of lamps near the winter solstice, gilgul or metempsychosis, yarzeit, the portable huppa, beloved Jewish melodies actually derived from other cultures, bagels and lox). There are stretches of particularly dense weaving (Sassanian Babylon, the world of the East European shtetl) and others that are virtually translucent (the Alexandria of Philo, fin de siecle Vienna). There are terrible rents in the fabric (1492 and 1496), ugly knots and sutures (1648, 1938 to 1945). And there are intricate, abstruse patterns found when the tapestry is x-rayed with the proper equipment or examined with the help of Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Kantian or other intellectual filters. The last are the formidable philosophical and theological constructions that Hermann Cohen called "idealizations" of Judaism, constructions of Jewish thought that are umbilically connected to use a different image to the matrix from which they emerge. In the evaluation of these, we go beyond history, which can be used to criticize the factual accuracy of these formulations but not their metaphysical truth. The adequacy of these philosophical idealizations require other than purely historical criteria for their evaluation: logical, ontological, and experiential modes of analysis.

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.

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[1] 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.)

[2] 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.

[3] Possibly once again in the homeland, according to the last paragraph of “The Structure of Jewish History.”

[4] Reprinted in The Structure of Jewish History, pp.275-302.

[5] Jonathan Frankel, “Assimilation and the Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Towards a New Historiography?” In Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe, edited by Jonathan Frankel and Steven J. Zipperstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 4.

[6] Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer 1975), 336-37.

[7] “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.

[8] Simon Dubnov, History of the Jews, trans. Moshe Spiegel (South Brunswick, New Jersey: Thomas Yoseloff, 1975), Vol. 5, p.94.

[9] The Revolution of 1905, 2 vols. (Stanford University Press, 1994).

[10] “What the Dead Sea Scrolls Do Not Tell,” Commentary (November 1998), pp. 49-53.

[11] A Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees’ Search for the Kingdom Within (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1978).

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] 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.

[15]Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox, p.15. See also p.41.

[16] 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.

[17] 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).

[18] “Reflections on Jewish Theology,” in Jews and Judaism in Crisis (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), p.258.


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