Jews and Their Historians

By Yehudah Mirsky
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Over the last two centuries, Jewish identity has assumed an often bewildering variety of forms—religious, political, social, and cultural. One form, insufficiently recognized as such, is the study of Jewish identity, especially as filtered through Jewish history. Its main means of expression is the academic enterprise known as Jewish Studies, a field that in turn comprises a variety of specific schools and thinkers.

A new book by Michael Brenner, Prophets of the Past, offers the first comprehensive history of this field, from its origins in the early 19th century to the present.  In telling his story, Brenner, who teaches at the University of Munich, steers clear of the details of particular debates—who edited the Talmud? why was Spinoza excommunicated?—in favor of tracing the fundamental arguments advanced by scholars and the underlying conceptions of Jewish identity that shaped them. The result is a richly researched, fluidly written, and fair-minded account of a wealth of scholarship, ideas, and personalities.

The story begins with the emergence of Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scholarly-scientific study of Judaism, in early 19th-century Germany. Initiated by a cadre of extraordinarily erudite young men—the leading names were Leopold Zunz and Abraham Geiger—this school produced works depicting Judaism more as a religion than as a nationality, and thus as eminently suitable to the new order of European nation-states and the civic equality advocated by proponents of Emancipation.  

Later in the century, in the wake of Romanticism and the uneven results of Emancipation, Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) in his multi-volume History of the Jews drew upon a richer emotional palette. To Graetz, Jewish religion was inextricable from peoplehood, with the two woven together in "a history of suffering and learning." This characterization became a staple of Jewish cultural discourse.

The national dimension moved significantly closer to central stage in the minds of Jewish historians in Eastern Europe, where group identity was in any case inescapable. In the writings of Simon Dubnow (1860-1941), nationalism emerged, indeed, as the defining element of Jewishness.  The YIVO Institute, established in Warsaw Vilna in 1925, sought to archive and chronicle the whole of Eastern European Jewish life in all its facets.  

National identity was no less salient in the histories produced by the "Jerusalem School" of historians like Yitzhak Baer, Ben-Zion Dinur, and their disciples at the new Hebrew University of Jerusalem (founded in 1925).  One measure of Zionism's success would be the willingness of Israeli historians, especially the greatest of them—Jacob Katz  and Gershom Scholem—to write unapologetically and critically about Jewish communal life, religious tradition, and even the shortcomings of Jewish academic scholarship itself. 

And then there was the "American" school. Writing in New York, for example, Salo Baron (1895-1989), regarded by some as the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century, inveighed against "the lachrymose conception of Jewish history" that he associated above all with Graetz.  Trenchantly, Baron argued that medieval Jewish life was richer and livelier than one would know from that period's dire martyrologies. By contrast, when it came to modern Europe, Baron maintained, presciently, that Emancipation had been much more of a devil's bargain than most modern Jews cared to admit. 

Alongside these better-known figures, Brenner presents the life and work of a host of lesser-known figures, from the first modern Jewish feminist historians in Weimar Germany to the scholars who kept writing and publishing up to and through the Holocaust. (Curiously, he devotes much less attention to the massive field of Holocaust history itself.) Throughout, his chronicle of the chroniclers amply demonstrates that the varieties of Jewish history-writing reflect the scholars' own circumstances, the ideological programs they sought to promote, and their relation to the different constituent elements of modern Jewish identity—religion, nation, peoplehood, Zionism, Orthodoxy, social justice—in all their permutations.  Even as there is no denying the scholarly integrity and enduring analytic value of the historians' work, we must reckon with those contexts and commitments if we are fully to understand their thoughts and conclusions.

And today's historians? In the postmodern dispensation, many scholars seem obsessed with notions of subjectivity, ideology, and power—placing little or no credence in evidence-based assertions at all, including about what the term "Jew" means. Indeed, Brenner traces a paradoxical resemblance between Orthodox and postmodern historiography, both of which are unabashed about their political and theological agendas and reject the very idea of "objective" scholarship.  

All in all, Brenner's own conclusion seems eminently sensible. Historians, he writes, should be "able to take a certain distance on their objects without denying their own standpoints." Even now—and especially now—the enterprise of Jewish historical writing has a crucial role to play in the articulation of Jewish identity and belief. The most enduring works of Jewish scholarship have striven to balance thorough knowledge of the sources with a nuanced appreciation of the gulfs dividing the present from the past and a critical awareness of one's own philosophical and ideological disposition. Which, come to think of it, is not a bad recipe for a responsible form of modern Jewish identity itself.

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