A Jewish Historical Agenda?

Jews never invented the study or writing of “history,” but they did invent the idea of a beginning and an end for mankind as a whole.

Jewish prisoners outside Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, as depicted in Flight of the Prisoners by James Tissot, c. 1896-1902. Jewish Museum.
Jewish prisoners outside Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, as depicted in Flight of the Prisoners by James Tissot, c. 1896-1902. Jewish Museum.
Last Word
Aug. 27 2018
About the author

Eric Mechoulan is a professor of history and geography in Paris.


My deep thanks to Jon D. Levenson and Hillel Halkin for their penetrating and thought-provoking responses to my essay, “What Is the Meaning of Jewish History?” In what follows, I draw on each of them in an effort to advance further our mutual understanding of the issues involved in any attempt to answer the question raised by my title.

To begin: at the core of any reflection on the Jewish conception of history is its opposition to the Greek approach that, broadly speaking, lies at the root of modern academic history. For the Greeks, as Hillel Halkin rightly reminds us, history is “the embracing study of past events that seeks to describe and understand them, the connections among them, and the motives and mores of those involved in them.”

The Greeks taught us the love of knowledge for its own sake. As a historian myself, I cannot but stress my ongoing gratitude to Herodotus and his successors. As a Jew, however, I must stipulate that this form of knowledge of past events doesn’t help me to become a better human being or a better member of society and citizen of the world, as the Jewish ethical ideal equips one to be.

Halkin takes me to task for writing that “the very idea of history was a Jewish invention” rather than a Greek one. Please allow me to clarify. Jews never invented the study or writing of “history.” They invented the idea of a beginning and an end for mankind as a whole, based on a teleological belief in humanity’s ability—in the end—to live by justice and not by violence. For the talmudic sages, “history” starts with the base condition—Cain’s killing of Abel without even talking to him—and will end in messianic times. The procession, in other words, moves from the absolute impossibility to handle what we would call “otherness” to a general peace among all human beings.

Halkin calls this the idea of “divine purpose.” I would prefer to call it an ambitious objective. Believing that it was achievable, and adhering to a line of conduct laid down by Jewish scholars through millennia of debate and discussion over how best to create a feasible and convincing life model of it, this objective became an essential element of Jewish faith. That is why the sages, in contrast to Greek historians, decided that “human achievements” per se were not all equally worthy of being remembered as meaningful. Jews invented the meaning of events they wished to remember—for the sake not of remembering, but of teaching.

In this connection, I welcome and appreciate Jon D. Levenson’s reservations about my use of the term “progress” in writing of the Jewish “idea of a history that is not a simple succession of events but a progress of mankind toward an accomplished purpose.” True enough, the word “progress” encompasses too many different concepts; in the limited framework of my article, I just couldn’t find a better one. Reinforcing the point, Levenson also helpfully points out that at least as far as the Bible is concerned, “Just as there is fluidity between ancestor and descendants, there is fluidity among what we moderns call past, present, and future.” To this I would only add the reminder that the cyclicality of the Jewish calendar doesn’t mean that Jews ever conceived of history itself as cyclical.

 

When I was a history student, my greatest professor taught me that “history is only what historians write.” By virtue of their intellectual integrity and their rigorous methodology, he expounded, some individuals have granted themselves the right and acquired the monopoly to tell others what the past is made of. Like it or not, history is thus to be seen as a literary activity. To be sure, the Greeks may have convinced some of us that past events have a consistency of their own, but events per se don’t truly exist until we historians write about them.

By the same token, according to this line of thought, a supposed “event” that is not reported also doesn’t exist per se. Such is the fate of so many wars in Africa, ignored just because in the entire continent there were no historians centuries ago and few Western journalists even today. In fact, there are as many or more historians and journalists in Israel alone—prompting the incidental question of whether academic history can explain why Israel is such an obsession for the world.

What can be said about historians in general can also be said about different genres of historiography. Until the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the great victory of England over France at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 counted for historians as an “event,” but Agincourt’s village carnival did not. Then along came the “Annales school” to teach us that there might be more to learn in social history than in the histories of kings and wars, and to shift our focus to the facts of everyday life throughout the ages. In the life of European monks and bondsmen, a major military event like Agincourt changed little. In driving home this lesson, young “Annales” historians also settled accounts with their elders.

In other words, historical “curiosity,” to use Halkin’s favored term, is always situated within what is today known as an “agenda.” And that agenda, as he himself notes, determines the “interpretation of [events], a point of view that gives them shape and meaning.” Levenson clarifies further: “all scholars have agendas, though not all agendas withstand critique equally well.”

My point was to assume that there could be a Jewish agenda, one driven by what I called a “Jewish spirit.” Halkin misconstrues me here as contending that “contemporary Jewish historians have failed to provide” any shape or meaning to events; but I do contend (as he correctly goes on) that most of their work “does not help—does not wish to help—its readers to understand the purpose of Jewish existence.” In the best possible case, I would impute that deliberate neglect to professional respect for a stance of academic neutrality; in the worst possible case, to a dishonesty as egregious as that of the Israeli “new historians” whom Halkin and I abjure.

 

In the end, Halkin regards an agenda driven by a “Jewish spirit” as illegitimate, while Levenson, for his part, deems it unrealistic. Before trying to define more precisely what I mean by it, let me address their twofold criticism.

Halkin asks: “What exactly . . . is a ‘Jewish spirit’? . . . What criteria are we to use?” And he answers immediately: “As far as I can see, [the question] is unanswerable—or rather, it has as many answers as there are different opinions concerning what Jewishness is or should be about.”

In this, Halkin embodies the post-Enlightenment and postmodern position according to which there is no such thing as Judaism, only “Judaisms”—that is, as I characterize this position in my essay, “the randomly constructed Jewish identity of given communities at given times in given places.” But it is worth recalling that before the opening of European universities to Jews, the answer to the question of what Jewishness “is or should be about” was perfectly clear to both Jews and Gentiles. A Jew was a human being who accepted the yoke of the Torah, meaning the disciplined life framed by rites and codes that was most of the time policed by rabbis (no one would openly break halakhic rules in the shtetl) and/or enforced by Gentile authorities who prevented Jews from entering their society until the end of the 18th century.

In that sense, beyond superficial differences in practices and customs, the notion of “Judaisms” is a pure artifact and an imposition onto the past of late-modern Western mental structures. To be clear, I don’t mean here that rational thinking can’t understand the tenets of Judaism. I mean that rational thinking can’t exhaust the Jewish spirit; something always remains out of reach. The negation of this spirit out of ignorance or ideology is, just like the debate over Jewishness itself, a byproduct of non-Jewish thinking, as is the correlative belief that whatever is Jewish is particularistic and non-universal.

Turning now to Jon Levenson, for him it seems clear that the rift between “collective Jewish memory”—that is, the Jewish spirit—and academic scholarship has brought us to a point of no return. For myself, not only do I acknowledge the value of academic thinking but I claim membership in that fraternity. Nevertheless, I also express the hope of finding a way toward, if not reconciliation, then at least accommodation.

The path would begin by acknowledging the failure of the Western world, less than three centuries after the beginning of the Enlightenment, to live by its own universal values, and the related failures of rationality and knowledge alone as principles for the organization of society. Next steps would involve an effort to find a meaning in the events of Jewish history—not “the finger of God,” but a meaning for which we are responsible as Jews—that can be acknowledged by academic historians.

When, in 1573, Azariah de’Rossi boldly and for the first time employed a critical and rational method for calculating and dating historical events in his pathbreaking work M’or Eynayim, he was harshly criticized by rabbis for wantonly pointing out inconsistencies in hallowed texts and subverting the traditional conception of time. Today, positions are reversed: when so-called “religious Zionists” see the rebirth of the state of Israel as an event going beyond the trivial entanglement of causes and consequences, “serious” historians harshly criticize them for refusing to acknowledge that the Jewish rebirth is simply to be likened to the reunification of Italy or Germany in the 19th century and to parallel instances of decolonization.

In brief, if rabbis are wrong to fear critical thinking and to regard it as a threat to their faith, Jewish academics are wrong to consider “vital Jewish concerns” as of lesser value than the rigor of their methodology. As Levenson wisely puts it: “The whole truth is larger than either traditional memory or modern critical historiography can accommodate alone.”

 

To conclude: in response to Jon Levenson’s view that my approach is “incommensurable” both with academic scholarship and “with secularity in general,” I again freely admit that there is no immediate way to reconcile the two. But I maintain that bridges are possible.

At the micro level, we might take as an example the Jewish way of organizing communities in exile and what it may teach us in general about handling human interests and passions in terms of values. At the macro level, we might investigate how ancient Hebrews, exilic Jews, and modern Israelis have dealt through the ages with the issue of otherness.

In that sense, the agenda must be a truly universal one. Levenson’s approach, which he characterizes as “dialectical rather than integrative,” would be best here, dependent as it is on the mutual recognition that “both gains and losses . . . come from examining any historical phenomenon as either a committed insider or a disinterested outsider.” To me, the very existence of religiously observant Jewish scholars and intellectuals in various academic fields shows that such a dialectical approach is possible so long as the agenda is transparent and intellectual honesty and good will reign on all sides.

Finally, in response to Hillel Halkin’s fear of too much Jewish self-involvement, and his desire as a secular Zionist that Jews be “more like other people, not less like them,” I would share with him my fear of a global “religious” movement among the Jewish people that would be obscurantist in the fashion of many ultra-Orthodox communities today, a movement gaining strength as postmodern nihilism continues to corrode traditional Western values. But contrary to his feeling about my own, supposedly religiously informed wish for history written in a “Jewish spirit,” I do not agree with Halkin that my term is so loose that it could also apply equally well to Jewish history written “from an anti-Zionist religious or from an anti-religious Zionist point of view.”

For one thing, an anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jew would probably not be writing “history” in the first place. For another, a dyed-in-the-wool secular Zionist Jew would just as likely not be writing “Jewish” history. Indeed, the secular Zionist objective of, in Halkin’s words, “redefining the Jewish people in purely national-territorial rather than religious terms” was doomed from the start, and for a simple reason: like their Jewish and Israeli successors today, the ancient Hebrews were the first people to define themselves by a law before they got a land. The idea that Israel can ever be defined solely by its attachment to a land is a longstanding figment of the secular Zionist imagination. The most I can say for it is that there is always some kind of grandeur in lost causes.

Curiosity being the essential feature of Greek thought in Halkin’s eyes, he logically concludes with an injunction: “let’s be curious!” In other words: let’s be Greeks. My point was to say: let’s be Jews! Or at least try.

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More about: History & Ideas, Jewish history