Jewish Historiography Research Paper

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1. Biblical Traditions Of History Writing

Together with the historical traditions of ancient Greece the Hebrew Bible contains the oldest corpus of historical writings. While not all of the various books which entered the Jewish biblical canon reveal a strong sense of history, quite a few—such as Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles—are primarily historical accounts. In contrast to the Greek historians, the authors and editors of the Bible were interested not in recording history but in giving a theological sense to history. The numerous biblical passages which command the Jews to remember (zakhor) do not imply a special interest in history itself but express a definition of the Jews as a historical people held together first and foremost by its will to observe its historically revealed laws and to remember its common history. God is described in terms of His historical deeds. He is the ‘God of the fathers’ and ‘Your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.’

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With the canonization of the Hebrew Bible in the second century CE (Christian Era) Jewish historical writing undertakes a clear shift. The first century CE produces the last major Jewish historical writings for about 15 centuries. In a historical work, of which only two out of five parts survived, Philo of Alexandria describes the persecution of Egyptian Jews by the Roman governor Flaccus and the delegation of Alexandrian Jews (including himself) to the emperor Caligula. The most important historian in this period is Flavius Josephus, whose account of the Jewish War against Rome in 66–73 CE was written a few years later in Roman exile and—together with his Antiquities—stands in the tradition of Roman rather than Jewish historiography.

2. Historical Thought In Rabbinic Literature And Medieval Sources

There is hardly a more telling symptom for the decline of Jewish historical writing than the fact that Josephus’ histories fell into oblivion among the Jews during the Talmudic period. The same holds true for many historical accounts which did not enter the Jewish Biblical canon, such as the Books of the Maccabees, which describe the rise of the Hasmoneans against Hellenism. Preserved by non-Jews, they were rediscovered by Jews only in the sixteenth century. During the Middle Ages the history of the Second Temple period—beyond the Biblical accounts themselves—was known among Jews in rather distorted versions of the original accounts, such as the Book of Antiochus and the tenth-century Book of Yossipon (believed to be Josephus’ original account), both produced in southern Italy.

The Talmud, which was to become the single most important source for Rabbinic Judaism over the centuries, is unhistorical in its nature. Although this vast corpus contains quite a few passages of historical value, its editors reveal no special interest in the chronology of events. Thus, rabbis of different centuries are made to engage in conversations, and biblical events are often presented out of their chronological order.

Medieval Jewish historical thought is framed by the memory of the biblical past on the one hand and by the longing for a messianic future on the other hand. The time span between a golden past and an ideal future is usually interpreted with clear reference to the biblical course of events. Biblical place names like Ashkenaz and Sefarad designate European countries, Christianity is Edom, and Islam is Yishmael. Vicious rulers are called Haman, like the archetypical biblical villain from the Book of Esther, and saviors are termed Mordechai after the hero of the same story. Messianic expectations led to concrete calculations about the End of the Days, and contemporary tragedies were often seen as the birthpangs of the Messianic Age.

Altogether, traditional Jewish historical thought as expressed in Rabbinic literature and medieval sources reveals at least a partly cyclical understanding of time. Every year when celebrating Passover observant Jews remember the exodus from Egypt, and during three annual days of fasting they mourn the destruction of Jerusalem. Each rescue from persecution is regarded a new Purim (in commemoration of the Book of Esther). Every Sabbath morning a weekly portion of the Pentateuch is read in the synagogue, thus reviving sequentially each year the historical accounts of the Five Books of Moses.

The most prominent genre of historical writing during the Middle Ages was the chronologies, which often tried to establish a reliable ‘chain of tradition’ (shalshelet hakabbala) from Moses through the leading Rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud and up to the authors’ own time and place. They constituted a refutation of the anti-Talmudic challenge made by the Karaite sect and at the same time underlined the importance of the local Jewish community in which they were produced. Examples of this genre are the Letter of R. Sherira b. Hanina from the academy at Pumbedita in Babylonia, who in the late tenth century responded to scholars from Kairouan, and the twelfthcentury Sefer Hakabbala (Book of Tradition) of the Spanish scholar Abraham ibn Daud. A stronger emphasis on contemporary events can be seen in the detailed accounts of the Crusade massacres concerning the cruelties which befell the Jewish communities of the Rhineland in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Among the most popular sources reflecting medieval and early modern Jewish historical thought in Central Europe were Memor Books, which contain collections of prayers together with a necrology of distinguished persons, and recorded local martyrs and persecutions. The oldest known Memor Book is from Mainz and dates back to 1296. A few hundred Memor Books are extant, mainly from seventeenth-century rural communities in southern Germany.

3. Sixteenth-Century Jewish Historiography As A Response To Catastrophe

The sixteenth century saw a sudden upsurge of Jewish historical writing with the publication of 10 important historical works, more than all of those known to us from the Middle Ages. Quantitatively as well as qualitatively the development was significant, with a new interest in history itself, as Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi demonstrated in his seminal study Zakhor (1989). Writers like Yosef ha-Kohen, Abraham Zacuto, and Samuel Usque wrote in the wake of the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal (1492 and 1497), which affected not only their own lives but also completed the wave of expulsions of Jews from Western Europe. The new search for explanation is apparent in their writings, perhaps most pointedly in Solomon ibn Verga’s She et Yehuda (The Staff of Judah, 1554), but also in the historical oeuvre of the only Ashkenazic author of this group, David Gans from Prague. His Tsemah Da id (Offspring of David, 1592) contains the most precise account of Jewish and world history undertaken by a Jewish author until that time.

The Italian Jew, Azaria de’ Rossi, who completed his Me’or Enayim (A Light to the Eyes, 1573–5) at about the same time, has the merit of recovering ancient sources that had been lost to Jewish tradition because they did not enter the biblical canon. Among them are works by Philo of Alexandria and the apocryphal Letter of Aristeas. For the first time the historical interest of Jewish writers did not concentrate on the biblical past or speculations about the messianic future but dealt with the concrete history of the Jews during recent centuries and in their own time. These authors also showed a genuine interest in the histories of other nations. The impact of their work on later Jewish historiography was, however, minimal. It was only as a result of the encounter with academic scholarship in the early nineteenth century that modern Jewish history writing developed.

4. The Beginnings Of Modern Jewish Scholarship And Critical Historiography In The Nineteenth Century

The beginnings of modern Jewish scholarship can be dated to the small circle of Jewish university students from Berlin who founded the Verein fur Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden in 1819. Leopold Zunz, the leading spirit of this group and the dominant figure in the field which would become known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, published in 1818 a systematic agenda for modern Jewish research under the title ‘Etwas ueber die rabbinische Literatur’ (On Rabbinic Literature). The study of history, which had been marginal in the works of eighteenth-century Jewish enlighteners (maskilim), now became a central pillar of Jewish scholarly enterprise. From the beginning, a certain apologetic character was inherent in many attempts at reclaiming the Jewish past. As Immanuel Wolf, a founding member of the Verein expressed it: ‘Scientific knowledge of Judaism must decide on the merits and demerits of the Jews, their fitness or unfitness to be given the same status and respect as other citizens.’

In a more direct way, the scholarly studies of Leopold Zunz served as instruments to achieve emancipation for German Jews. Like Wolf, Zunz believed that ‘the equality of the Jews in customs and life will follow from the equality of Wissenschaft des Judentums’. In his Gottesdienstliche Vortrage der Juden, historisch entwickelt (1832), he documented the long tradition of Jewish sermonic literature, thus rebutting the Prussian government’s dismissal of German synagogue sermons as innovations in Jewish liturgy. Five years later, in his study on Jewish surnames, Die Namen der Juden, Zunz proved the ancient origin of many ‘non-Jewish’ names among Jews and thus reverted to a decree which forbade the use of Christian first names among Jews.

It would, however, not do justice to the enormous enterprise of nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums to view it predominantly under the aspect of apologetics, as did later critics, especially Zionists, most prominently Gershom Scholem. Another important motif for the pioneers of Jewish historiography was to retrieve the lost treasures of the past for a rapidly assimilating Jewish community as a means of strengthening their particular identity as modern Jews. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes, ‘History becomes what it had never been before—the faith of fallen Jews’ (1989, p. 86). Finally, the purely scholarly interest in the Jewish past at a time in which history writing and reading became one of the most popular intellectual endeavors should not be disregarded.

There was no bridge between those first scholarly accounts of Jewish history and earlier Jewish writing. It was through the non-Jewish world that historiography entered Jewish writing. Consequently, it was not a Jew, but a Protestant French author in Dutch exile, Jacques Basnage, who wrote the first multivolume postbiblical Jewish history. He characterized his Histoire du peuple Juif depuis Jesus Christ jusqu’a present … (1706–11, rev. edn., 1716–21) in his subtitle as a continuation of Josephus, and there was indeed some truth to this statement. To be sure, his account would in no way measure up to modern scholarly standards, and was still full of missionary intentions, but it was nevertheless the first serious attempt to write a comprehensive postbiblical Jewish history.

5. Political Agendas And The Writing Of Jewish History

The first Jewish writer to embark on such an endeavor was Isaak Markus Jost, a member of the Verein fur Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden and one of the pioneers of Wissenschaft des Judentums. The modern secular education he received as a student at Berlin and Goettingen is visible in his attempt to present a sober and objective view of Jewish history in his ninevolume Geschichte der Israeliten seit der Zeit der Maccabaer bis auf unsere Tage (1820–28). Jost’s work is clearly centered on the German-Jewish experience and draws a picture of Judaism as a religion which has lost all its original national characteristics. Depicting modern Jews as a purely religious community was part of the larger German-Jewish struggle for Emancipation. The title of his later work, the three-volume Geschichte des Judentums und seiner Sekten reveals the urge to present Judaism as a religion analogous to Christianity.

When Heinrich Graetz wrote his 11-volume Geschichte der Juden on den altesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart—the most popular such history ever written—one generation later (1853–76), he deviated from the early works of Wissenschaft des Judentum representatives in his stronger emphasis on the existence of a Jewish people and by a more passionate presentation. Although he was later claimed as a proto-Zionist writer, it is important to note that his definition of the Jewish nation is that of a community held together by an essentially religious idea. Like Jost, for whom modern Jewish history begins with the enlightened Prussian monarch Frederick the Great, Graetz located the beginnings of Jewish modernity in Germany, with the appearance of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the Berlin Jewish Enlightenment.

It was not until the late nineteenth century that a clear break from the earlier Germanocentric view of Jewish history and from the strong emphasis upon a ‘history of suffering and scholarship’ (Graetz) appeared in the work of the Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnow. His 10-volume World History of the Jewish People was written in Russian but published first in German translation (1925–29). Motivated partly by his own political agenda—he was the founder of the autonomist Jewish movement which represented Jewish diaspora nationalism in eastern Europe—his version of Jewish history centered on institutions of Jewish life in the diaspora, most notably the kehilla, the semi-autonomous Jewish community.

Dubnow was also among the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research—an institution established in Berlin and Vilnius in 1925 to systematically research the Jewish past and present in Eastern Europe and other Ashkenazic communities. In contrast to the traditional German dominance of nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums and to Hebrew-language Zionist scholarship, the YIVO deliberately presented its research in Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe.

From the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish historiography was increasingly influenced by new subdisciplines of Wissenschaft des Judentums, such as ethnography, sociology, and demography. The Gesellschaft fuer Juedische Volkskunde, a society of Jewish folkloristics founded in 1898 and led by the Hamburg rabbi Max Grunwald, played a pioneering role in the scholarly research of Jewish folk traditions around the globe. Its journal, the Mitteilungen fuer Juedische Volkskunde, published the most important findings in the field for almost three deacades (1898–1929). In Russia, an expedition to the traditional communities of the Ukraine led by the playwright and folklorist An-Ski from 1912 to 1915 was the culmination of a long search for the remnants of rural Jewish life.

Jewish demographers created their own institutional framework when they established an Office for Statistics among the Jews in Berlin, which from 1904 published its own journal and was closely related to the burgeoning interest in Jewish sociology best expressed in the pioneering works of Arthur Ruppin. Most of these endeavors were clearly related to the ‘Jewish Renaissance’ propounded by the emerging Zionist movement. Zionist scholars reacted against what they alleged to be the orientation of nineteenthcentury Jewish scholars exclusively to the Jewish past and broadened their interest to include contemporary issues within their research.

After the establishment of the Hebrew University in 1925, scholars with a Zionist outlook formed a vaguely connected group of Jewish historians, sometimes referred to as the ‘Jerusalem School,’ emphasizing the centrality of Palestine in the course of Jewish history. Their most outspoken representative was the later Israeli minister of education Benzion Dinur (Dunaburg), who in 1935 helped to establish the most important Hebrew-language historical journal, Zion (an earlier series of the journal had been aborted), together with the first professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, German-born Yitshak (Fritz) Baer.

From the very early works of Zionist historiography, usually written by Zionist activists who were not professional historians (such as Nahum Sokolov and Adolf Bohm), a teleological view of history leading to the return to the Jewish homeland is clearly visible. At the same time, the Jewish past in the Land of Israel is placed in the center of interest at the expense of diaspora history. In contrast to most historians, Benzion Dinur thus commences the period of exile not with the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century CE but much later, with the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the seventh century CE. In a similar vein, he concludes the period of diaspora domination as early as 1700, when a group of pious Jews from Eastern Europe made their way to Palestine. In his History of Zionism, 1600–1918 (1919) Nahum Sokolov anachronistically dates the Zionist movement back to the seventeenth century.

While Dubnow’s conception of Jewish history represented a corporate view of Jewish diaspora life and the Jerusalem School emphasized the centrality of Palestine, the last historian who attempted a singlehanded multi-volume universal Jewish history, Salo Wittmayer Baron, stood for a more positive approach to individuals’ diaspora experience. His 16-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews (1952–76) reaches only the year 1650. His more affirmative view of the diaspora was certainly influenced by his own experience of spending most of his life in the United States, where he was appointed in 1930 as the first professor of Jewish history at a Western university, Columbia University in New York.

Jewish historiography has thus to a large extent been determined by the political context, the geographical situation, and the ideological and religious outlook of the respective historians. Since all these factors differed considerably in the Jewish world, the outcome was a highly diverse array of Jewish historical writing – even though, at least up until the second half of the twentieth century, most of those who undertook to write Jewish history were themselves Jews. The destruction of European Jewry, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the flourishing of Jewish studies in the United States led to an entirely new situation for Jewish historiography after World War II.

6. Twentieth-Century Trends

With the exception of Baron no single historian embarked on a monumental Jewish history project in the tradition of Jost, Graetz, and Dubnow in the course of the twentieth century. There were a few attempts to publish Jewish world histories as collective enterprises, as early as the ambitious plan developed by Ismar Elbogen of the Berlin Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in the late 1920s; these, however, fell victim to the economic and political crisis of the early 1930s. More successful, but for financial reasons also never completed, was a multi-volume project initiated by scholars of the Hebrew University.

After World War II Jewish history became more and more a field for specialists who would concentrate on limited areas and periods. This tendency toward specialization was also the result of an increasing professionalization and acceptance of the subject as a distinct field to be taught at university level, with new centers emerging in Israel and the United States. Until the 1960s, the teaching of Jewish history in the US had been restricted to a handful of universities and a few institutions with a strong emphasis on Jewish education, such as rabbinical seminaries and Jewish teachers’ colleges or the Jewish-sponsored Brandeis University. With the establishment of new Israeli universities the singular role of the Hebrew University in Israel diminished, while a true explosion in the field of Jewish studies enabled a similar diversification at American universities beginning in the 1970s. European institutes of higher learning followed to a more modest degree in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2000, Jewish history had become a highly specialized and diversified field represented at almost every major institution of higher learning in the United States and many European countries.

This development led to a more complex picture of Jewish historiography. The personalities and political programs of individual historians and the formations of more or less clearly defined schools no longer dominate the professional scene. Zionist historians who had fought an ideological battle over Jewish history, mostly against their non-Zionist Jewish colleagues, up to the 1930s were essentially left without opponents as a result of the Holocaust and the destruction of alternative Jewish options, such as diaspora nationalism and Bundist socialism. In the State of Israel, apologetical historiography (now mainly directed against Arab and British versions of the history of Palestine) did not entirely disappear but was more and more balanced by the emergence of a younger generation of historians, by whom the existence of the Jewish state was already taken for granted. This resulted in a gradual break with long-accepted notions rather than an intellectual revolution as more and more historians and sociologists of a new postwar generation attacked the older schools of Zionist historiography in the 1980s and 1990s.

While mainly questioning issues of Israeli history or prehistory, such as the role of the Zionist leadership in Palestine with respect to attempts at the rescue of European Jewry in World War II, and the accepted notions surrounding the first Arab–Israeli War in 1948–49, the views of the so-called ‘New Historians’ also challenge more general Zionist notions of Jewish history. In a highly politicized context the two sides of the ‘Israeli Historians’ Debate’ stand not only for different views on Jewish or Israeli history but mark also different paths for Israel’s political future. In contrast to Israeli historiography, which has been dominated by a classical left-liberal Zionist intellectual establishment, the ‘new’ historians and sociologists often represent a post-Zionist stance and as such constitute a major challenge to the master narrative of Jewish and Zionist history.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, Jewish historiography moved from its early Germanocentric and later Eurocentric emphases to a stronger integration of widely neglected communities. In particular, the histories of Jews in the Muslim world have slowly been integrated into the general picture. This is partly the result of the emergence, mainly in Israel, of historians of oriental background, but also of the establishment of a few academic positions concentrating on Sephardic Jewry at American universities. It was in the United States, where the history of Jewish women emerged as a subfield of gender studies, with significant publications in the 1990s about Jewish women in Imperial Germany and in the United States, and a historical encyclopedia of Jewish women. New trends among general historians, including postmodern ideologies, have also left their imprint on Jewish historiography.

Europe, too, witnessed a revival of Jewish historical scholarship in the 1990s. The larger Jewish communities of Western Europe, France and Britain, emerged as new centers of Jewish scholarship, although most of the historical studies there deal with their respective national Jewish histories. Central and East European institutions relating to the Jewish past were destroyed by the Nazi onslaught, together with those who participated in them. Ironically, the Nazis entered into much more systematic Jewish historical research than non-Jewish scholars had done in the Imperial and Weimar periods; they established research institutes for Jewish history in Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin. Studies undertaken there, however, were preoccupied not with Jewish history per se, but with the so-called ‘Jewish Question’ and sought to justify Nazi discrimination and persecution against the Jews from a pseudo-scholarly perspective.

It is interesting to note, though, that some of the research begun there—especially on the Court Jews and on Sephardic Jews in Hamburg—was published with only slight alterations in the 1950s. More modern Jewish historical research in Germany developed as a result of the establishment of the first Jewish Studies institutes and of the emergence, starting in the 1960s, of a new interest in German–Jewish history among modern German historians. While Jewish history is mainly written by Jewish historians and for a Jewish public both in prewar Europe and in today’s Israel and America, the postwar European situation is different. With only small Jewish communities, research is mainly undertaken by non-Jewish scholars, and mainly read by non-Jews.

7. Major Issues In Modern Jewish Historiography

Perhaps even more than scholars of other particular histories Jewish historians have been divided by a set of fundamental questions. First of all, there is the question of whether Jewish history exists at all or whether the history of Jews merely constitutes a chapter within the histories of the nations among whom they lived. If Jewish history exists in a broader sense, the question arises whether it is the history of a people or a purely religious history—or whether at some point the national history turned into a religious history. Finally, an additional problem of Jewish history is its theological interpretation by some modern Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers, which makes Jewish history appear as though it escapes the regular laws of history. This last argument is strengthened by the conspicuous role of antisemitism throughout the centuries and the claim of the uniqueness of the Holocaust which brought about the near destruction of European Jewry.

The doubt whether Jewish history exists per se seems rather superfluous in an age of expanding programs in Jewish history and within the framework of an article discussing the rich tradition of Jewish history writing. Nevertheless, one can still find this opinion among some modern historians. It is based partly on the Christian theological notion that active Jewish history came to an end with the early stages of Christianity, and partly on the secular claim that Jews lack a clearly defined political history based on a common territory. In the nineteenth century such a belief was inherent in the theological characterization of ancient Judaism as ‘late Judaism,’ while on the other side of the spectrum of historical outlook Marxist historians denied a separate course of Jewish history on the basis that Jews not only lacked a territory of their own but also a division into classes of society in the modern period. Nowadays, the questioning of the existence of a Jewish history throughout the ages is less explicit. More indirectly, however, such a view can be detected in the almost exclusive interest of many historians in the histories of the Jews in their respective societies. Thus, German Jewry or French Jewry are often seen as isolated entities, as part of German or French history, but without any connection to the developments of other Jewish communities. On the other hand, there has been a contrary tendency among some Zionist historians to neglect the respective contexts of Jewish histories and view them only through a national Jewish perspective.

If we accept the notion that Jewish history exists as such and is stretched over numerous centuries and over five different continents, the question remains whether it is primarily a national or a religious history. The pioneers of Jewish historiography in nineteenth century Germany often preferred to depict Jewish history in terms of the development of a religious idea (the purest form of monotheism) and its bearers. This concept was in line with the demands of Emancipation that Jews integrate into European societies as citizens who only differed in their religious creed. Thus, the notion of a Jewish people was characterized as an ancient idea long left behind. With diaspora nationalists like Simon Dubnow and the emerging Zionist school the national element was restored to Jewish historiography. Both schools emphasized that Jews never ceased to constitute a nation even if they lacked their own territory. Dubnow went so far to stress that a nation which had overcome the need for its own territory constituted the highest and most sophisticated form of nationalism. Zionists, on the other hand, emphasized the unbroken longing for return to the Land of Israel and the use of the Hebrew language over the centuries.

A final peculiarity of Jewish history is the theological weight it enjoyed especially in a Christian context. In medieval and early modern Europe Jews often constituted the only non-Christian minority. The traditional position Jews enjoyed in Christian Europe was a mixture of protection and discrimination. Jews served as the classical ‘other,’ being protected because they bore testimony to Jesus Christ while at the same time discriminated against as Christkillers and as unbelievers. On the basis of this peculiar role, many Christian authors of postbiblical Jewish history regarded this particular history as outside the course of ‘regular’ history. They claimed accordingly that it should be judged by theological rather than historical criteria. On the Jewish side, the most prominent proponent of a Jewish ‘Sonderweg’ theory, albeit with a different background, was the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, a student of Friedrich Meinecke, who stressed in his main work The Star of Redemption (1921) that general rules of history do not apply to Jewish history. More recently, the discussion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust has brought the question of a peculiar course of Jewish history to a different level. In this view, it is not Jewish history that is incomparable to other histories, but rather the persecution of the Jews which culminated in the attempt of their total annihilation.

In his programmatic and provocative essay, ‘Ghetto and emancipation’ (1928), the historian Salo Baron fiercely objected to what he called a ‘lachrymose version of Jewish history.’ At the beginning of the twenty-first century, and half a century after the greatest tragedy of the Jewish people, numerous voices once again express their reservations against a one-sided picture of Jewish history reduced to a history of persecution. While they stress the importance of research on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, they also warn not to read Jewish history backwards starting from its most tragic chapter.


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