All kinds of people have complained about history, and probably none more justifiably than the Jews. It has been said that a happy people is one without history; but what happens when happiness is offered to an unhappy people at the price of its history? The ensuing panic and confusion are major themes of Jewish history since the Emancipation, whose “social background” is the subject of a new book, Out of the Ghetto, by the Hebrew University sociologist and historian, Jacob Katz.1

One of the most damaging blows to the Jews' self-image since they came out of the ghetto was precisely the gibe that, in current history, Jews had no real meaning: they were irrelevant. Such a view of the Jews, a commonplace of Christian civilization beginning at least with Paul's dismissal of the Old Law, was picked up by post-Christian ideologues from Voltaire to Toynbee, who merely peddled the old goods in new wrappers. What was new, what remains new, is Jewish sensitivity to this charge of irrelevancy.

The classic pre-modern Jewish attitude took special pride in the generally accepted fact that Jews were not subject to the stars of history like ordinary peoples; for Jews lived out of time, in eternity, under the direct providence of the Almighty. If God's tender care for them during the long Exile consisted in imposing a succession of penances that made them, in the coinage of suffering, the most history-laden of peoples, this too was only another sign of their election.

So long as Jews lived by the pious conception of galut, accepting Exile, they drew strength and conviction, not panic and confusion, from their equivocal relation to history. Like all others who live in the world but are not of the world, they were powerless as well as long-suffering. In the time-stream of history they were a small vacuum, a tiny sinkhole that absorbed all the shocks of the main current but no longer gave it independent impulsion. Yet in the eyes of traditional Jews it was the turbulence of the Gentiles, and not their own devoted Jewish quietism, that seemed profoundly irrelevant.

What makes a modern Jew is his awakening to the horror of the historical vacuum; or, to put it another way, his infection with the sense of it. All modern Jewish history is a spasm of phobic contortions to escape from the vacuum. Whether through assimilation or through Zionism, the Jewish modernist seeks freedom, or liberation, by regaining the main current of history. Differences over how this should be done, rather than over whether it should be done, divide the several schools of modern Jewish policy. It is the mark of a rigidly defensive traditionalism—or of a self-consciously pious neo-Orthodoxy like Franz Rosenzweig's—to reject the whole project in principle.

This, under another aspect, is also the main underlying problem of modern Jewish historiography. Leopold Zunz, who sorrowfully conceded in the 19th century that Jewish history was dead, passionately defended the study of it as a humanistic discipline; and thereby he also justifed his Jewish identity. Heinrich Graetz, who had a sturdier sense of ethnic pride, wrote a Jewish history which was alive enough to be resented by German historians as an offense against Gentiles. Yet it, too, failed to meet basic objections raised against the claim of Jewish history to be a valid enterprise; and the core problem of modern Jewish historiography has been that of overcoming the deficiencies of Graetz.

One such deficiency, deplored by Salo Baron, is Graetz's “lachrymose conception” of Jewish history. But if Graetz's volumes are so largely a chronicle of Jewish suffering, the real problem is not that his account is untrue or unbalanced, but precisely that it is so importantly correct. The 19th-century German historical school overdid things by making the state the sole organ of authentic history, but they saw the main point: true history is the history men make in action; what they merely suffer is fundamentally someone else's history. The current cultivation of social history, eminently represented by Baron among Jewish scholars, has real historical relevance only if it concerns itself (as Jacob Katz does) with those social conditions that significantly affect the actions and decisions by which history is truly made.

It is no accident that events are only now finally laying to rest the persistent doubt as to whether Jewish history really exists, whether what parades under the name is any more than a parochial, filiopietistic, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent folklore. The emergence of the State of Israel, a nation undoubtedly capable of making its own history, and facing others as well with the inescapable consequences of it, has had, among its other effects, an extraordinary impact upon the field of Jewish history, which today is burgeoning and expanding at a rate that still remains to be appreciated; and the growth is not only in Israel, the main center, but in academies and research centers all over the world.


If Israel's rise has reinvigorated Jewish history, the substantial core of it still remains the long Exile and particularly the great “ghetto” of Ashkenazic Jewry. This mass of Jews, living between the Rhine and the Russian plain, not only was the major part of world Jewry that survived the Middle Ages; it was also the part most completely secluded from outside influence, the most alien to its Gentile environment, of any Jewish community in the annals of the Diaspora. Hence, when Ashkenazic Jews came out of the ghetto, in the long drawn-out Emancipation following the French Revolution, they exploded into European society with unexampled dynamism.

This part of Jewry not only produced, in a few swift generations, Heine and Marx, Einstein and Freud, Trotsky and the Rothschilds, and an unparalleled flood of writers, actors, artists, musicians, and Nobel-prize-winning scientists; it also originated all those internal shocks and revolutions that constitute modern Jewish history, from religious reform to Jewish secularism, nationalist and socialist. The climactic paroxysm of Ashkenazic Jewish history, the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, continues to reverberate, beyond current Jewish history, in the contemporary affairs and consciousness of the whole world. Those who lived longest detached from history, passively battered by it, thus made the dynamic of their own modern history relevant with a vengeance.

Yet, to import Ashkenazic Jewish history into general history means to introduce a perspective and a time-scheme jarringly discordant with those generally accepted. If Ashkenazic Jewry is the yardstick, the Jewish “Middle Ages” lasted until the French Revolution (and in Russia, until the Russian Revolution), and “modern times” began at least three centuries after the Renaissance. The Ashkenazim, in other words, came out of the ghetto bringing their alienation with them. Graetz set the historian Treitschke's teeth on edge by making villains out of traditional German heroes; he disturbed later Jewish scholars by using a periodization badly unrelated to the common era-demarcations of European historians.


A major trend in modern Jewish historiography has been to eliminate, or at least reduce, this disparity. Baron, for example, has called in Italian Jewry, especially Italian Hebrew poets, to redress the imbalance of the Ashkenazic perspective, by showing that Renaissance humanism, as well as the 18th-century Enlightenment, found an echo in the ghetto. Yitzhak Baer has discovered in the culture of the German ghetto a continuing responsiveness to contemporary Christian trends in the High Middle Ages. Gershom Scholem, pursuing an analytic theme of far-reaching significance, has demonstrated that, like Christianity, Judaism too had a mystical religiosity, not merely a normative law, and he has argued that the mystical antinomians in Jewish history followed the same dynamic progression as their Christian counterparts and contemporaries, from pietistic chiliasm to revolutionary rationalism. Scholem thus brings modern Jewish developments like religious reform and Jewish liberalism back to the same sources and periods as in Christian society, and implicitly patches up the detachment of the Jewish from the Gentile historical perspective. Finally, scholars at the Hebrew University have painstakingly searched the 17th and 18th centuries for harbingers of the changes previously thought to have been introduced only in the 19th century, as the “beginnings” of modern Jewish history.

Yet in spite of such efforts, modern Jewish historiography remains fixed on a radically different time-perspective from general history, and must continue so as long as it acknowledges the Ashkenazic ghetto as its substantial core. (An Israeli nationalist school of historiography, which focuses on the succession of statehood, Exile, and restoration in Jewish history, also sets the story of the Jews in a frame quite independent of European traditions, but this represents a hyper-modern trend like that which seeks to break the shackles of conventional historiography in order to give the non-Western cultures their due.) Jacob Katz, from this point of view, is a staunchly traditional Jewish historian, for all his life work has been concentrated on the ghetto experience, and the radical break with it that produces Jewish modernity, and the records of Ashkenazic Jewry have been the chief source of his studies.


The constant theme of Katz's work has been the Jewish movement out of the secluded ghetto into a state of openness toward and accommodation with Gentile society. Out of the Ghetto is a succinctly comprehensive discussion of this subject, synthesizing the results of earlier particular studies. Katz begins with a brief account, for the period 1650-1750, of the inner “dissolution of traditional society” (the subject of his previous book, Tradition and Crisis) and the growing openness of Jews and Gentiles toward one another (from his Exclusiveness and Tolerance). He then systematically explores the following topics: the social acceptance of some individual Jews in the Enlightenment and the expectations for Jewry as a whole by which this acceptance was justified; the backlash against Jewish integration from about 1780 to 1820; and the climate of Jewish opinion from 1780 to 1870—the “defecting fringe” of converts, the embattled religious reformers, and the “conservatives in a quandary.” To these Katz adds a useful synopsis of the successive phases of legal emancipation and an especially valuable summary of the actual economic and social consequences of the legal-cultural breakthrough. From his balance sheet it emerges, again and again, that integration was only partially successful; that Jews had entered the current of history only to be shunted into its eddies, and that in coming out of the ghetto, the Jews did not solve but only began to face the problem of how to be modern while Jewish.

If Katz is a traditional Jewish historian in his concentration on the ghetto experience, he is at the same time one of very few historians who have gone beyond merely talking about historical sociology, or occasionally experimenting with it; he has been a consistent practitioner of this rare discipline all his life, a legitimate follower of Max Weber. This is a somewhat different enterprise from what is usually presented as social history, and it raises different problems in regard to Jewish history.

To write social history means little more than to concentrate on other than political events; but this often means diverting attention from those actions and decisions by which characteristically men seek to shape the future. Historical sociology, as practiced by Katz, similarly transcends the narrow concentration on politics of the old-style histories and covers systematically all the areas of social change—cultural values, forms of association, economic relations, as well as political trends. There is even, as in social history in general, a deliberate concentration on the other areas, as though political developments were assumed to be familiar. But unlike most descriptive social historians, Katz chooses his topics under a clear principle of selection. His study of the ghetto analyzes its cultural, social, and economic structures at the moment of breakdown and crisis, when the community faces a problematic future and must choose among alternative new policies. What he studies is “the social background of Jewish Emancipation”: that is, not social structure in general, but the changing “infrastructure” bearing on historic policy decisions.

If one deals with problematic futures, with breakdown and crisis, and the need to choose among alternative policies, the appropriate literary form is likely to be the essay rather than the narrative style of political history or the survey of social history. Katz has, indeed, written frequently in the essay, or monograph, form. But the inhibitions of an academic conscience have also had a powerful disciplining effect upon his writing. Accordingly, he has kept within the defined limits of his initial subject, begun in his doctoral dissertation on the social background of the Jewish Emancipation and now recapitulated in this book on the same subject over thirty years later. In the interim, Jewish scholarship has filled in numerous gaps and argued out controversial issues related to Katz's theme. He himself has clarified major aspects of the subject, like the history of Freemasonry as a model of a potential “neutral society” which might serve to bring Jews out of the ghetto into the mainstream of European history. The present volume judiciously sums up a generation of his own work and that of his contemporaries and can probably stand as a balanced, accurate conclusion.


Implicit in the topics chosen by Katz, and indeed suggested by the historical-sociological approach he adopts, are certain largely unanswered questions. Could Jews have entered fully and unreservedly into the general history of Christian nations? Could they, other than by Zionist methods, have pursued their own history again, actively and independently? Of what avail was religious reform and Jewish liberalism? How “neutral” was the secular or, for that matter, the “Judeo-Christian” Western society?

Katz alludes to these issues in passing: his answers, although sometimes explicit, are more often implied. To deal with them frontally he would have to apply his Weberian approach more fully and more rigorously than he has done. As he explains in this book, he has confined himself to a generalizing summary of the least-common-denominator features of his subject; and most of the illustrative data, accordingly, come from the Ashkenazic ghetto and the German-Jewish enlightened elite.

To answer the more suggestive questions his approach projects, he would have to enter into comparative analyses, and study not merely representative but deviant cases: emancipated France and England, where religious reform did not produce Jewish denominationalism; the United States, where no Jewish emancipation really occurred but religious reform and denominationalism were most in evidence; and, above all, the oddly negative involvement of Sephardic Jewries, on the eastern and western Atlantic shores, in crucial aspects of Jewish modernity. These, together with the historic revival of Jewish ethnic consciousness, are some of the new issues a younger group of historians, stimulated by the example no less than by the results of Katz and his generation, are now beginning to explore.

1 Harvard, 271 pp., $12.00.

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