Cultures of the Jews: A New History
Edited by David Biale
Schocken. 1,196 pp. $45.00

Relatively Speaking, Jews are johnnies-come-lately to the writing of history. What need was there for it in the ancient or medieval world, if everything a Jew needed to know about the past, present, and future was already inscribed in the Hebrew Bible with its surrounding commentaries, and almost everything a Jew was ever likely to do had been prescribed in the legal debates of the rabbis as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud and its commentaries? When, however, beginning in the late Renaissance and early modern age, Jews began to renegotiate their place in the Western world, first as citizens and then, later, as a nation among the nations, many of them found the study of the past to be a powerful lens through which to reimagine their own present and future.

For American Jews, a number of by-now standard works have served this task of reimagining. Louis Finkelstein’s two-volume compendium, The Jews, Their History, Culture, and Religion, first published in 1949, provided a compelling master narrative. In this work, the Jews were portrayed as a sober, Godfearing people who had contributed mightily to the world’s arts, sciences, medicine, music, ethics, and philosophy, not to speak of the unbroken chain of Hebrew literary achievement; the reigning theme was that the well-being of humanity at large was inextricably intertwined with the destiny and the unique culture of the people Israel. (A roughly similar purpose informed a very valuable one-volume work from the same period, Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, edited by Leo W. Schwarz and published in 1956.)

Given the date of its release, Finkelstein’s work was necessarily incomplete. A number of decades later, the Israeli scholar Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson provided English readers with a complementary volume, A History of the Jewish People. This collaborative effort by scholars at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told a story shaped by the impulses of Jewish nationalism—a story that moved from the Israelite conquest of Canaan in the distant past to the centuries-long tragedy of exile to the triumphant homecoming that culminated in the establishment of the state of Israel in the mid-20th century.

Now we have Cultures of the Jews, a huge and richly illustrated volume that is the product of 23 scholars in the United States and Israel working under the guidance of David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California. The book is divided into three major parts, labeled, respectively, “Mediterranean Origins,” “Diversities of Diaspora,” and “Modern Encounters.” The deliberate use of the plural—Origins, Diversities, Encounters, not to mention the “Cultures” of the title—provides a clue to the book’s purposes. These are further spelled out by Biale in his preface, “Toward a Cultural History of the Jews,” an updated version of a manifesto first published in 1994 in the journal Jewish Social Studies.

In that manifesto, Biale decried the “hegemonic discourse” that allegedly dominated the historical study of the Jews and was responsible for the notion of a unified, normative entity termed “Judaism.” It was, Biale argued, incumbent upon the new generation to expose the authoritarian bias behind this falsely monolithic concept, and to replace it with an inclusive and frankly pluralistic view. A more appropriate object of study than “Judaism” was Jewish culture, or rather the multiplicity of Jewish cultures, with “culture” understood to signify not just the products of high intellect but Jewish folkways and mores and the record of everyday life, as well as—and this was crucial—the story of Jewish interaction with the “Other” (that is, non-Jews). The People of the Book, Biale wrote, were just as surely a People of the Body, and it was time to give the body its due.

As even this brief summary suggests, Biale’s program was of a piece with the worldwide academic trend to unseat traditional modes of scrutinizing the past—including the disciplines of intellectual, economic, political, and military history—in favor of an approach emphasizing the quotidian, the forgotten, the native, and the downtrodden. The New Historians, who now dominate most university history departments, would focus on the slow and enduring processes of ordinary life: childhood, initiation rites, bereavement practices, healing rituals, and the like. In their books, as in classrooms devoted to a new discipline known as cultural studies, culture is defined not by what great minds have thought, great artists have wrought, and great generals have fought, but by what ordinary people do.

In Cultures of the Jews, Biale does more than adapt this essentially populist ideology to the study of Jewish history. He is also deep into another bit of current academic wisdom, namely, the “construction of identity”—in particular as it relates to the idea of the “Other.” Here his purpose is to question, if not to undermine, the idea that Jewish identity is a function of uniquely Jewish ideas and forms of behavior. In both form and substance, he maintains, Jewish identity is rather to be seen primarily as a function of the constant and intimate involvement of Jews with cultures different from their own. “It was,” Biale writes, “precisely in their profound engagement with the cultures of their environment that the Jews constructed their distinctive identities.” This, in a nutshell, is his master narrative.



Most of the individual essays in Cultures of the Jews faithfully endeavor to carry out the terms of Biale’s program. A typical chapter begins with a framing device: a story, or a text, or a reproduction of a visual artifact that is intended to illustrate the historic permeability of the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews (such “boundaries” and boundary-crossings being another fixed element of cultural-studies jargon). Some of these framing devices are quite ingenious. Thus, Ronald S. Hendel opens his chapter on biblical Israel by citing the episode of Balaam—the foreign seer who, in the book of Numbers, is called upon by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites but ends up blessing them instead as a people dwelling apart, not counting itself among the nations. Examining the archeological evidence, Hendel argues that the bumbling figure presented to us in the Bible is not only a late and artificial “construct”—an actual prophetic figure named Balaam appears in a number of early West Semitic inscriptions—but an ambiguous one, a figure whose praise of Israel’s apartness discloses moral misgivings within that ancient community’s sense of its own identity.

Similarly “constructed,” according to Eric M. Meyers, is the identity of “rabbinic Judaism”—the quotation marks, which are his, are meant to denote a manufactured concept. This construct emerged (according to Meyers) not in conformity with internal Jewish drives but out of a fierce dialogue with Greco-Roman culture. Everything associated with the talmudic rabbis—from actual institutions like the academic conclave in the town of Yavneh to certain paradigmatic ideas like martyrdom—is explained by Meyers in reference to the Jewish interaction with Hellenism; only Hellenism itself, the quintessential “Other,” is presented to us as something incontrovertibly real and self-contained.

And so it goes. Reaching the chapter on ancient Babylonia, where we might expect to be greeted with a facsimile of a talmudic folio—the Babylonian Talmud being the central repository of Jewish culture for all time to come—we are instead offered two reproductions of “incantation bowls” covered with Aramaic writing that, we are informed, were “possibly intended [by their Jewish creators] to heal non-Jews” by means of magical divination. And just as the presence of pagan superstition among the Jews is said to reveal the boundary-busting impact of Zoroastrianism upon the Babylonian sages, so, in chapter after succeeding chapter of this book—“Children and Magic,” “The Cultural Tapestry of the Jews of North Africa,” “Religious Interplay on an African Stage” (about the arcane practices of Ethiopian Jews), “Jewish Cultures in Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Bukhara,” and so forth—we see the old “hegemonic” idea that there is something consistently and identifiably “Jewish” about the Jews overshadowed by the giddy spectacle of plural influences, by syncretism and folk practices and magic, until both the Jewish body and the Jewish soul stand before us draped in foreign garments and adorned with amulets galore.



In fairness, it must be said that some periods in Jewish history do seem to lend themselves a little more readily than others to the multicultural approach. Take, conspicuously, the Jewish courtiers, physicians, poets, and philosophers who flourished from the 7th to the 16th century on the Iberian peninsula. This Jewish coterie, imbued with Arabic high culture, alert to the competing messianic claims of Christianity, versed in Romance languages, and in contact with Franco-German (Ashkenazi) Jewry, has been well served in two chapters by my academic colleagues Raymond Scheindlin and Benjamin Gampel—neither of whom, however, is an adherent of Biale’s anti-“hegemonic” ideology. (Gampel further breaks the mold by providing the only useful map in the whole volume.) There is also the gallery of Jewish bankers, astrologers, gamblers, printers, prostitutes, and the occasional documented homosexual who thrived in Renaissance Italy and who form the subjects of a freewheeling chapter by Elliot Horowitz.

But for most other periods and phenomena, Biale’s editorial template proves next to useless. It is of no help, for example, in tracing the emergence of Ashkenazi pietism in the midst of Crusades and expulsions, or the proliferation of yeshivot throughout the Polish realm. The case of Poland, indeed, elicits the book’s most cautious treatment of “border-crossing” between Jews and the “Other”; in this chapter, Moshe Rosman is forced to conclude that “Jewish and Polish cultural creativity had different sources of inspiration and parallel lines of development,” though he mitigates the bad news by assuring us that when it came to demons, amulets, oath formulas, mystical names, and dreams, there was no country more hospitable than medieval Poland.

There is a deeper problem here. Although Biale would no doubt deny the charge, implicit in his historical trajectory, with its celebration of “hybridity” and “boundary crossing” and its lavishing of attention on the idiosyncratic, on converts and apostates and outliers of various stripes, is the assumption that historically Jews have had little or nothing to say for themselves. Throughout their sojourn on earth, one cannot but conclude, they have been mostly reactive, bouncing off superior cultures and bringing little of their own to the table. To be unkind, one might even say that this volume, with its at times almost parodic aping of the academic fashions of the “Other,” offers a particularly dispiriting example of the same alleged syndrome.

The problem with all this is most salient in the final section, covering the period when the Jews emerge en masse as actors in a non-Jewish world and undergo their “Modern Encounters.” In his own essay on East European Jewry from 1772 until the Holocaust, Biale focuses on an autobiographical passage from the writings of S. Ansky, a Russian nihilist turned Jewish ethnographer and playwright. Ansky, who led a colorful and adventurous life, would seem to make the ideal bordercrosser—but, the fact is that, contrary to Biale’s reading of his later work, once he returned to his people he set out to expose the pathological self-betrayal involved in every attempt, like his own, to dance “between two worlds.”

Worse, while dwelling on the supposed virtues of the borderland, Biale finds little to say about the true and lasting achievements of Polish-Russian Jewry. Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), the greatest talmudist of modern times, is valued by him primarily as an “icon” of a putative shift from private to public within the closed world of Lithuanian Orthodoxy. Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916), better known by his pen-name Sholem Aleichem and a writer whose universal genius was expressed by means of a highly self-conscious devotion to cultural specifics, rates barely a mention.

Appearing last in the volume, after a quirky and suggestive survey of “Hebrew Culture in Israel” by Ariel Hirschfield, is “American Jewish Culture in the Twentieth Century.” Here, Stephen J. Whitfield defines Jewish culture as “whatever Jews . . . have added to art and thought.” Under the broadly enveloping wings of this definition he proceeds to celebrate the “crossover dreams” of Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and the creators of Superman Comics. American Yiddish culture (both high and low) is dismissed in a paragraph or two, synagogues are deemed important insofar as one of them was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the performer and song writer who, armed only with a guitar, singlehandedly changed the way that Jews all over the world pray and protest, is denied entry altogether to Whitfield’s hall of fame—evidently he crossed a border too far.



Biale has paid a high price for pursuing his revision of Jewish cultural history. Just how high, can be gauged from the one chapter that, flying in the face of political correctness, resoundingly confirms the value of approaching Jewish history the old-fashioned way, by looking closely at great men, great texts, and great ideas. In Raymond Scheindlin’s treatment of “Judeo-Arabic Culture in the Golden Age of Islam,” we learn that a single individual, Saadiah ben Joseph (882-942), the Gaon of Sura, was responsible for producing the first Hebrew dictionary, the first work of Jewish philosophy, the first authored Jewish book in the modern sense of the word. Saadiah translated the Bible into Arabic, pioneered the genre of Bible commentary, standardized the Jewish liturgy, and made the writing of Hebrew poetry an integral part of the medieval rabbi’s job description. Nor was Saadiah a solitary genius. Amid the wine, the women, and the song that Jewish courtiers shared with their Arab counterparts, there emerges from Scheindlin’s memorable pages an entire world of great religious personalities who created a Jewish culture notable for its spiritual autonomy and its sublime aspiration. It is with a real thud that one descends from these heights to the listless “boundary crossings” that beguile the imagination of David Biale.

What this “New History” illustrates, in infinite variation and tireless detail, is how the people who have called themselves Jews made their way through the power structures and seductive enticements of many a majority culture. What it utterly fails to explain is what they brought with them, or why, for the most part, they bothered to remain Jews. For that, one must look elsewhere.


+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link