The fox, Isaiah Berlin reminds us, knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. As a historian, Jacob Katz, the distinguished Jerusalem scholar now in his 86th year, is both a fox and a hedgehog. Katz’s writings on Jewish history exhibit an extraordinary sweep, in terms both of the periods he covers—from the Middle Ages (Tradition and Crisis) down to the Nazi era (From Prejudice to Destruction)—and of the subjects he deals with—Jewish-Christian relations (Exclusiveness and Tolerance), Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism (The Darker Side of Genius), the interaction between Jewish law and mysticism (Halakhah and Kabbalah), the ideological foundations of Zionism (Jewish Emancipation and Self-Emancipation). Yet for all their range and diversity, Katz’s writings speak to a unified conception or, better, methodology.
Katz is prominently identified with the “Jerusalem School” of Jewish historiography, centered at the Hebrew University, whose leading spokesman was the late Gershom Scholem. While the founding members of this school explored a great many areas and made use of a range of methodologies, they shared a number of basic assumptions about the nature of the Jewish historiographical enterprise. Most crucially, they believed that Zionism and, especially, the establishment of a Jewish state would pave the way for a “normalized” study of the Jewish past, by which they meant that Jewish historiography would be freed of its apologetic strain. This position was set forth by Scholem in a 1945 essay, “Reflections on the Science of Judaism,” and again in a 1960 lecture, “The Science of Judaism—Then and Now.”
Katz’s own historical approach is comprised of three key elements. The first is an emphasis on social as against political history. Thus, in his first book, Tradition and Crisis, he presents a general portrait of Jewish society at the end of the Middle Ages, with chapters on communal structure, economic activities, education, religious life, and family patterns. In Exclusiveness and Tolerance, he demonstrates how economic and social pressures generated at the mass level created the stimulus for an ongoing rabbinic reassessment of the status of Christianity in medieval and early modern times. Similarly, Jews and Freemasons in Europe is an attempt to “trace the routes by which . . . former ghetto-dwellers found their way into the social circles of their neighbors.”
Not that Katz’s books are compilations of social and economic data. Far from it. Rather, as the late Ben Halpern observed, Katz is a generalizer, always on the lookout for the defining features of his subject. Perhaps the most important generalizing abstraction in his writings is that of “Jewish traditional society.” A traditional society is one which “regards its existence as based upon a common body of knowledge and values handed down from the past,” and for Jews, Katz maintains, such a society was in place from the talmudic era down to the age of Jewish emancipation. A considerable portion of Katz’s work is taken up with examining how, in the European Ashkenazi context, Jewish traditional society was constituted, sustained, and, ultimately, dissolved.
A second key element of Katz’s historical approach is the systematic utilization of halakhic (legal) materials as historical sources. This is an area in which he has done much pioneering work, and it has enabled him to present an exceptionally rich and finely textured picture of Jewish traditional society. In each case, he examines halakhic materials with an eye toward elucidating a larger issue, namely, the relationship between religious norms and social reality.
The third element is, simply, Katz’s historical imagination, which is nothing if not lively, treating familiar subjects in thoroughly unfamiliar ways. Two examples are Exclusiveness and Tolerance and Jews and Freemasons in Europe. The former volume stands virtually alone in providing a coherent account of how Jews in the medieval and early modern periods assessed Christianity as a religion, while the latter, which examines the entry of Jews into Gentile society via, as Scholem once put it, the “basement” rather than the “salon,” is absolutely unique in detailing the place of Jews in the semi-clandestine world of the Masons.
The elements of Katz’s historical methodology come together in beautiful fashion in The “Shabbes Goy,” the latest of his books to appear in English.1 Indeed, one can scarcely conceive of a scholar other than Katz who would devote a full-length study to the seemingly trivial—some would say ludicrous—subject of the Sabbath Gentile, i.e., a non-Jew who performs the labor of a Jew on Sabbaths and festivals. The very title of Katz’s book, employing the Yiddish form, is likely to prove embarrassing, since from a modern perspective it carries connotations of, on the one hand, religious hypocrisy and opportunism, and, on the other, an unseemly dependence on outsiders. Yet as Katz points out, during the whole of the period that “Jewish tradition reigned supreme,” employment of a Sabbath Gentile “caused no embarrassment whatsoever.”
Given Katz’s scholarly orientation, the subject of the Sabbath Gentile turns out to be a natural. It takes in the weekly religious observance of the masses of Jews, and necessitates a critical scrutiny of halakhic materials. Moreover, the subject illuminates “the interdependence of Jew and non-Jew in various economic fields.” These include Gentile servants working in Jewish homes, Jews entering into business partnerships with non-Jews, Jews renting fields and factories to Gentiles and vice-versa, and Jews traveling on ships and in caravans operated by non-Jews.
In grappling with the issue of the Sabbath Gentile, Katz indicates, rabbinic scholars had room for “innovation and original solution” because the Talmud’s teachings on the matter were not entirely free of ambiguity. A given halakhic ruling would be shaped both by considerations internal to the halakhic process itself and by the “pressure of existing conditions.” When confronted with a popular practice at odds with the codified legal tradition, a rabbinic scholar had to decide whether to ignore the matter (on the basis of the Talmudic principle that “it is better for them to act erroneously than to sin deliberately”) or to seek to uproot it. Katz cites numerous examples of decisions going in both directions.
If rabbinic scholars approached the issue of the Sabbath Gentile by and large from the perspective of the halakhic tradition, the masses of Jews were guided by what Katz characterizes as “ritual instinct.” Within the framework of a traditional society, the prevalent Sabbath prohibitions, involving physical action on the part of the Jew, were “second nature,” a powerful “time-linked taboo.” This was not the case, however, with actions performed by a non-Jew on a Jew’s behalf, especially when the Jew “did not need to instruct [the non-Jew] on the Sabbath about what to do, the Gentile being sufficiently trained to act on his own initiative.” In such a situation, the laity tended to be more permissive than the rabbis.
In tracing the “variation and evolution” of the law of the Sabbath Gentile, Katz takes in a tremendous range of material. Perhaps the most intriguing section of The “Shabbes Goy” is that devoted to developments in the early modern period, when Sabbath observers became for the first time a minority in the Jewish community. For rabbinic scholars this posed the fundamental issue, “Should one rule leniently, lest one deter the questioner from accepting the decision? Or, on the contrary, should one rule strictly and thus try to limit Sabbath desecration?” The majority, including Rabbis Jacob Ettlinger and Isaac Dov Bamberger in Germany, and Rabbis Abraham Sofer and Judah Aszod in Hungary, chose the second path; in contrast, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, the leading disciple of Rabbi Ettlinger, maintained that in the face of a generation that was, as he puts it, “spiritually impoverished, tested day after day by those who openly violate the sanctity of the Sabbath,” it was “proper and even religiously required to rule permissively wherever possible.”
It would be a mistake to think that a steady decline in the number of Sabbath observers in the modern period has led to fewer questions about Sabbath-related matters being posed to halakhic scholars. In truth, as Katz observes, this area has undergone “tremendous expansion.” He explains why:
The weakening of the restrictive framework of traditional society, which made it possible for others to cast off the halakhic yoke, motivated the Orthodox to harness themselves to it all the more tightly. Precisely because from this time on a compelling social pattern no longer existed, accepted community practice and written halakhic rules, together with the halakhic authorities who expounded them, assumed a unique status, almost unprecedented in previous generations. An observant Jew, unqualified to find his way through the complexities of halakhic literature . . . had no choice but to turn to recognized halakhic authorities, his local rabbi or a renowned halakhic expert, who were willing to give a ruling in every case of uncertainty.
As in most other spheres of observance, “personal loyalty to the most precise halakhic rulings” has become the order of the day with regard to the laws of the Sabbath Gentile.
While Katz enjoys an enviable reputation as a scholar, his work has not received the kind of systematic attention given to several other members of the “Jerusalem School.” No doubt this has something to do with the “fox”-like aspect of his writings, which take in a great many subject areas and combine the perspective of the historian with that of the sociologist. Few, in an age of specialization, are prepared to come to grips with so expansive a body of work.
Still, Katz’s individual volumes have been reviewed in the scholarly journals, and almost always in enthusiastic terms. Criticism, to the degree that it is to be found, has focused on two points. Some, uncomfortable with Katz’s mode of generalizing abstraction, have noted that nearly all of his materials are drawn from the Ashkenazi context. How different would the picture be, they ask, if he also took account of Sephardi experience? Others, uncomfortable with Katz’s historical rendering of the halakhah, have suggested that in tracing the development of Jewish law over time he gives too much weight to external, material elements, and too little weight to the internal logic of the law.
Most certainly, however, this latter criticism cannot be directed against The “Shabbes Goy.” Moreover, the poise and self-confidence that Katz brings to the study of the Sabbath Gentile are characteristic of his work as a whole (and can incidentally be seen to good effect in his Hebrew memoirs, With My Own Eyes ). As a historian, Katz is fully in charge—controlling his sources, shaping them into meaningful patterns, and presenting them in such a way as to illuminate their larger significance. While Katz clearly believes in the inherent worth and dignity of the study of Jewish history, his writings are devoid of any trace of parochialism or special pleading. This is what Zionist-Israeli normalization was meant to achieve, and in Jacob Katz it has achieved a stunning fruition.
1 The “Shabbes Goy”: A Study in Halakhic Flexibility. Translated by Yoel Lerner. Jewish Publication Society, 253 pp., $22.95.