Testimony

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.
by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi.
University of Washington Press. 133 pp. $17.50.

The Jews, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi shows in this splendid little volume, are the “fathers of meaning in history.” Through the medium of the Bible, they were the first to assign a “decisive significance to history,” thus forging a “new world view whose essential premises were eventually appropriated by Christianity and Islam as well.” Moreover, only in Judaism is the injunction to remember [zakhor] “felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.”

Nevertheless, the great 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides was expressing a view shared by virtually all Jews, from the close of the biblical period right down to modern times, when he wrote in his Commentary to the Mishnah that the study of history was a “waste of time.” As Yerushalmi says, until our day “historiography itself [has] played at best an ancillary role among the Jews, and often no role at all.”

Part of the purpose of Zakhor (which originated as a series of lectures at the University of Washington) is to account for the absence of a well-developed Jewish histori-ographical tradition. Another aim of the volume is to explore those channels which did serve to sustain and reinforce Jewish historical memory. What gives Zakhor a special poignancy, however, is the personal element: Yerushalmi’s effort (he is Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish history, culture, and society at Columbia University) to understand himself as a Jewish historian, “not within the objective context of the global scholarly enterprise, but within the inner framework of Jewish history itself.” Here then is a book in which a leading Jewish historian reflects upon the seeming irrelevance of his own work for the ongoing Jewish historical enterprise.

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If there is a rival claimant to the Jews for the “discovery” of history, it is undoubtedly the ancient Greeks. But as Yerushalmi points out, history in the Greek view had “no truths to offer”; the Greeks saw no “ultimate or transcendent meaning to history as a whole.” The concept of a meaningful universal history originated in biblical Israel, and reflected an “intuitive and revolutionary understanding of God”:

The pagan conflict of the gods with the forces of chaos, or with one another, was replaced by a drama of a different and more poignant order: the paradoxical struggle between the divine will of an omnipotent Creator and the free will of his creature, man, in the course of history; a tense dialectic of obedience and rebellion. . . . Thrust reluctantly into history, man in Hebrew thought comes to affirm his historical existence despite the suffering it entails, and gradually, ploddingly, he discovers that God reveals Himself in the course of it.

Given the absorption of biblical Israel with God’s acts in history, it is not at all surprising that Israel looked upon memory as “crucial to its faith and, ultimately, to its very existence.” The Red Sea could be crossed but once; the historical recollection of the event needed to be preserved. Still, as Yerushalmi notes, the Bible did not command the Jews to become a “nation of historians.” Rather, the primary means of keeping the memory of the past alive was “ritual and recital.” Thus the three great pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Tabernacles, and the Feast of Weeks—while retaining ties to the yearly agricultural cycle, became commemorations, respectively, of the Exodus from Egypt, the sojourn in the desert, and the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

As for actual historical writing in the Bible, which Yerushalmi rates as the “most distinguished” in the whole of the ancient Near East, it came into being as a natural concomitant of the biblical preoccupation with remembering: ritual and recital inevitably over-flowed into historical narrative. What Yerushalmi finds so impressive about the Bible as history is its faithful rendering of the reality of the human situation—this, despite the fact that God is the “hero” of the story. The Bible offers us history on a “very human scale”: “Historical figures emerge not merely as types, but as full-fledged individuals. Chronology, by and large, is respected. There is a genuine sense of the flow of historical time and of the changes that occur in it.”

But then all this changed. After the close of the biblical period, the historiographical impulse ceased to be an operative factor among the Jews. From the time of Josephus Flavius in the 1st century C.E. to Joseph Ha-Kohen in the 16th, not a single Jewish writer referred to himself as a historian. Jewish life during this phenomenally long epoch was shaped by the precepts of talmudic Judaism, and the rabbis of the Talmud evinced not the slightest interest in the historiographical enterprise. Even the history of the talmudic period itself, Yerushalmi points out, “cannot be elicited from its own vast literature. Historical events of the first order are either not recorded at all, or else . . . are mentioned in so legendary or fragmentary a way as often to preclude even an elementary retrieval of what occurred.”

Yet if the rabbis did “not see fit to take up where biblical history broke off,” Yerushalmi (echoing a line of thought first put forward by Jacob Neusner nearly twenty years ago) insists that they in no way rejected the biblical concept of meaningful history. In fact, it was precisely the rabbis’ “total and unqualified absorption of the biblical interpretation of history” that lay behind their lack of interest in mundane history:

For the rabbis the Bible was not only a repository of past history, but a revealed pattern of the whole of history, and they had learned their scriptures well. They knew that history has a purpose, the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, and that the Jewish people has a central role to play in the process. They were convinced that the covenant between God and Israel was eternal, though the Jews had often rebelled and suffered the consequences. Above all, they had learned from the Bible that the true pulse of history often beat beneath its manifest surfaces, an invisible history that was more real than what the world, deceived by the more strident outward rhythms of power, could recognize.

Possessing the key to history, the rabbis had no need for historiography.

Only once during the whole of the pre-modern period was there a burst of historiographical activity in Jewish society. This brief flowering occurred during the 16th century, when no fewer than ten major historical works appeared. One such volume—Azariah de’ Rossi’s Light for the Eyes—clearly reflects the impact of Italian Renaissance models, but most of the others—including Solomon Ibn Verga’s The Scepter of Judah and Samuel Usque’s A Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel—were produced either by exiles from Spain and Portugal or by the descendants of exiles. This leads Yerushalmi to suggest that their primary stimulus was “the great catastrophe that . . . put an abrupt end to open Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula”—in effect, emptying Western Europe of Jews. What is significant in terms of Yerushalmi’s larger theme, however, is that the Jewish historical works of the 16th century failed to have an impact beyond their time; they did not lay the groundwork for an ongoing endeavor. Moreover, even in their own time, they were overshadowed by the Lurianic Kabbalah, an awesome metahistorical myth which posited the origins of Jewish historical fate in a primal cosmic flaw. Once again, the Jews turned their backs on mundane history.

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This brings us to modern times, in which there has been a veritable explosion of Jewish historical writing. Yerushalmi’s chapter on the subject bears the title “Modern Dilemmas,” and its subtitle is “Historiography and Its Discontents.” In part, Yerushalmi’s own “doubts and misgivings” have to do with his “ironic awareness that the very mode in which I delve into the Jewish past represents a decisive break with that past.” The secular premises of the modern historical outlook, in other words, place him at odds with what was taken for granted in all previous conceptions of the Jewish past, i.e., the “belief that divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history, and the related belief in the uniqueness of Jewish history itself.” Yerushalmi also finds it troubling that the modern historian is somehow expected to function as a “restorer of Jewish memory.” He observes:

Intrinsically, modern Jewish historiography cannot replace an eroded group memory which . . . never depended on historians in the first place. . . . Ultimately Jewish memory cannot be “healed” unless the group itself finds healing, unless its wholeness is restored or rejuvenated. But for the wounds inflicted upon Jewish life by the disintegrative blows of the last two hundred years the historian seems at best a pathologist, hardly a physician.

Given the deeply felt need among contemporary Jews for a “usable past,” Yerushalmi is not surprised that anti-historical currents are very much alive. He notes matter-of-factly that the findings of modern Jewish historical scholarship have “hardly been faced, let alone internalized” and that literature and ideology have been “far more decisive” in shaping Jewish conceptions of the past. As examples, Yerushalmi points to the widespread view of Hasidism which “totally ignores both its theoretical bases and the often sordid history of the movement,” and ideas about the Holocaust that are more the product of the “novelist’s crucible” than of the “historian’s anvil.” In general, Yerushalmi believes that the Jews “await a new, metahistorical myth.”

Is there anything that the historian should do in this situation? For Yerushalmi, there is no possibility of a “return to prior modes of thought.” “For better or worse,” he writes, “a particular and unprecedented experience of time is ours, to be reflected upon, perhaps to be channelled in new directions.” The modern Jewish historian can only testify to the truth of Jewish history as he discovers it, and to the truth of his own situation as he finds it. Zakhor, beautifully conceived and written, is testimony of the highest order.

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