In accepting our invitation to comment on the significance of Toynbee’s new analysis of Judaism, Rabbi Agus wrote: “I wish to state that to absorb the lessons of Toynbee’s analysis is by no means tantamount to an acceptance of all his proposals.” A detailed exposition of his own views on the questions raised in the present article will appear in his forthcoming book, The Meaning of Jewish History.


Some time ago it became known that Professor Arnold Toynbee was at work on a kind of postscript volume to his A Study of History, in which he was attempting to rethink some of his earlier theories and judgments in the light of the criticisms advanced against them. Jews, of course, had their own special interest in the appearance of this volume, for Toynbee’s views of Judaism as expressed in his mammoth history aroused in the Jewish community the most violent response to an intellectual controversy within memory. Now, there is something remarkable in a scholar of Professor Toynbee’s eminence submitting his work of so many years to a public reappraisal of this kind, and less than two decades after it began to appear. Reconsiderations is a suitably remarkable document. In it, while clearly reaffirming his general position, Toynbee carefully summarizes and considers all the attacks made upon him, confesses his ignorance of certain areas of experience, and describes the course of his intellectual growth in order that proper allowance be made for his personal bias.

What, then, is the substance of his revision concerning the nature and role of Judaism? Three aspects of his views on this subject brought down on his head the understandable fury of the Jewish community. First, there was his characterization of the Jewish people as a “fossil of Syriac civilization.” Second, there were his frequent references to “Judaic zealotry” and his attributing to the inheritance from Judaism the fanatical zeal with which the Christian church suppressed the remnants of classical philosophy and attempted to destroy all dissenters. (Medieval anti-Semitism thus simply became a Christian application of an originally Jewish attitude.) And third, there was his bitter condemnation of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel as examples of the vicious disease of nationalism, bringing Jews to commit atrocities upon Arabs in some sense morally equivalent to the atrocities committed upon them.

Contemporary Jews, undergoing as a group the agony of survival after the European holocaust, were neither in the mood nor in the position to suffer these charges coolly. To be the fossil of an ancient regional civilization, “fulfilled” in the advent of Christianity, meant not only to lose one’s distinctiveness, but with it, the only reason for a national existence that had cost untold lives, suffering, and struggle. And to be, as it were, held responsible for those very strains in Western civilization that have time and again erupted into persecution of their fathers and brothers, impelled many Jewish writers to regard Toynbee as an outright, if highly sophisticated, anti-Semite. Perhaps these outbursts of anguish contributed as much as some well-reasoned critiques to the decision on the part of Toynbee to undertake a basic revaluation of his views; in any case, in addition to revising and refining these views, he has become far more personally involved, more ardent, in their espousal. His enthusiasm is now more fervent and his condemnation more bitter. He now thinks of the Jewish religion stripped of nonessentials as the hope of the world, while he is convinced that Jewish nationalism is almost certain to cause a resurgence of anti-Semitism.

In a lecture to the British section of the World Jewish Congress delivered in 1959 and entitled “Is There a Jewish Future in the Diaspora?” Toynbee concluded by saying: “. . . the future of Judaism is to convert the world. It is an extraordinary thing that twice in history the Jews have allowed outsiders to run away with their religion, and spread it over the world. . . . Does not the real future of the Jews and Judaism lie in spreading Judaism, in its authentic form, over the whole world?”

In this statement lies the main result of Toynbee’s reconsideration of Judaism.



It will no doubt be thought by many people that Toynbee’s transformation of Judaism from an obsolete remnant of a dead civilization into a “higher religion” whose mission is “to convert the world” is only a concession to the criticism leveled against him, but such is not the case. It represents rather the organic evolution of his major insight into Judaism, stripped bare of the impositions on his work of inherited intellectual traditions. The scattered scornful references to Judaism in his earlier volumes are the combined echoes of other historians, of the great philosophers of the history of Western Europe—of Voltaire, Gibbon, the German Romantics. The Jews have always fared badly in the writing of Western history. Fundamentalist Christian scholars asserted that the vital essence of Judaism had been fulfilled in Christianity, thus leaving Jewry an empty shell. Rationalist historians like Voltaire and Gibbon, on the other hand, regarded the Christian religion as a blight on civilization and condemned the Jews for foisting it upon the Western world. The German Romantics, rebelling against both medieval Christianity and Anglo-French rationalism, and elaborating an “organismic” theory of national existence, found in the Jewish refusal to conform to their notion of a natural life-cycle for peoples something at the least degenerate, and at the most Satanic. And in the eyes of socialists—the young Marx as well as several French schools of socialist thought—the Jewish spirit was embodied in the scheming, exploitative enterprise of the bourgeoisie.

Certainly, one can find in Toynbee’s writings the influence of most, if not all, the philosophers of history who preceded him: the idea that Judaism had encountered and missed its greatest opportunity in the person of Jesus is, of course, a Fundamentalist Christian one; the concept of “Judaic zealotry” derives from Gibbon. With the German Romantics (and particularly with Spengler, whose Weltanschauung Toynbee has always consciously opposed) his relations are more complicated, for he regards them as the intellectual progenitors of Nazism. As he himself tells us in Reconsiderations, his approach was worked out partly under the influence of, and partly in reaction against, Spengler.

Toynbee’s own viewpoint is Biblical, which is to say prophetic. His fundamental assumption is that civilization arises out of the disturbance of the status quo: “In the Old Testament, challenge and response is indeed the master motif; and it is this motif, running through it all, that gives the Old Testament the unity it has.” The capacity of a society to respond creatively to a new challenge derives from the power of what he calls “etherialization”—lifting the problem from the physical and social realm to the psychological and ethical one. It amounts to “the transfer of the field of action from the outer to the inner world, and the displacement of quantitative criteria of success by qualitative criteria.”

The rhythm of progress is taken up, then, according to Toynbee, so long as the mimesis of the people is directed to the “creative minority” of the present rather than being fixed upon the heroes of the past. During the Biblical period, the prophets were indeed the “creative minority” of the Jewish people. They reinterpreted and transformed the faith and life-patterns of the Israelites, articulating the implications of ethical monotheism, and cautioning the people against the sin of self-glorification—what Toynbee has called “the idolization of the ephemeral self.”

When he began his massive survey of civilizations, Toynbee assumed along with Gibbon that a “higher religion” was the “chrysalis” or incubating stage between civilizations, as medieval Christianity was the mediating stage between classical and Western civilizations. The goal of history, however, became for him one of attaining “progress toward sainthood.” Reliance on power, physical and political, he regards as the sign of decay. A civilization begins to decline when its “creative” minority transforms itself into a “dominant” one. The “grandeur” that was Rome he treats as merely an appendage of the Hellenic world. On this view, Judaism, representing the transformation of an ethnic civilization into a religious culture, points the way to the future course of mankind.

Thus the future of mankind depends on the inhibition of the nationalist mentality. Among other things, the virulent anti-Semitism of the last century and a half in Europe is essentially due to the growth of nationalism. Hence Toynbee’s bitter condemnation of the Zionist movement and of its creation, the State of Israel—in his view, the reaction “alla Franca” of the Jews to anti-Semitism, which only furthers the evil impetus of ethnicism.



Sensitive Jews, confronting as they must all the millennia of a peculiar ethnic experience, have an almost aching need to see the Jewish people in the perspective of world history. Perhaps that is the reason they fastened so intently onto Toynbee’s work. In any case, it explains why, while finding his analysis of pre-Christian Jewish history on the whole satisfactory, they were so outraged by his use of the term “fossil” to characterize Diaspora Judaism. Though he had, in the later volumes of A Study of History, found the communal patterns evolved by Jews for maintaining their identity in dispersion to be a model for civilized nations in our own post-nationlistic era, he had failed to connect those patterns with any underlying purpose for Jewish survival. In this present volume he has come to take account of a continuing prophetic impetus in Jewish life, through the Middle Ages and into the modern world. He finds now that by challenging the claim of the regnant faith, whether in Christian or Moslem lands, to exclusive validity, Judaism has served as a focal point for liberalism. Jews have been ubiquitous “protestants” in European history, upsetting the complacency of Christian dogmatists.

Though he sees the future course of history as an advance from nationalism to supra-national humanism—the Enlightenment, contrary to Zionist ideology, was not a failure but simply an as-yet-uncompleted process—the shift will not take place without occasional dangerous intensifications of nationalist feeling. With these intensifications we may expect new outbursts of anti-Semitism, for anti-Semitism is the edge of nationalism turned inward, directed against “the stranger within the gate.”

Hence Toynbee’s call for Jews to bring masses of converts to “the religion of Deutero-Isaiah”; hence, too, his repeatedly expressed fear that the State of Israel, particularly in its present precarious position, will bring about a complete substitution of Jewish nationalism for Jewish religious purpose, and will thereby reverse the trend toward integrating the Jews into Western society set off by the Emancipation. He belives that the physical interests of Anglo-American Jewry call for a maximum of concentration upon the religious content of Judaism and a reduction of its nationalistic entanglements to the vanishing point.

Toynbee is an advocate of “assimilation”—but not the usual type: “. . . there are two ways in which a community’s distinctive national identity may disappear: the Israelite way and the Roman. The Ten Tribes lost their identity through being assimilated by peoples into whose countries they had been deported; the Romans gave up theirs by incorporating in their community the peoples whose countries they had united with their own. The two ways are antithetical in several senses. The Ten Tribes’ way is passive, involuntary and inglorious, and it is natural that the Jews should be on their guard against meeting the fate of their lost kinsmen. On the other hand, the Roman way is active, deliberate and noble, and the renunciation of communal identity in its national form does not involve the loss of communal identity itself, when ‘an ancient civilization has been transmuted into a universal religion!’”

This plea for Diaspora Jewry to resume the task of converting the world to “the religion of Deutero-Isaiah” is not as radical as it may seem to many people. A similar notion informs the classic philosophy of Reform Judaism as expressed both by Abraham Geiger in Germany and Kaufman Kohler in America when they speak of the Jewish “mission” to fulfill the vision of the prophets. What is it then—now that the dust of passion and resentment stirred up among Jews by Toynbee’s work is happily beginning to settle—that the Jewish community has to learn from this volume and its author? Seeing oneself in the perspective of world history entails, particularly for Jews, a good deal more than finding an occasion for self-gratulation on the crucial role one has played in it. Above all, it entails the obligation to understand one’s involvement in the general condition. Such an obligation is especially salutary for Jews, who tend, because their history has been unparalleled, to believe that they have been permanently exempted from the laws of history. For being reminded of the nemesis that pursues a people when it regards itself as special, unique, or “set apart,” they may be grateful to Toynbee. And they may also be grateful for being reminded that within Judaism, prophecy is the most fruitful, the most enduring tradition. A people is indeed “fossilized” when for the sake of its ethnic character or religous ritual it shuts off the source of its creative vitality—which, for the Jewish people, has always been the spirit of prophecy.

Finally, Toynbee cautions us, it will only be at great peril to themselves and to the world that Jews ignore the forces of history as they act on the relation between the Diaspora and Israel. For these forces are inevitably pulling the two communities farther apart—Diaspora Jewry into greater and greater integration with the surrounding culture, and Israel into the Middle Eastern world. For Israel in particular it would be fatal to resist this trend of events. As Ernst Simon stated in an article in Ha’aretz [March 23, 1961]: “Before the geo-political region to which our state belongs there is set only one choice: whether to reach a settlement of peace and partnership on the basis of bi-nationalism (or multi-nationalism) or whether to continue in a state of perpetual war, cold or hot, the results of which are by no means certain.”

Historic currents can, of course, be resisted. Israel can resist incorporation in the Middle East and cling to the vision of itself as the future home of all or nearly all the Jews. The Jews of America can tighten their ranks and form a “closed” even if progressively shrinking society centering around Israel. But then, Israel will not find peace, and the Jews of the Diaspora will court the frustration of perpetual isolation. Such a course might lead, after centuries upon centuries of meaningful survival, to the disaster of inanition—and it is this lesson above all that one carries away from a consideration of Toynbee’s new epistle to the Jews.



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