“Can there be a history of a slave?” When Isaak Markus Jost asked this question, in the introduction to his “General History of the Israelite People,” published in 1832, it was by no means clear that Jewish history was a viable scholarly discipline. To many people, Jost knew, it might seem that the important part of the Jewish story had ended with the Bible, leaving only a long sequel of passive suffering. “It is commonly held that where independent activity has ceased, there too history has ceased,” he noted. And where was the independent activity in Jewish history? Ever since Judea was crushed by the Roman Empire, the Jews had possessed none of the things that made for the usual history of a nation: territory, sovereignty, power, armies, kings. Instead, the noteworthy events in Jewish history were expulsions, such as the ones that drove the Jews out of England, in 1290, and Spain, in 1492, or massacres, such as the ones that cost thousands of Jewish lives in the Rhineland during the Crusades and in Ukraine in the seventeenth century.
To a generation of German scholars engaged in inventing what they called Wissenschaft des Judentums, “the science of Judaism,” it was crucial to overcome this despairing view. Above all, it was necessary to rebut the greatest historical thinker of the age, Hegel, who had elevated the writing of history into a branch of philosophy. Hegel saw the entirety of world history—or, at least, of European history, which for him was what counted—as a progressive revelation of the spirit. Each civilization had its contribution to make to the formation of humanity; when it had done so, it inevitably crumbled, making way for the next stage.
This scheme had trouble explaining one civilization in particular. In the early nineteenth century, there were no more Egyptian dynasties, Greek city-states, or Roman emperors; but there were still Jews, practicing the same religion that their ancestors had, millennia earlier. For Hegel, the historical function of Judaism ceased once its values had been universalized by Christianity: “The Temple of Zion is destroyed; the God-serving nation is scattered to the winds.” So what explained the Jewish refusal to fade into history?
The first modern historians of Judaism converged on the idea that it endured because its contribution to human civilization was of eternal relevance. This contribution was characterized by various writers as “the unlimited unity of the all,” “the universal spirit which is within us,” or “the God-idea.” What they shared was a conviction that Judaism was defined by ethical monotheism and Messianic hope. If Jews never stopped preaching these ideas, it was because the world always stood in need of them. In the words of Heinrich Graetz, the greatest of nineteenth-century Jewish historians, “Judaism is not a religion of the present but of the future,” which looks “forward to the ideal future age . . . when the knowledge of God and the reign of justice and contentment shall have united all men in the bonds of brotherhood.”
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[E]very generation of historians draws a picture of the Jewish past that is bound up with what they think about the Jewish future. And those visions of the future generally turn out to be wrong, because the past two centuries have seen continual, radical upheavals in Jewish life. After the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquests brought legal emancipation to Jews in much of Western Europe, for instance, many Jews began to think of their Jewishness as a private matter, an individual religious choice. They were not Jews who happened to live in France, say, the way other Jews in the past had lived in Spain or Persia, but “Frenchmen of the Mosaic faith.” But the persistence of anti-Semitism, as demonstrated in the Dreyfus Affair, convinced a later generation of Jews that this was a vain hope—that Jews were indeed a nation, and had better find a state of their own if they were to survive. This was the conclusion that turned Theodor Herzl, a highly assimilated Viennese journalist who barely observed Jewish customs, into the founder of modern Zionism.
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But, of course, Judaism is not the name of a people; it is the name of a religion, a system of beliefs and practices. Perhaps, then, the story should begin with “Moses our teacher,” the lawgiver who brought God’s commandments down from Mount Sinai. It was Moses who turned being Jewish into a way of life, involving everything from ethical behavior (thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal) to inscrutable rituals and taboos (thou shalt not wear a garment made of mixed linen and wool). It is perhaps this double founding—by Abraham and Moses, as a people and as a faith—that is the key to the Jews’ historical durability.
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According to the late historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, modern Jewish historiography rejects “premises that were basic to all Jewish conceptions of history in the past.” That is the central argument of Yerushalmi’s 1982 book, “Zakhor,” one of the most influential works on Jewish history of the last half century. “Zakhor” is the Hebrew word for “remember,” a command delivered many times in the Bible, and it is possible to see Judaism itself as a technology of memory, a set of practices designed to make the past present. Read the Bible closely and you will find that the holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, is established by Moses before the exodus actually takes place. It is as though the miracle happens primarily so that it can be remembered.