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Rivkah Fishman-Duker on How Jewish Is Jewish History?

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

By all accounts, postmodernist theories, current for some thirty years among literary critics and academics, challenge the assumptions of previous Jewish scholarship and history. Postmodernists eschew the search for objective historical truth and a unitary “grand narrative” of the past, preferring to accord equal importance to a variety of “narratives.”

As far as the Jews are concerned, postmodernists tend to see one of the tasks of writing Jewish history as relating suppressed details regarding a majority of Jews over whom their elites attempted to maintain hegemony and control through writing, institutions, and leadership, or presenting Jews as role models in today’s multicultural world (10-15). According to postmodern thinking, Jews were and are more integrated into the societies of the countries in which they live and closer in spirit and lifestyle to their non-Jewish neighbors than to Jews dwelling in other lands. Some go so far as to reject altogether the concept of Jewish peoplehood or view the Jews as an “imagined community” with an “invented tradition.” Hence they have an aversion to nationalism, Zionism, and Orthodox Judaism.  In addition, postmodernists generally are cultural relativists or advocates of multiculturalism who consider all cultures equally valid and everything within a specific culture of equal significance.

This approach questions the works of classical and modern Jewish scholars who held that despite non-Jewish influences and diverse expressions, Jews are a people who share a core identity that transcends time and space.  The Jews, exceptional and unique, were linked by a commonality no matter where they happened to live at a particular time.  Classical and modern Jewish scholars emphasized the tenacity and ability of the Jewish people to maintain their core beliefs and modify their admirable institutions and cultural expressions by balancing change and continuity. Many Jewish leaders and thinkers often showed greatness in difficult situations.

Above all, the study and research of the history of the Jews, even the history itself, has an intrinsic value and a higher purpose. Indeed, Jews are commanded to “remember the days of old [and] consider the years of many generations” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Furthermore, the events and ideas of the Jewish past could be verified through the use of the scholarly historical method, which gave history a framework of order and cohesion. According to Moshe Rosman, such “metahistories,” be they Orthodox, nationalist, Zionist, or acculturationist (that of the leading mid-twentieth-century historian Salo W. Baron, who focused on all aspects of the interplay of Jews and their surrounding non-Jewish societies), served as the interpretations of the past for academics and the general public (19-55) until the recent onslaught of postmodernism.

The Cultural Approach and Its Deficiencies

In How Jewish Is Jewish History? Rosman does not enter into a debate for or against postmodernism, but explains its methods of Jewish scholarship. Venturing beyond his specialization of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Polish Jewry and early Hasidism, he presents a comprehensive work in English on the problems and challenges of writing Jewish history under the impact of postmodern ideas and multiculturalism, for which he deserves credit.

Rosman accepts the fact that postmodernism is here to stay (at least for the present and the immediate future) and that writing a postmodern Jewish historiography is possible (186). He argues that Jewish scholars and historians write under postmodern influence, just as those in other scholarly disciplines, not only for pragmatic reasons – that is, because it is the prevailing trend in academe and society with all that entails – but because like others, Jews live in the postmodern period, whose salient features he describes in the second chapter of the book (64-81). It is refreshing that a trained historian discusses current issues such as demographics, geographical distribution, political and economic status, integration, community affiliation, religion, exogamy, nationalism, identity, and anti-Semitism, rather than a sociologist or a Jewish community professional. Comparing the modern era (seventeenth century – ca. 1950) to the postmodern period, Rosman brings the necessary historical perspective, absent from most of the analyses of contemporary Jewry.

According to the author, the problems inherent in defining Jewishness today render earlier “metahistories” inapplicable. In their stead, he proposes the paradigm of “cultural history” or “cultural studies” (131-153), in which the historian reads and analyzes texts and other sources like an anthropologist, studying behavior, meaning, and practices. Culture is to be interpreted as broadly as possible, not in the sense of “high culture,” such as great works of art and literature. Here, Rosman sees eye to eye with the postmodernists, as is evident in the recent comprehensive volume edited by David Biale, Cultures of the Jews.[1] Rosman participated in this volume despite his reservations, which included his objection to the plural “cultures” as limiting the Jewish people’s collective identity and playing down common characteristics (99-102).

How Jewish Is Jewish History? brings examples of Rosman’s use of anthologies of laws and rituals, mystical tracts and folktales in writing early modern history of the Jews of Poland (144-167). The analysis of such sources sheds light on unexplored aspects of the past and may add to our knowledge of a particular trend, period, or community. However, such cultural studies cannot, and indeed do not intend to, form coherent historical narratives; they are often too narrow and eclectic. In fact, several chapters of Cultures of the Jews reflect those deficiencies, and leave the reader only with a feeling for some artifact, folk legend, or literary work but with little idea of the events and important persons at the time it was created or written. As many university students and the general public have a weak sense of chronology and minimal knowledge of historical facts, cultural studies seem to make little sense. They cannot and should not replace the reliable and venerable historical empirical method.

Rosman argues that Jewish history has intrinsic value and criticizes several postmodernists for viewing the minority status of the Jews and their Diaspora existence mainly as role models for multicultural societies (111-130). Labeling them as apologists, he compares them with previous scholars who saw the value of writing Jewish history only through the lens of Jewish contributions to civilization. His critique of the motivations and the extent of past and recent “contribution discourse” is thorough, well-written, and sharply focused. Rosman correctly points out that the fact that some postmodernists engage in Jewish studies so as to enhance the status of the Jews as the original multiculturalists not only deviates from pure scholarship (128-130) but occasionally serves as a double-edged sword. Advocates of multiculturalism castigate Jews as essentially conservative or reactionary and part of the oppressive hegemonic class (122-126), their only positive feature being their suffering during the Holocaust.

An Excessive Optimism?

The book’s strong points include its extensive bibliography and excellent documentation. The sections that summarize and describe the works of other scholars, such as the twentieth-century Jewish historians, postmodern theorists, and multiculturalists, are informative, thorough, and intelligent. Explaining the fine points of certain postmodern ideas is not an easy task and Rosman does so successfully. The occasional lack of clarity derives from postmodern jargon, not from his exposition. Chapter 2 on the features of the postmodern period of Jewish history, while solid and innovative, seems overly optimistic. Economic prosperity, integration, and pluralism in the Western world, which have given Jews the opportunity to express themselves as Jews and to participate fully in American and European societies, may not necessarily continue. Perhaps Rosman should have devoted somewhat more attention to the consequences of the new anti-Semitism, directed against Israel, which has affected Diaspora Jews in ways that may weaken their Jewish affiliations and identification. Similarly, the recent financial crisis has made many Jews much poorer and his paradigm of a largely affluent Jewish society may no longer be valid.

Furthermore, several of the chapters are too narrow in scope, particularly the one on the controversy between the late scholar Jacob Katz and Chava Weissler about the traditional exclusion of women in Jewish historiography (168-181); the one on legends and folklore, discussed above; and the one on the Jews’ relationship to Polish Gentile society. While interesting in their own right, these chapters read like independent monographs and break the cohesiveness of the book. The entire issue of gender and the impact of feminism on Jewish scholarship deserve much more attention, as it is perhaps the most significant change in the field. Missing from Rosman’s bibliography is the incisive overview by Hillel Halkin, “Feminizing Jewish Studies.”[2] In addition, while Rosman’s field is modern Polish Jewry, he should have discussed postmodern dismissals of the Bible and other ancient literature as historical sources. The absence of a section devoted to the influences of postmodernism on the historiography of the biblical and Second Temple periods is a major blind spot in this study, as it is crucial to any work on the present state of Jewish historiography.

Throughout the book Rosman intersperses major issues, occasionally as rhetorical questions, such as the consequences of regarding “metahistories” merely as myths (54-55) and Jews simply as individuals in a given society, the lack of affinity with a world Jewish collective (k’lal yisrael) (72), the crisis of confidence among scholars who write about specific subjects rather than engaging in substantive issues, and many more. It is a pity that he did not write a longer, more solid, and more forceful conclusion dealing with these major problems that are part of the postmodern period. Rosman dedicates his book to his children and grandchildren in the hope that they will “regard the history spoken here as your own,” and concludes that “Jewish history is as Jewish as the Jews have been, and as Jewish historians have the courage to present it” (186). However, his descriptions, citations, and analyses of postmodern interpretations that show the current inadequate state of the content and teaching of Jewish history, a deconstructed individualistic Jewish society, and the vacillations of Jewish historians are more disconcerting than encouraging to the reader.

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[1] David Biale, Cultures of the Jews: A New History (New York: Schocken, 2002).

[2] Hillel Halkin, “Feminizing Jewish Studies,” Commentary, February 1998, 39-45.

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RIVKAH FISHMAN-DUKER is a lecturer in Jewish history at the Rothberg International School, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.