Thursday, May 19, 2016

Notes on the Jew in Historiography


Spiritual Jews in America like to sneer at Maimonides for replacing the living God of the Bible with a colorless Aristotelian ghost.

You’d just as well sneer at Socrates for denying that Venus jumped into bed with Mars. Yes, Maimonides was unbiblical and humorless, but why let that raise your blood pressure? If you least pretend to be a scholar, can’t you look at both Maimonides and the Bible as alien, context-bound historical objects?

You might be a Jew with respect to the past, not a scholar; but if that’s the case then say so. It’s not a sin.


“The most important event in New-Testament scholarship last century wasn’t the Dead Sea Scrolls or Nag Hammadi. It was the Holocaust.”

A professor of mine made this observation to our seminar last year. It is true. The Holocaust poured fog over our knowledge of the New Testament. First the aghast Christians realized that their anti-Semitism had gone too far, and tried to prove that Paul and John was never actually anti-Jewish. Relieved Jewish scholars were only too happy to help out this scholarly cause. Then the Jews got clever and postcolonial, and showed that yes, John was an enemy of the Jews after all. Lost in the debate was the irrelevance of “anti-Judaism” and “anti-Semitism” to any substantive understanding of the New Testament. The truth became a hostage to a twentieth-century intellectual project. Remember that this project—the reconciliation of Jews and Christians—was important, and its moral stakes were high. But the project polluted scholarship.

The historian will read Paul carefully, and figure out what he said in what context, including the lines about the Iudaioi. He will forget that there are still people in the world who claim descent from these people. He will treat the word Iudaios with exactly as much passion as he treats, say, Korinthios.


Leviticus, like any frightening Near Eastern book, said to destroy any man who lies with another man. Paul sneered like any good Roman at soft homosexuals. And Jay Michaelson, for whom both of these facts are inconvenient, wrote God vs. Gay, which shows that it’s a misinterpretation to call the Bible homophobic.

He, together with hundreds of other Jay Michaelsons, was wrong on the surface: yes, the Bible does say those things. And he was wrong in a deeper sense: he played the game of asking whether the Bible fits x modern category, be it homophobia or gay affirmation; misogyny or feminism; coercion or freedom. The Bible’s authors thought about things like slave-girls, blemishes on yearlings, and sometimes sex between males—not our own century’s political preoccupations.

The historian will find out what the Bible said. He will not care what the Bible said. He will not think about whether Dan Savage can be brought around to like what it says in the Bible.


“Belief is compatible with history, and it can even enrich it.” So say the theologians in history departments. This is like someone with bronchitis thinking that her illness is compatible with a night at the symphony. She might get something out of the music despite her coughing; no one else in the house will.


The profoundest thing that a Rabbi can say:
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (I Kings 19:11–12)
Said Rabbi usually does not quote what the still small voice then proceeds to say:
Anoint Hazael to be king over Syria: And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room. And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay: and him that escapeth from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.
That is, the voice commanded Elijah to slaughter every last person, down to the women and babies, in the house of Ahab. It was a military order issued by an angry god who wanted to crush his enemy Baʿal.

The meaning of Jewish life is corroded if that fact is brought up too often. How many thousands of Jews have been comforted in their sleepless nights by the still small voice of God!


After all, the Jews need something from the past. They need many things, in fact:

  • A father Abraham and a mother Sarah. The comfort that God loved Isaac and Jacob, but coldly cast Ishmael and Esau away.
  • Liberation from Egypt. A sense that there are Egypts and Jerusalems in the world; alien lands and home.
  • Amalek. An eternal enemy who destroyed the Jews in the First Crusade, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust—and who can be overcome.
  • A reason not to eat pigs and to be circumcised. Otherwise the world is a dizzy and meaningless place.
  • A historical connection to the land of Israel.
  • A traditional shtetl that was a warm community and a cradle of culture. Or an enlightened, happy Medieval Spain to serve the same purpose.
  • A family that stretches deep into the past, who are beloved though they’re gone.
  • A God who has loved them tenderly despite everything that has happened to them.
A scholar cannot give these to the Jews if he is loyal to his craft. In fact, very often he will uncover facts that make it far more difficult for Jews to be nurtured by history. Which tempts us to say: “let knowledge rot, as long as the human race is fed spiritually by its concept of the past.” But we must resist this temptation. Zealous attachment to the truth, after all, is the only thing preventing the world from lapsing into idealogical wars of words and guns. Besides, open quotation marks, all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use, close quotation marks. There is a value in history; dignity that we we win for ourselves just by unflinchingly looking at the record.

But Jews must find some way of coming to grips with the fact that many—if not all—of their comfortable illusions are upset by what scholars have discovered. Perhaps the answer is double-think and compartmentalization, perhaps it is atheist ritualism, perhaps it is modern nationalism, or perhaps it is assimilation into the gentile world.

For Christians, by the way, the problem is sharper: the scholar must believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead, and the Christian must believe that he did. It is as simple as that. The same obviously goes for believing Muslims, whose faith is opposed to modern scholarships’ assertion that the Koran was written by men.

Now, of course the best answer for Jews is just to live, and go on keeping kosher and praying if they must. The past, and the Bible for that matter, can still be pillars holding that life up. But Jews should not think that the information to be had about the world’s history will inevitably work to confirm their sense of who they are. That was last true in the seventeenth century.


In the end, as long as we don’t go around saying things that are false or that we only slightly mean, there isn’t so serious a problem as it might seem. Life can be lived without being explained.

Again, it could be worse: Jews don’t have to declaim a list of specious historical assertions in English on a weekly basis in front of everyone they love. They have the luck of praying in Hebrew, which lets them separate our religion from the forthright, steady-eyed statements about the past that they're willing to stand behind.

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