Reclaiming History

Reclaiming History

INTRODUCTION By Bonnie Cousens

Jewish history is the story of the Jewish people, from ancient times to the present. It is a story that fascinates us. It is the story of real people, our ancestors, of their beginnings and of their journey to the present. We draw our values, our insights about ourselves and humanity, from these stories that many accept as true. Yet, as is often the case with history, legends and folk tales have become intertwined with fact until it is often difficult to separate the two.

Colloquium ’97, ”Reclaiming Jewish History” sought to do just that. Bringing together twelve historians, each a student of a different era in Jewish history, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism sought to explore the popular stories that make up Jewish history, to enable us to separate fact from legend.

From October 23-26, 1997, more than three hundred people gathered at the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit for colloquium ’97. Setting the stage for the weekend was keynote speaker Steven J. Zipperstein, Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University, who provided a thematic backdrop for tracing the journey of the Jewish people from Judea and the Middle East to Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Stressing the importance of understanding Jewish history to understanding ourselves and our world, Prof. Zipperstein issued a challenge to his fellow presenters and to the audience to reverse the pattern of our ancestors, who largely remained silent about their past, and to work together to uncover the story of the Jewish people. Suggesting that a vivid, engaged knowledge of Jewish history expands our world, giving it texture and depth, he defined the Jewish quest to understand our past as a source of joy. Asking what roles the knowledge of Jewish history can play in our lives and in the future, Zipperstein prepared us for the ideas that would follow. Over the next three days, eleven presenters would answer the challenge, each addressing a different question about Jewish history. Each presentation was followed by an often challenging and intriguing dialogue among the presenters and members of the faculty of the Institute.

We began the journey into the past with Prof. Carol Meyers, noted historian and biblical archaeologist at Duke University, whose research into the ancient beginnings of the Jewish people provided an answer to the question, ”Did the Jewish people begin with Abraham?” While it is difficult to discover the facts, archaeological evidence, settlement patterns, and comparisons of biblical and Egyptian texts seem to reveal a story of a hill-people, refugees from Canaanite coastal states, who created a culture and economy that was ultimately unified as the nation of Israel. Professor Meyers stressed that no archaeological evidence of a massive migration of Jews from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula to Israel has been found and that the biblical account of Jewish origins was, at best, historical fiction: sometimes plausible, but generally imagined.

Professor William Propp, Professor of Ancient History and Judaic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, examined the origins of the Bible as we know it. He reported on the numerous attempts over time to control which stories would become part of the canon and which would be excluded. An examination of the parallel but often contradictory streams in the Bible, he posited, yields evidence, not of divine authorship, but of human beings seeking to preserve their ancestral legends. Prior to 1524 C.E., when the second rabbinic Bible, the final definitive version, was printed, there were man earlier versions, no two of which were identical. This phenomenon of parallel versions is reflected in the narratives of the Torah scroll itself. Professor Propp pointed to the use of multiple divine names and inclusion of different versions of the same story as evidence of the late date and composite nature of the canon.

Taking us from the Maccabees to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Eric M. Meyers, archaeologist and Professor of Religion at Duke University, exploded the story every Jewish child learns as they light their Hanukkah candles. The transition from Hebrew to Greek culture as the Seleucids appointed pro- Hellenizing Jews to oversee Judea set the stage for the resistance movement led by the Hasmonean family of Judah Maccabee. But this successful revolt did not establish a government, either political or religious, founded on democratic principles, as many believe, or without opposition, as the scrolls of the Qumran community reveal. And it was not until the founding of the state in 1948 that Jews again would reign supreme in Israel.

On Friday afternoon, we returned to an examination of the Bible, led by Israeli scholar and author Yaakov Malkin, who described himself as lucky; he would speak of myth, not truth. Myths, the stories of a people, unify and identify a nation. For the Jews, their myths created a religion and a culture that would survive through thousands of years. Retelling the stories of the Bible, Professor Malkin demonstrated the power of our myths, all revolving around the struggle between God and man. He pointed out that the name Israel in Hebrew means “the one who fought with God and won.”

Ari Elon, a professor of Rabbinic Texts at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, again examined the central literature of the Jewish people, describing the transition from scripture to religious law, from Written to Oral Torah. Beginning with this concept of two Torot given on Sinai, he moved on to reveal the existence of a body of information not included in these Torot. Delving into the conflict between “Torah lawyers” and “Torah lovers,” he explored the concept and the rules of Halakh and the details of the literature that envelopes and defines Rabbinic Judaism. By closely examining both rabbinic and apocryphal Jewish sources, like the Book of Jubilees, one may gain a greater insight into the ideological changes of this formative period in Jewish history.

Norman Cantor, prolific author and a professor of medieval history at New York University, challenged us to learn the lessons of Jewish history. He disputed the traditional picture of the medieval world as a hostile and unfriendly environment for the Jews. Instead, he presented a picture of a thriving Jewish community, advanced by the surrounding European society until the twelfth century, as Jews participated in the economic, political, and cultural realms. With the growing power of Christianity and the rise of spirituality both within Judaism and in the surrounding culture during the high Middle Ages, the security and economic well-being of the Jewish community slowly and steadily deteriorated. By the end of the Middle Ages, the Jewish population, exiled from Western Europe, had moved eastward into Poland and the Ukraine, where it ultimately would be destroyed.

The Jewish population shift to Eastem Europe set the stage for the rise of the Hasidic movement. Ada Rapoport-Albert, lecturer in Judaic studies at University College, London, posed the question of whether Hasidism was a development of harmonious continuity, mystical and old, or a new beginning, reactive and inventive. Characterizing herself as ”enthralled by Hasidism,” she described a movement rich in spirituality, mysticism, and emotion that continues as a force within Judaism to this day. Beginning with an exploration of the conflict between the Maskilim and Mitnagdim, she traced the development of Hasidism from its birth, concluding with a look at its place in the modem world. She noted that scholars have portrayed Hasidism as a retrogressive movement, oriented toward the past, or as forward-looking and strong, offering a means for the preservation of Judaism in the centuries to come.

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, a new age arose, an era in which reason and individual autonomy were prized. Known as the Enlightenment, the corresponding movement became known within the Jewish world as the Haskalah. Lois Dubin, Associate Professor of Religion and Biblical Literature at Smith College, introduced her audience to the Haskalah, its birth, growth, and impact on future generations. Although the Enlightenment was often opposed by religious leaders, who viewed it as heretical and destructive, its ideas were a powerful force in motivating Jews to take an active role in shaping events rather than depending on fate. The Maskilim, leaders of the Haskalah, saw the Enlightenment as an opportunity for Jews to become members of the wide world in which they dwelled. The Enlightenment belief in human courage and the quest for knowledge are still relevant today.

No examination of Jewish history can escape a discussion of the two most significant events of the modem Jewish world, the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel. Yehuda Bauer, director of the Interational Center for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem and a world-renowned Holocaust scholar, examined the first and traced its connections to antisemitism today. He was emphatic in his statement that there is no meaning to the Holocaust; it was murder and the only meaning to murder is murder. While Prof. Bauer cautioned his audience not to view Jewish history as a history of persecution, he did warn that a holocaust could come again. Yet, he remains optimistic, suggesting that, despite the continued existence of antisemitism, for the first time in millennia there appears to be a chance to diminish and possibly eradicate the danger.

Derek Jonathan Penslar, a specialist in modem Jewish history and Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto, brought our journey through Jewish history to a close as he told the story of the rise of Zionism and the return of the Jewish people to Israel. Zionism was the rejection of the Diaspora and the unhealthy passivity it encouraged in the Jewish people. Viewing the Bible as a unifying national myth and glorifying Hebrew, the Zionists saw a return to Israel as the means for reawakening the glory and vitality of the Jewish people. With the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, the initial Zionist goals were realized. While some criticize Zionism as being militant and aggressive, others say it was reactive and defensive. The question today, growing out of this past, is not whether the force can be eliminated but how to control and limit it. Israel today is an advanced industrial state with a secular western outlook where Zionists continue to seek connections to the Jewish past, while addressing difficult issues (e.g., Arab terrorism and land for peace) unforeseen by the state’s founders.

Colloquium ’97 was the second in the series of biennial colloquia on critical issues in the Jewish world sponsored by the International Institute. ‘The International Institute is the educational arm of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, an umbrella organization that unites Secular Humanistic Jewish communities and organizations worldwide. It was hoped that bringing together Jewish scholars and authors with the faculty of the Institute would lead to fresh insights and new ways of approaching critical issues in the Jewish world.

As a conference, Colloquium ’97 was unique, focusing on the entire spectrum of Jewish story, rather than a single area. Bringing together scholars, each of whom addressed a different era of history, afforded participants an unusual opportunity to examine the inter-relationships of different periods of Jewish history. Both the presenters and the attendees expressed satisfaction with their experiences of the weekend: the stimulating dialogue, the challenging questions, and the insightful responses. Steven Zipperstein closed the colloquium as he opened it, suggesting that, as the barriers between Jewish groups becomes less pronounced through cooperative efforts such as the Colloquium, the quest for a true Jewish pluralism would be fulfilled.

The International Institute has collected some of the presentations of the speakers in this volume to enable readers to better consider and explore the ideas expressed during the weekend. We hope you will find the published talks interesting and provocative. Both audio- and videotapes of the presentations that will enable you to better share in the excitement of the Colloquium weekend also are available from the International Institute. Should you be tempted to further investigate the ideas expressed by the presenters, a list of suggested readings is included in the appendix of this volume.

Note: Readers might notice inconsistencies in the transliterations found in this volume. These are the result of preserving the individual preferences of the authors.