A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews
The Jews are a fascinating people, both to themselves and to everyone else. The Jews are a paradigm of what will happen to most nations and ethnic groups with a long-run exposure to urban global culture. They are an irresistibly global people, a vanguard for the global world.
A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews is the culmination of a lifetime of study and insight by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, one of the most provocative rabbis in Jewish history. What distinguishes this accessible “history of the Jews” from other popular accounts is its unflinching approach to academic truth, be the period biblical, medieval or modern. It is also unique in its celebration of the contemporary secularized reality of most Jews as the culmination of, rather than a rupture with, the Jewish historical experience.
Upon Wine’s tragic death in 2007, Rabbi Adam Chalom assumed Wine’s role as Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ) and the task of bringing this manuscript to print. He has brought together his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan with a light editorial touch to produce a narrative that is both academically supported and easily readable in Wine’s voice. Historical maps by Wine and Sir Martin Gilbert provide visual context, and a complete bibliography and index are also included. And Chalom’s Afterword offers an appreciation of Wine’s life and work.
A Provocative People! Study Guide
Check out our new A Provocative People Study Guide
Rabbi Sherwin Wine on the Beginnings of Jewish History
Foreword by Dan Cohn-Sherbok
Introduction by Adam Chalom
Chapter I: Beginnings
The Jews did not begin with Abraham. Their foundation lies in the ancient cultures of the Near East. The story of Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, the Amorites and the Canaanites is also the story of the Jews. Jewish culture when it began was already a composite of the legacy of these older civilizations.
Chapter II: Jews
The Jews did not emerge as a nation under the leadership of Moses. They were never rescued from slavery in Egypt. They never stopped at Sinai. Two Hebrew nations emerged in the highlands of Canaan. One was Israel; the other was Judah. The relationship of the two nations was often hostile. The Israelites were more powerful than the Judeans (Jews). Omri and Ahab were greater kings than David and Solomon. But Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. Only the Jews survived.
Chapter III: Religion
The religion of the Jews was dramatically altered by the victory of the Assyrians. An informal religious rebellion—called here the Protest Movement and led by the prophets of a god named Yahweh—overthrew the religious establishment and elevated Yahweh to be the supreme ruler of the universe. Out of this rebellion emerged exclusive worship of Yahweh and hostility to the cults of other gods, which together transformed the Jews into a segregated and provocative people. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Chaldeans and the elimination of the monarchy, Judah became a theocracy dominated by Yahweh priests and by the book (Torah) they created which enforced their authority.
Chapter IV: Diaspora
The conquest of Judah by both the Persians and the Greeks led to the dispersion of the Jews. The dispersion facilitated the beginnings of the economic transformation of the Jews from an agricultural to a commercial people. The culture of the Greeks was especially provocative, dividing the Jews into Hellenists and anti-Hellenists. For a short time, the Jews regained their independence under the Maccabees. But the coming of the Romans ended national autonomy and led to a fierce struggle among rival religious sects for the allegiance of the Jews.
Chapter V: Rabbis
An anti-Hellenist religious sect called the Pharisees emerged as the supreme national authority after the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple by the Romans. The Pharisees were led by the rabbis, who replaced the Zadokite priests as the chief figures in a new theocracy. The rabbis championed a new salvation religion which was highly popular. They reinforced their authority by finalizing the scriptures of the “First Torah” (Bible) and introducing a “Second Torah” (Talmud). However, the Roman overlords and most of the nations of the Roman Empire were converted to a competing salvation religion (Christianity), which was derived from Rabbinic Judaism but which did not require membership in the Jewish nation. The Christian victors turned against the Jews.
Chapter VI: Muslims
Because of Christian persecution, the division of the Jews into an Eastern Diaspora (Persia) and a Western Diaspora (Rome) was accelerated. Most of the Jews of the world ended up in the Eastern Diaspora. When the Eastern Empire was conquered by the Muslim Arabs, Islam became the cultural setting of the Eastern Jews. As the Arabs were united under a central authority (Caliph) so were the Jews (Exilarch). Out of this centralization, Rabbinic Judaism was finalized as an orthodoxy. Because of Turkish invasions, Spain replaced Iraq as the center of the Muslim Jewish world. In time Turkey took the place of Spain as Muslim power declined.
Chapter VII: Christians
The Jews who remained in the Western Diaspora coped with the hostility of Christian rulers and Christian clergy. Jews survived because they performed certain commercial functions which no other established groups were willing or able to do. The Jews followed their commercial fortunes from Greece to Italy to Germany (Ashkenaz)—and ultimately to Poland. As Christians became willing to perform these economic functions, Jewish fortunes declined. Mystical religion (Kabbalah/Hasidism) became the comfort of the downtrodden. The conquest of Poland by the Russians added to the distress.
Chapter VIII: Revolution
After 2200 years of domination by religion and the clergy, the Jews of the Western Diaspora were transformed into a secular people by the twin revolutions of capitalism and science. Many Jews became the stars of this post-Christian world and achieved unprecedented economic and intellectual success. But the old religion no longer fit a secular people. Reform Judaism, both conservative and radical, became the first major attempt to confront this problem of Jewish identity.
Chapter IX: Antisemitism
The trauma of overwhelming change triggered a new antisemitism which was secular. The provocation of imagined power replaced the provocation of religious difference. The demonization of the Jew undermined Jewish safety in both Eastern and Western Europe. Jewish responses to this assault were often secular. Secular nationalism (Yiddishist and Zionist), secular socialism (Menshevik and Bolshevik) and emigration to America reshaped Jewish life. The twin traumas of antisemitic Stalinism and the Nazi Holocaust decimated Jewish ranks. America and Zionist Israel emerged as the new centers of Jewish life.
Chapter X: Zionism and Contemporary Judaism
In the last century, Jewish life has been dominated by Jewish nationalism and the new state of Israel. American Jewish power was mobilized to support the Zionist agenda. American Jewish culture was revived by the enthusiasm that Zionism engendered. Given all the social and “liberation” transformations of the twentieth century, Judaism and the Jewish religion featured the emergence of many new philosophic and religious experiments which sought to arrange for Jewish Diaspora survival. But the relentless global revolution resisted Zionism and its agenda of normalizing the Jews. A substantial Israeli Diaspora has now emerged to reinforce the age-old reality of the Jews as a world people. Perhaps the idea of a nation that is a world people is a unique positive contribution of the Jews to the world.
Afterword—”Humanistic Judaism and Sherwin Wine: An Appreciation” by Adam Chalom
Further Reading on Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism