A Short History of the Jews
by Michael Brenner
Princeton, 472 pp., $29.95
It is difficult to chronicle a global people. Jews have retained their identity through myriad lands and languages, making the simple technical task of writing Jewish history daunting. Even before the tangle of languages, one must decide: Is the primary influence what Jews have made of themselves, or what the world has done to the Jews?
Much modern Jewish history is taken with the done-to side of things. The internal engines of Jewish destiny and self-definition seem dwarfed by the larger currents of world history swirling around the Jews. In part this makes sense; after all, the rise of communism or Nazism or the establishment of America was more determinative of modern Jewish history than a thousand learned tomes or community leaders. But there is something crucial missing in a story of Jews that does not give a shaping role to
Michael Brenner’s book is a crisp, able summary of the major events in Jewish history. When necessary, he signals his skepticism of received traditions without being so explicit as to alienate readers across the ideological spectrum: “David, the legendary founder of the Judaic royal house and progenitor of the lineage leading to Josiah, was supposed to have ruled over both kingdoms at the same time.” Is this “legendary” as in the biblical minimalists, who doubt David’s actual existence, or “legendary” as in “remarkable and influential”? We are not told. Repeatedly Brenner signals his familiarity with modern scholarship and his sympathy with it, but seeks to do so in a way that will not denigrate traditional understandings.
Brenner is more interested in the interactions of the Jews with the world than with the internal dynamics of Jewish history. He says at the outset that “the golden thread that runs throughout this book is migration.” Migration was the legacy of a nomadic people responding to an inhospitable world. As a result there is a disproportionate place given to those Jews whose achievements are outside the Jewish community. Any work of Jewish history where Bob Dylan commands the same space as Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, the preeminent biblical and Talmudic commentator) or where Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock rates a picture but, to take but a few examples, Ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Amichai, and Adin Steinsaltz are not mentioned, is a history bewitched by the siren song
Judaism is a notoriously difficult entity to define: Racial, ethnic, and religious elements intermix in often confusing ways, but for much of Jewish history, Jewish practice and belief were determinative. Theology may not have defined who was a Jew, but it surely defined Judaism. Yet one would read Brenner’s book with very little understanding of the tradition itself. So we are confronted with the paradoxical spectacle of reading about the age of the Talmud, for example, without being told about the contents of this formative work. Rabbi Akiva is noted as a martyr and a believer in the messiahship of Bar Kokhba, but we hear nothing of his legal creativity or championing of exegesis. Hillel is mentioned only in passing.
This short history of the Jews turns out to be a short history of the political and social life of the Jews, with an emphasis on how the world treated them, punctuated by celebrities whom modern college students would recognize and claim (proudly or not) as their own. To some extent this omission invites the Talmudic stricture--—ha-ikar haser min ha-sefer—the essence is missing from the book. While there is a cursory review of the biblical story there is nothing of the complex of laws, belief, and practices that comprise Judaism for most of its history. Shabbetai Zevi, the false Messiah whose dramatic story was unearthed by Gershom Scholem, gets several pages. Joseph Caro, who along with Moses Isserles wrote the most popular code of Jewish law in a long history, merits two sentences.
Popular history of the Jews used to be written in the salvific mode: History was moving toward an apotheosis—if not exactly eschatological, at least historically redemptive. But modern history does not permit such credulity; progress is no longer a clearly marked highway to messianism, in either the classical or secular versions. “Israel, an embattled homeland” is one more chapter in the saga, hardly distinguishable from other migrations. Certainly nothing in the tone would signal the reader, as in more traditional expositions, that this is the long-awaited culmination of dreams. In contrast to many chroniclers of the Jewish story, Brenner does not permit himself to write in the heroic mode. Here is the most drama-laden sentence in his description of the Warsaw ghetto uprising: “They were able to hold their own for a month without receiving any appreciable assistance from the Polish population outside the ghetto.” Accurate, succinct—and utterly removed from anything that might quicken the blood.
Earlier popular books on Jewish history, such as Max Dimont’s Jews, God and History (1962) and Chaim Potok’s Wanderings (1978), were criticized for what we might call egregious teleology: They assumed that Jews were heading toward something, that Jewish history was a grand, passionate drama. Brenner is thoroughly unintoxicated. But it made me think of Yeats’s damning verdict that the worst thing about some men is that, when they were not drunk, they
David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters.