From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism
By Ismar Schorsch
University Press of New England. 403 pages, $39.95

In this collection of twenty-one free-standing essays, Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a principal voice of Conservative Judaism, treats topics connected with the advent of historical study as a medium of Judaic theological discourse, or, in his language, “historical consciousness in Modern Judaism.” He credits the main figures, Leopold Zunz and Heinrich Graetz, with creating “a historical consciousness that could serve as a base for a voluntaristic and secular Jewish community.” Reform and what we now know as Conservative Judaism founded their theological systems on the primacy of historical data.

The emergence of historical consciousness in modern Judaism . . . comprises a fundamental change in mentality and epitomizes the dialectic process of Westernization that transformed medieval Ashkenazic Judaism . . . . Historical thinking facilitated the urgent and agonizing effort to rethink the nature of Judaism. It quickly became the primary vehicle for translating the ideas, institutions, and values of an ancient oriental religion into equivalent or related Western categories.

That Schorsch recognizes the fundamentally theological character of the enterprise emerges in his description, as first-rate apologetics, of historical study:

The heady recovery of the Jewish past filled Jews with pride and self-confidence. Their growing appreciation for the pathos of Jewish history, for the power of Jewish values and ideas, and for the persistence of the Jewish people countered the blandishments of assimilation. To unfurl the antiquity of Judaism created new grounds for a sense of sacred obligation.

These represent theological, not academic and historical, judgments. We stand at the end of the period of historicism in the theology of Judaism, marked by the loss of self-confidence once enjoyed by the conceptions set forth by the theologian-historians of reformist Judaisms-Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodoxy alike. For the same ideas that Schorsch argues provided an apologetics for being Jewish (for the secular Jews) or for acknowledging a “sacred obligation” imposed by history (for the religious one, the Judaists) no longer serve. Those ideas have lost plausibility for those Jews, and there are many, who through marriage or sheer inactivity opt out of that organized community-secular, eleemosynary, and voluntaristic-that in America stands for all but segregationist Orthodox Judaism. Schorsch tells the story of the beginnings of what in our own day comes to an end.

He adduces ample testimony to that fact when he presents as “evidence for the formative role of Jewish history in the shaping of the multiple identities of modern Jews” such data as “the role of the Maccabees, Masada, and archaeology in Israeli culture, or the grip of the Holocaust on the contemporary American Jewish scene.” The same argument would point to the celebration of the Torah in synagogue worship as an act of historical consciousness of Sinai, or of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as an act of mere mimesis. But for the Israelis the mythopoeic power of Masada derives not from the study of history but the utilization of history for political myth, and the Holocaust forms a principal component for secular Jewish ideology for quite other than narrowly academic, historical considerations. In both cases the past serves because it contributes events ripped out of context, not because the past imposes a philosophy of history, a proportionate and cogent statement of beginnings, middles, and endings that could validate the claim that historicism has triumphed. Past events serve theological or ideological purposes without necessarily attesting to the presence of historical consciousness at all.

While stressing what was novel, Schorsch goes still further when he alleges that “historical consciousness was always the substratum of Jewish identity.” This defines the theme of the twenty-one essays collected in the book: historical scholarship and the scholars that produced it. Such an allegation, vital to the book as a whole, would have surprised the sages of Judaism from the formative age to the nineteenth century (and the vast majority of Jewish sages in the world today), who speak not of “Judaism” but of “the Torah,” and for whom “the Torah” stands in judgment upon history. That is because the Torah-a.k.a., “Judaism”-speaks out of eternity into time. To its statements, historical facts prove monumentally irrelevant, and historians’ allegations as to what “really” happened or did not happen-and that is what Schorsch celebrates as historicism-have no consequences whatsoever for the Torah.

The issue concerns the place of historical fact in the formulation of theological truth. Many of the scholars cited by Schorsch take for granted that “Judaism” is a “historical religion” and rests on an interpretation of historical fact. Their position takes shape in their reading of Scripture. Specifically, the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel, all modern scholarship concurs, set forth Israel’s life as history, with a beginning, middle, and end; a purpose and a coherence; a teleological system. All accounts agree that Scriptures distinguished past from pres-ent, present from future, and composed a sustained narrative, made up of one-time, irreversible events. All maintain that, in Scripture’s historical portrait, Israel’s present condition appealed for explanation to Israel’s past, perceived as a coherent sequence of weighty events, each unique, all formed into a great chain of meaning. But that historicist reading violates the position of the Torah, oral and written, which at no point submits questions of theological truth to the judgment of historical fact. “Judaism” may be “a historical religion,” but for those who live life within the Torah, the world is framed by other-than-historical boundaries.

Schorsch’s essays amply demonstrate that the idea of history, with its rigid distinction between past and present and its careful sifting of connections from the one to the other, came quite late onto the scene of intellectual life-specifically at the beginning of Reform Judaism, born in the midst of the historical-romantic age of the early nineteenth century. Yet both Judaism and Christianity for most of their histories have read the Hebrew Scriptures in an other-than-historical framework. They found in Scripture’s word paradigms of an enduring present, by which all things must take their measure; they possessed no conception whatsoever of the pastness of the past. For Judaism’s sages of blessed memory, as for the saints and sages of Christianity, the past took place in the acutely present tense of today, but the present found its locus in the presence of the ages as well. And that is something historical thinking cannot abide. Not only so, but it contradicts the most fundamental pattern of explanation that we ordinarily take for granted in contemporary cultural life. For two hundred years historicism has governed.

In fact, historicism forms a barrier between us and the understanding of time that defined the Judaic and the Christian encounter with God through the Scriptures of ancient Israel. The givenness of the barrier between time now and time then yields for us banalities about anachronism, on the one side, and imposes upon us the requirement of mediating between historical fact and religious truth, on the other. Receiving those Scriptures and systematically reviewing them, the Judaism of the “dual Torah”-that is, the Written Law embodied in the Pentateuch plus the Oral Law, eventually canonized in the Talmud-recast this corpus of historical thinking, substituting paradigm or pattern for narrative sequence, by redefining the received notion of time altogether. That transformation of ancient Israel’s Scripture from history to paradigm defines the conception of history of Rabbinic Judaism-calling into question the notion that that Judaism possessed a conception of history at all.

In the Judaism set forth by principal documents that record the oral part of the dual Torah, particularly those that reached closure from ca. 200 to ca. 600 c.e., both documents of law such as the Mishnah and Tosefta, and documents of Scriptural exegesis-such as Sifre to Deuteronomy, Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, and Song of Songs Rabbah-concepts of history, coming to expression in the categories of time and change, along with distinctions between past, present, and future utterly give way to a conception of recording and explaining the social order different from that of history. It is one that sets aside time and change in favor of enduring paradigms recapitulated in age succeeding age. The modernization of Judaism repudiated the paradigmatic thinking of the received tradition.

In that tradition, the concept of history as we know it and as Scripture (not read within the Torah, but as part of the whole Torah) knows it surrenders to an altogether different way of conceiving time and change as well as the course of noteworthy, even memorable, social events. The past takes place in the present, for the present embodies the past. And there is no indeterminate future over the horizon, only a clear and present path to be chosen if people will it. With distinctions between past, pres-ent, and future time found to make no difference and, in their stead, different categories of meaning and social order deemed self-evident, the Judaism of the dual Torah transforms ancient Israel’s history into the categorical structure of eternal Israel’s society, so that past, present, and future meet in the here and now.

In that construction of thought, as the Reformers recognized, history finds no place-time, change, the movement of events toward a purposive goal have no purchase, and a different exegesis of happenings supplants the conception of history. No place in Rabbinic thought, portrayed in successive documents examined severally and jointly, accommodates the notions of change and time, unique events and history, particular lives and biography.

Alas, it is in the nature of a collection of essays to leave us wanting more in one spot, less in another. For Schorsch’s book skirts these urgent issues; only one essay among the score, “The Emergence of Historical Consciousness in Modern Judaism,” actually addresses the “turn to history.” The others, being reprinted journal articles, treat conventional historical subjects, but not historical consciousness, e.g., “The Emergence of the Modern Rabbinate,” “Jewish Academics at Prussian Universities,” “Art as Social History: Moritz Oppenheim and the German Jewish Vision of Emancipation,” “From Wolfenbuttel to Wissenschaft: The Divergent Paths of Isaak Markus Jost and Leopold Zunz,” “Jewish Studies from 1818 to 1919,” and the like. These are standard academic essays, and in few of them do the great themes introduced in the preface and treated in the cited essay play any part at all. So the book does not hold together very well or work on a single problem or argue on behalf of a cogent proposition.

But, I hasten to add, Schorsch presents his ideas in a well-documented way, with first-rate footnotes and clear evidence of substantial learning. The writing is academic in a less felicitous sense; every verb requires its adverb, every noun its adjective, so the prolixity of topics finds its match in a somewhat uneconomical prose. But overall, for the study of the intellectual modernization of Judaism, Schorsch has raised important questions and provided valuable data for investigating them.

Jacob Neusner is distinguished Research Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida and Visiting Professor of Religion at Bard College.

Articles by Jacob Neusner

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