The Sacred Chain:
The History of the Jews By Norman F. Cantor
Harper Collins 472 pages, $35
Take a brilliant and brash Jewish academic with no background in the primary sources of Judaism but plenty of childhood memories and odd prejudices on the subject, set him to reading some books about Jewish history, and let him write a History of the Jews. The result is a strange book peppered with embarrassingly elementary factual errors (not to mention typos), snide and cynical cracks, and outrageous generalizations. So bizarre are some parts of this book that it is hard to believe that the author intends them to be taken seriously. And all of this is served up in a wise-guyish style that sends the message: I will clue you in on the secrets that the Jewish establishment does not want you to know.
But the real weakness of the book is more fundamental than ignorance, arrogance, and eccentricity. The author has no feel for the Jewish religious experience in either of its two most prevalent forms, ritual performance and the study of sacred texts. To him-as to many other secular intellectuals of Jewish background-religion is nothing more than a manifestation of culture, and Judaism nothing more than a background for the emergence of avant-garde intellectual trends. Jewish tradition, Jewish piety, the Jewish quest for closeness to God-all are doomed to deconstruction.
Norman Cantor, a professor at New York University, was trained at Princeton as a medievalist, but has written widely on modern society and thought as well. Since the publication of his first book (a scholarly work on the Investiture Controversy), he has geared his writing not to the professional historian but to the educated layman. He writes in his preface that this book, too, is “for the lay reader, both Jew and Gentile, and the beginning college student.” One shudders at the idea of The Sacred Chain as the introduction to Jewish history for such audiences.
Running through this book is Cantor’s insistence that just about all previous Jewish historiography has been a kind of racket, almost a conspiracy, of those who have had a vested interest in seeing the Jewish past as “the persistent record of Jewish superior morality and intellectuality as well as communal suffering, particularly at Christian hands.” Cantor believes that even today there are powerful Jewish forces propping up this traditional motif. He charges that the wealthy Jews who finance university chairs of Jewish studies fear interpretations of Jewish history that deviate from the “victimization/celebratory model,” and this has prevented the emergence of sophisticated interpretations of the Jewish past. “In the medical schools they endow,” he claims, “sick Jews would not want nineteenth-century medicine to be taught, but nineteenth-century historiography is still fully acceptable to them!”
Cantor wants to “reopen fundamental questions about Jewish life,” foremost of which is whether Jews have indeed been a saintly, ethical, passive, long-suffering folk-the image he attributes to the historical mythmakers. The untold story of Jewish history, for Cantor, is the active role that Jews have played in shaping their own destiny, for good and for ill. In fact, if Cantor’s stereotypical Jewish historians ever lived, they died out long ago. Modern Jewish historiography is based on the premise that the history of the Jews is determined by the interaction between Jews and their surrounding environment. But Cantor means something more than this, something insidious, when he emphasizes Jews’ responsibility for their own history. He is arguing that the Jews often got what was coming to them.
For Cantor, the problem goes back to the dawn of the Jewish experience. He views the Bible as a fictitious saga aimed at establishing a special relationship between God and the Jews. The Bible provides “made-up stories created from a much later time,” an invented “obsessive historical myth” propounding “providential monotheism, puritanical ethics, and a rigorous behavioral code.” Cantor notes that the covenant theology of the Hebrew Bible, by positing an elite chosen people, is the very opposite of the “democracy, multiculturalism, and ethnic equality” that contemporary Jews and their organizations espouse. Despite the efforts of modern Jewish apologists to rationalize the doctrine, the chosen people idea traditionally meant that other cults and creeds were inferior, an assumption that their practitioners could not but resent.
Furthermore, Cantor believes that Jewish leadership in virtually every innovative intellectual, economic, and cultural movement in the history of the West has inevitably aroused Gentile hostility. Christianity itself was a Jewish enterprise, and not simply because Jesus was a Jew; Cantor points out, in his characteristically flippant way, that “the Church of Rome is officially dedicated to Peter and Paul-two good Jewish boys, Simon Rocky and Saul of Tarsus.” Islam, too, was a Jewish production. If Muhammad received a revelation, writes Cantor, the angel who dictated the Koran “spoke with a Jewish accent,” since Islam is “a simplification, a vulgarization, of biblical Judaism.” Spanish Catholic humanism of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the culture that established an inquisition and ultimately banished all overt Jews, was essentially Jewish too, since so many conversos and their descendants were important elements of it-including King Ferdinand and many of the Dominican inquisitors. Modern philosophy triggered by Spinoza; modern capitalism anticipated by Jewish merchants; socialism and communism hatched by Marx and his primarily Jewish successors; cultural modernism sparked by Freud, Durkheim, Boas, and Einstein; and even today’s postmodernism-pioneered by Wittgenstein, Chomsky, Levy- Strauss, Derrida, Bloom-are all products of Jewish genius.
Cantor believes that if Jews wish to boast of Jewish contributions to civilization, they must also acknowledge the anger-the anti-Semitism-in traditionalist circles at the sweeping social changes that Jews have precipitated. In a typical passage of stunning heartlessness, he suggests that the anti-Semites between the two World Wars who perceived Jews as the motive force behind both capitalism and communism were not entirely wrong; he mentions, but does not document, “circumstantial and anecdotal, even some statistical verifications for the popular anti-Semitic double-faced image of the Jews around 1930 as both slippery entrepreneurs and conspiratorial communists.” And in his tiresome pose of uncovering the sordid truth that the establishment insists on hiding, Cantor adds that “nowadays . . . it has become politically incorrect in the controlling American Jewish precincts to verify the existence of this provocative polarity.”
Why have Jews been responsible for so much innovation? Though he sometimes professes an agnostic approach to the explanation for Jewish preeminence, more often he cites the Jewish gene pool: generations of endogamy, meticulous attention to what is eaten and how it is prepared, and traditions of group solidarity have made possible the evolution and reproduction of an intellectually superior race. How unfortunate it is, Cantor laments, that Hitler discredited racial theory by using it as the basis for genocide.
Cantor’s desire to shock is not without its uses. In an insightful discussion of American Jewish adherence to a “radically secular new view of the First Amendment” in the twentieth century that would deny all government aid to religious schools, he points out that the Jewish organizations that championed total Church-State separation were acting against the interests of their own constituents, whose weakening Jewish identification could only suffer greater erosion from years of exposure to the nonsectarian public school in the naked public square. Cantor is also on the mark when he notes the irony that the American Jews who are so prominent in the entertainment industry promote pagan cultural values that are the antithesis of Jewish teachings. But The Sacred Chain contains very few such bright spots.
If the heroes of Jewish history, in Cantor’s view, are the thinkers and entrepreneurs who transformed and repeatedly reshaped the Western world, and, in the process, evoked anti-Semitic backlash, the Jewish religion gives him great discomfort. The prayers and sacred writings Cantor recalls from his childhood and more recent forays into the synagogue are mumbo-jumbo; the meticulous ritual is mechanical and meaningless; the religious attachment to the Land of Israel is chauvinism; the theological and mystical speculation is sheer obscurantism (with the exception of the works of Maimonides, insofar as they accord with rationalist principles).
In his introduction, Cantor asserts that the up-to-date, antiestablishment historiography in this book could have a “potential therapeutic, possibly reforming impact on Jewish culture and society.” In truth, his prescriptions for the Jewish future fully expose his skewed vision of the Jewish past. Since the ultimate significance of the Jewish experience, for Cantor, is nothing more than the development of an extraordinary gene pool, he views the prospect of the demographic erosion and eventual disappearance of the Jews as a distinct group with equanimity. Those special genes will now enrich “Episcopalian and Protestant bloodlines” in America, and, as peace comes to Israel and its neighbors, intermarriage will bring about ”a new Judeo-Arab Near Eastern elite.”
Short of the coming of the Messiah, Cantor does provide one last chance for Jewish survival. This would entail recreating Judaism in his own image by commissioning “Jewish professors in the leading universities” to “reinterpret” the religion “in light of modernist and postmodernist thought.” Similarly, Jewish writers, artists, musicians, and media people should develop a new liturgy, to be revised every five years, that would speak to the esthetic sensibility “of the current age.” That is, they should dilute, distort, and amputate a three-thousand-year-old religious civilization to suit the fleeting late-twentieth-century intellectual fads of secularized Jewish professors and literati.
Though the familiar Jewish aphorism states that after the biblical era the gift of prophecy is given only to children and fools, I would hazard a guess that Judaism will be around long after modernism, postmodernism, and Cantor’s perverse book are no more than antique curiosities.
Lawrence Grossman is Director of Publications for the American Jewish Committee.