Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998
Colloquium ’97 was a stunning success. Eleven Jewish historians dealt with one of the most difficult issues in Jewish life with great skill. The audience was mesmerized by the information, dialogue, and confrontation.
The issue had never been dealt with before in any public Jewish symposium. It had too much potential to upset the Jewish community. Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust scholar, noted the uniqueness of the event.
The issue was provocative because it dealt with the credibility of the story of the Jewish people as it has been presented by the biblical and rabbinic traditions. This familiar story, dominated by patriarchs, prophets, miracles, and divine revelations, has entered into the core literature of Jewish and Western society. It includes familiar names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and Solomon. It has familiar dialogue between God and man. Western poetry, painting, and sculpture are infused with this story. The message is clear: the Jewish story is different from the story of any other nation, and the greatest discovery of the Jewish people is the discovery of the one God.
Jews are attached to this story for obvious reasons. It glorifies the Jewish people and places them at the center of world history. It is wonderfully old and traditional, surrounded by the aura of ancestral reverence. It is shared by the Christian world and gives prestige to the Jewish people in Christian eyes. Most Jews are unwilling to give up this story for a more realistic, less flattering alternative.
In the narrow sense, mythology is the story of the gods. In that sense, traditional Jewish history is mythology, since tradition makes the story of the Jewish people inseparable from the story of Yahveh.
In the broad sense, mythology is legend rather than truth. In the last century, historians and biblical scholars began to question the truth of the ancient story. An alternative story, without miracles and supernatural intervention, emerged. This story differed greatly from the traditional one. Scientific biblical criticism and archaeology challenged the reality of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, and the firmly held belief that monotheism goes back to Abraham. These conclusions would have been very disturbing to the lay public. The consequence was a shameful dichotomy. In the outside world, the traditional story continued to be taught, even by liberal clergy. In the inside world of scholars and academicians, the alternative story was circulated. But the alternative story never penetrated into the consciousness of the broader world. It was confined, in cowardly fashion, to a small circle of experts.
Legend and myth dominated not only ancient Jewish history, but also the history of the rabbinic and medieval periods. Pharisaic Judaism, which achieved the status of Orthodoxy, was determined to demonstrate that its doctrines and practices could be traced all the way back to Moses. The origins of the Mishnah and the Talmud were distorted to fit the ideology of the rabbis.
The distortion is present in the emphasis placed on medieval rabbinic texts. The most important development in Jewish history in the early Middle Ages in both the Christian and Muslim worlds was the important economic role of the Jew as a mediator between two cultures; yet the significance of that role is lost in the pious Orthodox reflection on the commentaries on the Bible and Talmud that were created at this time. Tradition loves the texts, but reality prefers economics. We lose perspective because ideology distorts our vision.
Even in modern times, with the ready availability of scientific historiography, ideology gives us a false vision. It is hard for us to be objective about the causes of anti-Semitism because, paradoxically, we feel safe only when we see ourselves as victims. The Jew as provocateur is emotionally unacceptable. Nor is the Zionist enterprise any easier to deal with. We are so defensive about our relationship to the Palestinians, so needy to demonstrate our right to the land, that we cannot distinguish between history and apologetics. Mythology dominates our approach to contemporary events.
Is it possible to identify the real history of the Jews? Is it possible to penetrate the defensive cloud of ideology and encounter events as they really happened? That was the ambition of Colloquium ’97. A broad perspective on Jewish history was chosen to demonstrate that all of Jewish history is vulnerable to mythology. Nine important periods in Jewish history in which ideology distorts the truth were identified. They provided the structure of the program. The origins of Israel, the authorship of the Bible, the diversity of Hellenistic Judaism, the origins of halakha, the realities of the medieval Jew, the emergence of Hasidism, the role of the Enlightenment, the causes of anti-Semitism, and the development of Zionism provided the issues that engaged our participating historians.
We discovered that the ancestors of Israel were most likely Canaanite hillbillies, that the authors of the Bible lived many centuries after the events they described, that “orthodoxy” was only one of many options in the Hellenistic period, that the story of the medieval Jew is not only one of humiliation but also one of power, and that the causes of modern anti-Semitism are still unknown.
The dialogue and confrontation among the speakers were as exciting as the presentations. It was clear that the attempt to discuss the history of the Jews in this secular context was as novel for most of our speakers as it was for most of our audience.
A book called Reclaiming Jewish History is emerging out of this experience. It will be a first attempt to introduce the important issues of Jewish historical mythology to a lay public.
For us as Humanistic Jews, there is no task more important than to retrieve our history from the ideological chains of the past. But we must be cautious. We must be careful not to re-enslave it with the chains of our own ideology. We must be willing to listen to the evidence even when the evidence is not friendly to our vested interests. We must strive to avoid the pitfall of all Jewish historians who have strong Jewish commitments — turning the Jewish past into a convenient reflection of their own convictions.